Moderate reformers took the lead in foreign policy when President Mohammad Khatami made a landmark visit to Paris at the end of October, the first visit of an Iranian head of state since 1979. In addition to continuing talks with Britain about diplomatic ties, Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, when asked on Nov. 8 about U.S.-Iranian relations, told IRNA that "if other countries could talk to the Americans and convince them to change their attitude, it is desirous." This, along with Khatami's statement, as reported in Agence France-Press, that Iran has "no problem" building Iranian-U.S. ties, indicates a possible opening of relations. U.S. President Bill Clinton's Nov. 9 renewal of economic sanctions against Iran may aggravate the situation but won't close the door.
Meanwhile, the conservatives, who see themselves as the protectors of the rule of Islam, have focused mostly on domestic issues. The conservatives sentenced three Amir Kabir Technical University students for a play considered insulting to the 12th Imam. In addition, the Special Clerical Court indicted Abdollah Nouri, reformist and Khatami ally, on charges of insulting the Prophet Mohammad and the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, supporting parties which favor a secular Iran and closer ties with the United States.
This temporary division of labor, with moderates globe-trotting and conservatives behaving domestically, cannot last. The moderates can't let the conservatives keep persecuting heretics, since it's bad for public relations and disrupts attempts to normalize relations with Europe and the United States. The conservatives cannot tolerate the moderates remaining in charge of foreign policy, since opening to the West may threaten their grip over much of Iranian society.
Since both sides understand that this self-contradictory relationship cannot continue, they will attempt to settle it in the Feb. 18 parliamentary elections. Now, since the moderates arguably have the advantage in the popular vote, the conservatives are attempting to position themselves for the elections. We are already seeing conservatives working to prevent reformist candidates, like Nouri, and opinion leaders, like Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, from influencing the elections.
Given the popular atmosphere of simmering reform and the looming elections, conservatives are positioning themselves, intent on keeping control of the parliament and the country.