Obscurity is winner in Iran's election

Middle East turmoil: PM's fortunes revive as US promises $100m to fight bombers and keep the peace process on course

ROBERT FISK

Tehran

In Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons, Thomas More tries to explain the spider's web of Tudor politics to a dumbstruck aristocratic friend and concludes with the aside: "I trust I make myself obscure."

Most Iranians might end their explanations of last week's elections the same way. There were movements rather than parties and an unknown number of candidates were excluded by a Council of Experts which judged their Islamic credentials insufficient.

As President Rafsanjani put it: "There is no impediment to the establishment of free parties but it must be within the framework of the system." Thomas More would have understood Iran. To participate in elections, everyone had to believe in Utopia.

Now for the real news. Of the two right-wing Islamist movements, the more traditionalist faction won. As a result, Hojatoleslam Ali Akbar Nateq- Nouri, 52, the Speaker of parliament, former interior minister and traditionalist Islamic philosopher - and the man who physically buried Ayatollah Khomeini - is likely to be the next president of Iran.

Of the 137 MPs elected outside Tehran in the first round of the poll - there are 270 seats in the Majlis - 70 per cent identify themselves with the "Association of Militant Clergy". Of the 103 non-Tehran seats to be contested in the elections' second round, "Militant Clergy" candidates are in first and second places. The "Servants of Reconstruction", to which President Rafsanjani quietly lent his name, will have a minority in the new parliament.

Of the three (out of 30) seats declared in Tehran, the most popular candidate was Hojatoleslam Nateq-Nouri, with President Rafsanjani's daughter Faeza in second place for the "Servants" and Hojatoleslam Abu Turabi, for the "Militants", in third. But even the names of the two groups are misleading. The really militant clergy - Ali Akbar Mohtashemi and the clerics who espoused Islamic revolution across the Middle East - were cut out of parliamentary politics in the 1992 elections. The two groups that contested the poll last week represented a split in the right-wing clergy who in effect destroyed Mr Mohtashemi's power.

In theory, therefore, both will co-operate in the new parliament. "Mr Nateq-Nouri is a dear friend of mine and Faeza is my daughter," Ayatollah Rafsanjani remarked. "But this is the vote of the people and they will co-operate in the Majlis." Perhaps. But Hojatoleslam Nateq-Nouri's supporters have taken up the old social-justice jargon of the discredited radicals, allied themselves with the bazaaris and directed their concerns towards Islamic conduct, to a Saudi-like obsession with women's clothes and behaviour. President Rafsanjani's friends in the "Servants of Reconstruction" wanted increased international trade links and less privatisation; they wanted to "expand the envelope" of contact with the West.

Hojatoleslam Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader under the terms of the Islamic Republic's theological constitution, likes Hojatoleslam Nateq- Nouri: they go mountain-climbing each weekend on Damavand mountain, east of Tehran. If he takes over next February, there will be little friction between him and Hojatoleslam Khamenei. And, despite the low turn-out in last week's poll - President Rafsanjani said 25 million participated, less than 50 per cent of eligible voters - the "Militant Clergy" won some impressive victories outside Tehran.

So what does all this mean for the West in the aftermath of the US-Israeli "summit of the peacemakers"? No one in Iran is going to deviate publicly from the anti-Israeli stand of the revolution's founder. Equally, none of the new members are going to allow themselves to be co-opted by old radicals like Mr Mohtashemi. It will be a little more difficult to prise moderate statements from the next regime unless the US breaks with Israeli policy, pays back Iranian funds frozen in Washington and abandons the mutual war of verbal hatred. Which is not going to happen.

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