Ruling bloc lines up own allies to play role of election "rivals".
Opposition leader Mehdi Karroubi (left) with former Tehran mayor Gholam-Hossein Karbaschi (right). The latter is head of the opposition Kargozaran party and has just been allowed to start publishing his newspaper again. (Photo: Raoof Mohseni, Mehr News Agency)
Pro-government parties in Iran are already maneuvering for the next parliamentary election due in early 2012, but it is unclear what part the shattered opposition groups will be able to play.
All the signs are that the government plans to replace the real political competition of past years with a limited contest among parties aligned with the regime.
According to the Javan newspaper, Esfandyar Rahim-Mashai, a close ally of Ahmadinejad, has already begun preparing for the election, with supporters buying properties in a number of towns for use as campaign headquarters when the time comes. Mashai is a controversial figure who has many detractors among other conservative forces in the establishment.
The reformist parties which took on Ahmadinejad in last year's presidential election have paid a high price, and at present are struggling to survive let along fight future elections.
Key members were arrested and jailed during the post-election unrest, and all their websites and newspapers were closed down. (See, for example, Harassment of Iranian Opposition Leaders.)
There are, however, a few indications that the some of the reformers are beginning to regroup.
Last month, the Etemad-e Melli party's deputy head, Rasoul Montajabnia, said it had been granted permission to begin operating again, and its central office had been unsealed. Etemad-e Melli (National Confidence) is led by Mehdi Karroubi, one of the two main figures in the opposition Green Movement.
Another improvement has come with the granting of a permit to the Ham-Mihan daily, banned in 2007, which will soon start publishing again. The newspaper is owned by Gholam-Hossein Karbaschi, the former Tehran mayor who heads the Kargozaran (Executives of Construction) party. The party, which is backed by former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, was not officially banned last year, but effectively came to a halt.
Two other major reformist parties, Jebhe-ye Mosharekat (Participation Front) and the Mojahedin of the Islamic Revolution), are in worse shape. Both were dissolved and subject to an indefinite ban by court order.
Mosharekat's public activities are now restricted to proclamations on the Norooz website demanding the release of party members from prison.
These blunt statements have served only to further infuriate the regime. The Javan daily, for example, has warned that even though Mosharekat and the Mojahedin have been banned, they will continue backing Green Movement leaders and will try to build a "political tsunami" against the regime.
The only way forward for the two parties, therefore, seems to be to use other organisations as cover. Both have a history of reopening newspapers under new titles whenever they were banned from publishing. Pro-government media have voiced concerns that they might merge with the Baran Foundation, a non-political organisation set up by former president Mohammad Khatami, and continue operating under its umbrella.
Meanwhile, the regime itself seems to be behind the emergence of a new group called the New Reform Front, which is planning to field candidates in future elections.
Mohammad Zare Foumani, a cleric who heads the Young Reformist Coalition - itself part of the new movement - has said the New Reform Front's members uphold the founding principles of the Islamic Republic and defend the rule of the Supreme Leader. That view seems out of step with the view of the opposition reformers.
Green Movement leaders Mir-Hossein Mousavi, Karroubi and Khatami, said Foumani, are "fossils fit only for history and museums".
He called for "a new revolution within the reformist movement", but it is fairly obvious that the only thing the front has in common with the reformers is its name.
The front's appearance on the political scene is a clear indicator that the regime has learned lessons from the 2009 election, which it may have won but which nevertheless did significant damage to its reputation. The tactic for next time seems to be to create a semblance of pluralist competition that in reality consists of groups working together to support the status quo.
Sahar Namazikhah is an Iranian journalist based in Los Angeles whose area of study is conflict resolution and peace-building. She was previously editor of several daily newspapers in Tehran.
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