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Analysis: Why Iran's reformists lost

Khatami set to have a moderating effect on the hardliners.
Khatami set to have a moderating effect on the hardliners.

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TEHRAN, Iran -- Hardline conservatives opposed to reform are heading for a landslide victory in Iran's controversial parliamentary elections. CNN Correspondent Kasra Naji explains the background and suggests what may happen next.

Why did the reformists lose after two big victories in the last parliamentary elections?

They lost a good deal of credibility with the Iranian public because they failed to initiate many of the reforms they had promised. One could argue that in parliament their efforts to legislate reformist bills were blocked at every turn by the hardline Guardian Council. And there is plenty of evidence to back that argument.

But at the end of the day, they failed to deliver on important issues. And in some cases when many people expected them to stand up to the hardliners' excesses outside parliament, they proved feeble. I met a lot of people in the past few days who said to me that even if thousands of reformists had not been barred from standing in the elections, they still would not have voted for them.

With the conservatives now set to dominate parliament, where does it leave Iran's reform program?

The reformist camp here obviously has to do much soul searching. The inspiration for the reform movement is President Khatami. But his term of office runs out in about a year from now. The hardliners are already planning to replace him with their own man. If and when that happens, then the reform movement will be completely out in the cold in many ways.

What the reform movement might do then is anybody's guess at the moment. There is a lot of talk about organizing a civil disobedience campaign to force the hands of the hardliners. But for a civil disobedience movement led by the reformists to take shape they need the extensive support of the people which they do not have.

Is Mohammad Khatami now a lame-duck president?

The hardliners who will be in control of parliament after June onwards, when the new parliament is inaugurated, have said they will try their best to work smoothly with President Khatami's government . Their decision stems from the fact that by the time they find their feet in parliament, President Khatami's term of office will be near its end anyway. But I believe so long as he is at the helm, President Khatami's presence will continue to have a moderating effect on the hardliners. And he will continue to be a source of support to the reformists.

Will this mean Iran becomes more isolated from the rest of the world?

That is the concern of many both inside and outside Iran now that the hardliners have made a huge comeback. Many here fear the return to the days some 10 years ago and before, when Iranian regime was picking fights with many countries on a range of issues ... when Iran's human rights record was far worse that it is now ... and when there were political murders abroad that were alleged to have been carried out by the agents of the Iranian government.

But there are many observers here who now point out that the hardliners of today are more experienced in international relations, in diplomacy and in politics. These observers say that the hardliners have been showing signs that they want to be part of the international community of nations. Already there have been feelers sent out by the hardliners to the U.S. for resuming dialogue once they have the total control. These observers argue that the hardliners will now have no opposition to speak of, which will help them make decisions that the reformists were unable to make because of their precarious political position vis a vis the hardliners.

How will the victory affect Iran's nuclear negotiations with the West?

That is the question I have been trying to find an answer to -- so far unsuccessfully. For Iranians, their nuclear program is a source of pride. They say they have a nuclear program which is peaceful and not a nuclear weapons program. They say they reserve the right to pursue their program of peaceful use of nuclear energy. And also, they say they are willing to cooperate fully with the IAEA inspectors.

Now, the problem is the international community, particularly the U.S. and the Europeans, do not entirely trust Iranian pronouncements that they do not have a weapons program. And frankly, Iranian behavior over the past year or so, since the international attention has turned to Iran's nuclear ambitions, has fueled these suspicions.

Every now and then the IAEA finds a piece of equipment that the Iranians had not declared before. With the hardliners back in power, I do not suppose anything will change. But one thing is clear: the international community will almost certainly exert maximum pressure on Iran on this issue as it deals with weapons of mass destruction in the hands of a regime which is not entirely friendly to the West.

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