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. Hardliners cement power in Iran, nuclear ambitions worry world
TEHRAN (AFP) Dec 14, 2004
Iran's Islamic regime remained at the centre of international concerns in 2004 by pressing on with a suspect nuclear programme, testing new ballistic missiles, ousting reformists from office and clamping down on dissent.

After an often turbulent experiment with reforms, powerful hardliners marked the Islamic republic's 25th anniversary by barring allies of President Mohammad Khatami from standing in February's parliamentary elections on the grounds of their questionable loyalty to the regime.

The huge blacklist handed the assembly, or Majlis, back into conservative hands.

One disqualified and disgruntled reformist, Mohsen Mirdamadi, likened the move to a "coup d'etat" -- but widespread public apathy spared the regime any serious protests.

And with regime loyalists firmly back in charge, with US woes in Iraq dampening calls in Washington for regime change in Iran and oil prices bubbling along at record levels, Iran's leadership looked increasingly confident.

On the nuclear front, Iran backed away from a promised suspension of enrichment activities that had been agreed upon in 2003 with Britain, France and Germany as a measure aimed at easing fears the country was on a weapons drive.

While not resuming enrichment itself, Iran reached a point where it could claim to have mastered the entire nuclear fuel cycle -- a process it insists is only to make nuclear fuel but which can also be directed to make the explosive core of a nuclear weapon.

At the same time, Iran announced it had successfully upgraded its Shahab-3 missile and confirmed that arch-enemy Israel and US forces in the region were well within range.

The missiles were also paraded in Tehran with banners including "We will crush America" and "Israel must be wiped off the map".

In response, the United States pushed for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) -- the UN's nuclear watchdog -- to refer Iran to the UN Security Council for possible sanctions.

In November Iran eventually agreed to implement a full suspension of its uranium enrichment work.

But this was no climbdown: Iran says the freeze is temporary and in return for the promise of a package of trade, technology and security incentives from the European Union.

Iran's human rights record was also under fire throughout the year, with the hardline judiciary failing to convict anyone in connection with the 2003 death in custody of Canadian-Iranian photographer Zahra Kazemi in a trial that prompted Canada to recall its ambassador.

And the EU voiced its fears over increased executions of minors, as well as a renewed judicial assault on the few reformist journalists who still dare to voice their opposition to the regime or cross the "red lines" surrounding the position of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

There was also no prospect of a thaw in Iran's quarter-of-a-century-old spat with Washington.

While the United States was quick to send aid to victims of the devastating Bam earthquake in late 2003, relations quickly gave way to the usual hostility.

Neither side appeared to be in the mood to talk and the question of Iran's alleged backing of Iraqi insurgents only added to the long list of grievances between the "axis of evil" member and the "Great Satan".

It was a grim year for Khatami, forced to sit out the remainder of his second and final mandate on the sidelines and as one of the very few moderates still left in office.

Daring to stand before students this month, the president was heckled and bombarded with insults over his failure to deliver on promised reforms.

With no credible reformist successor yet to come forward, the May 2005 presidential elections look to be a shoo-in for whichever conservative candidate can score the most votes.

But the element of suspense is still there, with Iran's religious right-wing divided into pragmatists -- such as powerful former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani -- and hardline ideologues.

Attention is also set to stay focused on the hardline Revolutionary Guards, the regime's ideological army, now seen as a rising political force.

Whether detaining supposedly stray British soldiers, having alleged control over a secret nuclear programme or shutting down Tehran's new international airport after an operating contract went to a foreign firm, the Guards have shown themselves as a force to be reckoned with in the future.

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