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Iran: Reformists, Conservatives Prepare For Renewed Struggle

  • Azam Gorgin
  • Charles Recknagel

After President Mohammad Khatami's landslide re-election last week, many Iranian liberals are calling on him to press harder for reforms in his second term. But if Khatami's victory has reinvigorated the reformists, conservatives have yet to give any sign that they plan to ease their resistance to change. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports.

Prague, 13 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Mohammad Khatami's winning of 77 percent of the vote in last Friday's (8 June) presidential election has given him a strong popular mandate to push for reforms in his second four-year term.

The president won more votes than he did in 1997, when he overwhelmingly beat a strong conservative rival on promises to give Iranians a greater political voice and more social freedoms within the Islamic system.

This time, his rivals were nine far lesser-known figures and the most popular of them won just 15 percent of the vote. Iran's powerful conservative camp never fielded a single candidate of its own -- effectively leaving the poll as a referendum on Khatami's reform program.

But if the conservatives abandoned the electoral field to Khatami, there are no signs yet that they are willing to accept his landslide victory as a clear message that the Islamic Republic needs to undergo change.

Instead, the days following the election have been filled with signals that Iran's conservatives and reformists see the vote's outcome very differently and that the struggle between them is only set to deepen.

The conservative daily "Qods" wrote early this week that Friday's vote was mainly an expression of confidence in the Islamic system. "The popular turnout in the election was in fact a new sign of loyalty to the Islamic Republic and its constitution."

Another conservative daily, "Resalat," said this week in an editorial that it expects the new government to be named by Khatami to refrain from "past factional attitudes in naming and dismissing officials while carrying out its policies."

Both statements come as reformists welcomed Khatami's second mandate as a much-needed boost for their own efforts.

The pro-reform daily "Norouz" said this week that the president and the next government should "make a critique of the past four years and move fearlessly to implement political, economic, and social reforms."

The paper also said that it is now time for conservatives who "have stood in the people's way by opposing reforms to [engage] in criticism instead of revenge."

The very different ways the conservative and reformists are casting the election results now sets the stage for the next test of strength between them: the formation of the president's second-term cabinet.

Some members of the reformist-led parliament this week called for Khatami to appoint a solid cabinet of full-blooded reformers.

Deputy Abdolrahman Tajeddin told the student news agency ISNA that the new ministers "must truly believe in change and Khatami's reformist views." Other members of parliament were reported (by Reuters) to have threatened to withhold their votes of approval for the new cabinet if the president fails to choose progressive ministers.

On 11 June, reformist deputies again won key posts in annual elections for the parliament's leadership.

Mohammad Reza Khatami, brother of the president, was re-elected first deputy speaker and Mohsen Armin was elected second deputy speaker. They are both non-clerics and leaders of the main pro-reform movement, the Islamic Iran Participation Front.

The parliament again gave its top position of speaker to Mehdi Karroubi, a cleric who in the past has sought to bridge differences between the conservative and reformist camps.

Naser Amoli, a reformist journalist and political analyst in Tehran, recently told RFE/RL Persian Service correspondent Mina Baharmast that many in Iran regard Karroubi as a positive presence in the reform debate.

"Although there have been some criticisms aimed at Mr. Karroubi for his acting conservatively in some instances, he is a positive presence in arguments between the powerful parties in the country and in smoothing the way. And Mr. Khatami is aware of that and wants to proceed with reforms step by step."

Amoli said that the new parliamentary board, which includes the speakers, three commissioners, and six secretaries, is likely to push harder for change than before, in line with the more forceful mood among reformist deputies.

"My perception is that since the parliament's majority is made up of reformists, the presiding board's role isn't particularly colorful. It doesn't pressure the parliament to support one faction or another, nor is it the sole decision-maker. And there is no major change in the presiding board members. But among the newly elected replacements, there are some more forceful figures for reform than before."

In a sign that reformist parliamentarians are again feeling their strength despite a string of setbacks in past months, the head of the Committee on Cultural Affairs said this week his board would review a bill to have a policy-making council run state radio and television. The state broadcast media's chief, who is currently a staunch conservative appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is up for replacement later this year.

So far, the parliament has mostly been stymied since reformists won control of the body in elections early last year. Many of its liberal initiatives have been vetoed by the Guardian Council, an appointed body of conservative Islamic scholars and clerics that reviews all laws for adherence to the principles of the Islamic Republic and revolution.

At the same time, Supreme Leader Khamenei last year personally ruled out the reformist parliament discussing changes to restrictive press laws. Khamenei also has sanctioned a continuing hard-line crackdown that has seen the closure of some 50 reformist publications and the arrest of outspoken journalists and liberal activists.

With the conservative camp showing no sign that it sees Khatami's landslide re-election this week as significantly changing Iran's political landscape, several experienced reformists have forecast that another four years of even tougher battles lie ahead.

Ataollah Mohajerani, one of Khatami's senior advisers and a former minister who was pressured out of office last year by conservative opponents, said this week he expects only a short "honeymoon" period for the president's second term. As he put it, a honeymoon of "maybe two months. Then [the hard-liners] may use a different language," he added, "but they will start repeating the same things they've done before."

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