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Iran: Khatami Cleared For Inauguration

  • Charles Recknagel

The inauguration of Iranian President Mohammad Khatami is set to go ahead tomorrow after being delayed by a power struggle between the reformist-dominated parliament and a top conservative body. The crisis, coming just ahead of the start of Khatami's second term, saw the parliament signaling it wants to speed up the pace of reforms during the moderate president's next four years. But as RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports, conservatives showed themselves equally determined to stymie those hopes -- and they appear to have won the round.

Prague, 7 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The crisis over President Mohammad Khatami's inauguration began shortly after Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, approved him for a second term on Thursday (2 August) last week.

But by 4 August, the day before the scheduled inauguration ceremony, Khamenei had to postpone the event. The reason: a disagreement between the reformist-dominated parliament and the conservative watchdog Guardian Council had held up the filling of two of the Council's vacant seats. And as Khamenei himself said, the inauguration could not proceed until "legal ambiguities" created by that situation were resolved.

The parliament had refused to fill the seats because deputies said the candidates were "too political," a phrase which suggested they had overly conservative leanings.

By law, the parliament is allowed to fill six seats on the 12-man Guardian Council, a powerful body which oversees legislation to assure it conforms to the values of Iran's Islamic Revolution.

But the parliament is limited to candidates proposed by the head of the judiciary, a hard-line body which over the past four years has been instrumental in closing down scores of reformist papers and arresting many outspoken liberals. The other six seats on the Guardian Council are reserved for clerics directly appointed by Supreme Leader Khamenei.

By leaving the Council with two vacant seats, the parliament sparked a political crisis over the inauguration because Iran's Constitution requires the Council to attend the event. Many legislators interpreted that to mean the full Council must be present -- a condition it could not meet with vacant seats.

Mohammad Shahi Arabloo, a conservative deputy, told RFE/RL Persian Service correspondent Siyavosh Ardalan last week that any inauguration without the Guardian Council attending in full would be illegal:

"Any inauguration prior to the acceptance of [the remaining members] of the Guardian Council would produce a conflict with the constitution. The inauguration would be illegal."

But if the parliament looked determined to reject any overly conservative candidates for the Guardian Council -- even if it meant holding up the inauguration -- the legislators' success was short-lived. Two days ago, the Supreme Leader called for the country's top body for mediating disputes between the parliament and the Guardian Council to resolve the crisis. The mediating body, the conservative Expediency Council, produced two rulings that not only ended the dispute but clearly showed the limits of the deputies' ability to challenge conservatives' power.

One ruling was that the constitution permits an inauguration to take place so long as a two-thirds majority of the Guardian Council is in attendance. That cut loose the inauguration from the political row.

The second ruling was that candidates for the Guardian Council do not require an absolute majority of parliamentary deputies' votes but, instead, just a relative majority. That eliminated the power of the parliament's majority of reformist deputies to block candidates they did not approve of.

Today, the impact of both those rulings became clear. In a reversal of its earlier votes, the parliament approved two of the same candidates it had refused earlier -- Abbas-Ali Kadkhodaei and Mohsen Esmaeili -- for the remaining seats on the Guardian Council. Both won only on the strength of a relative majority in a vote which saw most deputies taking part under protest. Reuters reports that 162 of the 243 votes cast were left blank.

Tschangiz Pahlavan, an Iranian scholar who is temporarily a guest lecturer at the Free University of Berlin, says that the conflict showed the limits on reformist deputies' power by amply demonstrating the higher authority of the conservative Expediency Council.

Pahlavan says the crisis proved that the appointed Expediency Council -- not the elected parliament -- is the ultimate interpreter of the constitution and the ultimate decision-maker in Iran's democratic process:

"The Expediency Council is being now put in the position to interpret the constitution and at the same time to solve conflicts. Its position is now stronger than before. The very important thing is that the Expediency Council is actually the final judge in the country."

Pahlavan says that the recent crisis also illustrates how little the reformist parliament can hope to achieve so long as Iran's Constitution -- which authorizes such powerful extra-parliamentary bodies as the Expediency Council to exist -- remains unchanged.

"As long as this constitution is actually the only legal document in the country, [and remains so] without being changed, [reformists] do not have enough power to move. With this constitution you have many bottlenecks."

He continues:

"The parliament is actually in a second-hand position, they are not able to approve laws by themselves. They have to first get the approval of the Guardian Council and if the Guardian Council does not accept the proposal, or the law passed by the parliament, then the Expediency Council is there to act as a final judge."

So far, any discussion of changing the constitution has met with stiff resistance, including from Khatami. The president champions reform but says it must happen within the system of the Islamic Republic.

William Samii, an RFE/RL regional analyst, sees the Expediency Council's rulings as a message from leading conservatives that real power remains in their hands, despite any heightening of reformists' expectations following Khatami's landslide re-election in June:

"It was to demonstrate, not so much to the general public but to the president and to the parliament, that [although] they have won several elections, the real power lies in the hands of conservative and long-term political figures like [former President and now head of the Guardian Council Akbar] Hashemi Rafsanjani. They are very much asserting [that] 'in the end we conservative figures are the ones who make the decisions.'"

The 34 members of the Expediency Council, all appointed by the supreme leader, include just one representative from parliament, speaker Mehdi Karroubi. The rest of the membership -- in addition to former President Rafsanjani and Khatami -- includes several cabinet members, a number of former heads of security and intelligence ministries, all six clerical members of the Guardian Council, and some leading clerical figures.

Now that the dispute over the Guardian Council candidates is over, Iran's state radio said today that Khatami will take his oath of office in parliament tomorrow.

(RFE/RL's Azam Gorgin contributed to this report).

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