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Iran: Reformist Parliament Challenges Khatami Over Cabinet Choices

  • Charles Recknagel

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami's proposed new cabinet has sparked strong criticism from the reformist-led parliament, which has the power to approve or veto the appointments. With parliamentary debate over the proposed cabinet members due to begin this weekend, RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at why the appointments are creating a controversy among Khatami's own reformist supporters.

Prague, 15 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Throughout Iranian President Mohammad Khatami's re-election campaign, reformists who dominate parliament publicly voiced hopes he would appoint a more change-oriented cabinet for his second term in office.

Those hopes were based on many reformists' disappointment with Khatami's previous cabinet which -- while featuring some key liberals -- also included personalities widely seen as not committed to, or even opposed to, liberalizing Iran's system.

So, when the president on 12 August proposed a new cabinet with only five new faces in it, the criticism from the reformist camp was quick in coming.

The reformist daily "Mellat" quoted one deputy, Jamileh Kadivar, as calling Khatami's changes "insufficient." He said that "the people demand more change than this."

Another deputy, Mohammad Dadfar, speaking to the newspaper "Hayat-e No," called the proposed cabinet "incapable of carrying out reform." And still another daily, "Resalat," quoted one more deputy, Ali Nazari, as saying "it seems Khatami wants to say goodbye to public opinion."

Particularly disappointed were the parliament's handful of women deputies, many of whom had actively called for the appointment of at least one female cabinet member.

Fatameh Haghighatjoo, one of 13 women in parliament, said she could not understand what restricted Khatami from taking the step, especially when "he believes in the capabilities of women." Iran's female voters voted en masse to bring Khatami to power in 1997 and to re-elect him in June, when he won a landslide 77 percent of the popular vote.

The wave of criticism suggests a tough battle ahead when parliament begins on 19 August to review Khatami's proposed appointments. That is part of an approval process in which the parliament holds the power to veto nominees and force the president to submit new names.

To gauge the extent of the reformist camp's disappointment with the proposed cabinet, RFE/RL spoke with Fereydoun Khavand, a professor of politics at l'Universite Rene Descartes in Paris.

Our correspondent asked Khavand which of the names in Khatami's proposed cabinet are the most controversial for the reformist-led parliament and how likely there is to be a showdown over their approval.

Khavand said the reformists are likely to strongly resist Khatami's proposed re-appointment of Minister of Defense Admiral Ali Shamkhani.

The admiral ran for president against Khatami in June, despite being a member of the cabinet, and was withering in his criticism of the incumbent's managerial skills. Shamkhani at the time also blamed many of Iran's economic problems on what he called "factional fighting," a code word conservatives use for reformist's attempts to change the system.

Khavand says reformists see Shamkhani as being forced upon Khatami by Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei:

"One of the reasons Khatami was obliged to keep Shamkhani in his new proposed cabinet is probably, or even certainly, due to pressure from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. If not, it is inexplicable that such a rival of the president could be included in his cabinet."

Khamenei, while officially above the fray in the battle over liberalizing the Islamic Republic, is seen by many reformers as favoring the conservatives. The Supreme Leader has condoned a continuing crackdown by the hard-line Judiciary which, over the past two years, has included the closure of most reform papers and the jailing of many outspoken liberals.

Khavand says another controversial figure is Khatami's choice for minister of finance and economics, Tahmasb Mazaheri. The nominee, one of the five new faces in the 20-man cabinet, is a civil engineer by training and had been serving as a presidential economic adviser.

The analyst says many reformists do not believe that Mazaheri -- though a free-market reformist himself -- has the political weight to successfully change Iran's heavily state-controlled economy. Mazaheri is to replace the previous leftist minister of economy, Hossein Namazi, who regarded strong state control as the way to achieve social justice. Khavand:

"Mazaheri is relatively unknown in Iran's economic community, he's been an economic counselor to the president, but he rarely intervened [during crises] and he is in fact an engineer [by training]. The reformists consider him to be a person who will not be capable of imposing his point of view on his colleagues and on the Iranian administration as a whole."

Yet a third controversy surrounds Khatami's proposed reappointment of Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh. The parliament recently launched an investigation into oil contracts with foreign companies after allegations of corruption in the oil industry. That, in the eyes of many reformists, makes Zanganeh an undesirable figure, even though he has led a Khatami-backed drive to attract greater foreign investment to the country's oil sector.

Some reformist deputies have signaled that they may also oppose others among Khatami's nominees. Reuters this week quotes deputy Elahe Koulaei as saying: "the ministers of economics, education, telecommunications, oil, health, and foreign affairs are going to face serious challenges."

But even as reformist deputies prepare to challenge Khatami's choices on the grounds the new cabinet is not aggressive enough on change, the deputies are split among themselves. Those divisions raise doubts about how often they will be able to assemble a majority of "no" votes as they consider the cases of individual nominees. Khavand says:

"The reformists do not constitute a homogenous block, there are many different [political and economic] leanings. [There] are, on one side, leftist reformers who politically favor democracy but on the economic side favor a sort of socialism or a state-controlled economy. There are other reformers who favor both a liberal democracy and a free market."

He continues:

"So, there could be numerous differences and conflicts among the reformers themselves when they are faced with the task of going through President Khatami's proposed list of names. In other words, there is no single reformist camp, there are many different tendencies within it."

Despite these differences, Khavand predicts there will be strong parliamentary challenges to a number of the proposed names and Khatami may not be able to get his cabinet approved without making changes to it.

If so, it will be a curious start to Khatami's second term, which many reformists hoped would see an emboldened president and a reformist-led parliament working hand-in-hand.

Reformists, who swept parliamentary elections in February 2000, have said that a key reason Khatami's first-term cabinet was weak on change is that the previous conservative-led parliament restricted his selection of liberal ministers. The conservative legislature compelled him to accept some ministers he did not want and later forced some key reformist ministers to resign.

But now, some reformists worry that Khatami is still concerned about alienating the conservative camp.

That is a position which reformist deputies see as too conciliatory for the fast pace of reform they believe they now have earned by both their -- and Khatami's -- landslide election victories.