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Iran: Reform Parliament Opts For Loyalty By Endorsing Khatami Cabinet

Iran's reformist-led parliament this week gave sweeping approval to President Mohammad Khatami's proposed new cabinet, in spite of many deputies' strong early opposition to several nominees. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at some of the reasons why the deputies moved from resisting the new parliament to endorsing it.

Prague, 24 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Before Iran's parliament began its debate of President Mohammad Khatami's proposed cabinet on 19 August, many reformist legislators had been unsparing in their criticism of several nominees.

More radical reformist deputies said publicly they would urge the legislature to exercise its power to veto key nominees, including those for the Economy, Oil, and Defense ministries. They criticized these and other appointees as either being too weak to push through reforms or too reluctant to liberalize Iran's Islamic system.

Instead, the reformist deputies -- who are Khatami's allies -- exhorted the president to capitalize on his landslide re-election in June to pick a cabinet wholeheartedly committed to advancing reform.

But when parliament concluded four days of debate over the individual nominees with a vote on 22 August, the deputies handed Khatami's new cabinet an overwhelming endorsement. All 20 men nominated for the cabinet received from 55 to 80 percent of the deputies' votes.

The reversal came as a surprise after widespread media speculation that the parliament was prepared to force the president to find new candidates for several posts. And it left many political observers looking for answers as to why the legislature ended the showdown by embracing even the most controversial nominees.

Analysts say that appearances before the parliament by Khatami before and during the debate may have convinced many reformists to vote for his cabinet by reassuring them that his appointees can and will work effectively for change during his second term.

Just ahead of the 22 August vote, Khatami told the deputies he chose his cabinet members because "they are followers of the Islamic system and have the ability to work together." He also said "extremist measures are against the country's interests [and] we should opt for moderation toward promoting freedoms."

But even as the president argued that moderation was a better way to achieve change within the system than confrontation, he assured the reformist deputies that he was on their side.

He leveled unusually sharp criticism at the hard-line-controlled Judiciary for launching a now two-year-old crackdown on free speech which has seen more than 30 reformist legislators summoned before courts for criticizing powerful conservatives. The court orders ignore the deputies' constitutional immunity and at least two deputies have been sentenced to prison, though none has been jailed.

Kenneth Katzman, a regional expert at the Congressional Research Service in Washington, says that Khatami, by criticizing the Judiciary, sought to prove that he shares the deputies' concerns:

"It is clear that the Judiciary is one of the institutions of opposition to him and he has been trying to slowly chip away at the Judiciary and maybe gain some control over it. He's had, of course, mixed success in doing that, [but] he figured his supporters in parliament would be emboldened by that type of talk and he was throwing them some red meat."

Khatami's speech came a day after a hard-line court sentenced female reformist legislator Fatemeh Haqiqatjoo to 22 months in jail on charges of speaking against the Islamic establishment. Haqiqatjoo earlier this year denounced the violent arrest of a female journalist. The deputy has 20 days to appeal her sentence.

The fact that Khatami's speech came immediately after Haqiqatjoo's sentencing may have helped win over reformist deputies who were angry with him for not including a woman in his cabinet. Following the speech, deputies presented the president with a petition signed by 170 of the parliament's 276 members expressing solidarity with Haqiqatjoo and asking him to uphold their constitutional right to free speech.

At the same time, Khatami may have been helped by the fact that the parliament's reformist majority is deeply split in its political and economic values. Some leftist reformists favor democracy with a state-controlled economy, others prefer democracy coupled with a free market. Such divisions may have made it difficult to assemble a majority of "no" votes when the deputies assessed the individual nominees.

The size of the majorities won by many nominees suggests Khatami also received the support of the parliament's minority of some 80 conservatives. Before the voting, some conservatives had expressed fears that a more radical cabinet might emerge if Khatami's present line-up were rejected.

Katzman says parliament's sweeping approval of the cabinet this week shows that while the reformist deputies may disagree with the moderate president on many accounts, they know they have little chance of achieving change if they do not support him:

"This reformist parliament is supposed to be now one of the pillars of support of Khatami's attempt to gain more power in the system and I don't think they want to have a break with him. They may disagree with him from time to time, but I think they want to serve as a pillar of support for him right now [as he starts his second term]."

The deputies gave their largest number of "yes" votes to Safdar Hosseini as minister of labor. The next-largest endorsement went to Ali Yunesi as intelligence minister.