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Iran: Khatami Faces Tough Battle In Bid To Strengthen Presidential Power

By Charles Recknagel and Azam Gorgin

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami has announced he will soon ask parliament to strengthen his powers in order to help him push harder for a more liberal political system. But while he can count on the reformist-majority parliament to support his demands, the real battle will take place within Iran's conservative establishment, which must decide whether or not to accept the changes.

Prague, 4 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- President Mohammad Khatami has frequently complained he does not have the authority he needs to push for reforms against the resistance of Iran's conservative-dominated establishment.

But he surprised many last week by not only complaining about his lack of power but also announcing how he plans to remedy it.

The president, speaking at a press conference in Tehran, said he will soon propose legislation to the parliament that would give him greater abilities to reform the system as he was elected to do:

"I announce that I just want what's in our constitution. You cannot speak of democracy and not facilitate the conditions for it. The right of the people is the right to change a government -- without the use of violence -- if they don't like it. That is one of the main aspects of democracy."

Khatami has twice been elected by landslides on promises to give Iranians greater political and social freedoms. But his early successes in establishing greater freedom of expression have been almost entirely rolled back by the hardline-led Judiciary, which has used the courts to shut down scores of liberal papers and arrest many reformist editors, activists, and intellectuals.

The president said that he has tried to use his powers to rein in the Judiciary, but that "unfortunately, I have had no success." He said that, instead, the legislative branch has responded by acting "in an unconstitutional way," specifically by jailing reformists after closed-door trials without the presence of a jury.

Mohammad Khalaji, a correspondent with RFE/RL's Persian Service, says Khatami is seeking major changes in two specific areas.

The first is to strengthen his surveillance powers over other branches of the government to assure they perform within the limits of the constitution. If Khatami is successful, that would enable him to force the Judiciary, for example, to conduct open-door jury trials when it prosecutes reformist newspapers and activists, making it more difficult to get convictions:

"He is going to ask parliament to specify some mechanisms for applying and enforcing his power of surveillance over the Judiciary and other branches, an authority already granted him under the constitution. The constitution is very ambiguous concerning this aspect of the president's power -- too ambiguous -- and does not specify the mechanisms for carrying out those functions."

Khalaji says Khatami also wants better defined oversight powers in order to pursue economic reform programs which currently are blocked by powerful vested interests. Those interests include many large, quasi-state organizations which now operate largely outside of government controls.

The second major change Khatami is seeking is a reduction in the powers of the hardline-dominated Guardian Council. He has already begun that process by earlier sending to parliament proposals to diminish the council's authority to vet candidates in legislative and local elections.

The council has often used its vetting power to disqualify reformist candidates in past elections. Many reformists now worry that it will use that power to thwart them from retaining their control of the parliament in next year's legislative polls.

Khatami has proposed limiting the number of restrictions the Guardian Council can impose on candidates to just two: that candidates be Iranian citizens and that they are loyal to the Islamic Republic. Previously, the council has insisted on a wide range of conditions, including that candidates meet vague "Islamic" standards interpreted by the council itself. The Guardian Council, which also holds the power to scrutinize and veto legislation passed by parliament, has previously said it rejects changing the election law.

The president's announcement now sets the stage for what will likely be a protracted new round in the power struggle between Iran's reformists and conservatives. The contest will pit the power of elected officials -- such as Khatami -- against the institutional might of Iran's mostly conservative unelected officials. Those officials, who are appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, control not just the Judiciary but the army and intelligence services and large parts of the economy.

Political observers say that the reformist-majority parliament is almost certain to approve Khatami's proposals and enact them into law. But, it is equally likely that the Guardian Council will exercise its veto power. In the case of a veto, the matter would go to a higher mediating body, the Expediency Council, for a final decision. The final decision-making process would almost certainly involve Supreme Leader Khamenei, who officially seeks to strike a balance between factional interests but is widely seen as favoring the conservatives.

Khamenei has not given any public signals of how he regards Khatami's plans, but on the day of the president's announcement the "Iran News" quoted the supreme leader as saying he wishes Khatami's government success. It is not known to what extent those wishes would translate into support for Khatami in a battle to change the balance of power.

Khatami promised in his speech last week that if his new bid to increase his powers fails, he will seek, "other alternatives." But he did not spell out what those might be.

Some observers say that, should Khatami fail, his political alternatives will be limited. Ahmed Salamatian, a former Iranian member of parliament who is now a political analyst in Paris, told RFE/RL's Persian Service that if Khatami is blocked by the Guardian Council he might seek to take the issue directly to the people in a referendum. But he says that if that alternative, too, were stymied by conservatives, Khatami would have little prospect but to resign:

"When these two legislative proposals (regarding presidential powers and the election law) are approved, either the Guardian Council will accept the parliamentary majority's vote, which means a reduction of their own supervisory powers, or it will insist upon maintaining the status quo."

He continues: "[If the president is blocked] then he is confronted with the challenge of finding a solution, which I see as being nothing short of a referendum on the differences between the elected parliament and the appointed power councils (the Guardian Council). And if they reject a referendum, the only way out for a powerless president who cannot fulfill his promises is either to resign or have the conditions be such that he will be forced from office."

No date has yet been set for Khatami's proposal to be submitted to parliament. But this week, both conservatives and reformers sought to line up support for the coming battle, with public statements for or against the president's initiative.

On 8 September, 161 reformist lawmakers signed a letter saying the 290-seat parliament will meet the president's demands for greater powers.

But the head of the Judiciary, Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, said early this week that there was no need for the president to have greater authority. The daily "Kayhan" quoted Shahroudi as saying that "if work has not been done within the existing powers, increasing the powers [of the president] will not solve the problem."