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Iran: Khatami's Bid For More Authority Opens Bitter Power Struggle

Mohammad Khatami's efforts to pass new legislation strengthening his push for a more liberal political system is turning into an increasingly bitter power struggle between the Iranian president and hard-liners. Recent days have seen both sides accuse the other of seeking dictatorial powers in no-holds-barred rhetoric. RFE/RL looks at Khatami's initiative and why hard-liners are so determined to stymie it.

Prague, 24 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Iranian President Mohammad Khatami's bid to strengthen his office is turning into a highly charged, highly public confrontation between the country's reformist and conservative camps.

This week, Khatami used some of his strongest language ever to rebuke hard-liners who have criticized his efforts to get new legislation that would help protect supporters of reform to Iran's system.

The president, who has been under fire by hard-line newspapers accusing him of seeking "dictatorial" powers, used an address to parliament to launch a no-holds-barred counterattack. He said, "If we are going to be concerned about the formation of a dictatorship...those establishments that have the power of violating constitutional law...should be referred to."

That remark clearly summed up what reformists see as being at stake in the two legislative proposals Khatami sent to the reformist-dominated parliament last month.

One proposal would clarify the president's constitutional power to oversee and punish government institutions like the hard-line-run judiciary, which has routinely overstepped its legal limits in order to crack down on reformists. The other proposal would reduce the powers of the hard-line Guardians Council to disqualify candidates in elections.

Analysts say that tensions surrounding the bills are high because they could directly affect the outcome of legislative elections in 2004. William Samii, a regional analyst at RFE/RL, said that reformists are looking to the new laws to protect them from what they fear could be hard-line-ordered arrest or the disqualification of their candidates in the polls. "The reform movement -- namely members of the parliament and the president's supporters -- want to galvanize public opinion by reversing the strong legislative defeats that they have suffered since winning a parliamentary majority almost three years ago. And in the upcoming election, they must assure that they do not lose in advance because their candidates have been disqualified," Samii said.

Since Khatami submitted his legislative proposals, both the hard-liners and reformists have prepared for a protracted fight.

Bahman Baktiari, an expert on Iranian politics at the University of Maine in the United States, said that the reformist-led parliament hopes to rush the bills through and will likely approve them within the next couple of weeks. Under Iranian parliamentary procedure, the bills then go to the Guardians Council, which, in addition to its power to vet election candidates, also has the power to vet legislation for conformity to the values of the Islamic Revolution.

The council is considered almost certain to veto the bills, after which the issue would be referred to a higher mediating body, the Expediency Council, for a final decision. But by giving the bills a high level of parliamentary urgency, the reformists will try to force the Guardians Council to decide within 30 days, preventing it from delaying the final mediation. The final Expediency Council decision would very likely also involve the supreme leader, who officially seeks to strike a balance between factional interests, though he is widely seen as favoring the conservatives.

Baktiari said the hard-liners have found their own, opposing strategy. He expects the Guardians Council to try to drag its part of the process out for months by exercising its right to send legislation back for small changes rather than veto it immediately. "The best strategy for the Council of Guardians [is] to take a fence-sitting position, send it back to the parliament saying, 'Please correct Article 4 on the question of the constitutional implementation and resubmit it,' to delay it further and further, which is a tactic that has happened in the Iranian parliament for the past 14 or 15 years. You have bills that continue to languish month after month," Baktiari said.

Baktiari said that by holding up the bill this way, the hard-liners could ultimately turn Khatami's initiative to their own advantage. If they were able to sit on the bill through the remaining three years of Khatami's term, hard-liners might even aim to engineer a conservative as the next elected president and then pass the bills after his election to strengthen his term in office.

But analysts also say that, given the high emotions over Khatami's initiative, the matter ultimately may not be decided in the kind of public legislative confrontation both sides appear to be preparing for now.

Baktiari said it could be resolved instead in behind-the-scenes negotiations called by the supreme leader to prevent the appearance of a split in the ruling establishment. There are ample precedents for such an option. "Throughout the whole Islamic Republic's history, all major decisions in terms of policy and constitutional arrangements have been made with factional consensus behind the scenes. There has never been an incident in which factions have raised the temperature so high and one side has backed down publicly," Baktiari said.

Which way Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei would lean on the issues of strengthening the powers of the president and decreasing those of the Guardians Council is difficult to predict. Under the Islamic Republic's system, some key powers are held and exercised by officials appointed by the supreme religious leader, while other powers are accorded to popularly elected representatives. It is not known to what extent Khamenei is ready to support Khatami in an effort to change that balance of power in favor of greater democracy at the expense of theocracy.

Khamenei made a speech this week in which he praised some forms of democracy but disparaged others. Speaking on a religious occasion, he said a truly popular and democratic government is achievable only through faith and through "every single pious individual" working to lay "the foundations of divine justice throughout the world."

But he called Western-style democracy merely the "dictatorship of groups." He said, "even if there is competition, it is competition between groups, and the people have no part to play."

Samii said that swipe at Western-style democracy could have been a signal that Khamenei has limited patience with the efforts of elected reformists to try to change the Islamic system. "The supreme leader Khamenei, as well as other leading hard-line figures, has said in the past that the Guardians Council is the defender of Islam and of the revolutionary system. So, on most occasions that there are calls for changes in the Guardians Council's right to vet candidates for political office, the response is that this is the very body that is keeping inappropriate and corrupt people out of public office," Samii said.

As tensions rise over the latest battle between Iran's hard-liners and reformists, several deputies have threatened to walk out of parliament if Khatami's bills are struck down.

Reformist parliamentarian Serajeddin Vahidi told the Iranian Student News Agency last week that, "it seems that Khatami is on a no-return path...if his bills were turned down, at any stage, [Khatami] would have no option but to quit."

Vahidi also said that, "the number of [parliamentarians] ready to resign if the bills do not get approved is enough to make the parliament dissolve."

Whether such threats are real or simply more rhetoric remains to be seen.

Analyst Baktiari said that clerical groups among the reformist parliamentarians would not join any walkout because, though they support Khatami's bills, they are uneasy about so publicly challenging the establishment of which they are a part.

The opposition is due to hold a meeting in Tehran next week that is likely to focus largely on trying to maintain a united front in the coming battle.