Iran: a mosque vs. state shift?

Reformist President Khatami challenges the powerful clerics with bills in parliament.

Ali Aram rubs his intricately tailored goatee before answering the question.

"Yes, unfortunately, I voted for [President] Khatami," the 21-year-old university student sighs. "He shouldn't have raised our expectations if he couldn't deliver on his promises." Other students clustered around a small table in a Tehran café murmur their assent.

Five years after Mohammad Khatami was propelled to a landslide victory on a platform of liberalizing Iran's Islamic system, the charismatic president is losing his sheen. There is widespread frustration over the pace of his reforms.

Few doubt his decency or sincerity or blame him personally. They know his efforts have been thwarted by an unelected hard-line minority that still controls key institutions such as the courts, the armed forces, and the broadcast media.

But Mr. Khatami's supporters have been urging him to stand up to the old guard. The president has finally thrown down the gauntlet: Last month Khatami presented two bills to the Iranian parliament that would end his opponents' stranglehold on power. Whether the bills are passed or blocked, they are likely to mark a major turning point in Iranian politics.

While Khatami supporters dominate parliament, the legislation must be approved by a conservative-controlled watchdog body. If blocked, Khatami's aides say he could take the country to a referendum to assert his authority – or that he could even resign, a threat he has made in the past. "If he does stand down, it would be a major crisis of legitimacy for the regime," says a European diplomat in Iran.

Many Iranians, including more moderate conservatives, see Khatami as the last, best chance for a religious system that faces grave dangers if it is not reformed. Analysts say secularization is a social movement that could explode if democracy is thwarted. Even some reformist clerics are calling for a separation of mosque and state – a step Khatami does not support.

The largest reformist group in parliament has also threatened to abandon the corridors of power if the bills are blocked. That would leave Khatami's hard-line opponents isolated, more exposed to American hostility, and facing a popular opposition able to work outside the system.

Conversely, if the bills are passed undiluted, Khatami would emerge enhanced to forge his vision of an Islamic democracy. Abroad, he would have the power to pursue détente with the United States. A recent poll showed most Iranians favored talks with the US. But for the hard-line establishment, even suggesting that dialogue with the "global arrogance" should be resumed after a 22-year break is a serious offense.

The first bill is aimed at curbing the role of the Council of Guardians, a powerful, conservative-dominated body that vets candidates for general and presidential elections. It has excluded many aspiring reformist politicians from running for office.

The second bill would empower the president to fulfill his constitutional responsibilities. In particular, it would give Khatami the authority to take to task hard-line courts that have closed scores of reformist newspapers and jailed his most vocal supporters.

The bills are expected to be easily passed by Khatami's overwhelming majority in parliament. The irony is that, to become law, they must then be approved by Council of Guardians – which will be very reluctant to curtail its own powers. Many fear the council will block or water down the president's proposed legislation.

A hard-line wing remains adamant that Khatami's attempts to democratize the Islamic system could sweep it away altogether, along with their power and privilege. The bills have come in for a barrage of furious criticism from hardliners.

But many reformers are hopeful that more pragmatic conservatives may be willing to give the president more power because, with his impeccable religious credentials and popular mandate, he confers legitimacy on the Islamic system.

"Once they [the conservatives] realize the whole system is in jeopardy, I think this is the point that they will start to give in. We haven't reached it yet," says Sadegh Zibakalam, a professor of political science and Iranian studies at Tehran University.

The fate of the bills is eventually expected to be decided by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who appointed most of the conservatives to their posts and has the final say in all matters of state. He could decide to heed the popular demand for reform.

What is clear is that the vast majority of Iranians, no matter how frustrated, support Khatami's drive for peaceful change, favoring an evolutionary process over another revolution. The president's often incremental gains are often lost on a young and restless populace who, having tasted some freedom, naturally demand more.

"Things are much better than they were a few years ago. We have some more freedom, but of course we want more," says Niloufar Shirazi, a young Iranian businesswoman. "Younger people are more impatient, but my generation has had enough upheaval. We want a quiet, normal life."

She points to her colorful headscarf and makeup as evidence that the social atmosphere has thawed. There has also been a cultural renaissance under Khatami's tenure. Film and publishing have flourished, and, while many reformist newspapers have been closed, new ones have taken their place. Politically, taboos are being broken all the time.

"I think the rate of progress, the rate of democratization in Iran has not been too bad, given the fact that Iran had been governed by an absolute monarchic system for more than 2,500 years," Mr. Zibakalam says. "It is too much to expect that just 23 years after the revolution Iran could become a France or United Kingdom," he adds. "Democratization is a long, tedious process."

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