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Is Khatami winning?

Foreign Report
September 16, 1999
ISSUE: 2560

OUR Iranian sources insist that in the power struggle now under way in Iran, President Muhammad Khatami is winning. And hardline anti-western Islamic extremists, led by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the

'spiritual guide' of the nation, are losing. The strength of Khatami lies in his commitment to make Iranian society free and non-violent, where the rule of law is respected. Will he achieve his goal?

Khatami responds to violence with the rule of law. Take his handling of the attack by anti-liberal extremists on Tehran University dormitories in July -- he refused to be drawn into the 'violence trap' and seek bloody retribution. Instead, he delegated investigation and any prosecution of the alleged perpetrators to the state prosecutors and parliamentary committees, asserting that "Iran is a state of law and not vendettas".

Khatami's cool patience and calm approach has won him the respect of millions of Iranians who are fascinated with his style of rule and thought. The investigations were carried out properly, according to the legal procedures. Khamenei signed the orders, and the press gave widespread coverage to the investigation. Its conclusions suggested that the moderates and the students were victims of violence and injustice committed by the security personnel.

'No conflict'

The hardliners retreated. Khamenei announced: "There is no conflict with President Khatami and I am with him in everything he does." The commander of the well-trained revolutionary guards, Rahim Safawi, told a rally: "We stand behind Khatami and we protect the state." The investigation reinforced Khatami. It sent six top security and police officials to trial, and provoked the resignation of the chief justice, Ayatollah Muhammad Yazdi. His resignation was a serious setback for the hardliners. He had been accused of favouritism towards conservatives in his verdicts.

Khatami may have been winning in recent weeks, but preparations are under way for the next and bigger battle on February 18th next year when Iran goes to the polls to elect a new parliament. Already, a group of Khatami's inner circle has met to establish the programme.

At the same time the parliament has finished discussions of one single item that gives Iran's religious 'council of experts' the right to bar some 'undesirable' candidates from standing. This extraordinary power is being confirmed, but the council members must in future give their reasons in public when they reject a candidate.

This reform, if implemented, will alter the make-up of parliament to Khatami's advantage. Khatami's policy of openness is being aided by the newspapers. Most have opened a 'People's Corner' which publishes letters to the editor containing complaints and grievances against officials. These letters are written and sent without fear of official retaliation.

Khatami is the man

The president is several steps ahead of his opponents. A pro-Khatami political party has been formed, called the 'Partnership Front'. The former president, Hojatoleslam Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, is planning to broaden the base of his party, now mainly composed of technocrats. There is also an Islamic Labour party.

Our prediction: Barring unforeseen upsets, pro-Khatami candidates could win the election easily, capturing as many as 80% of the seats. Rafsanjani will try to keep a foot in both camps and serve as an invaluable interlocutor and will be elected as Speaker of Iran's parliament. But Rafsanjani's day is past -- the ball is now in Khatami's court.


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