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More than votes count in Iran reform bid

By Jonathan Lyons

TEHRAN, Aug 1 (Reuters) - The leader of Iran's biggest pro- reform faction says his bloc enjoys a comfortable majority in the new parliament but its agenda for change faces serious institutional and political obstacles.

Mohammad Reza Khatami, head of the Islamic Iran Participation Front and brother of the Iranian president, estimated reformist forces could count on up to 216 MPs in the 290-seat chamber but said numbers alone were not enough.

``In Iran, being a majority does not necessarily bring power,'' Khatami said in an interview with Reuters late on Monday.

``If we wish to reform everything overnight, then undoubtedly our wishes will not come true. But parliament has placed extensive powers in the hands of reformers to institutionalise change,'' he said.

Candidates proclaiming pro-reform views turned in a strong performance in two rounds of parliamentary polls, breaking the right wing's iron grip on the legislature.

But the impact of that victory was blunted by the lack of a real party system and continued control by the conservative establishment over the judiciary, the armed forces, most of the security apparatus and the religious seminaries.

``Before the elections we had a list of 208 people willing to work for us. This list now stands at 216,'' said Khatami, who is also a deputy parliamentary speaker.


``I do not want to say these 216 people will work together on all occasions, but whatever happens I think we will have a decisive majority. Some will cooperate on some occasions, some on others. But our margin is enough for us not to be worried about passing laws.''

Still, said Khatami, there were powerful forces arrayed against the movement for deep-seated social and political change, a movement kick-started by the landslide election in 1997 of his brother Mohammad Reza Khatami.

The Front's pre-election pledge to ease press restrictions, later used to ban the pro-reform press wholesale, is a case in point.

Under Iran's Islamic system, new laws must be vetted by a Guardian Council -- dominated by hardline clerics -- for conformity with both the constitution and Islamic law.

The Expediency Council, created after the revolution to break deadlocks between parliament and the Guardians, is likewise controlled by conservatives, albeit of a more pragmatic streak.

``Parliament has limited powers. We guessed that (reform of) the press law would face problems in the Guardian Council, and we do not expect the Expediency Council to resolve this in our favour.

``But it is our duty to do this and we shall. We are not thinking of the results. We think it will be to our greater advantage as the public will finally become certain which parts of the governing system do not wish to go along with public demands.''


The Front and its allies must contend with more than institutional barriers. They also face opposition from prominent theologians, special interest groups and elements of the security services.

``You should bear in mind that deputies in this round are under greater pressure than those in previous parliament. Their actions are under observation.''

Again the press law -- the most visible symbol of a reform movement that gave birth to a vibrant, if short-lived, media revolution -- takes centre stage.

``We decided that our priority at the start...would be to amend the press law. Some of our friends in other groups were opposed to this,'' said Khatami.

``There were even outside pressures that were not without effect on some of them. Some people want to drop the bill altogether.''

Adding to the reformers' caution is the next presidential election, expected in late May.

Mohammad Khatami earlier this month reinvigorated the movement with a declaration that he would stand again. He also issued a fighting speech in defence of freedom and reform.

The Participation Front has set a goal of exceeding the almost 70 percent support that Mohammad Khatami won last time, and its leaders are determined to do nothing that could provoke hardliners into disrupting that effort.

At the same time, they are mindful that millions of voters are demanding change.

``We had announced a programme before the elections and we do have a sufficient parliamentary majority today to implement that programme. The main issue now is over priorities,'' Mohammad Reza Khatami said.


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