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
``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
``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
MARGIN OF COMFORT
``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
``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,''
``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
``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.