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Iran's reformists outline election platform

By Jonathan Lyons

TEHRAN, Feb 2 (Reuters) - Iran's leading reformist movement outlined a radical manifesto on Wednesday that it said would recapture the democratic promise of the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Members of the Islamic Iran Participation Front, which is close to President Mohammad Khatami, met in closed session in Tehran to hammer out their programme ahead of February 18 parliamentary elections.

A preliminary draft promised voters to undo years of domination of political, social and economic life by special-interests often tied to the conservative clerical elite.

Reza Khatami, director of the Front and brother of the president, said the programme was designed to build on the legacy of late state founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his vision of a true Islamic Republic.

`We believe Khomeini's path was nothing other than the path that a majority of the people supported on May 23,'' Reza Khatami said in a reference to his brother's pro-reform landslide election in 1997.

``Today, no one can deny knowing what the nation does and does not want...No one can fool the nation,'' he told Participation Front members and candidates.

``God willing, on election day we will take a very big step towards the continuation of the revolution.''


Aides say the Front, an umbrella organisation backing the president, is determined to advance a coherent manifesto supported by all of its candidates for the 290 seats in the new, expanded parliament.

The aim, they say, is to reduce the Iranian penchant for personality-driven politics and to inspire voters with concrete programmes and proposals within the Islamic political system.

Taken as a package, the reforms would strengthen the rule of law, expand civil society and create transparency in political and economic life -- all central Khatami themes that have been stymied, in part, by the conservative majority in parliament.

Specific proposals include:

Creation of a unified court system through elimination of special tribunals which critics say are used to suppress dissent. Reversal of a 1994 law that eliminated independent prosecutors and united the role of prosecutor and judge in one.

Reinforcement of the press laws to strengthen freedom of expression. Elimination of censorship of books, films and the theatre.

Strengthening elected local councils at the expense of the central state apparatus.

And overhaul of antiquated economic regulations and state monopolies that squelch private investment and development.

``I believe everyone knows how sick our economy is,'' said Mohsen Safaei-Farahani, presenting the Front's economic views.

He said comprehensive legal, social and political reform was a prerequisite. ``All of these are necessary in order to create economic security that will produce economic growth and development.''

Among concrete steps under review, Safaei-Farahani said, were revision of Iran's commercial code, last modified in 1968, a ban on economic activities by the security organs, and accelerated integration into the global system of trade.

Reformers are hoping a wave of campaign fever will sweep them to victory over conservatives in February 18 parliamentary elections and strengthen President Mohammad Khatami's hand to reshape Iran.

"People are feverishly rushing to form political parties and set up campaign centres as the cold and dry atmosphere of the past gives way to an open environment," said member of parliament Elias Hazrati.

Hazrati, a Revolutionary Guard turned pro-democracy activist, told Reuters that the elimination of dozens of Khatami allies and liberal dissidents had failed to dampen campaigners' enthusiasm.

Hazrati is running for one of 30 seats in Tehran, part of a high-profile race that pits reformers against religious conservatives.

His own headquarters are abuzz with telephone calls as young aides take offers of help from contributors ranging from labour and student groups to businesses and major-league soccer clubs.

The makeshift office is typical of the many headquarters that have mushroomed throughout the country, reflecting a growing enthusiasm for political participation, stimulated by Khatami's liberal policies.

A member of parliament's labour commission and head of Iran's martial arts federation, Hazrati, a Kung Fu champion, is often invited to speak to workers and athletic groups.

"We don't have a lot of money. Many workers, athletes and students have volunteered to help my campaign because they share my views on freedom and democracy," he said.

With help from a group of MPs and academics Hazrati helped found the Islamic Iran Solidarity Party to push through Khatami's liberal social and political reforms against sometimes violent opposition from hardliners.


"We believe people and their votes are the main issue, that we must take a dynamic look at Islam, give it an attractive image. We believe in freedom, tolerance and a society with many voices."

Hazrati's bold views on a series of formerly-forbidden topics has earned him some respect among pro-democracy student groups.

He has spoken out against a campaign of violence waged by religious extremists and the 1998 murder of several dissidents by a gang of secret agents.

The authorities say the agents were manipulated by "foreign enemies," but many of Khatami's allies are unconvinced, blaming what they call a propensity for violence among hardliners holding sway in the security apparatus.

"There is a tendency to blame the murders on foreign agents or to limit it to a few people at home," Hazrati said. "But I think they are a by-product of a trend of thought which uses intimidation, threats and force to have things its way."

Hazrati has an impressive revolutionary record. As a member of the commanding council of the Revolutionary Guards in northern Gilan province, he mobilised a volunteer militia force to fight against Iraq in the 1980s.

He said even at the height of his revolutionary zeal he cherished freedom and democracy - values often looked upon with mistrust by the present leadership of the Guards and its militia force.

"I always preached compassion to my soldiers, told them not to be violent and intimidating. God has created us free and given us dignity, a mind to think freely," he said.

Hazrati predicted another decisive victory for the Khatami camp, after its landslide victory in 1997.

"The present mood is in favour of reform. People are fed up with the right's ugly habit of manipulating people's religious sentiments for their political ends," he said.


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