New Parliament Readies Changes in Iran
By Howard Schneider
July 8, 2000
TEHRAN Clerical turbans have become scarcer beneath the gold-tiled
dome of the Iranian parliament. A female legislator has pushed the dress
code by wearing a housecoat instead of a chador. And discussion is freely
critical of recent moves by the country's Islamic conservatives.
The reformist majority in parliament is only a month old, but already
its leaders have made their presence felt. The early days have been consumed
with organization, but plans are underway for significant changes in the
way the country is run. In the weeks to come, the new majority plans legislation
* Unshackle the press and undo a series of newspaper closures ordered
by conservative judges
* Precisely define crimes such as "insulting religion" that
reformers feel conservative judges use to jail people for political ends.
* Authorize foreigners to move money in and out of the country as needed
in hopes of encouraging outside investment in the sagging economy.
Moreover, there is talk of allowing private broadcasters to start operating--a
rarity in the region and a way to diminish conservative control over television
and radio--and parliamentary committees are being established to study
industrial policy, election law and other topics. Legislation also is in
the works that would prohibit police from entering college campuses without
the permission of school officials, a direct slap at conservative authority
in response to a bloody crackdown on student demonstrators last summer.
Parliament will proceed with caution initially, members say, to try
to avoid what may be an inevitable clash with conservatives once the new
majority starts tinkering with Iranian law.
"It is a little bit out of reality to specify a time" when
the 290-seat assembly will approve its first legislation, said Jamileh
Khadivar, one of the 30 members elected from Tehran, the capital. "We
are preparing things."
In the meantime, the floor of parliament is being used as an open forum
for airing what members say are conservative abuses of power that target
the reformers' cause. New members express hope that this parliament, the
sixth to convene since the 1979 Islamic revolution, will become Iran's
best expression of popular will.
"They had no evidence to arrest those lawyers," Tehran representative
Davoud Suleimani said from the speaker's pulpit during a recent session,
criticizing the incarceration of two human-rights lawyers on the vague
charge of "insulting public officials."
"What we are doing here gets censored" in official broadcasts,
which remain under conservative control, complained another legislator,
Mohammad Raisi. "Don't even let them come to this parliament. . .
. They come and make simple interviews on unimportant things."
With wide popularity, but viewed with suspicion among hard-liners who
feel their program is un-Islamic and swayed by Western culture, it probably
will not be an easy ride for the legislature's new leaders, though they
control more than two-thirds of the seats.
Reform candidates overwhelmed their rivals in a February election that
favored filmmakers and academics over theologians and gave support to the
initiatives of President Mohammed Khatemi that the outgoing hard-line parliament
However, conservatives centered in Iran's merchant, military and clerical
classes have made clear they will not relinquish power without a struggle.
Arrests of journalists and activists have continued, and about 20 publications,
including some run by clerics advocating a more moderate view of Islam,
have been closed.
In addition, in Iran's complex system of government, conservatives still
dominate two institutions, the Guardian Council and the Expediency Council,
which will oversee the work of the new parliament and possibly try to undermine
The Guardian Council is composed of 12 clerics and lawyers who review
all laws for compliance with the constitution and Islamic principles. The
Expediency Council resolves disputes between parliament and the Guardian
Council. Significantly, the Expediency Council's members include former
president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, head of a wealthy clerical and
mercantile family and a nemesis of reformers whose candidates embarrassed
the veteran politician when he failed to win a seat in the new parliament.
Foreseeing a fight, reformist legislators are moving carefully. They
elected as speaker a moderate cleric, Mehdi Karrubi, vesting leadership
in a gray-haired religious figure with solid ties to the conservative movement
instead of one of the well-coifed urbanites who did well at the ballot
They expect that their first initiative will be to repeal a tough press
law approved by the conservative parliament in its final days. The hope,
reformers say, is to return to the situation of a few months ago, when
private dailies and journals flourished on the streets of Tehran and other
cities--and then see how the Guardian Council reacts.
"There will be a lot of challenges between us and the Guardian
Council. This will probably happen all the time," said Ali Reza Nouri,
one of the newly elected legislators and brother of a prominent cleric,
Abdollah Nouri, sentenced to five years in prison last fall for allegedly
violating "Islamic sanctities" in the pages of his newspaper.
Controlling the prosecution of cases like that is another high priority
for reformers, Nouri said. The hope, he said, is to set clear standards
in the law for such offenses, so that judges will not have a free hand
in jailing people and might even have to start convening public juries.
"Abdollah Nouri was accused of insulting religion," Nouri
said. "We have to provide specific definitions of what 'insulting'
is. . . . These must be written down."
That idea goes to the core of what Khatemi has said his presidency is
about--strengthening civil institutions and procedures and making Iran's
sometimes arbitrary judicial and security institutions accountable to elected
officials and the public.
Because so much authority in Iran rests with the country's unelected
clerical leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who oversees the courts, the military
and other key institutions, simple notions like defining what is or is
not an insult to religion, and forcing judges to abide by those definitions,
carry wide-ranging implications for the use of power.
It is on such issues that the Guardian Council may object.
However, Nouri and other reformers say Iran's constitution, which balances
clerical authority with the potential for civil regulation of it, gives
parliament powers to fight back: Half the members of the council are appointed
on the recommendation of parliament, for example, and Nouri said the assembly's
new majority is fully prepared to use those appointments to achieve balance
as the terms of the current council members expire.
In addition, he said a little-heeded section of the constitution would
let parliament submit proposed laws to popular referendum if the Guardian
Council frustrates too many of its ideas.
"There are tools," Nouri said, "and weapons."