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New Parliament Readies Changes in Iran

By Howard Schneider
Washington Post
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 that could:

* 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 had opposed.

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 it.

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 box.

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."


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