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Sehaty Foreign Exchange

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Iran's troubles

Financial Times, London
May 2, 2000

Mohammad Khatami, Iran's popular and moderate president, is facing his gravest challenge from conservative hardliners since his election three years ago. Western governments and investors are understandably worried.

The Middle East needs a stable Iran. Its population of more than 60m, vast energy reserves, and the power to disrupt or foster the Middle East peace process cannot be ignored. For the moment, the west's best strategy is to say and do little to risk upsetting a precarious state of affairs.

Robin Cook, the foreign secretary, who yesterday delayed his imminent trip to Tehran until July, is no doubt sensitive to that. Conservative clerics are staging a crackdown in response to a perceived threat to their political and business interests from the newly elected reformist parliament. They fear that the Islamic Republic, created in the aftermath of the 1979 revolution when the Shia clergy consolidated its grip, is under threat.

Within the last week, the conservative-controlled judiciary has closed nearly all the reformist newspapers that had played a role in the defeat inflicted on the conservatives in parliamentary elections in February. Three prominent reporters and editors have been jailed in the past month and the new parliament has been barred from investigating the preserves of the conservative elite including their business interests, the armed forces and radio and television stations.

Pessimists fear that worse is to come, perhaps military intervention, impeachment of the president or an attempt to stop the new parliament from convening as scheduled in late May. Mr Khatami's advisers are more relaxed. They believe that conservatives' resistance to reform is an inevitable but temporary response to a difficult transition.

Mr Khatami's main source of authority is the loyalty he commands among the people. He could summon millions into the streets. That is a weapon of last resort which he is unlikely to use. Demonstrations on such a scale would risk an anarchic response from conservatives and spell the end for the president's vision of an Iran founded on the rule of law and a harmony of Islam and democracy.

Instead, Mr Khatami, has acted wisely. His appeals for calm and unity have been heeded, even by the student movement, a driving force for change that now feels increasingly frustrated. His position as a mid-ranking cleric at the same time gives the president credibility with the conservatives.

That is why Mr Khatami is probably the only person who can engineer a smooth transition. Apart from an extreme minority, Iran's conservatives realise they cannot resist change. Progress will be bumpy. But Mr Khatami and his reformists are clever enough to make it happen.


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