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Iran's polarisation may take toll on Khatami

By Guy Dinmore
Financial Times
March 6, 2001

With elections in Iran just three months away, Mohammad Khatami, the pro-reform president, faces a bleak choice: to go for a second term and risk four more years of setbacks, or quit politics and hand over the reins to his hardline opponents.

Pressure is mounting on the 56-year-old cleric to take the second path. In the latest of a series of trials of close supporters, a court on Sunday gave a one-year jail sentence to Mostafa Tajzadeh, the deputy interior minister and the man in charge of organising the June 8 presidential poll.

The removal of Mr Tajzadeh, the president's right-hand man for more than a decade, is seen by reformists as more of an attempt to weaken Mr Khatami than a signal that hardliners might rig the election.

Doran-e-Emruz, a pro-reform daily newspaper under threat of closure by the judiciary, said removing Mr Tajzadeh from the state election headquarters, on charges of electoral fraud, was "a dream of totalitarians coming true and another step towards the elimination of all the president's men".

A close associate of the president commented: "For one group of hardliners the priority is to prevent him from running. But some conservatives want him to run and be very weak. This group is wiser. They understand the cost that would be paid if Khatami did not stand."

The pro-reform camp has raised the stakes in the power struggle by letting it be known that if Mr Khatami decided to step aside then no reformist candidate would contest the elections.

A virtual boycott would keep many voters at home and call into question the legitimacy of the system. Iran, with half its population under the age of 20 and pinning high hopes on Mr Khatami, would face an uncertain future.

Later this week Mr Khatami plans to address parliament and sum up the successes and failures of his four years in office. The speech, the first of its kind, is expected to be a grim assessment of his lack of power and inability to fulfil his promises of political reform. But aides say he will not reveal his electoral intentions.

Parliament, with a reformist majority since elections last year, may next month start the process of bolstering the president's powers. Exactly how it will do this is unclear, as constitutional change in Iran is a complicated process that the conservative establishment can easily block.

Attempts by parliament to exert its supervisory powers over the hardline judiciary have been sternly rebuffed.

Tehran's most senior judge, Abbas-Ali Alizadeh, told the assembly in a letter on Sunday: "No one has the right to interfere in judiciary affairs, or we will do our religious and legal duty. Why do you raise questions about legal proceedings for the sake of a bunch of so-called reformers and newspapers?"

Several pro-reform MPs have been summoned for questioning by the courts for comments made on the open floor of the parliament. Delegates feel increasingly frustrated and threatened, fearing they too will be silenced by the judiciary that has closed down 30 liberal publications and jailed dozens of activists.

Sobh, a hardline weekly newspaper, warned: "The policy of the reform Majlis (parliament) has seriously worried the friends of the revolution." The periodical fuelled rumours by suggesting that pro-reform MPs, who hold more than 200 of the 290 seats, would collectively resign.

The intensification of the power struggle has polarised politics and drawn mainstream conservatives, who believe in a religious democracy, away from the extreme right that is ready to ignore the popular will in carrying out its interpretation of God's will.

Moderate conservatives may be suspicious of secular tendencies among the president's supporters, but they also recognise him as a charismatic cleric who might rescue the Islamic system from collapse under the pressure of mounting social ills, such as endemic drug abuse.

The centrist conservative movement flies the banner of "new religious thinking" and claims the backing of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader. Some reformists are encouraged, believing Ayatollah Khamenei has indeed distanced himself from hardline clerics in and close to the judiciary, and shifted towards the president with the common int-erest of saving the Islamic state.

But Mobin, a pro-reform weekly run by a Majlis deputy who has been summoned to court, expressed scepticism over "new religious thinking", saying its aim was the removal or emasculation of the president and his reforms.

"The hidden hand is ready to sacrifice the theoretician of violence and it seems the expiration date of the controversial theoretician is over," wrote Mobin.

But the magazine also warned: "One point should not be forgotten. The victim's last tremors before death are dangerous. Hardliners, who have apparently been sacrificed for a new prescription for conservatism, will not be easily silenced."


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