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Khatami vows democracy future of Iran, says he will heed voice of people

TEHRAN, March 11 (AFP) - President Mohammad Khatami vowed Sunday in a dramatic address before parliament that democracy was the way of the future in Iran but stopped short of announcing he would seek re-election in June.

The popular Khatami, who has gone public in recent months with his frustrations over a conservative backlash that has stymied his reform movement, nevertheless hinted a second term could be in the cards.

"As long as the people want me to be, I will be at their service. And if they do not want that, I will be elsewhere, but still at the service of the people," he said during a rare and highly anticipated address to MPs.

Speculation about Khatami's political future has been rife amid intense political wrangling between his reformist supporters, who hold a majority in parliament, and conservatives who control key state institutions.

But Khatami stressed that democracy was the way forward for the Islamic republic, underlining one of the key themes that helped sweep him to office in May 1997 with nearly 70 percent of the popular vote.

"We have no other choice but to establish democracy in our country," he said in a nearly two-hour speech which was broadcast live on state radio.

"I made a promise to the people, I swore it and I will keep steadfast to this promise," he said, while cautioning his supporters that his ambitious programme of liberalising reforms could not be achieved overnight.

"I am not an idealist, I know that we can't attain our goals in the blink of an eye," the moderate cleric said.

Khatami also addressed head-on the frequent conservative criticism that his reform programme was not wholly in line with the Islamic values adopted by the state in the 1979 revolution which brought the clergy to power.

"Before I arrived on the political scene, there was a significant wave of protests saying that if I were elected, Islamic values would be forgotten or neglected," he said. "But the people decided otherwise."

Yet he also noted that the easing of cultural restrictions under his tenure had led to "abuses," adding: "What the people want is a process of gradual reform, established calmly and in line with Islamic values."

Under the Iranian constitution, a president cannot serve more than two four-year terms. The presidential election is less than three months away on June 8.

Since Khatami's 1997 win, his reform supporters have triumphed in municipal elections and last year ousted the conservative majority in parliament, giving him an ostensible mandate for widespread reform.

But conservatives have fought back, muzzling newspapers and in January handing 10 leading reformists jail terms of between four and 10 years each for taking part in an "un-Islamic" political seminar in Germany last year.

The president made specific reference to some of the political crises that have erupted during his tenure, including the assassination of four intellectuals and dissidents by members of the intelligence services.

But he vowed that the Islamic republic had "overcome its crises."

Khatami's brother Mohammad-Reza, who heads the nation's largest pro-reform party and is an MP from Tehran, told reporters after the speech that the president had "given signs that he will be a candidate."


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