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But still popular

By Mehdi Ardalan
December 6, 2000
The Iranian

It's no secret that Iran's Constitution is riddled with ambiguities. It's also no secret that often one of the two factions is tempted to solve these ambiguities to their own political benefit. Against this backdrop, President Khatami came out with the public announcement that certain articles of the constitution have been violated but that he does not have enough authority to stop the violations.

Khatami may have achieved the desired goal he sought during his presidency but his many supporters have not yet taken off their gloves. Khatami's first-ever, open complaint about lacking sufficient powers to carry out his constitutional duties comes six months in advance of presidential elections.

The timing was not lost on his conservative critics who accused him of attempting to whip up public sympathy prior to the spring presidential election. Conservatives say Khatami's current powers are sufficient and if he has admittedly failed in fulfilling his obligations, the problem lies in himself not the law.

Ignoring these charges, Khatami's supporters rose to his defense demanding that the administration prepare a bill which would increase the president's power. One pro reform MP, Ali Amini, went as far as warning that if the government doesn't present such a bill, the parliament will do so on its own.

Another MP, Ahmad Purnejati, even hinted at the possibility of amending the constitution for the purpose of defining (read increasing) presidential powers. Hollow threats indeed. Political observers are well aware that the conservative-dominated Guardian Council, Iran's legislative watchdog, will veto any attempt to ratify such a bill.

Despite the reformists' inability to legally increase Khatami's power, their threats angered conservatives. "With due respect, Mr. President", wrote the hard line daily Kayhan, "Your committee overseeing the implementation of the constitution is itself illegal".

In the face of this backlash, some of Khatami's supporters have shown signs of retreat, choosing to resign themselves to the current level of powers envisioned for the president.

Most instances where the constitution has been violated, according to Khatami, are related to the judiciary's performance, such as the use of torture, lengthy incarcerations, and illegal arrests. That is why when the head of judiciary, Ayatollah Hashemi Shahrudi, spoke of creating a constitutional court to investigate violations of the constitution and punish the pundits, reformers were quick to condemn Shahrudi's offer.

If the judiciary itself is at fault, there's no guarantee that such a court would be fair and punish elements within the judiciary. "It is debatable how much such a court can protect the constitution," Khatami said. Nevertheless, Shahrudi's deputy has said the judiciary will go ahead with its plans to set up a constitutional court, another measure unlikely to materialize in the face of pro-reform opposition in parliament. Reformers intend not to allow their opponents take the initiative on this issue.

As far as most Iranians are concerned, the president has affirmed that he is powerless to carry out reforms. Whatever Khatami's motives may be, he got that message through. "They don't let Khatami do his job," people say. If that was Khatami's intention, he succeeded.

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