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memri
August 31, 2001 No.
67

Iran After Khatami's Re-election: Caught Between the Conservatives and the Reformists

By: A. Savyon*

Since Iranian President Mohammad Khatami was reelected on June 8 for a second term, the power struggle between reformists and conservatives has intensified. Currently, the struggle centers mainly on: a] A multi-faceted conflict between the reformist parliament and the conservative judiciary headed by Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi; and b] A conflict between Khatami and both the parliament and the conservative establishment over the nominees for cabinet positions [although all Khatami's nominees were eventually approved] and the future of the reforms.

I. The Struggle Between the Parliament and the Judiciary

The Makeup of the "Guardians Council"

Although Khatami won 77% of the vote, the constitution dictates that the country's control is in the hands of the conservative bodies subject to the authority of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who has absolute power over matters of state.

Khamenei maintains his control through: a] The Expediency Council, headed by former Iranian President Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who is the supreme arbiter in disputes between government authorities [for example, the parliament and the judiciary]; and b] The Guardians Council, which is higher up in the governing hierarchy than the parliament, and which is authorized to determine whether legislation passed by the parliament is compatible with Islamic law [Shari'a]. [Indeed, the Council has, on more than one occasion, blocked reformist parliament legislation]. The council is comprised of twelve members – six clerics appointed by Khamenei, and six jurists nominated by the judiciary but subject to parliamentary approval.

The first major crisis occurred with Khatami's inauguration: According to the constitution, the ceremony could not be held without the presence of all members of the Guardians Council. But the reformist parliament had refused to approve the Guardians Council nominees proposed by judiciary head Shahroudi, as all the candidates were considered by the parliament to be conservatives.[1] Postponing the inauguration, Khamenei instructed the Expediency Council to urgently resolve the dispute. In a meeting attended by Rafsanjani, parliament Speaker Mehdi Karroubi, Guardians Council representatives, and Khatami himself, the Expediency Council decided to enforce a "parliamentary bypass mechanism," by which Shahroudi's nominees would again be presented to parliament for its approval, but if the absolute majority required by the constitution was not obtained in the first round, a second vote would be held and candidates would be chosen by a relative majority.

Thus, in the second round of voting, two of the nominees were approved by a relative majority of just over sixty votes. Some 70% [166] of the MPs presented cast blank ballots in an organized protest,[2] accusing Shahroudi of "failure to cooperate with them" in approving the list.[3]

Some MPs even walked out in protest during Shahroudi's speech given at the swearing-in ceremony. Deputy parliament Speaker Mohammad Reza Khatami, the President's brother, protested against the Expediency Council's bias in favor of the conservative judiciary, and said that the parliament "does not agree with the council's decision but has no other alternative."[4] Yet despite the reformists' show of power, the crisis was resolved within three days, after the conservatives twisted the reformists' collective arm. The reformist daily Iran News warned that if the disputes between parliament and the judiciary continued, intervention by the Expediency Council would become the norm, and the Council "was likely to replace parliament as the legislative body."[5]

Prosecuting MPs

Reformist MPs, among them women, have been prosecuted during the past year by the conservative judiciary for criticizing conservatives in parliamentary discussions. Fatemeh Haqiqat-Joo, a prominent MP and a member of the women's lobby in the parliament, called for prosecuting the judiciary speaker for accusing parliament of "running an inquisition" during the election of jurists to the Guardian Council.[6] She was sentenced to 22 months imprisonment for offending Islam and the Guardian Council.[7]

Closing down Reformist Newspapers

Since April 2000, some 40 reformist newspapers – the mouthpieces for political circles and reformist MPs – have been closed down by judiciary directive. Many reformist journalists have been arrested and jailed, accused of circulating "propaganda against the regime" or endangering state security.[8] Moreover, after "Journalists' Day" was marked in Iran, and just one day after Khatami's inauguration, the judiciary's Press Court shut down the prominent reformist paper Hambastegi [Solidarity] on charges of slandering Judiciary head Shahroudi.[9] The paper's owner, MP Ibrahim Bai-Salami, was subpoenaed several times by the conservatives, and 15 complaints against him were made by conservative individuals and institutions which are pending. The Iranian Islamic Participation Front [IIPF], the parliament's large reformist forum, claimed that "some members of the judiciary are planning to thwart the reforms."[10] Following Bai-Salami's acknowledgement that "insulting articles and mistakes" had indeed appeared unintentionally in his paper, the "temporary" closure order was lifted.[11]

Students Protest Over the Acquittal of Police for 1999 Riots

In July 1999, severe rioting spread throughout Iran after plainclothes police broke into the University of Tehran and attacked students protesting the closure of a reformist paper.[12] MPs harshly criticized the judiciary for dragging its feet in prosecuting the police.

Finally the judiciary acquitted the police. Moreover, in early July of this year the court convicted the students and sentenced them to six months to one year prison calling them "hooligans."[13] A majority of 159 MPs submitted a petition to the judiciary head Shahroudi criticizing "the transformation of victims into the guilty party."[14] Student organizations severely criticized the judiciary, and complained that the laws of the state were being perverted so as to work against the reformist political movement. They claimed that the verdicts were "worse than the blows in the [university] dormitories… even [worse] than being killed."[15]

II. The Composition of the Cabinet – Khatami between Hammer and Anvil

After his inauguration, the path was clear for Khatami to present his government. It was expected that Khatami would institute far-reaching cabinet changes so as to implement the reforms to which he had ceremoniously committed himself before his base of support – the students and the women.

But Khatami, caught between the hammer - conservatives who effectively rule the country, and the anvil - the reformist parliament calling for reform and for the approval of the ministerial nominees, presented a government fundamentally similar to the previous one.

The rightist ministers – Defense Minister Shamakhani, who had run against Khatami in the presidential election; Justice Minister Shoushtari; Foreign Minister Kharrazi; Intelligence Minister Younesi; and Interior Minister Moussavi-Lari, kept their seats despite the reformists' demands in parliament to oust them. Most of Khatami's changes concern the interior portfolios. Furthermore, in Khatami's government, women, students, and the working classes have no representation whatsoever, although they constitute most of Khatami's base of power.

Both the reformist and the conservative press are sharply critical of Khatami's timidity in his ministerial nominations, particularly in light of the country's dire economic straits. Not only were there only five new ministerial nominees, but the nominees to economic posts were not sufficiently qualified or experienced.[16]

Despite threats by both conservative and reformist MPs, all of Khatami's cabinet nominees were finally approved by the parliament.

*Ayelet Savyon is Director of the Iranian Media Project.


[1] IRNA, July 18, 2001.

[2] Iran News, August 8, 2001.

[3] IRNA, August 9, 2001.

[4] IRNA, August 7, 2001.

[5] Iran News, August 6, 2001.

[6] Iran Daily, August 9, 2001; Aftab-e Yazd, August 8 2001.

[7] IRNA, August 20, 2001.

[8] Iran News, August 9, 2001.

[9] The Judiciary closed down the paper after it published MP Rasoul Mehrparvar's harsh criticism of Shahroudi and the Judiciary.

[10] IRNA, August 9, 2001.

[11] IRNA, August 20, 2001.

[12] IRNA, July 7, 2001.

[13] IRNA, July 9, 2001.

[14] IRNA, July 18, 2001.

[15] IRNA, August 2, 2001.

[16] Iran News, August 13, 2001; Tehran Times, August 13, 2001.