- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 10, 2000

TEHRAN Iran's humiliated parliament dropped its ambitious reform agenda yesterday, giving in to hard-line clerics who, with a broad counteroffensive this week, have demonstrated their determination to wrest power from reformist President Mohammed Khatami.
Instead, lawmakers concentrated on modest measures, such as one to raise the marriage age for girls from 9 to 13.
Yesterday's session illustrated a dramatic lowering of expectations in the parliament, or Majlis, since Sunday, when Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, quashed an attempt to enact a sweeping press-freedom law.
Hard-liners had argued against raising the marriage age, claiming it would violate Islamic law. Reformists won that debate, arguing that the measure would help prevent the selling of young girls, some of whom end up as prostitutes.
Although the reformists won control of about two-thirds of the Majlis seats in elections earlier this year, the showdown over press freedom illustrated that power still rests with the ayatollah.
There has been little mention of press freedom since.
By ordering the parliament in a letter Sunday to drop the press reforms, he showed the Majlis just how defenseless they are no matter that 20 million voted for the reformists vs. 7 million for conservative Islamist candidates.
Analysts said yesterday that not only did the ayatollah defeat the press bill, but he also opened a salvo in what is seen as a counteroffensive by Islamic hard-liners against the whole reform movement including Mr. Khatami, who is running for another term as president in the spring.
Even before Sunday's intervention, conservative newspapers had been criticizing Mr. Khatami's plan to seek a second term.
Hatred of Mr. Khatami a mild-mannered and charismatic cleric who surprised hard-liners by sweeping into power in 1997 is so great his picture was torn off signs by conservative demonstrators Tuesday.
Mr. Khatami has stayed entirely out of the free-press debate and even stayed out of Tehran by visiting Kurdish regions of Iran in the last few days. He has therefore appeared even more powerless than before.
A woman in the small village of Kaboudin, south of Tehran, said the clerical powers "don't give Khatami a chance. We like him, but he can't do anything."
Asked what they would do if reform was stopped, the woman said, "Iranians are afraid to have riots against the mullahs."
With reformists cowed, millions stand ready to die or kill to defend the Islamic theocracy installed by the 1979 revolution against the pro-American shah.
Some 7 million of the poorest people in Iran, for example, are entirely dependent on the Imam Khomeini Assistance Committee that supplies basic foods, university scholarships and even marriage dowries.
The government buses these people by the tens of thousands to rallies and Friday prayer meetings, where they provide an unstoppable, directed force that reformists cannot confront.
The English language Iran News, a reformist newspaper, said yesterday that the conservative attack has already served to divide the reformists members of parliament.
"Some MPs who entered the Majlis on the [reformist] ticket are undermining the reformists by shifting to the right," the paper said yesterday.
In particular, clerics such as Majlis Speaker Mehdi Karrubi of the Militant Clergy Association, sided with the supreme leader in ending debate on press freedom, leaving the more secular-minded reformists isolated.
This strategy appears to follow up moves in the past two years to isolate the No. 1 reformist in Iran, Mr. Khatami.
Intellectuals have been assassinated. Thugs once attempted to kill a close Khatami aide, and authorities have closed 24 reform newspapers since March.
Even the recent prosecution of 10 Jews from the city of Shiraz on charges of spying for Israel is widely seen as an attempt to spoil Mr. Khatami's attempts to improve relations with the West.
Some reformers continued to nurse hopes for rewriting the press law in a way that it could be acceptable to the conservatives and reintroduced for debate.
The head of Majlis Commission for National Security and Foreign Policy, Mohsen Mirdamadi, when asked about the fate of the press law, said:
"We should wait and see whether the government will present another bill or the MPs will take the initiative."

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