- The Washington Times - Monday, August 13, 2001

Iranian President Mohammed Khatami's inaguration was made all the more dramatic by the political brinkmanship that preceded it. Conservatives have won yet another round in the ongoing contest with reformers. But more significantly, the battleground in Iran has shifted, and reformers are showing a feistier disposition.

The parliament in Iran recently challenged a conservative stronghold by demanding more qualified and more moderate candidates for the Guardian Council, which has broad power to thwart political reform by rejecting laws already ratified by parliament. The cleric-controlled judiciary has the power to propose candidates for six Guardian seats, which must be approved by parliament, while Iran's supreme leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, chooses the other six.

Mr. Khamenei countered parliament's opposition to the candidates selected by the judiciary by stating that Mr. Khatami, elected in June to a second term with 80 percent of the vote, couldn't be inaugurated until all 12 members of the council were present to observe the ceremony. The ayatollah then gave the Expediency Council, another cleric-controlled institution, power to resolve the dispute. The Expediency Council trumped parliament's power, ruling that any Guardian Council candidate that gets a plurality, rather than a majority, of parliamentary votes would be confirmed, making it all but impossible to reject the candidates.

The backlash against this decision swept parliament, with even some conservative legislators expressing opposition to the Expediency Council's assault on legislative power. Most parliamentarians turned in blank ballots, with only 87 of the 249 members voting for the candidates selected. But under the Expediency Council's ruling, these paltry votes were enough to confirm the two new candidates onto the Guardian Council. And hence Mr. Khatami's inauguration, originally scheduled for Sunday, was allowed to take place on Wednesday.

News reports have focused squarely on the clerical regime's triumphant ability to foil parliament's attempts to block extremists from becoming Guardians. But there is something more noteworthy at play. "Essentially, reformers are going to now move beyond mobilizing public opinion and onto the next level, which is to challenge the conservatives' institutions," said Ray Takeyh, an expert on Iran with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "You begin to see them in a more confrontational mode, and that's the current that will move the president," said Mr. Takeyh, adding "there is some cause for optimism." In addition, reformers will be using the investigative powers of parliament to look into conservative institutions to challenge abuses of power, he said.

Another indication of reformers' incremental influence is the once radical ideas that are now becoming mainstream in Iran, even among conservative factions. A willingness to establish relations with Saudi Arabia and Egypt and a desire to lure foreign investment can be found all along the ideological spectrum, noted Mr. Takeyh.

Of course, there is always the potential for bloodshed and revolution in Iran, with 67 percent of its population under 30 and eager for reform. The widely supported mandate for democracy among the Iranian people, especially during the June presidential election, has been unmistakable, and the main leverage the current clerical regime has for power is people's aversion to effecting change through bloodshed. This reticence to further goals through violence, in an already traumatized population, has caused incremental reform to gain currency. But if the regime is overzealous in its repression, the situation could explode.

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