- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 5, 2002

TEHRAN Religious police, concerned about people listening to pop music while stewing in the city's nightmarish traffic jams, have a new tactic rip tape decks from cars, especially taxis.

Iranians are used to such indignities. Last time, they closed down restaurants open past midnight. Before that, they rounded up pet dogs, considered sinful by the Shi'ite Islamic clerics sitting atop Iran's theocracy.

This week, a court punished Ali Zamani, a movie director in his 20s, with a $2,500 fine because a well-known actress in her 50s had planted a kiss on his forehead during a film awards ceremony.

The hard-line Islamists' message to the women, youth, intelligentsia and ethnic minorities is clear: Don't forget who is really in charge.

In a final effort to salvage the reform movement that sprang to life with his 1997 election, President Mohammed Khatami, the sometimes reluctant leader of the movement to create a kinder, gentler Islamic Republic, has answered them back.

This week the mild-mannered midlevel cleric initiated a legal proposal aimed at turning back the power of the clerical establishment. It's an effort to prevent a mass exodus from his reform movement to an as-yet undefined oppositional stance.

"If reform reaches a dead end, what route will the people take?" said an editor at a reformist newspaper that was recently shut down by the hard-liners. "They're never going to return to the right. They're going to go outside of the system."

Iran's 1979 revolution, which ousted the shah and established a theocracy, has reached a crossroads. In its first two decades, the Islamic Republic alienated its neighbors with its agenda of exporting Islamic revolution. It drove away European and Asian democracies with its atrocious human rights record. And it made the United States an enemy with its taking of the U.S. Embassy and its anti-American rhetoric.

When Mr. Khatami, with his talk about respecting the rule of law at home and creating a dialogue among civilizations abroad, came along in 1997, the people voted for him in droves. He received over 70 percent of the vote. His movement took parliament shortly thereafter.

European and Asian countries began investing in the country again. The United States began easing sanctions. Women began pulling back the head scarves mandated by the mullahs.

Mr. Khatami's supporters included young people and women fed up with the Islamic Republic's social restrictions. He attracted ethnic and religious minorities kept down by a government dominated by Farsi-speaking Shi'ite Muslims. Far more important, he wooed the managerial classes, the technocrats who run the show.

But under Iran's two-tiered government, the hard-line clerics have the power to reject candidates for office, shut down newspapers, jail intellectuals and veto any bill approved by the reformist-dominated parliament.

In the past few months alone the hard-liners have purportedly supported violent groups in Afghanistan, northern Iraq and the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Such adventures have again antagonized the United States. And after five years in power, Mr. Khatami has failed to achieve much substantial political change. His meekness in facing down the hard-liners has already alienated the young and women from the reform movement.

Mr. Khatami's bill is aimed specifically at reducing the power of the Guardian Council, the religious board charged with vetting all laws and political candidates.

Mr. Khatami, twice elected with massive majorities, argues that the council's rulings are arbitrary and illegal. His bill would give the president the power to remove judiciary and parliamentary officials for breaking the law.

"The spirit of this bill is that if Khatami realizes that the constitution has been violated, he can put a stop to it," said Vice President Mohammad Ali Abtahi. "The approval of the bill can secure the legitimacy of the system both inside the country and abroad."

The bill will sail through parliament. It will likely be rejected by a Guardian Council not wanting to reduce its own power.

Then Mr. Khatami says he will put the issue before the people in a referendum.

Mr. Khatami vows that if Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei cancels the referendum, he will resign.

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