[IWAR] IRAN Power struggle at conference

From: Michael Wilson (MWILSON/0005514706at_private)
Date: Sun Dec 07 1997 - 10:01:38 PST

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                    Iran's own power struggle behind scenes at summit
          Copyright ) 1997 Nando.net
          Copyright ) 1997 Reuters
       TEHRAN (December 7, 1997 10:17 a.m. EST http://www.nando.net) - Iran
       maintained a facade of unity to welcome Islamic world leaders to Iran
       this week, but a power struggle over the future of the Islamic republic
       seems waiting to erupt again.
       It pits a cautious, modernizing president against a conservative Shi'ite
       Moslem leadership which has still not digested his surprise landslide
       victory last May and has no intention of yielding the levers of power
       they control.
       President Mohammad Khatami, who will host more than two dozen Moslem
       leaders at the biggest diplomatic event since the 1979 Islamic
       revolution, faces a tough battle to implement his policies over
       hardliners supporting supreme Islamic leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
       "Mr Khatami won only the presidential election, that's all," says former
       foreign minister Ebrahim Yazdi, leader of a small semi-legal liberal
       opposition party and a sharp observer of Iranian political life.
       "The extreme right lost the election but they control all the powers:
       parliament, radio and television, the security forces, the supreme
       leader's institutions, the Friday prayers preachers.
       "More than that, they have very strong economic power -- a big slice of
       gross national product is controlled by so-called revolutionary
       foundations that pay no taxes and answer directly to the leader," Yazdi
       Iran's 1979 constitution, tailor-made for the late revolutionary leader
       Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, vests ultimate power in the "faqih" or
       religious legal scholar, who is commander-in-chief of the armed forces
       and can make peace or war.
       But Khamenei lacks Khomeini's charisma and learning, and his legitimacy
       has been challenged both by veteran Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri,
       sacked as Khomeini's anointed successor after he criticised human rights
       abuses, and by dissident philosopher Abdolkarim Soroush, who advocates
       separating mosque and state.
       Khatami, himself a clergyman, controls government ministries but not the
       police. His speeches are sometimes censored by state television and his
       efforts to revive an inflation-battered economy are cramped by hardline
       opposition to taxing wealthy bazaar traders or privatising the
       foundations' industrial empire.
       Street gangs controlled by the hardliners occasionally turn out to beat
       up reformist students or prevent intellectuals speaking.
       "The only thing Khatami has is the popular support of the nation, which
       urgently wants change," said businessman Sadegh Samii, who tries to run
       publishing and inspection companies in a forest of regulations and
       The strength of that "people power" was displayed last week when
       millions of Iranians poured into the streets spontaneously to celebrate
       their national soccer team's qualification for the World Cup finals.
       Scenes of mixed youth dancing in the street and an incident in which
       women forced their way into the national sports stadium, defying strict
       sex segregation, were unanimously seen as a political warning to the
       ruling clergy.
       "The people want to show their power, that if they come out into the
       streets nothing can stop them," said Shahla Lahiji, a women's rights
       campaigner and publisher.
       "Don't forget that most of our 60 million people are under the age of
       25. The country is too young to be ruled by traditional or
       fundamentalist actions or ideas," she said.
       Signs of a desire for greater debate and a liberalisation of public life
       abound. More newspapers and magazines have been authorised since the
       election and offer a broader spectrum of opinion. Many women are wearing
       their compulsory Moslem headscarves more loosely and some are
       campaigning for reform in marriage and divorce laws.
       There is also less fear or repression or denunciation. Some taxi drivers
       openly play the Voice of America or the British Broadcasting Corporation
       on their radios as they cruise around Tehran.
       Ministers are talking of allowing foreign investment in the onshore oil
       and gas industry, long a taboo.
       But economist Fariborz Raisdana says the government has yet to provide
       the stable legal, regulatory and exchange rate conditions to attract
       capital from abroad.
       "Khatami's first budget stresses fighting inflation, maintaining
       exchange rate stability and tax moves to shift capital from the
       speculative trading sector to production. Those are the right priorities
       but he is too politically weak to take bolder measures," Raisdana said.
       Amid the mood of change and cautious optimism, many people fear a
       backlash by conservatives may be imminent.
       "You can feel the change in the atmosphere and see the green shoots of
       change sprouting, but many people say 'we've seen it all before, there
       will be a clampdown before things get out of hand'," a European diplomat
       Yazdi fears the Islamic hardliners are just waiting for Khatami to pick
       a fight so they can pressure him into quitting.
       "If they force him to resign, he'll be the last president in our
       country. Article 110 of the constitution allows the leader to rule
       through an Expediency Council until new presidential elections, which
       might be delayed," he said.
       That Expediency Council is headed by Khatami's predecessor, Hojatoleslam
       Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who has sought to position himself above the
       fray as an arbiter or consensus builder.
       Optimists say Rafsanjani is well placed to convince Khamenei and the
       clergy it is in their interest to allow a controlled, gradual economic
       and political liberalisation rather than risk a social explosion.
       Pessimists among Iran's revolution-weary intellectuals fear even the
       current timid opening could end in bloodshed by the Revolutionary Guards
       or the assassination of Khatami.
       So despite their frustration at the slow pace of change, most are giving
       the new president the benefit of the doubt as he tries slowly to loosen
       the straitjacket of Iranian life.
       -- By PAUL TAYLOR, Reuters

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