Iran's reformist president, Mohammed Khatami, presented a brave face on March 11, when he promised not to go back on his promises to bring democratic changes to the Islamic nation. And, while he gave the impression of a man who is intent on standing up to the country’s conservative clerical establishment, which over recent months had tried its utmost to sweep back his efforts at political and economic reform, .he still fell short of officially announcing his intention of seeking reelection on June 8. Still, the speech left many in the reform camp more optimistic that the beleaguered leader is inching toward such a decision.
Khatami made his comments in a nationally broadcast speech to the Majlis, the Iranian parliament. "No pressure can make me give up this path. I cannot give up my commitment to God and the noble people. We have no choice but to succeed in establishing an Islamic democracy," he said. Later in the speech, he added: "As long as the people want me, I will continue to serve, with the thought that I can move forward in the face of all problems."
But Khatami’s newly defiant tone appears to be related to an effort on the part of the clergy to tone down the rhetoric against the reformists, and instead try and find some middle ground in a debate that is threatening to tear the country. Leading this drive is none other than Iran’s supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who according to the Iranian constitution has control over the Revolutionary Guards, the regular military forces, the internal security forces and the courts.
According to Al Sharq al Awsat, the London-based Arabic language daily, Khatami and Khamenei met two weeks ago, and Khamenei promised to support Khatami’s bid for reelection—something that he had never done before. The report added that Khamenei had promised to restrain the conservative opposition to Khatami, which over the past year has closed down about 30 newspapers and stymied a range of political, social and economic initiatives undertaken by the Khatami government.
Speaking last week, the day before Khatami’s speech to the Majlis, Khamenei sounded almost reformist as he outlined general policies in the fields of economic security, energy, water resources, mining, natural resources and transport to the heads of the country’s three branches of government. Among the various measures he announced, was the authorization of programs designed to attract domestic and foreign investment in the oil and gas sector. It was a move that had been fought against vehemently by conservative groups in the past.
According to IRNA, Iran’s official news agency, Khamenei’s guidelines define economic security as supporting public welfare, helping economic growth, preparing the ground for economic justice and eliminating poverty. They also called for the modification of the country’s taxation system, legislation that will require the judiciary to make specialized investigations into economic offenses, and measures to ensure that the public sector, cooperatives and the private sector will be provided with equal opportunities in the business arena.
The guidelines call for exploration of oil and gas resources and optimal utilization of oil resources. They also urge for export of oil derivatives as opposed to crude oil, and include provisions for high-tech equipment in the gas, oil and petrochemical industries. Furthermore, the guidelines call for increasing the share of mineral sector in the gross national product, in part through cooperation with international firms active in the mining field.
Signs that the conservatives may be backing down were evident already in February, when the Expediency Council, Iran's highest legislative oversight body, approved most of the items in the first budget to have been approved by the reformist-run parliament, which was elected last spring. The budget is for the Iranian year beginning in March, and equals a record $46 billion, 24 percent more than the previous year’s budget.
Among the items approved by the Expediency Council was a buy-back program for oil contracts, under which French oil giant TotalFinaElf and other companies can be paid after making investments. The measure had been blocked after opposition from the conservative oversight Guardians Council, which stated that the program amounted to a form of interest forbidden by Islam.
The Expediency Council also overruled the Guardian Council's objections and approved funding for political parties and the political and cultural activities of Iran’s Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian communities.
The readiness of the conservative establishment to cut Khatami some political slack appears to be a result of growing perception that it rapidly was losing grassroots support in the country. For while three months ahead of the presidential election there does not appear any other viable reformist candidate, the clergy is aware of Khatami’s popularity and knows that he should win easily against any candidate they may put up against him.
So the conservatives appear to becoming resigned to several more years of Khatami, who can now push his reform program forward with a like-minded parliament.
But there will be upsets along the way, and not all are result of political tensions within the country. According to a report appearing this week in USA Today, the Bush administration is about to renew a 1995 ban on U.S. trade with Iran and investment in the country. The administration has to extend the ban by March 15, or it will expire automatically.
For the Iranians it is a case of bad timing. Numerous officials in the Bush administration are known to be opposed to sanctions against Iran, including Vice President Dick Cheney. According to USA Today, Bush’s foreign policy team will await the outcome of June’s presidential elections, and then will decide whether it will support in August the renewal of the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, which bars from operating in the United States foreign companies, who invest more than $20 million a year in the energy sectors of Iran and Libya. Its decision there will be a good indicator of what it will do next time the 1995 ban on trade with Iran comes round for renewal. – (Albawaba-MEBG)
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