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Tough Task Ahead for Iran's President Khatami - 2001-08-26

Iran's parliament, or Majlis, as it is called, has approved President Mohammad Khatami's Cabinet, giving him an early vote of confidence for his second term. But President Khatami will still face resistance to his reform efforts from conservative factions outside the parliament.

There was little doubt President Khatami's cabinet would be approved, now that reformists control the parliament. All but five of President Khatami's new Cabinet members served in his first-term government. The key ministers of foreign affairs, defense, interior, intelligence and oil return to their jobs.

Still, some of Mr. Khatami's reformist allies have complained the ministers are not strong enough to fight powerful conservative factions inside and outside the government, trying to block their efforts to reform the Islamic Republic's social, economic and political programs.

Human rights activist Ramin Ahmadi warns that, even though the conservatives no longer wield power in the legislature, they still control other aspects of government, including the judiciary.

"Let us not forget that this is a two-tier regime, if you will," he says. "On one level, there is some degree of pressure from the grassroots and from the constituency, and that is reflected in the parliament. On the other hand, there is an entire set of organizations and power structures that do not respond to this pressure, and that in fact act and rule above this constituency. And when they are confronted by protests and disagreements of the constituency, they will simply react violently."

Analysts point to the continuing crackdown on liberal voices in the media, and the harassment and arrest of presidential allies as examples of what Mr. Khatami and his reformers face.

Political analyst Mehrzad Boroujerdi of Syracuse University in New York says simply, the Iranian leader has to choose his battles carefully. So far, Mr. Boroujerdi adds, he has avoided provoking his conservative opponents early on in his second term by not naming radical reformers to the Cabinet.

"I don't think there is any end in sight, in terms of factional fighting, that is going to take place here," says Mr. Boroujerdi. "They are trying to hurt his prestige and show Khatami himself and the Cabinet as being incompetent, or as people on whose watch basically more anarchy and cultural freedoms have increased."

For now, Mr. Khatami's top priority is to revitalize Iran's battered economy. But, according to Georgetown University Associate Professor Daniel Brumberg, that will depend on overcoming resistance to opening Iran up to more foreign investment. "The early tests will be trying to pass laws to enable foreign investors to have more involvement," he says. "And the debate over some of his Cabinet choices is more involved. And, the debate over cabinet choices reflects an interesting coalition of conservatives, as well as some reformists suspicious of that agenda. But absent that sort of approach, he is not going to be able to make much progress."

For Mr. Brumberg, pushing economic reforms too fast could also hurt the very people whose support President Khatami needed to win his second term. "The paradox that Khatami faces is that, if he were to move more quickly on the economic reform agenda, and would impose the kinds of stringent reforms found elsewhere in the Third World, he might alienate many of the young people who are in fact supporting him," he says. "That's because, these young people might pay the social costs of a reform program that would cut jobs and lead to more inflation."

Economists say Mr. Khatami has some leeway in the short term, because of extra income generated by high oil prices. But they predict his supporters will quickly lose patience, if the economic situation does not improve soon.