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Iran's Khatami Faces Uphill Battle to Increase Powers

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami could be heading for a showdown with his conservative opponents over proposed legislation that would give him greater control of, among other things, Iran's hard-line judiciary. The Iranian president's opponents are accusing him of trying to create a dictatorship.

President Khatami has proposed two laws that would give him greater authority to push forward political, economic and social reform in Iran. But his proposed legislation is drawing criticism from conservative clerics, politicians and newspapers, who accuse the president of attempting a power grab that would make him a dictator.

On Sunday, Mr. Khatami hit back at his conservative opponents accusing them of being afraid of greater democracy. Speaking to the Iranian parliament he said if Iran is to become concerned about dictatorship it should look to the country's non-elected institutions, which he says, are not accountable and have the power to violate constitutional law.

In Iran the president is elected by popular vote while the country's constitution is interpreted and applied by judges who are answerable only to Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei. The same is true of Iran's conservative Guardian Council that has the authority to decide who can run for office.

The two proposed laws introduced by President Khatami would give him greater authority to penalize judges who overstep the constitution and would also limit the veto power of the Guardian Council.

In September a nationwide poll suggested Mr. Khatami enjoyed support for his reforms from 61 percent of those who were surveyed.

In the past, Mr. Khatami has threatened to resign if his reforms are blocked.

But Iran analyst Ahmed Menissy of the al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies here in Cairo says political conservatives in Iran recognize President Khatami's popularity. Mr. Menissy says as a result conservatives have, in some instances, moved closer to the Iranian president.

Mr. Menissy says Iran seems to be suffering from a split between the state and the society. He says the state remains conservative while the society is more reform minded. That split, he says, is rapidly developing. Mr. Menissy says, at first glance, the situation appears to be catastrophic for the conservatives. But he says because some conservatives have been reforming their positions, the gap between the society and the state has not yet reached a critical level.

Mr. Menissy says President Khatami is not interested in overthrowing the Islamic clerics. Instead, he says, the president wants to create greater reforms that are acceptable within Islamic law.

While addressing parliament Sunday, the Iranian president said the Islamic constitution prevents him from becoming a dictator because he must answer to the people, the parliament and the supreme leader, who has ultimate control over all state issues. He said only dictators fear democracy.

Mr. Khatami's proposed bills are expected to be approved by parliament, where reformists hold a comfortable majority.

But, they must then win the approval of the Guardian Council, which Mr. Khatami criticized during his speech. Several Iranian members of parliament have threatened to resign if the bills are rejected.