Why Iran's President has Forced a Showdown

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Iranian President Mohammad Khatami

There are few things President Mohammad Khatami likes less than confrontation. Even when Iran's hard-line clerical rulers used their executive authority to turn Khatami's reformist presidency into a punching bag, he rolled with the blows, refusing to publicly challenge their systematic obstruction of his agenda. Until now, that is. On Wednesday, Khatami broke with over five years of fruitlessly pursuing conciliation, issuing an unprecedented legal challenge to hard-liners monopoly on state power. Addressing reporters in Tehran, the president announced his plan to submit a bill to parliament — where his reform policies enjoy majority support — seeking to expand his executive powers under the constitution. And he didn't pull his own punches either, telling the media that hard-liners had prevented him from fulfilling his responsibilities as the Iran's duly-elected president. "My repeated warning on violations of the constitution have been ignored," he said.

Fighting words, and sources in Tehran tell Time that Khatami intends to back them with action — by calling a referendum on the issue if his adversaries use the legislative veto power of the hard-line Guardian Council to block his initiative. A president elected by a solid 70 percent majority on a mandate of reform and democratization is unlikely to have any trouble winning the electorate's endorsement, and the sense of panic in the hard-line camp is evident: Tehran sources reveal that some in the hard-line camp are pressing the unelected spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, to quash Khatami's plan by declaring a state of emergency.

Close allies of the president have long believed the only card he can play, short of calling for mass street protest, is to invoke the constitution. Senior advisors have told him the constitution gives him the power to respond when hard-liners use their control over unelected clerical state bodies to circumvent reforms. The timing of Khatami's challenge signals the extent to which tension has mounted in Tehran since President George W. Bush named Iran as part of an "axis of evil." Hardliners have exploited the security threat implied by Bush's rhetoric to further consolidate their hold on power — sentencing reformist legislators to prison time, closing liberal newspapers, and meddling in foreign policy. Bush administration officials have publicly expressed doubt in the ability of Khatami's reform movement to break the grip of hard-line clerics, and the combination of external and domestic pressures may have prompted him to take the initiative.

Khatami's second term has seen Iranians grow disillusioned in his efforts to encourage accountability, the rule of law and civil rights. Reformists have become increasingly worried that their own popular mandate is in jeopardy, and the absence of tangible achievements in their quest for liberalization may also be forcing them to bring a power struggle they're losing in the corridors of power back into public forums, where they're strongest.

The first skirmish of the new battle will come when the parliament passes Khatami's bill, and it goes to the hard-line Guardian Council for approval. The hard-line clerics who dominate this unelected body have vetoed scores of pro-reform legislation in the past, but the President's bill would place them in a quandary: reject the legislation and risk an explosion of popular protest, or approve it and suffer the inevitable consequences. If their recent track record offers any guide, the Council may duck the confrontation by approving the bill, then seek to undermine its implementation via their control of the judiciary.

By throwing down the gauntlet, President Khatami may be signaling that he has lost hope of pursuing his reformist goals via a consensus achieved behind-closed-doors with the conservative religious leadership. It's a high-stakes political gamble that is likely to restore Khatami's standing among ordinary Iranians, and undermine the hard-liners who cling to the ideology of "revolutionary unity" as the pretext for their unpopular policies — and are therefore terrified of being exposed as being at odds with an overwhelmingly popular president.

Khatami has until now shied away from a direct confrontation, appearing to value the stability of Iran's Islamic political system over a quick march to greater freedoms for its people. But his challenge to the religious authorities suggests he's finally absorbed a message some of his allies have promoted all along — that the reform movement can only succeed if it relies on its primary strength, which is its support on the streets. And on Wednesday he expressed confidence in the victory of his bill. "The Guardian Council can either say a bill is against Islam or the constitution," Khatami said in Tehran. "The bill I'll present is part of the constitution and it is definitely not against Islam."