Iranian President Mohammad Khatami was sworn in for a second term today--three days later than scheduled--after officials settled a dispute between hard-liners and reformers that underscored a potentially explosive struggle for power between the ideological foes.
The latest showdown erupted over appointments to the Guardian Council, an oversight panel with authority to nullify any action taken by Iran's Majlis, or parliament. On Saturday, the reform-controlled assembly had rejected several candidates nominated by the judiciary, saying they were politically biased and inexperienced.
But the subtext of the fight was the question of who will control the future of Iran: elected officials or appointed conservatives. In this volatile environment, the otherwise routine matter of filling vacancies turned into a political crisis when the nation's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said the president could not be sworn in until the parliament accepted the nominees.
The dispute ended after a conservative panel decided Monday night to bend the rules governing the confirmation process and the remaining two posts were filled from among the rejected nominees.
But even with the conservatives successfully flexing their muscles--and the reformers demonstrating their resolve to fight--neither side walked away cheered. Instead, the dispute served only to magnify the weaknesses in both camps and portend a difficult second term for Khatami.
For reformers, despite victories at the ballot box, the battle was a reminder that they do not control the true levers of power in Iran. For the conservatives, it was a reminder that their position is being challenged and their public support thin.
"This will have an undoubtedly regressive effect on Khatami's government in the second term and slow the process of reform, perhaps even more so than in the first," said Saeed Laylaz, an economist and pro-reform editor in the capital, Tehran.
Until Khatami's first victory four years ago, conservatives had held a monopoly on power since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The president's election sweep, with 70% of the vote, was seen as a mandate for social and political change, and he did create a more relaxed social atmosphere in Iran. But his efforts to produce a free press, open the economy and turn control of civil affairs away from the mullahs and toward an elected government were obstructed by conservatives.
The campaign to block reform was so heated and became so personal, with many of Khatami's colleagues and allies harassed, arrested and jailed, that the president described his first term as "a tunnel of crisis" and said he was reluctant to seek a second. But he did run again in June, ultimately outdoing his earlier showing and garnering 77% of the vote.
Such a lopsided victory, however, raised alarms within the president's camp, where there was concern that he could not meet public expectations, that reformers would feel empowered to take on conservatives and that wounded conservatives would lash out.
Those fears appear to be coming true.
The latest confrontation started when the judiciary nominated four lawyers to fill two vacancies on the Guardian Council. The council is made up of 12 members, six appointed by the supreme leader and six nominated by the judiciary and approved by the parliament. This setup was intended to give the council a credibility that would come from having some of its members confirmed by an elected body.
But after the parliament decided to challenge the nominations and reject its presumed rubber-stamp role, the judiciary said Khatami could not be sworn in unless all 12 members of the Guardian Council were present at the ceremony.
At stake was the conservative monopoly over the influential panel and the ultimate role of the parliament to direct the course of legislation. The supreme leader delayed the swearing-in and turned to the Expediency Council--an appointed panel whose role is to negotiate differences between the two bodies. Its recommendation Monday night, which Khamenei accepted, allowed new members to be approved with a simple, as opposed to absolute, majority of the votes. In the second round of voting Tuesday, of 249 lawmakers present, 162 abstained. But two lawyers were ultimately chosen, with Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei receiving 67 votes and Mohsen Esmaili receiving 62.
Times special correspondent Azadeh Moaveni in Tehran contributed to this report.