Iran President Withdraws Key Reform Bills

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) - President Mohammad Khatami withdrew two key reform bills Tuesday, even as an official reviled by reformers as an enemy of press freedom was publicly honored as the "best manager" in the Iranian judiciary - small signs of the waning strength of the reform movement.

The bills, which Khatami announced last month he would remove from further parliamentary consideration, had sought to bring democratic change to Iran's religious theocracy. Abandoning them was an acknowledgment of the failure of a major reform battle advanced during Khatami's presidency.

One of the bills was aimed at increasing presidential powers in order to stop constitutional violations by unelected hard-liners. The other sought to bar the hard-line oversight body, the Guardian Council, from disqualifying parliamentary and presidential election candidates.

Khatami withdrew the bills in a letter addressed to the parliamentary speaker, Mahdi Karroubi. The letter was read Tuesday in an open session of parliament and broadcast live on Tehran radio.

"One and a half years ago, in the hope of providing a ground for fair elections and to defend the basic right of the people ... and to give president the power to enforce his responsibilities stipulated in the constitution, I presented the bills," Khatami said in his letter.

The Guardian Council, which vets all legislation, rejected the parliament-approved bills in April and May 2003, saying they were unconstitutional and against Islam.

"Since there is possibility of more changes against the spirit of the bills in the future, I demand withdrawal of both bills from the parliament," Khatami wrote.

Also on Tuesday, Iran's unelected clerics honored one of the biggest enemies of Khatami's reform program: Saeed Mortazavi, a former judge and now Tehran prosecutor who was behind the closure of about 100 pro-democracy publications. Mortazavi was praised as "best manager" in the judiciary.

Reformers have described Mortazavi as the "killer of press freedoms" for the closures and for jailing dozens of writers on vague charges of insulting Islamic sanctities.

Iranian television showed a smiling Mortazavi receiving the award from top judiciary official, Abbas Ali Alizadeh. Alizadeh is also known as an opponent of democratic reforms.

In recent years, Khatami's image has changed from leader of a once hugely popular reform movement to a weak president afraid of standing up to unelected hard-liners.

When he said in March that he would withdraw his key reform bills, the soft-spoken president warned Iranians they should not expect too much from him. Unelected hard-liners, he said then, have relegated the president - constitutionally No. 2 to the supreme leader - to little more than a coordinator among institutions.

In his seven years as president, Khatami has been at loggerheads with Islamic hard-liners who have clung to power despite their unpopularity. Early on, he was able to engineer modest reforms that relaxed the country's strict Islamic laws and allowed greater media freedoms.

But after Khatami's second-term victory in 2001, hard-liners bulldozed his reforms.

Khatami's main challenge has come from Iran's unelected supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whom hard-liners look to for leadership. Khamenei has the last word on all state and religious matters.

Hard-liners easily retook control of the Majlis, or parliament, in February elections boycotted by reformists who said they were rigged to allow them no chance of winning. Without the parliament, Khatami and his Cabinet lost a key bastion of support.

"Total failure of Khatami's reforms and awarding of Mortazavi means Iran is moving toward greater totalitarianism and distances away from democratic values," veteran lawyer Nemat Ahmadi said.

Ahmadi said Khatami, whose term expires in June 2005, should resign because there is nothing he can do for Iran.

"There is nothing else Khatami can do. It's meaningless for him to stay in his post as a powerless, weak president. I Hope Khatami resigns so that it registers in history that he didn't deceive his people," he said.