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Wednesday, July 22, 1998 Published at 10:17 GMT 11:17 UK

World: Middle East

The battle over reforms

Abdullah Nouri (second from left) was ousted by hardliners

In Iran there has been an important test in the struggle between reformers and conservatives.

Since the progressive Mohammed Khatami was elected President with a huge majority last year, his priority has been to make political and social reforms of Iran's Islamic system.

But he has faced opposition from conservatives. Last month they ousted his interior minister.

And on Wednesday the conservative-dominated parliament voted on the President's chosen successor for the job - a man who has pledged to continue with political and social reforms.

No retreat on reforms

Parliament did finally endorse him, but what does this say about the future direction of Iran?

The Middle East expert Professor Shaul Bakhash, says there have not been any signs that the President and his allies are retreating from reforms.

"The (new) Minister of Interior has set out a programme in which he promises to continue the opening up the political process, to expand civil rights, to allow the rights of assembly and free speech.

"So really the issues in the programme that the ousted Minister of Interior was pursuing, are still on the table," he said.

That presented the conservatives with a dilemma. They knew that Mr Musavi-Lari was firmly behind Mr Khatemi's reforms which they oppose.

But they also knew that a vote against him would defy the huge popular support for the president and his policies that have brought Iranians greater political and social freedoms.

Lesser of two evils So their endorsement of him, says our Middle East correspondent Jim Muir, was the least bad option.

"The lesser of the two evils is to accept Mr Musavi-Lari, to keep tabs on him, to keep him on the defensive as they did with Mr Nouri and basically to congratulate themselves that at least they've embroiled the president in a lengthy side battle that has prevented him from pushing ahead on the reform front."

In Wednesday's parliamentary debate one of the conservative leaders said he would not oppose the nomination of Mr Musavi-Lari as interior minister, in order to avoid tension.

[ image: The Majlis in session]
The Majlis in session
So even though the vote has gone the president's way, this is just one more step in what is a slow process of change.

Despite his huge public mandate he certainly hasn't had things all his own way. Shaul Bakhash says the conservatives have tried to block his progress at every turn.

"I think the strategy has been to chip away at his position and use salami, ie gradual, piece by piece, tactics.

"They ousted his Minister of Interior; the Mayor of Tehran has been on trial and a judgement is expected; they've been criticising the president in Friday prayer sermons and in the newspapers.

"So I don't think they have stopped their opposition to the president's policies at all.

We can only wait and see how long Mr Musavi-Lari will stay in power - he too could be voted out and impeached in the same way as his predecessor.

Shirzad Bozorghmez, the executive editor of the English-language daily newspaper "Iran News", says that what would really help Mr Khatami is success in the forthcoming parliamentary elections.

Sign of new openness

"The interior minister could play a major role in that by putting like-minded people in the Interior Ministry to oversee the election and to direct the election - and thereby the outcome of the election would in some way be affected by the appointment of Mr Musavi-Lari.

"Once enough pro-Khatami members of parliament are in the Majlis itself, then President Khatami could really start implementing his policies."

Each of these political twists and turns are being closely followed by the public in Iran - another sign of the new, more open politics there.

But this is certainly not the end of the ideological clash. Everybody realises that reform in Iran is going to be a very slow process.

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