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Late last month I made my first visit in 22 years to Iran, where I had covered the Islamic revolution under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini as a Japanese newspaper correspondent. Some conspicuous changes in the country attracted my attention.

First of all, vehicular traffic in the city was flowing smoothly. Previously, the city was plagued by severe traffic jams, and I would come across the sites of a few traffic accidents every day. Now the city is covered by a network of freeways, and there is little traffic congestion. Not once did I see accident-damaged cars on the roadside.

The city is also served by a subway system that was under construction with Chinese technical aid when I was there before. The Middle East’s first subway, whose fare is only 500 rial (8 yen) per section, is popular among the citizens and is always crowded.

I also noticed prominent displays of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s portraits, along with pictures of the late Ayatollah Khomeini, at the country’s airports, hotels and other landmarks. Only once did I see a portrait of President Mohammad Khatami, who won a landslide victory in the last presidential election — in the lobby of a hotel in Siraz, a provincial capital. Despite his popularity among the public, Khatami is overshadowed by the powerful Khamenei.

Amid growing speculation about power struggles between reformists under Khatami and conservatives under Khamenei, legislation to prevent abuse of power by the conservative-controlled judiciary branch was presented to the Iranian Parliament. The day after I arrived in Tehran, the English-language daily Asia headlined the top story: “Majlis (Parliament) to review bill giving greater authority to president.”

Local news reports said the Khatami-proposed bill would stipulate job suspension of up to three years for judiciary officials who ignore warnings from the president against infringement of the constitution. The bill also would set up a special tribunal in the Supreme Court to mediate rulings that the president regards as unconstitutional. The panel would consist of legal experts named by judiciary authorities, Parliament and the Cabinet.

When re-elected in the 2001 presidential election, Khatami garnered 77 percent of the votes. Reformists control 60 percent of Parliament’s seats, and most of the Cabinet members are reformists. However, the Guardian Council, made up of conservative clerics, has final authority on legislation and rejects most bills aimed at restoring civil liberties.

Furthermore, conservatives have been using judiciary and security authorities under their control to suppress reformists since the 2000 parliamentary election. They have prosecuted members of Parliament and banned reformist newspapers.

The constitution prohibits a third term for the president, and Khatami clearly hopes to accomplish more reforms in the remaining three years. Toward that end, Khatami intends to curb abuse of power by judiciary authorities, who have restricted the freedom of political activities and speech, by expanding presidential power.

The proposed special tribunal is the centerpiece of the pending legislation. Khatami apparently hopes that, within the tribunal, reformist members of Parliament and the Cabinet will overwhelm conservatives in the judiciary branch. Officials of the Guardian Council, however, have reportedly criticized the planned tribunal as an intervention into the affairs of the judiciary branch.

The reformist-dominated Parliament is likely to enact the bill, but the Guardian Council is expected to veto it. Reza Khatami, chief of the Islamic Iran Participation Party and vice speaker of Parliament, is demanding a revision of Iranian election law that allows the Guardian Council to screen candidates for parliamentary seats. The younger brother of the president argues that the law prevents free candidacies for Parliament, and says he is ready to leave the Islamic system unless his demand is met. The remark is taken to mean he will boycott Parliament or resign as a Parliament member. There is also speculation that Khatami may retire if the bill for expanding presidential authority is enacted.

In postrevolution Iran, intense power struggles continued for several years between President Abol-Hassan Banisadr, an advocate of Western-style democracy, and dogmatists seeking to establish a strict Islamic system. Banisadr eventually defected to France on an air force refueling plane, and liberals and leftists were ousted from Iranian politics. The bill for expanding presidential authority could rekindle even more ruthless struggles.

In the Banisadr years, the governing party held only a minority in Parliament, whereas the current ruling party controls a majority. Khatami, himself a cleric, has a stronger power base than did Banisadr. If Khatami pursues his policies with determination, Khameini, the top conservative leader, is likely to make some concessions.

Iranian reformists and conservatives are also at odds over relations with the United States, suspended since 1980. Conservatives were enraged when U.S. President George W. Bush said in his last State of the Union message that Iran, along with Iraq and North Korea, formed an “axis of evil.” This boosted the morale of the conservatives, who call the U.S. the “great Satan.” Western diplomatic sources in Tehran also say U.S. policy toward Iran is inconsistent and simplistic.

Twenty-three years after the Islamic revolution, Iran is at a crossroads. It must decide whether to remain isolated or join the international community. We should patiently wait for Iranians to make a wise decision.

Unlike Western countries, Japan has never colonized, or intervened in, parts of the Middle East. I hope that Japan will serve as a mediator between the U.S. and Iran as the opportunities arise.

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