Iran's hardliners tighten their squeezePARIS - As a Persian proverb says, "Never two without three." After receiving two hard and insulting slaps in one week by the conservative-controlled majlis, or parliament, beleaguered Iranian President Mohammad Khatami suffered a personal blow when one of his closest allies and oldest friends decided to leave the cabinet.
Hojjatoleslam Mohammad Ali Abtahi, the vice president in charge of parliamentary and legal affairs, announced on Monday that he had submitted his resignation from the government and was waiting for the president to accept it.
A jovial middle-rank cleric with an unusual sense of humor and a penchant for sarcasm, Abtahi, who is in his 40s, explained that he had not been able to fulfill his job of coordinating the actions of the government with the new majlis, one that he had sharply criticized when it came into power in May thanks to the mass rejection of reformist candidates by the leader-controlled Council of the Guardians, a 12-member body empowered to vet all candidates for elections in the Islamic Republic.
"For some time I have reached the conclusion that given the differences between my political viewpoints and those of the parliament, I cannot fulfill my responsibilities," the outspoken Abtahi told the semi-independent students' news agency ISNA, referring to his previous attempts at leaving the government weeks after the inauguration of the new parliament.
A fearless critic of the hardliners with whom he often clashed, Abtahi was the first official to disclose that Canadian-Iranian photographer Zahra Kazemi had been murdered in custody after her arrest in June 2003, triggering a series of head-on confrontations between the leader-controlled judiciary and the executive branch of government.
Abtahi's decision came a day after the majlis, during its October 3 session, impeached by a large majority Road and Transportation Minister Ahmad Khorram, charging him with mismanagement, corruption, abuse of power, a spate of road and air accidents and favoring foreign firms in handing out government contracts.
The impeachment, considered a hard blow to the embattled president, was seen by most analysts, including Abtahi, as addressed not to the minister but to Khatami himself, and aimed at giving the so-called reformists their last shot.
The ousting of Khorram, the first minister to be impeached by the hardline majlis, took place while Khatami was in Algiers, the first leg of his tour of Algeria, Sudan and Oman, triggering a wave of harsh criticism, including among his own followers, accusing him of "betrayal".
Critics said that Khatami decided to leave the country to escape the difficult task of personally defending Khorram, also accused by the army of having endangered the nation's security by awarding a foreign firm, the Austrian-Turkish consortium Tepe Aftken-Vie (TAV), the handling rights of all services at the half-built Imam Khomeini International Airport (IKIA).
Inaugurated officially in May, the US$500 million IKIA had to be closed to air traffic just hours later by the armed forces, which suspected that TAV had contracts in Israel, the existence of which the Iranian ruling ayatollahs do not recognize.
The closure raised many questions, above all who ordered warplanes, one Russian-made MiG-29 and one aging Phantom F-14, to seal the capital's airspace and escort incoming international flights to other airports, including one in Esfahan, central Iran.
Under the Iranian military command structure, such decisions are made by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who, as the leader of the Islamic Republic, is also the supreme commander of the armed forces. "The question is simple: if someone except Khamenei can order military planes [to] take off, this person can also have access to the atomic button, the day the regime has its nuclear weapon," warned one political observer.
Similar charges were leveled against the minister in charge of the awarding of a contract to TurkCell, the Turkish company that won the bid to become Iran's second mobile-telephone operator.
Parliament's fist major affront to the now virtually powerless president was dealt on September 26 when lawmakers adopted a bill that forced the government to seek the authorization of the hardline-dominated majlis for all major contracts with foreign firms. Significantly, it was made retroactive to include the deals with both TAV and TurkCell. However, after officials informed the majlis that the cancellation of the agreements would cost Iran billions of dollars in damages and compensation, the majlis decided to exclude the Turkish firms.
This row broke on the eve of an official Khatami visit to Ankara, so cabinet decided to postpone the trip until the majlis has made up its mind on the controversial law, which a visibly angry president had described as "unjust and against the constitution", a law that not only paralyzes the actions of the government but also discredits Iran in the international arena and scares away the very few foreign investors willing to risk their money in Iran.
"This law, even though adopted with a tiny majority, would leave no respect for the president of this country. Will it not tell the world that one cannot sign any deal with the government of Mr Khatami? With all the enemies, the atomic problem and international economic pressures against Iran, will not the smoke of paralyzing the government and humiliating the president and his cabinet in the face of the world got directly into the eyes of the Iranian people?" Abtahi asked, writing on his personal Internet weblog www.webnevesht.com.
Government spokesman Abodollah Ramazanzadeh confirmed that Abtahi had discussed the issue of his resignation with Khatami, but added that he did not know whether the president had accepted it or not. But at the same time, he hinted that Khatami himself intended to stay in office until the end of his second and final term, due next May.
Abtahi served with Khatami when he was placed in charge of a Shi'ite mosque in Hamburg before the start of the Islamic Revolution of 1979, and has remained with him ever since, following Khatami in the now-hardline daily Kayhan, then in the Islamic Culture and Guidance ministry, in the National Library and finally in the presidency, where he held the post of the president's secretary during Khatami's first term from 1997-2001, before being made a vice president.
Analysts say Abtahi's confrontation with the majlis had reached a critical point, and even if he had not resigned, lawmakers would have forced Khatami to boot out Abtahi, one of their most hated opponents.
Though Khatami has seen other close friends and confidants, such as Hojjatoleslam Abdollah Nouri, his first Interior minister, and Ayatollah Mohajerani, in charge of Islamic Culture and Guidance, forced to leave the cabinet, the loss of Abtahi will cause Khatami to lose even more public respect, pundits predict.
According to observers, what the hardliners are doing is drying the roots of the reformism movement, and sowing in their place the seeds of neo-conservatism, a movement best embodied in Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the head of the Assembly for Discerning the Interests of the State (ADIS, or Expediency Council), and Hojjatoleslam Hassan Rohani, the powerful secretary of the Supreme Council on National Security and Iran's senior negotiator on the country's controversial atomic project.
Safa Haeri is a Paris-based Iranian journalist covering the Middle East and Central Asia.