First Published: 2003-05-07

Reformists: Open up or face same fate as Saddam

Iran's reformist MPs warn Islamic republic's hardliners to allow reforms, call for normilised foreign relations.


Middle East Online

By Stefan Smith - TEHRAN

Debate over relations with the US remains a taboo

Reformist Iranian MPs made a bold appeal Wednesday to the Islamic republic's powerful and entrenched conservative camp to give way to reforms and normalise relations with the outside world - or else risk the same fate as Saddam Hussein.

An open letter, signed by 153 deputies in the 290-seat Majlis and read out in the chamber, warned that Iran was in "a critical situation" and the establishment risked losing the support of people who had overwhelmingly voted for reform.

And in calling for normalised foreign relations, the letter did not exclude ties with the United States - touching on a taboo topic that is steadily becoming the subject of mounting internal debate.

"The majority of Iranians are waiting for reforms, but have reached the conclusion that their votes are meaningless," the MPs wrote, citing the low turnout in February's municipal elections that saw backers of embattled moderate President Mohammad Khatami suffer an unprecedented defeat.

The reference to voter apathy was coupled with an observation of the course of the US-led invasion of Iraq, during which "the Iraqi people stood by without any reaction during the occupation of their country".

"Following the installation of American forces in Afghanistan and the occupation of Iraq, the threat has arrived at our borders," the letter stated, alluding to Iran's place in US President George W. Bush's "axis of evil".

Calling on Iran's clerical establishment to "attract confidence at home and abroad", the MPs also acknowledged that Iran remained isolated on the international stage.

In an apparent reference to relations with the US - severed after the 1979 Islamic revolution and the subsequent embassy hostage crisis - the MPs called for a "more active diplomacy on the international scene, the objective of which is to normalise relations with other countries".

Iran also has no diplomatic ties with Israel and Egypt, while relations with a string of other countries are fraught with concerns over Iran's nuclear programme, support for foreign militant groups and its human rights record.

Cautious debate over relations with the US - still dubbed the "Great Satan" in hardline circles - has mounted since the Iraq war, even though the topic remains taboo.

On the home front, the MPs said Iran's conservatives - who wield power through legislative oversight bodies, the judiciary and security forces - had no choice but to give in to reforms.

"Once again we insist on the fact that we bring reforms to reduce the gap between the people and the establishment," they wrote, asserting that for a country to "face foreign threats, the people have to support the establishment ..."

"Those who are against reforms should not expect us to remain silent under the pretext that our country is threatened," the MPs wrote, repeating the determination of the reformist-held parliament not to give in to the stiffling of its efforts to open up Iran.

Since being first elected president in 1997, Khatami has seen his brand of "Islamic glasnost" consistently blocked by conservative-run institutions, while legislation from parliament - held by reformists since 1999 -- is regularly shot down by unelected oversight bodies, also conservative run.

The reform movement has also seen scores of its members targeted by the judiciary - another bastion of the religious right.

In turn, conservatives allege that while the reform movement may be popular among the burgeoning youth population, it is undermining the values of the Islamic republic while failing to address core economic woes.

While the letter from the MPs took a cautious step in the foreign affairs debate, the reformist party Hambasteghi (Solidarity) issued a separate statement calling for four-way and direct talks between Iran, the US, the United Nations and Iraqi representatives over Iraq's political future.

Such contacts, the statement said, "could be a prelude" to other contacts.

"There was a time," the party said, "when the United States was a country on the other side of the ocean. Unfortunately, now they are our neighbours on all sides.


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