President Khatami of Iran offers to resign if people want him t

Sunday, July 13, 2003

TEHRAN, Iran -- Iran's besieged president said he would resign if Iranians -- dissatisfied over his failure to deliver promised reforms -- want him to, according to press reports Saturday.

Mohammad Khatami's offer to step down came amid continuing attempts by ruling hard-line clerics to stymie his reform agenda and deepening public discontent over the country's slow pace toward democratic change.

"We are not masters of people but servants of this nation. If this nation says we don't want you, we will go," Khatami was quoted as saying by the government-owned daily, Iran.

He made the comments in a speech in Karaj, west of the capital, Tehran, on Thursday, but the state-run television and radio censored the part about his possible resignation.

Thousands of Iranian's held nightly protests for a week last month, railing not only against their usual targets -- Iran's hard-line Islamic establishment -- but also against Khatami over his failure to introduce greater political, social and economic freedoms.

Khatami also came under attack from liberals, including prominent philosopher Aldolkarim Soroush, who accused him of failing to push for reforms since his May 1997 election.

"The peaceful and democratic uprising of the Iranian people against religious dictatorship in May 1997 was a sweet experience," Soroush said in a letter to Khatami.

"But your failure to keep the vote and your wasting of opportunities put an end to it and disappointed the nation. Now, failures have turned into unrest," Soroush said in his letter, whose authenticity was confirmed by his relatives.

Soroush was referring to last month's student-led protests against the ruling Islamic establishment and the continued arrest of student leaders and writers.

On Wednesday, hundreds of riot police and plainclothes agents dispersed more than 2,000 people gathered in front of Tehran University on the anniversary of a 1999 police raid on a student dormitory that killed one person and injured at least 20.

The raid triggered six days of nationwide anti-government protests, the biggest and most violent since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

The liberal-minded Khatami's hopes for a compromise with hard-liners have been thwarted in recent weeks after the hard-line Guardian Council, which vets all parliamentary legislation, rejected two key reform bills presented by the president.

Those bills would have given greater powers to Khatami to stop constitutional violations by hard-line opponents and barred the Guardian Council from arbitrary disqualification of candidates in legislative and presidential elections.

"We have to approve the qualifications of various candidates. If the people feel the program they vote for meets obstacles, then they will not participate in the elections," Iran quoted Khatami as saying.

Vice president Mohammad Ali Abtahi said he believes hard-liners will reject the bills.

"I've lost my hope that the bills will be approved. Although we continue to talk to the Guardian Council, hopes are slim," Abtahi was quoted as saying in Thursday's the English-language Iran Daily.

Khatami has repeated in recent years that he has been powerless to stop hard-liners violating the constitution and acting against voted reforms.

The closure of more than 90 pro-democracy publications in the past three years, the arrest of dozens of prominent intellectuals and writers and closed trials without jury were open violations of the constitution, he said.

The president also has said he was responsible under the constitution to stop such violations, but the hard-line judiciary has ignored his warnings.

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