TEHRAN — With but one exception, Mohammad Reza Khatami may be the most popular politician in Iran today. The charismatic physician founded the country's largest new political party, the Islamic Iran Participation Front, last year. This year, he won more votes than any candidate in any of Iran's six parliaments since the 1979 revolution. He's now chief strategist in the new parliament, or majlis, which opened for business in June.
But Khatami isn't threatened by the one exception, for the only man to receive more popular votes in an Iranian election over the past decade is his older brother: President Mohammad Khatami.
The brothers Khatami, 16 years apart, are charting a new course for Iran. Together, they have broken the hold of religious conservatives, who have dominated all three branches of Iran's government since the monarchy ended in 1979. Their ambitious agenda centers on restoring the rule of law and opening up a tightly restricted society to new ideas and the outside world.
But the Khatamis are not breaking from the revolution or denying its past. Reza Khatami's wife is the granddaughter of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the revolutionary leader. Zahra Esraqi, who like many Iranian women kept her maiden name, also embodies the new ways in Iran. As head of a government women's commission, she has played a key role in promoting women's issues--and bringing along the women's vote for the reform movement.
The Khatamis are unlikely politicos. Born in 1959, the last of seven children sired by a prominent ayatollah, Reza Khatami is a London-trained kidney specialist who never dreamed of running for office. His brother, a former culture minister purged for liberal ideas, was shelved as head of Iran's National Library until he emerged as a dark-horse presidential candidate and won in 1997.
As comparative newcomers, they still face daunting obstacles in pushing forward the stalled reform agenda. To ease anxieties of conservative opponents, Reza Khatami ceded the job of speaker of parliament to a centrist politician. But he took the deputy speaker's job.
Between his new political role and an attempt to maintain a medical practice two mornings a week, Khatami says he rarely sees his wife and two children, aged 7 and 14.
"I leave at 6:30 a.m., and I don't get home until 10 p.m. I love soccer, but I don't even get much of a chance to see it on television," he lamented during an interview at his party's headquarters in Tehran. "My only fun these days is politics."
Question: During the election campaign, you pledged that the new parliament would "fulfill the demands of the people." What steps will you take to fulfill those demands?
Answer: The original goals of the revolution were freedom, independence and the creation of an Islamic republic. Today, the most important thing for people is freedom. . . . We want to restore [their basic legal rights], including freedom of speech, press and privacy; the right to go to court, to have a lawyer, the assumption of innocence until proven guilty and a ban on torture; a ban on censorship, surveillance or listening to conversations; and the universal right to housing, free education and free health care. . . . One of the most important priorities of the majlis is to pass some laws that prevent the police forces and informal forces from interfering in the life of the people.
Q: How critical is a free press to reform in Iran?
A: Our first priority is to remove the obstacles in the way of the press, which is the symbol of free speech and thought. Unfortunately, the judiciary abused the law. They've struck at the rights of the people. We're also going to pass laws allowing private radio and television. There are many difficulties on this issue, based on different interpretations of the constitution.
The press is very important to us, but we can survive [without the 18 newspapers banned by the conservative judiciary]. The circulation of the [reformist] press was only about 2 million, but more than 30 million voters are with us. We have other forums: some 700 student publications [and] meetings in the cities and little towns. Plus, the majlis' proceedings are broadcast live everyday to the country and the world. Compare current circumstances with those three years ago, when we had only one paper, Salam, which was very conservative. Now we have five daily journals that are more radical than Salam and are still publishing.
Q: Reformers control parliament, the presidency and local city councils. But they all face stiff obstacles, mainly from conservatives who still control the judiciary, the Council of Guardians and the Revolutionary Guards.