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Iran's new regime opens doors of power to women

Tehran - Iran's new president, Mohammad Khatami, and his Cabinet had an audience with the country's supreme leader yesterday on the first working day of the new administration. At the meeting with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was a vice- president whose appointment has caused waves throughout the country and beyond: Masoumeh Ebtekar, the first woman to serve in a top government position since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution.

Ms Ebtekar, 37, who has a doctorate in immunology, served on the editorial board of the newspaper Kayhan International and was acting head of the central committee of Iran's non-governmental women's organisation. She represented Iran at the World Women's Conference in Nairobi and Peking.

Hojatoleslam Khatami, a moderate Shia Muslim cleric, named Ms Ebtekar on Saturday, meeting expectations that he would allow women into high positions in his administration. She will also head the Environmental Protection Agency.

Hojatoleslam Khatami also named other vice-presidents: Mohammad Baqerian, Mohammad Ali Najafi, Mohammad Hashemi and Abdul wahed Mousavi-Lari. Hojatoleslam Khatami was sworn in on 4 August after winning a landslide election victory in May which he owed to the votes of women, the young and the middle class, who saw him as being able to inject fresh freedoms into the strict Islamic state.

The message from Hojatoleslam Khamanei yesterday was one of welcome, but also caution. "Khamenei expressed his satisfaction with the start of the new government's work, hoping that with fresh strength, high morale and solidarity it will fulfil its crucial duties in the best way, leaving a good mark in Iran's history," state television reported. But the supreme leader also stressed the need to observe Islamic values, and resist dominance of "arrogant powers" especially in the field of "cultural invasion". Earlier yesterday Hojatoleslam Khatami and his ministers visited the shrine of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to pay respects to the leader who deposed the US-backed Shah in Iran's 1979 revolution.

Several ministers on Saturday took over in ceremonies at key ministries. Significant appointments by Hojatoleslam Khatami include the new Culture Minister, Ataollah Mohajerani, a relative liberal, and the Foreign Minister, Kamal Kharrazi.

The US is showing cautious signs of interest in the new regime. "To the extent that the election of President Khatami and the approval of his cabinet indicate that the will and welfare of the people of Iran will be reflected by its government, we would welcome that," said a State Department spokesman. But US conditions for dialogue with Iran include agreement by Tehran to discuss its alleged support for terrorism and pursuit of nuclear weapons and its hostility to the Middle East peace process. Iran insists Washington must drop the terrorism charge.

Iran's exiled opposition and many Western scholars say the "moderate" image is a sham and that neither Hojatoleslam Khatami nor any government he appoints have power to change Iran's foreign policy, which is controlled by Ayatollah Khamenei and by anti-Western elements loyal to him. On Friday Ayatollah Khamenei appointed the outgoing foreign minister, Ali Akbar Velayati, as his adviser on international affairs.

A prominent cleric, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, told a prayer meeting on Friday that "Governments come and go but our principles stay intact. These principles are Islam, Islamic revolution and not giving in to Israel and America as long as they treat us with hostility."

One of Hojatoleslam Khatami's earliest foreign-policy challenges will be to reach agreement with the European Union for EU ambassadors to return to Tehran. They were recalled as a result of a German court ruling which accused Tehran of ordering political killings abroad.