Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

THE IRANIAN ELECTION: Khatami's Election May Be a Turning Point

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

THE IRANIAN ELECTION: Khatami's Election May Be a Turning Point

Article excerpt

THE IRANIAN ELECTION: Khatami's Election May Be a Turning Point

Was the Islamic Republic of Iran's seventh and most competitive election May 23 a "return of light" to Iran, as one Pakistani Iran specialist wrote, or merely an opportunity for Iran's voters to "choose between bad or worse," as an exiled member of the former Shah's government put it? And did "an unprecedented 88 percent" of voters participate, as Iran's government announced, or was this an "astronomical lie" concealing a turnout of only 16 percent of eligible voters, as claimed by Massoud Rajavi, president of the National Council of Resistance of Iron? And, finally, is Mohammad Khatami, the come-from-behind winner of nearly two-thirds of the votes cast, a "left-centrist" harbinger of "spiritual renewal and social justice," as one admirer has written, or merely a "low-ranking cleric" who "for 10 years" played "a key role in censoring and disseminating false propaganda," and advocated "exporting terrorism and fundamentalism," as Rajavi claimed after the election?

Such contrasting assessments reflect the closed nature of Iran, where there are no resident Western journalists and the "Iran experts" and media personnel who are allowed to visit know that if they report too critically they will lose their access. The differences also reflect two visions of how political change eventually will come to Iran. The view of many Western specialists and of an increasing number of Iranians living abroad is that the change must come from within the regime, as relative "moderates" like outgoing President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and his newly elected successor, Khatami, gradually increase their power at the expense of harder-line conservatives like his defeated rival, Speaker of the Parliament Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri and Iran's Vali-e Faqih (Supreme Guide) Ali Khamenei.

The other expectation, held by members of Iranian opposition groups living abroad like those quoted above, is that peaceful evolution of the regime is impossible. They believe that change will begin, as it did in 1979, with a popular revolt within Iran, at which point opposition groups like the heavily armed People's Mojahedin, based in neighboring Iraq, and the well-funded supporters of the late Shah's son, who lives in the United States, will throw their weight behind the rebels in attempts not only to overthrow the clerical government but also to replace it.

The surprise of the May 23 election was not the clearly expressed desire for easing such oppressive restrictions as the ban on association by unrelated men and women and the strictly enforced dress code for women. Nor was it in the apparent discontent among Iranians with economic favoritism and corruption and the inability of the mullahs of the clerical regime to expand the economy even though the burden of the 1980-to-1988 war with Iraq has ended. All of these had been noted by recent visitors to Iran, although they were not widely reported in the Western press.

The surprise was the apparent honesty of the vote count, which reflected such a clear desire for moderation. However, critics argue that allowing the public to let off steam in this manner buys the regime some more time to try to get its economic house in order, with internal opposition assuaged and Western media criticism stilled.

Nevertheless, initial indications were that the Iranian government intended to control the results tightly, and manipulate them if necessary. Of 288 persons, including 9 women, who sought to run for president, only four were approved to run by the government's conservative clerical Council of Guardians. Of these, all were officials of the clerical regime.

In addition to Khatami and Nateq-Nouri, both 54-year-rids who had studied Islamic theology at Qum and who bear the title hojatolislam, one grade below ayatollah, the other candidates were former intelligence minister Mohammed Rayshari and Reza Zavarei, deputy head of the judiciary and the only non-cleric in the race. …

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