Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

The Iranian Elections: After the Landslide - the Challenges Facing Khatami

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

The Iranian Elections: After the Landslide - the Challenges Facing Khatami

Article excerpt

The Iranian Elections: After the Landslide--The Challenges Facing Khatami

Andrew North is a free-lance journalist based in London.

To no one's surprise, Mohammad Khatami won a resounding victory in Iran's June presidential elections, securing himself a second four-year term. The only issue that was in doubt before polling day was whether he would break the 20-million votes barrier, bettering his 1997 performance.

He achieved that convincingly, with 21.6 million votes--or 77 percent--of the ballots cast. Even though turnout was lower than in 1997, Khatami's victory gives him what appears to be a powerful mandate to continue and indeed step up his reform program.

It would be naive, however, to expect a sudden turnaround in the fortunes of the reform movement centered on the president. Ever since the February 2000 parliamentary elections, Iran's reformists have been on the defensive. In fact, there are many in Iran who believe that nothing has changed at all, and that things could even get worse for Khatami.

For one thing, Khatami still is operating with the same constraints on his power that he complained about in his first term. The real power remains with Iran's conservative Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the various state bodies he controls: the judiciary, the security services, the army and Revolutionary Guards, and the state television broadcaster, IRIB.

By closing down almost all Iran's pro-reform newspapers and jailing many prominent journalists, the judiciary in particular has been very successful at undermining Khatami's reform efforts. All the conservative-dominated arms of Iran's factionalized government system, however, remain equally determined to resist reform and anything that waters down clerical control of the levers of power.

The continued power of another right-wing element--and therefore thorn in the side for Khatami--was also evident in the immediate aftermath of the election. Clashes broke out in Tehran between Khatami supporters celebrating his victory and members of Ansar Hezbollah, a hard-line Islamic vigilante group.

Recent police moves to clamp down on private parties in the wealthy districts of north Tehran are another potential worry for the reformists. One of the few tangible results of Khatami's first four years in power has been the gradual liberalization of Iran's social and cultural climate.

This has meant women have been able to bend the strict dress code when outside their homes and wear far more make-up and jewelry than in the past and show more of their hair--something they would not have dared do in the past. It has also meant people have become far more outspoken in day-to-day conversation, even as such expression was being curtailed in the media.

Although they have frequently attacked such developments, right-wingers have concentrated their fire on bigger targets such as the press and the reform movement's most prominent figures, like the still-jailed Abdollah Nouri, publisher of the newspaper Khordad, which was shut down in 1999. That may now be about to change, however, and hardliners may be trying to attack what they see as the symptoms as well as the causes of what they view as a virus of liberalization spreading across Iran.

President Khatami at least can count on a reformist majority in the parliament, or Majlis, his supporters say. But the Majlis is just as constrained as the president in what it can do. Any legislation it passes has to be vetted by the conservative Council of Guardians before it can become law.

In some cases, the Supreme Leader has stepped in to curtail parliamentary actions of which he disapproves--such as when he stopped a debate on a press liberalization law last year. Ayatollah Khamenei did surprise the Majlis in late June, when he agreed to allow deputies to scrutinize IRIB's budget--after the speaker had first stopped their investigation. Whether the deputies actually will be able to change the state broadcaster's budget, however, remains to be seen. …

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