Bellowing hard-line slogans, 20 or so bearded youths in black
shirts and checkered scarves appeared from nowhere on motor bikes
to disrupt a rally in support of Iran's popular president, Mohamad
"Khatami, shame on you, give up your reforms," they shouted as
they sped toward a cleric (not Khatami) who was addressing the
small crowd. He quickly fled in fear, shepherded into a nearby van
by a few frightened intellectuals. The Islamic vigilantes shouted
insults and shoved other participants before melting into the
distance with a squeal of tires.
In an otherwise calm campaign, the ruckus highlighted the tension
that is growing as Iranians prepare to vote for a new president on
While there is little doubt that the poll will install Mr.
Khatami for a second four-year term, looming issues remain for this
nation of 65 million people.
Iran is at a pivotal moment. Twenty-two years after a revolution
that installed a conservative Islamic form of government, its very
underpinnings are challenged by the forces of globalization,
demographic change - two-thirds of Iranians are under 30 - and
secularism. Iranians of all stripes are struggling to define
democracy within an Islamic system.
Khatami, a moderate cleric, says Iran must liberalize that system
or risk alienating the people altogether. While some opponents say
he is too radical and some say he is too cautious, the majority of
citizens support him.
Khatami was swept to power four years ago with 69 percent of the
vote. But despite his huge popularity, he has operated more like an
opposition leader than a chief executive. Ultimate power under the
Constitution lies in the hands of the supreme clerical leader,
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who in the last year has increasingly
supported the president's opponents. While Khatami has eased the
social atmosphere and preached greater freedom of expression and
religious democracy, his opponents kept a grip on key power
centers, including the judiciary, security forces, state
broadcasting, and a conservative body that can veto legislation by
the reformist-dominated parliament.
His conservative opponents fear that his drive to liberalize the
Islamic system could sweep it away altogether. Some even portray the
broad-based reform movement as an unwitting fifth column of the
United States, which is supposedly bent on trying to undermine the
foundations of the Islamic Republic.
Reformers argue that the very popularity of Khatami - a middle-
ranking cleric with impeccable religious and revolutionary
credentials - gives the Islamic system its legitimacy. They argue
he is the last best chance for a religious system that faces grave
dangers if it is not reformed.
That was a warning Khatami himself delivered in a recent election
address on state radio: "Any effort to disappoint the people will
backfire," he said. "If our people cannot reach their demands within
the Islamic system, God forbid, they may turn their back on the
system and look ... somewhere else."
Many already are. Secularization is now a social movement in
Iran, analysts say. Some reformist clerics have even called for a
separation between mosque and state - a step Khatami does not
support. They fear religion has been tarnished by its involvement
in politics - especially because the Islamic system has failed to
deliver a better lot economically for most Iranians, which was one
of the promises of the revolution.
But most Iranians have no memories of the 1979 revolution or what
life was like under the shah. …