The supreme leader of Iran calls it a "religious duty" to vote in
Friday's presidential election.
But that declaration, issued by Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, is
one of the few nods to Islam in an election that caps a period of
extraordinary political change here. Though outgoing President
Mohammad Khatami is widely chastised and even despised today by
friend and foe alike, his eight-year tenure and its agenda of
reconciling Islam with democracy now shapes every aspect of Iranian
Mr. Khatami's legacy is often overshadowed by the titanic
struggle in Iran between those who demand change and those who won't
accept it - loosely, Iran's reformists and its hard-line
But today, the words "democracy," "freedom," and "reform" -
ridiculed by the establishment when Khatami first stepped onto the
political scene - are now on every Iranian tongue.
"For conservatives, the political system was a divine thing, but
Khatami brought this divine thing down to earth," says Hamid Reza
Jalaiepour, a top reform strategist. "All candidates are emphasizing
the secular, not the religious."
The race is so close that pollsters predict a second-round runoff
between front-runner and former two-time president Ali Akbar Hashemi
Rafsanjani - a pragmatic conservative - and reform leader Mustafa
Moin, who is aiming to capitalize on Khatami's past popularity.
"I am here to continue the path of Khatami and reform, to take
another step forward for this movement," Mr. Moin boomed to
supporters at a rally this week. "The only way to rescue Iran is
through democracy, democracy, democracy!"
The fingerprints of Khatami's legacy are everywhere, from the
rhetoric of the candidates to the demand for accountability from an
often impenetrable Islamic regime.
"Khatami can take pride [in this election], because everyone is
speaking his language," says a European diplomat, who asked not to
be named. "After eight years, he can claim to have changed political
discourse - about human rights, democracy, and reform. Society has
"He gave people a sense that their voice is being heard and it
matters, that he was bridging the gap between the rulers and the
ruled," says the diplomat. "People felt they could achieve things."
Khatami scored some victories: He cleaned out the intelligence
ministry after operatives were linked to a string of serial murders
against dissidents in 1999.
There have also been striking defeats: Scores of newspapers have
been shut down; reformers have been imprisoned and sometimes
physically attacked by shadowy ideological thugs; and hard-line
factions still control virtually every lever of power here.
Legislation to curb the absolute power of unelected bodies has
been smothered by those very bodies. …