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In Iran, hopes rise among the reformers

President Khatami wins big Friday. Will he now challenge conservatives?

By Cameron W. Barr Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 11, 2001


A country long vilified by the US as a source of terrorism and instability in the Middle East, Iran is becoming a hotbed of democracy.

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President Mohamad Khatami's resounding re-election victory this weekend will likely auger continued friction between his reform-minded supporters and conservative Muslim clerics who are ensconced in power and eager to preserve the status quo.

But the vote's clearest result, say analysts, is that Iranians are committed to the ballot box as a means of social and political change. In Mr. Khatami's first presidential race four years ago, as well as in more recent parliamentary and municipal elections, Iranians have overwhelmingly backed reformist candidates.

Khatami's latest triumph - he won nearly 77 percent of the vote - is at least a partial endorsement of both his policies and Iran's electoral system. Voter turnout dipped sharply compared with four years ago, but that is more likely a reflection of popular frustration with slow reforms than disenchantment with democracy.

"Iranian politics will remain competitive politics no matter what," says Farideh Farhi, an Iranian political scientist at the Middle East Institute in Washington.

The late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini christened Iran an "Islamic republic" in 1979, but the key issue animating this country's politics is how to negotiate the contradictions inherent in the term.

As Khatami noted in a statement released yesterday, "What is necessary for our today and tomorrow is to strengthen and deepen a system of democracy and to realize the rights of the people in the light of religion."

As it stands, governing this nation "in the light of religion" has created a power structure that is not easy to fathom at first glance. The president and parliament are directly elected, but neither is the repository of ultimate power.

In a system devised by Khomeini and known in English translation as the "rule of the Islamic jurist," the country's highest office is a Supreme Leader chosen by an elected Assembly of Experts.

The Supreme Leader controls Iran's security forces, judiciary, and broadcasting authority. Only two men have held the job in the republic's 22-year history, Khomeini and the incumbent Ali Khamenei.

The Supreme Leader and the parliament choose the 12 members of the powerful Guardian Council. The Council vets all legislation and vetoes what it doesn't like. Anyone wishing to stand for the presidency, the parliament, and the Assembly of Experts must win the approval of the Council, which also has the final word on election results.

Defenders of the system consider it "perfectly democratic," in the words of Taha Hashemi, a cleric close to both Khatami and Supreme Leader Khamenei. "If you're going to write laws, and you want them to be Islamic laws," he explains, "you're going to need Islamic experts" in official positions.

But "Islam" isn't a neutral value - it has to be interpreted by someone, and the interpretations employed by most of the clerics in positions of power strike many Iranians as too restrictive. They chafe at what they say is a lack of personal and political freedom.