As reformer exits, who will lead Iran?

Iranians go to the polls Friday to choose a successor to President Mohammad Khatami.

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 life.

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 conservatives.

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 been transformed.

"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. And as the logjam deepened, the man widely deemed "too nice" for his job, never carried out his threats to resign.

"The culture of political murder is gone - [Khatami] did it bravely, and took them on in public," says the diplomat. "But there is a more profound failure of his promises of a democratic society and rule of law. His supporters expected him to take on the hard-liners and win, and he didn't."

Instead, during crucial moments that tested Khatami, such as the violent student revolt that was brutally suppressed by the regime in 1999, the president did little to intervene.

So critics accuse Khatami, in moments of crisis, of siding with Iran's system of velayat-e-faqih (rule by an unelected, supreme religious jurisprudent) over the voice of the people.

Khatami defended his own legacy this week, claiming that the "perceived dichotomy between liberty and religion has been removed," and adding that "at least some segment of the ruling system [can] even be fairly criticized without fear.

"Although criticisms may still have costs," Khatami said, "the mentality is such that all are in awe of the prevailing freedoms."

While the view from the conservative side is that such freedoms have gone too far, even the most hard-line candidates are now vowing tolerance and to permit a degree of freedom once deemed heretical.

"Religion is not an obligatory thing: We show [people] the way which is good, but it is up to them to select it - we don't impose it," says Hamidreza Taraqqi, a member of the fundamentalist Islamic Coalition Society and editor of the Shoma magazine. Not long ago, such language was rare in right-wing circles.

Still, divisions within the reformist juggernaut - galvanized by massive election landslides for Khatami in 1997 and 2001 - have also given ammunition to hard- liners and complicated Khatami's effort to harness that mandate. The most radical reformers want an end of velayat-e-faqih, a treasonous offense in Iran.

Still, reformists have been made to "recognize and understand the power" of velayat-e-faqih, and are not trying to "destroy" that authority, asserts Taraqqi. "This is political progress."

On the reformist side, that change looks like a betrayal - and they blame Khatami. But many are also grateful to the smiling philosopher-cleric for the new political environment.

"People say he didn't use our power to challenge the conservatives, but Khatami planned a lot of things that will grow up later," says Isa Saharkhiz, a reformist newspaper editor. "Eight years ago, when Khatami talked of democracy and freedom, [conservatives] said: 'It's a bad word, no one should talk about it.' Now they are all using it as their own propaganda."

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