Elusive in Iran: Real Power

Campaign promises made it sound as if utopia were just around the corner.

An Iran led by moderate cleric Mohamad Khatami, voters were told, would bring change. Tough Islamic restrictions would be eased - especially for women - and the gangs of bearded ideologues enforcing them would be replaced with the rule of law.

Jobs would be created, and Iran's isolation from the outside world would end.

With such promises ringing in their ears last May, Iranians delivered a 70 percent landslide victory to Mr. Khatami. No elected leader in Iran has ever enjoyed such a mandate. But slow progress is raising doubts about Khatami's ability to control Iran's complex political system.

Those who cast their ballots with such high hopes for change - the young "children" of the 1979 Islamic revolution, who chafe at the hard-line rhetoric of the clerics and idolize the West - are becoming disillusioned.

"Things were getting better, but now they are worse. It's a bad sign," says Maryam, a student whose lacy black head scarf hides a pair of gold earrings. They indicate a rebellion against clerical rule shared by many of her peers.

She and her friend, also called Maryam, both voted for Khatami. Her friend sees the regression every day during the 20-mile bus ride to Azad University.

The women once were rarely harassed. But since the election, the bus is stopped three or four times each way by basijis volunteers and Ansar e-Hizbullah "Partisans of God," who are self-appointed to enforce strict Islamic dress codes. Any exposed hair, bright lipstick, or fashion-conscious lace brings a rebuke.

"Khatami has done a lot for the young people," Maryam says. But noting the conservative backlash that has brought militants onto the streets to reassert their power, she adds: "These restrictions are worse now, because the hard-liners want to ruin Khatami's reputation."

So far, it appears, right-wing elements are doing just that. Iranians have new nicknames for their leader, calling him the Smiling Nun or the Emperor's Consort "because he is relegated to opening flower shows."

An unexpected obstacle appears to have come from former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, whose support was critical in ensuring Khatami's victory, but who has leaned to the right to head an increasingly important "Expediency Council."

This has created a troika of rulers led by Iran's conservative spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

By many accounts, President Khatami is a distant third in the power lineup.

"The establishment lost the election, but they have not lost power," says a senior Western diplomat in Tehran. "Khatami has been artful in talking up his mandate, but he's not a politician, and so far he has been widely checkmated - or at least checked."

On Sunday, Khatami raised hopes of an eventual US-Iran reconciliation further than any other Iranian leader since the revolution, speaking of a "thoughtful dialogue" that would bring the two peoples "closer to peace, security, and tranquillity."

That comes in stark contrast to recent America-bashing by Ayatollah Khamenei.

But many analysts say that in the current power struggle Khatami is racing against the clock - and the staying power of high expectations.

"The problem is that Iranians are on the side of the strongest," says another Western diplomat. "Khatami won, but if he doesn't keep up the momentum it will be dangerous, because the people will turn against him. Here, the father who does not impose himself is disdained."

Still, says Mahmoud, a bookseller tending to a canvas stall, "we are very happy with Khatami." He displays a picture of the president for whom everyone he knows voted. "We have to give Khatami a chance," Mahmoud says. "We're almost sure he will make progress. I don't think the conservatives can stop him, because the people are behind him."

For the moment, Khatami is trying to fuel such hopes with rhetoric. At the opening session of the Islamic conference in Tehran last Tuesday, for example, Khatami's tone was soft, in marked contrast to tough words from Iran's spiritual leader. Khatami said that "citizens of the Islamic civil society enjoy the right to determine their own destiny" and that government "is the servant of the people and not their master."

The election was largely portrayed as a referendum on clerical rule, and even liberal Iranians were surprised by the degree of public outrage.

For the "children of the revolution," the vote represented an important swing of the social pendulum back from the clutches of hard-liners.

"Half the population is young, and they don't have the same values," says one upper-middle-class Iranian. "They have [still illegal] satellite TV. They have 'Westoxicated' themselves, and they have spent enough time under these restrictions. Not even 5 percent of the people still truly believe in the revolution."

The revolution, in fact, "was a good thing," the Iranian adds, because it showed the limits of clerical rule. "Mentally, people have grown a lot [since 1979]. They are fed up with war and don't believe in religion anymore. Even religious people say we can make no progress under clerical rule."

Subtle forms of dissent are so widespread that illegal modern music coming from the exiled Iranian community in the United States - known as "L.A. music" because so many Iranian-Americans live there - is often played in taxis and in homes. Despite strict prohibitions on alcohol, illegal moonshine is widely concocted.

"We live two lives here," confirms another Iranian who asked not to be identified.

High hopes in Khatami are also partly due to the maturity of those who overthrew the pro-West regime of Shah Mohamad Reza Pahlavi in 1979. Students who then took to the streets at the request of the father of the revolution, the still-venerated Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, today don't appreciate their daughters being given a hard time by ideologues.

Some changes seem apparent under the Khatami regime, however. People speak more openly about the problems and weaknesses of their government, and the president says he does not want his picture hung in every shop and office. Khatami also abolished the president's personal slush fund.

Analysts say he has brought a more "humane" language to political discourse in Iran, and he has maintained the common touch by dropping unannounced into supermarkets, receiving ovations.

Even the "supreme leader" has taken a leaf from Khatami's populist book to improve his stern image as a hide-bound scholar. The day after Khatami visited a hospital, in one case, Khamenei did exactly the same.

Khatami's biggest worry, though, may be the new role of former President Rafsanjani, who one diplomat notes is a "Machiavellian, power-oriented, skillful political chess player." The Expediency Council he now heads acts as a shadow government, and includes many former Cabinet members rejected by Khatami.

Called one of the "last icons" of the revolution, Rafsanjani, who himself once had a repuation as a moderate, "has been at the center of gravity since the revolution. As speaker of parliament, then president, and now head of the council, he has carried that personal power with him," says a senior Western diplomat.

"He can only make himself indispensable, like a referee," he adds. The council "is not a popular reflection of power, but includes groups with a high capacity for disturbing things."

Khatami has been moving forward, slowly, since his Aug. 3 inauguration, and few are willing to write off him - or his promises of a liberal renaissance - yet.

Parliament approved all 22 of his Cabinet recommendations, after heated debate. And two weeks ago, Khatami appointed a committee to examine constitutional reform.

Last week, Iran accepted the Chemical Weapons Convention, which opens the country to intrusive searches and requires an accounting of all chemical weapons - a favorite subject of American lawmakers concerned with the possibility of secret weapons programs in Iran.

The move was "a victory for those who believe Iran can benefit from being part of the world," says a Western diplomat.

But one of the most influential critics of the regime inside Iran, Abdulkarim Soroush, says that in many respects Khatami's hands are tied: "He is surrounded by many restrictions and limitations, and is not powerful enough to implement his policies," he said in a rare interview.

Mr. Soroush, who was involved in the early days of the revolution, has since turned against the "divine right," unexamined rule demanded by most Iranian clerics. He has been stripped of his titles, and when he dares to speak publicly, his lectures are violently broken up by pro-government militants.

Such hard-liners, he says, "are not willing to take the message of the elections" and allow Khatami to carry out his mandate for change. But he is still hopeful: "To borrow from a Marxist phrase, 'Time is not on their side.' "

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