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.
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.
Take freedom of expression. Citing laws prohibiting insult to the state and other statutes, judges have closed dozens of newspapers in recent years.
Hamidreza Jalaeipour, a sociologist and publisher who has had seven publications shut down, estimates that 10 journalists are being held as de facto political prisoners. He cites a revised press law as a top priority for Khatami's second term as well as stronger presidential powers, a more-accountable Supreme Leader, and a less-influential Assembly of Experts.
A young accountant who gave her name as Shadi says she too wants a free press. But "all we want," she summarizes, "is personal freedom." Many women, for example, would like to see changes in laws requiring them to covered-up in public.
Clearly Shadi is one of them. She's wearing a head scarf, but in such a way as to show a fair amount of hair. Her fingernails, toenails, and lips are all painted - a display that would offend many conservative Muslims. Interviewed at a Tehran polling station, Shadi said she would cast her vote for Khatami.
Khatami is himself a cleric and the son of a cleric, which may be one reason why he says he sees no need for fundamental or constitutional changes. But he is receptive to Iranians' demands for greater openness, and a more liberal society and that may account for his devoted following among Iran's youth. In a country where 15-year-olds enjoy the right to vote for president, and where a majority of the population is under 35, that sort of appeal is no small matter.
And where some of Khatami's critics deride him for his caution - "He's driving the car of reform, but he only knows the brake," says economist Fariborz Raisdana - others seem more understanding.
"Given the authority of the president, he has done what he could," says one state-employed engineer who declined to give his name.
The president, a soft-spoken man who manages to be simultaneously mild-mannered and charismatic, also enjoys a reputation for honesty and sincerity. But the political reality is that he was the only real reformer among 10 candidates chosen by the Guardian Council from hundreds of presidential contenders.
The conservatives include clerics, members of the security establishment, and many Iranians who have sacrificed much for their Islamic revolution and don't want to see its values diluted. But their opinions and intentions are less clearly stated than those of the reformers. It is difficult to predict conservative reaction to Khatami's reelection, say analysts.
In remarks released yesterday, Supreme Leader Khamenei, perhaps the leading conservative, praised the country for its "sincere defense of the Islamic system" and "religious democracy."
Mr. Jalaeipour says he is convinced that the conservatives will keep to the political path in an effort to restore a legitimacy already tarnished by resorts to violence. A handful of reform proponents have been assassinated in recent years and one of Khatami's leading advisers was nearly killed last year.
"Those [repressive] forces exist in this society," says Ms. Farhi, the political scientist. "And violence is always lurking in the background."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor