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Iran: Does Presidential Election Signal An Historic Turning Point?

  • Stuart Parrott



London, 7 November 1997 (RFE/RL) -- A conference on the future of Iran was told yesterday that the presidential elections in May, in which some 30 million people voted, was the most significant event since the country's Islamic revolution almost 20 years ago.

Baqer Moin, head of the Persian/Pashto desk of the BBC World Service, said the landslide victory for President Mohammad Khatami was a statement by the younger generation of their desire for change and ultimately for the democratization of society in Iran.

Khatami, a 54-year-old moderate cleric and a former politics lecturer, is a marked contrast with other post-revolutionary Iranian leaders. He has set a new political agenda by speaking in favor of a free market, the emancipation of women, more cultural and social liberty, and a lifting of curbs on the press and political activities.

Moin said Khatami has set the tone for communicating with an increasingly alienated but dynamic younger generation, which has higher expectations and seeks a better life, including improved education, job and housing opportunities. These young people have no time, he said, for "the long-winded sermons" of the conservative Right in Iran with its "rigid interpretation of Islam and support for a paternalistic, centralized and semi-authoritarian religious state."

According to Moin, more people participated in the presidential election than in the revolutionary process itself. Despite the selection of candidates by a non-elected body, the vote took place in a fair manner, reflecting "a degree of maturity in the overall political discourse." He added: "The election of President Khatami could be seen as the first statement by this generation, their desire for change and ultimately the democratization of society in Iran. Not an easy task."

Moin spoke at a conference, "Iran: Looking East or West?," held at London's Royal Institute of International Affairs.

Other speakers said Iran faces both a generational and a demographic challenge. They pointed out that the nation has one of the youngest populations in the world, with 51 percent of its 60 million people under the age of 19. How the leadership deals with the problem, they said, has great implications for the country's post-revolutionary development.

Moin also said: "Much to the displeasure of the leaders who feel more comfortable with an approving, obedient and emotional mob, these young men and women see themselves as participants with their own opinions." Iranian young people have lived with the "abused and tired slogans" of the revolution, such as "Islam, freedom, justice and independence." He said they chose, at the first given opportunity --the May election-- to make the slogans relevant to their own lives.

Before the vote, Khatami pledged he would implement constitutional provisions to create a more tolerant, lawful society; to ensure legal political parties can operate. He also promised that freedom of association and speech would be respected according to the Islamic constitution. Since May, the former minister of culture, has taken some measures to ease the censorship of books and films and given permission for the publication of Iran's first women's daily newspaper, "Zan," to go ahead.

Moin said Khatami's election mandate would have been enough in a Western democracy to run the country according to his electoral pledges. But not within the framework of the Iranian constitution where many non-elected bodies can undermine the elected ones. He said that conservative opponents of Khatami will do their best to topple him and his government, ensuring that they fail to carry out their pledges: "For them any reference to democracy, liberalism and civil society is a deviation from the true path of Islam."

In conclusion, Moin said that as culture minister in the early 1990s, Khatami tried to expand the space for creativity and intellectual growth. "His agenda as president is to ensure that there is space in society for people to grow politically," he said. "Khatami's presidency is a new opportunity and challenge for the Islamic Republic."

The conservatives are helped by their institutional strength in key ministries and institutions, such as intelligence, radio and television, the foreign ministry and the ministry of the interior. One of Khatami's weaknesses is not having his own political party.

Still, Khatami has managed to score some points against the right. The most evident move was the replacement of the commander of the Revolutionary Guard, Mohsen Rezai, who had controlled many military and intelligence activities for the past 16 years. Rezai sided with conservative and hard-line candidates in the election campaign.

Khatami also succeeded in pushing his cabinet through the largely conservative Majlis, the parliament, while his robust defense of his ministers of culture and interior, televised across the country, boosted his reputation as a man who stands by his word.

On the difficult question of improving relations with the West, Khatami has talked of relations "with all countries" on the basis of mutual interest, not excluding the U.S. and Israel, although he criticizes U.S. policy towards Iran. The U.S. has accused Teheran of supporting terrorism and pursuing nuclear weapons, and has warned of sanctions on foreign companies investing in Iran.
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