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Iran: Prospects For Reform Open Up

  • Ben Partridge

London, 30 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A recent report says the victory of President Mohammad Khatami in Iran's elections last year has given its citizens a sense of their own power they will not easily relinquish, and opens up the prospects for further reform.

Khatami, a moderate Islamic cleric, won an unexpected landslide in the ballot, a result attributed to his strong support from young people and women, voting in a symbolic protest against the rigidities and cultural restrictions of the Islamic revolutionary regime.

Strategic Survey, 1997/98, published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a highly-regarded London think tank, says this was a "vote for a breath of fresh air, a more open culture, and less interference by the state in people's private affairs."

The report says the victory by Khatami, a former head of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance known for his liberal ideas, has in many respects transformed the political scene in Iran.

The report notes that Khatami was only allowed to run in the election -- in which some 30 million people voted -- by the ruling Islamic clique because they expected him to be easily defeated.

The report says the election victory affirmed the evolving nature and growing maturity of Iranian domestic and electoral politics The ballot result also indicated a desire in Iran to move away from the past "bellicose, isolationist and rigid foreign policy positions."

The report says, given Iran's strategic location, and its access to energy resources in both the Caspian region and the Persian Gulf, a return to moderation will bolster regional stability, and help maintain the flow of oil and gas exports to the outside world.

The importance of the Iranian election has been underpinned by two other positive developments. The first was the December, 1997, summit of the Organization of the Islamic Conference in Teheran, which effectively ended Iran's regional and international isolation, and went a long way to repair its relationship with the Arab world.

The second development was Khatami's interview with the U.S.-owned CNN television network in which he proposed cultural exchanges between the American and Iranian peoples as a way to bring down the walls of mistrust separating them. The report says this was a clear attempt to reach out to the American people although, at the same time, he underlined Iran's grievances against the U.S. government, and did not call for a resumption of relations.

Khatami became well-known during his 10 years (1982/92) at the Ministry of Culture for relaxing censorship, a move that made him popular with the intelligentsia, young people and women.

In the election, he campaigned on a popular platform with praise for the rule of law, civil society, and political pluralism. He also spoke in support of individual freedom, economic self-reliance and social justice. His western-style campaign included travel all over the country, broadcast debates, and even an Internet web site.

Young people voted overwhelmingly for Khatami. Two-thirds of the population is under the age of 25, and, since the voting age is 15, many voters were born after the 1979 Revolution. Women also voted in huge numbers for Khatami, seeing him as a man who would extend reforms improving their position, a process that has gained momentum since the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989.

Although voters mobilized effectively in the apparently-free electoral process, Iran still lacks political parties, and Khatami faces powerful opposition, or potential opposition, from groups with entrenched political, economic and ideological interests. The most important opposition groups are in the conservative-dominated parliament, state-supported foundations, the Teheran bazaar, and elements within the military-intelligence complex, including the Revolutionary Guards and the Interior Ministry.

The key post is held by the "Wali Faqih" (supreme leader), Ayatollah Khamenei, who is in a powerful constitutional position with near-dictatorial powers. He has been careful not to appear overly-antagonistic to the popular president, but his sometimes harsh speeches are at odds with Khatami's tolerant positions.

Iran faces many difficulties in its external relations. The U.S. has charged that Iran supports terrorism, undermines the Mideast peace process, and is seeking weapons of mass destruction. But the report says prospects for a reduction in U.S-Iranian tensions are more promising than at any time since the Shah was overthrown.

In Europe, the Salman Rushdie case is still a serious human rights issue and a major obstacle to dialogue. Iran has failed to lift its 1989 "fatwa" calling for the death of the British writer following alleged blasphemy against Islam in his novel, The Satanic Verses.

In conclusion, the International Institute for Strategic Studies report says Iran's internal reform can easily be reversed since it is pitted against an entrenched ideological regime. Even so, although a tug-of-war between reformers and hard-liners can be expected, the prospects for further reform in Iran's domestic politics are "reasonably good."