Iran's Election Surprise

WASHINGTON D.C.: Iran’s revolution is poised to enter a new phase when, later this summer, former minister of culture Mohammed Khatami (who won a stunning upset on May 23 over the heavily favored speaker of parliament) becomes the country’s fifth president. But don’t look for Tehran’s Islamic government to change overnight. Khatami is a Shi’ite mullah whose father was an ayatollah. Moreover, Khatami wears the black turban that signifies his family’s descent from the prophet Mohammed, and served in both the parliament and cabinet until forced from power in 1992.

The various branches of Iran’s complex government -- which is headed by supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who all but announced that he was voting for the parliament’s Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri -- will find it hard to ignore the excitement generated by Khatami in the most contested presidential poll ever. Voter turnout, indeed, was the biggest since the 1979 revolution against the Shah. At his final rally in the 12-day campaign, Khatami’s words encapsulated public anger and frustration: "Our people do not deserve to be poor and ignorant. Our backwardness is not due to natural resources or culture as we have both. The problem is due to the lack of a correct, independent government."

At home and abroad, the expectation is that Khatami’s presidency will be marked by a "kinder, gentler" version of Islamic rule. Khatami’s past inspires such hopes. Until forced from office in 1992 for being permissive, Khatami’s stint in government was marked by the approval of plays in Tehran’s theatre by Chekov and Arthur Miller, the proliferation of livelier literature, including satire, reintroduction of chess (banned because its pieces include a king) and the production of movies with sensitive love and anti-war themes that won foreign film awards. Khatami’s aides now mention such reforms as: legalizing political parties, including opposition groups prepared to work within the system; reigning in the swaggering paramilitary groups and morality police who patrol neighborhoods; loosening restrictions on the media.

Promises of this sort attracted three key sectors of society (who rarely or never voted before) to support Khatami’s election: young people, women, and the middle class. In a country where almost half the population is under 18, and where eligibility to begins at 15, many youths expect a wider and freer range of books, movies, and magazines as well as moves to restore satellite dishes, outlawed in the mid-90s by parliament because they featured foreign news, American soap operas, and western music videos. To attract the young, Khatami was the first Iranian candidate to use the Internet (his address:http://www.Khatami.com), which also made him accessible to the vast Iranian community abroad.