- The Washington Times - Monday, February 21, 2000

TEHRAN Iran's hard-line ruling clergy had wanted merely to spice up the 1997 presidential race when they approved the moderate candidacy of a relatively unknown mullah named Mohammed Khatami.
Instead, Mr. Khatami's unexpected landslide victory set in motion a reform juggernaut that, according to weekend results, was sweeping hard-liners out of the parliament, or Majlis, dealing another blow to their shrinking influence.
If the returns from Friday's parliamentary election continue to favor the reformists, as is likely, it will be the first time the Majlis is free of hard-line domination since the 1979 Islamic revolution brought the clergy to power.
Results had been announced yesterday for 190 of the 290 seats. Winners are listed only by name, not affiliation, but a background check of the candidates showed the winners included 137 reformists, or 72 percent.
Conservatives had taken 44 seats, or 23 percent, and independents had nine seats, or 5 percent. The Interior Ministry, in charge of the elections, will announce the final results when they become known later this week.
Among the losers was former Intelligence Minister Ali Fallahian, whose agents were accused of killing five dissidents in 1998. In 1997, a German court issued a warrant for Mr. Fallahian, saying Iran's highest rulers ordered the 1992 assassination of an Iranian-Kurdish opposition figure in Berlin.
The reform candidates who have promised to create a civil society with individual and political freedoms are riding on Mr. Khatami's success and popularity.
Mr. Khatami's election has been sanctified by the reformist movement. The coalition that seemed to be winning Friday's election calls itself 2nd of Khordad, a reference to the date in the Iranian calendar equivalent to May 23, 1997 when the presidential poll was held.
As a candidate, Mr. Khatami became a magnet for closet reformers and provided hope to the youth and women chafing under the rigid rules enforced in the name of Islam.
To the hard-liners, letting Mr. Khatami run was a blunder. To most Iranians, it was a boon. Here, finally, was a cleric who understood their frustrations and promised something different. He won 20 million of the 29 million votes cast.
So far, Mr. Khatami hasn't let them down. While Iran's foreign policies are little changed, in Iran young men and women now are able to mingle without fearing the Baseej paramilitary forces, who used to enforce Islamic values. Banned satellite dishes are discreetly appearing on rooftops and the mandatory women's head scarves are sliding back to show more and more hair.
Mr. Khatami, a soft-spoken scholar, does not advocate doing away with the Islamic system that came with the 1979 revolution, but his moderate interpretation of the religion has been widely accepted by Iranians, most of them devout Muslims.
More importantly, Mr. Khatami gave Iranians the confidence to criticize the clergy, which saw itself as the interpreter of God's word and beyond reproach. Outspoken newspapers have flourished in his rule.
Until Mr. Khatami's election, presidential races in Iran were stage-managed. The Council of Guardians, a hard-line clique, would nominate the clerical contestants, usually one heavyweight and other unknowns. People had little confidence in the elections and turnout was low.
The 1997 race changed all that. Though an outsider, Mr. Khatami, a former culture minister, was not totally unknown. His main rival, Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, boasted during the campaign that the challenge was welcome. He even quoted a Farsi proverb to emphasize his point: It would nice "to heat up the furnace a little," he said.
After Mr. Khatami's victory, Mr. Nateq-Nouri's boast gave rise to a new joke in Iran. The punch line was: "The furnace became so hot that it burned down the house."
The hard-liners fought back. Using the judiciary under their control, they shut down reformist newspapers. In response, the pro-Khatami Culture Ministry gave licenses to others. The president's allies were jailed by the judiciary; the reformist interior minister was impeached by the outgoing hard-line-dominated parliament; and intellectuals and student groups were attacked by hard-line vigilantes.
But every hard-line blow only made the reformists more popular. Mr. Khatami became a superhero.
Mr. Khatami's main advantage is that he is not an outsider trying to vanquish the system, but an insider trying to change it.
As it became clear over the past few months that people are bent on change, the hard-liners have also started backing down.
The Council of Guardians, which screened all candidates for the parliamentary elections, allowed hundreds of reformers to run. In previous elections, it had rejected liberal candidates on specious grounds.
The council, which also screens legislation, is unlikely to block the new parliament for fear of angering the people, said Mohammedreza Zohdi, editor of the independent Arya newspaper.
He said supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, although a hard-liner, will be loath to resort to extraconstitutional methods. Doing so would allow reformists to accuse him of violating the sacrosanct ideals of the Islamic revolution's founder, Ayatollah Khomeini.

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