- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 6, 2001

Next Friday, Iranians will re-elect reformist President Mohammed Khatami in another nationwide show of disapproval for the conservative clerics who still run that country.
The outcome of the presidential election is not in doubt. Although nine conservative hard-liners are opposing Mr. Khatami, none stands a chance of defeating him. This poses political dangers for the president if voter apathy diminishes his victory.
No one expects Mr. Khatami to repeat the 70 percent landslide he scored in 1997. But he must win big. He needs an overwhelming show of support to revitalize his cautious program of democratic change, which hard-liners have stymied with a campaign of arrests and closures of pro-reform newspapers.
The popular mandate is one of the few weapons Mr. Khatami has in his political armory against the might of the conservatives, who control the judiciary, the intelligence ministry and the 12-man Guardian Council, which vets laws and office-seekers for their adherence to Islamic tenets.
The conservatives are not popular with Irans youthful population, but their control caused Mr. Khatami to agonize about running for re-election. He kept the nation guessing for months about his intentions and recently complained of having gone through "a tunnel of various crises and tensions."
"As I passed through this tunnel, I had two major preoccupation: to avoid turmoil and to make sure to make good on my promises to the people," he said.
"We have a long way to go to full democracy. What is important is for us to pay the price for it and not lose direction. Our journey to democracy is irreversible. There is no way of return."
Such talk is anathema to the conservative mullahs headed by Irans supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. They have denounced Mr. Khatamis "culture of liberalism" for permitting newspapers to question the efficacy of religious government and encouraging women to break social taboos against "immodest" dress and cosmetics.
Women, in fact, are Mr. Khatamis biggest supporters. Thanks to his government, they are beaten less often for impropriety, mix more freely with men in public and enjoy greater equality than in many Gulf Arab states. They can study, work, vote, drive, travel without their husbands permission, get a divorce more easily and practice almost any profession except judge or president.
They also can run for political office. A record 518 women contested last years parliamentary elections and 12 won seats. Although Khatami appointed only one woman Cabinet minister, they expect him to appoint five more.
Reformers now dominate Irans Parliament but any laws they pass can be vetoed by conservative clerics on the Guardian Council. Mr. Khatami himself wields little executive power and appears helpless each time the mullahs accuse him of betraying the 1979 Islamic revolution. He has been unable, for example, to prevent hard-line judges from closing down some 40 pro-democracy publications and jailing journalists, writers and political activists.
His openings to Washington also have resulted in little more than academic and sporting exchanges. Relations with the "Great Satan," a national security concern, still are guided by the mullahs.
The Clinton administration tried to start a dialogue with Iran but was rebuffed at every turn. The Bush administration has indicated that it is not interested in dialogue until Iran improves its behavior meaning it stops acquiring Russian missiles, nuclear technology and other weapons of mass destruction and stops bankrolling Lebanons Hezbollah and extremist Palestinian groups waging war on Israel.
Iranian assets remain frozen in the United States and the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act is likely to be renewed before it expires Aug. 5. Secretary of State Colin Powell has described Iran as "a nation with tremendous treasure, all the potential to enter the international marketplace and be successful. Yet it continues to hang onto a political ideology that is really not relevant to the 21st century."

Holger Jensen is a nationally syndicated columnist.


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