Khatami Faces Tough Battles in Leading Iran


Young people were celebrating in the streets of this capital city Saturday evening, chanting Mohammad Khatami's name as though he were a sports hero. Political reformers were gathering to lay out plans for building on his electoral juggernaut.

The euphoria in the Iranian president's camp only intensified with each ballot counted, as it became clear that in polling Friday, Khatami not only matched his 20.7 million votes of four years ago but exceeded them, winning 21.7 million of the roughly 28 million ballots cast, according to figures provided by the Interior Ministry early today. It was a plurality certain to add credibility to his reform agenda.

But even before the tally was complete, the sobering responsibilities and inevitable consequences of Khatami's sweep began to sink in: Public expectations are extraordinarily high, perhaps too high, at the same time that hard-line conservatives are wounded and already signaling their intent to lash out.

"If expectations go too much beyond Mr. Khatami's capacity to respond, that could create chaos and problems," said Mohammed Hadi Semati, a political scientist and advisor to Khatami's campaign.

"The second major challenge is from the conservative camp through a backlash," Semati said. "I think it is going to be a fight as usual. That is the reality of it."

Even before the polls closed Friday night, it was evident that Khatami's old foes had not folded up their tents and gone away. The conservative-controlled Guardian Council, which must certify the vote tally, alleged problems with the election, suggesting that this supervisory body's powerful appointed members will try to whittle down Khatami's margin of victory.

"There were numerous irregularities that went against the interests of the people," said council spokesman Gholamhossein Elham, adding that there was "the loss of many voting slips." The Interior Ministry, which is loyal to Khatami, immediately denied that there were any problems.

The same type of low-grade confrontation was already simmering on the streets. A group of about 40 toughs showed up at the door of a student campaign office along the Modarres Expressway that was funded by the Khatami camp. After screaming and making intimidating gestures, the group headed off down the street.

"Naturally, those who are losing power, they will resist," said Taha Hashemi, a cleric and founder of the first moderate conservative newspaper in Iran. "But it's very important how the reforms are implemented: Radicals on both the right and left should also be included in the process."

When Khatami was elected four years ago, catapulted from virtual obscurity to the country's highest elected post, he promised to lead the nation toward social, political and economic reforms. Instead, he found himself thwarted at nearly every turn by the appointed religious councils, which have the power to block legislation and overturn all decisions by the elected government. He did succeed in relaxing the social atmosphere--an important quality-of-life issue--and in winning broad acceptance for the idea that further reforms were needed.

This time, Khatami's aides say he must make more concrete moves if he is to satisfy a weary, frustrated--and demanding--electorate. The president will first try to build a government and appoint ministers of his choosing, free of the outside pressure of more conservative forces. He will look to building a strong team of economic advisors to help prop up the sagging oil-dependent economy.

Several advisors to Khatami said his main priorities will be to create civil structures, such as a stable system of political parties. One of his main priorities, the advisors said, is to transform Iran into a nation ruled by law, where all citizens, regardless of their position, are held accountable. On a practical note, that would mean, for example, that judges could no longer shut down newspapers on a whim but would be restricted to a legal standard.

But Saturday, those close to the president were already working hard to reduce expectations. In the next four years, they said, the best that can be hoped for is modest success--and that's an awareness Khatami will need to convey to voters to avoid a backlash from the left.

Several supporters of the president said they believe that the nation's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has indicated that he will be more supportive of Khatami this time around in part to prevent widespread disappointment that could undermine the whole regime.

Nevertheless, all of the president's options, including an attempt to reconcile right and left, are complicated by one of the basic facts about present-day Iran: It is an Islamic republic, and its leaders' goal is to build a democracy based on religious principles.

Difficulties arise because this Shiite Muslim community is not single-minded in its interpretation of its faith. In a debate that goes back almost to the beginning of Islam, there is a divide between those who believe that the proper way to observe the faith should be dictated by religious authorities and those who believe in individual interpretation. This has a direct bearing on how the system of governance operates, as Khatami tries to move toward a system that allows for greater individual freedom and as conservatives try to maintain their control.

The bright side of the massive voter turnout, Hashemi said, is that it demonstrated that the majority of the public supports Khatami's moderate message, one that accepts religion as a part of the government but believes that it should not stand in the way of individual freedoms. The most optimistic scenario, he said, is that these Iranians will be able to set an agenda that radicals from neither the right nor the left can undermine.

"Certainly, there is a middle group, where they believe religion is something private but that it can have a role and a social presence," Hashemi said.

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