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NEWS ANALYSIS

Tehran's View of West Could Turn Warmer

May 25, 1997|ROBIN WRIGHT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Mohammad Khatami's upset victory in Iran's presidential election could open the way for the most profound changes inside revolutionary Iran since a brief window opened in the late 1980s after the Iran-Iraq War.

Clinton administration officials, who said in Washington on Saturday that they are "closely watching" the election aftermath, are hoping any internal thaw will spill over onto Tehran's foreign policy. Notably, it could moderate Tehran's anti-Western rhetoric and support for extremist groups, paving the way for a new dialogue between the two countries.

Although Iran's unique type of Islamic government is not expected to change, expectations are already high that its policies--both domestic and foreign--will mellow.

Khatami, a former culture minister linked with the earlier relaxation in the '80s, when war-weary Iran acceded to public demands for moderation, now has an overwhelming mandate to ease restrictions on everything from intellectual debate to female dress, Iran watchers say.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday June 21, 1997 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Foreign Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Religious ruling--In recent editions of The Times, the word fatwa has been incorrectly translated. A fatwa is any legal decision made by an Islamic religious authority.

"Khatami represented himself as a candidate for change. The high turnout and the margin of victory are a huge endorsement of the changes he hinted at," said Shaul Bakhash, a former editor in Iran and now the foremost Iran scholar in the United States.

Iran watchers say they expect Khatami to move gradually. The previous, postwar opening--which included the return of plays by Arthur Miller and Anton Chekhov to Tehran theaters, nail polish and lipstick on Iranian women, and public debate about the role of the clergy in politics--eventually triggered a backlash.

Yet the experts contend that since Khatami was squeezed out of power in that ensuing backlash, he has come closer to understanding public appetites and will feel he can revive the process he helped launch almost a decade ago.

"The majority of voters will feel they sent a strong message to the leadership, and now they will want to see something done about it," Bakhash said.

Foreign policy initiatives will be trickier, despite abundant signs of public interest in renewing relations with the U.S.

To encourage external shifts, the White House issued a statement Saturday reminding the regime of Washington's terms for a dialogue, dead since the 1985-86 arms-for-hostages debacle.

The statement went to great pains to point out that the United States is "not against" either the Iranian people or an Islamic government. Washington is instead concerned about the Islamic Republic's "behavior," it said.

"We need to see if there are real changes in behavior in those areas--terrorism, proliferation, human rights, Mideast peace--which have been the source of our concern in the past," a senior White House official said.

"As we have said in the past, we are open to holding a dialogue with authorized representatives of the Iranian government. If such happens, we would address these issues," the official said.

The mere fact that a perceived long shot won despite open favoritism toward Khatami's main opponent, parliament Speaker Ali Akbar Nateq-Nuri, by the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country's supreme religious leader, was taken as a positive sign in Washington. Some U.S. officials had predicted that Nateq-Nuri would win whether or not he received the most votes.

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Khatami's sudden rise to the top alters the ever-fluid balance of power among Iran's factions. Over the past four years, President Hashemi Rafsanjani has increasingly stood alone as his plans for economic and political liberalization have been undermined by other factions and by Khamenei. Earlier hopes that Rafsanjani's presidency would mark Iran's return to normalcy quickly faded.

Khatami and Rafsanjani could make a powerful pair, Iran watchers say. After leaving office, Rafsanjani will move on to the Expediency Council, an elite body that mediates differences between parliament and the Cabinet and advises Khamenei. In the past, power has always accompanied Rafsanjani, also a former speaker of parliament, in whatever position he has held.

And Khatami's landslide victory is unlikely to give the new president an entirely free hand. In fact, the veneer of democracy that allowed an angry and frustrated electorate to choose him over Nateq-Nuri will also limit his political flexibility, Iran watchers say.

Iran's parliament, or Majlis, which will not hold elections for three more years, is still headed by the man Khatami humiliated in Iran's seventh presidential election--and who may already be looking ahead to the eighth presidential vote. Under Nateq-Nuri, the parliament has been so conservative that it outlawed satellite dishes beaming in CNN and European news shows, American soap operas and Western music videos.

The first indication of Khatami's intentions may be in his Cabinet choices. Washington is particularly watching to see whether Intelligence Minister Ali Fallahian, who has been tied to a string of attacks against American, European and Iranian opposition targets, retains his job.

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