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Iran's Ruler Says Reformist Victory Is Valid

May 19, 2000|JOHN DANISZEWSKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TEHRAN — Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on Thursday ordered the hard-line council overseeing parliamentary elections to stop questioning the validity of ballots and accept the landslide win by reformers in the all-important Tehran district.

Khamenei's decision ends months of infighting over results of the Feb. 18 election and clears the way for a historic shift of power in the new parliament to reformers, who wish to move the Islamic regime toward increased democracy and civil liberties.

There were indications that the conservative camp had been overruled. Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, secretary of the Council of Guardians, had written to Khamenei that the watchdog panel had found many irregularities in a partial examination of ballots and needed more time to review the rest because it "could not confirm the fairness of the Tehran results."

In reply, Khamenei directed the council to certify the results and quickly declare the victors "in the best national interest." A member of the council later said on state television that the final list of winners could be announced Saturday.

Khamenei's ruling suggests that he is seeking to move toward the political middle in a nation divided between conservatives who have dominated since the 1979 Islamic Revolution and increasingly assertive reformers, led by President Mohammad Khatami.

"Unfortunately, the leader has been identified with the rightist groups," commented political scientist Davod Bavand, who teaches at the National Military Academy. "But last week he tried to assign himself somehow to the middle of the road."

The ruling was in line with a calming speech Khamenei gave last week in which he said that all branches of the state should accept the people's desire for reform, as long as it poses no threat to Iran's Islamic principles.

In a carefully modulated address at Friday prayers that chastised extremists in both camps, Khamenei called on the conservatives and reformers to coexist.

The election results for Tehran had been considered vital to the reformers. Their best-known candidates had run there, led by Mohammad Reza Khatami, the president's younger brother. The unusually long delay in approving the results in the capital had raised concern that the conservatives in the Council of Guardians were scheming to deprive top reformers of their due.

Of Tehran's 30 seats, reformers had won 29, according to the initial count that was carried out by the Interior Ministry immediately after the election.

Due to the partial recount by the Council of Guardians, the scale of victory may change somewhat. The council deemed as many as several hundred out of 3,000 ballot boxes to be tainted by irregularities. Nevertheless, the broad outline of the overwhelming reformist win was expected to remain intact.

With Khamenei's decision, Iran appears to have emerged from a tumultuous period. Outspoken publications have been closed down--the most recent on Tuesday, bringing the total to 17. Journalists, publishers and political activists have been summoned to court and in some cases jailed. A presidential advisor was shot, and there have been sinister rumors circulating of a right-wing coup being plotted against Khatami by elements of the government.

But the more appeasing tone emanating from Khamenei, coupled with his decision Thursday to end the recount in Tehran, leaves the reformers more confident than ever.

"Slowly, slowly, we are bringing this plane in for a landing," said Ali Reza Nouri, a vascular surgeon set to enter parliament if the Tehran results are confirmed. Nouri ran as a stand-in for his jailed older brother, cleric Abdollah Nouri, one of the country's most popular reform politicians.

Reformers, who secured the presidency for Khatami three years ago, expect that the new parliament will provide much more leeway to carry out their agenda: increasing democracy and civil liberties; carrying out economic reforms; and improving relations with other countries, including those in the West.

The reformers will still have to contend with the hard-liners in the Council of Guardians and the judiciary. However, for the first time in the 21-year history of the Islamic Republic, conservatives will not be in control of the parliament.

With the Tehran results added in, there should be about 200 reformers in the 290-member Majlis, or parliament, even though a dozen reformist wins elsewhere in the country have been reversed by the Council of Guardians.

One question is whether the former president, Hashemi Rafsanjani, will still be declared a winner after the recount in the capital. Rafsanjani, who had been the main hope of the conservatives, appeared to have barely squeaked into parliament during the initial vote tally, coming in 30th.

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