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Restless Time for Iran's Moderates

April 29, 2001

Iran has a presidential election scheduled June 8, but so far the country's most popular figure is not saying if he will be a candidate. President Mohammad Khatami, who four years ago won a crushing electoral victory, has until next week to announce his plans. There is no doubt he could be easily reelected. His problem, as his frustrating first term has made clear, is that he has been unable to govern. The president lacks virtually all executive power. Authority is concentrated in institutions dominated by conservative Islamic clerics who at every turn have blocked Khatami's promised liberalization of social and political policies. Supporters of reform, some personally close to the president, have been jailed and in some cases charged with capital crimes.

The hard-liners, led by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, accuse their opponents of being part of a pro-Western "fifth column" that seeks to undermine Islamic and revolutionary values. Most Iranians are weary of the invasive restrictions imposed in the name of those values and of the measures taken to suppress dissent and coerce dissenters. In the past year at least 36 newspapers and magazines have been shut down. Scores of journalists, politicians, intellectuals and students have been arrested. Some have been killed.

If Khatami runs and wins in a landslide he could claim at least a moral mandate for his positions. Unless the clerics modified their opposition to all reform, popular anger and frustration would increase.

The issue isn't just a lack of freedoms but the revolutionary regime's failure to significantly improve living standards for Iran's 63 million people, a majority of them born after the 1979 overthrow of the monarchy. By official figures, 40% of Iranians live in "absolute and relative poverty." Rising oil revenues have yet to make much difference in the lives of ordinary people.

Some of Iran's more enlightened clerics are said to see the need to relax harsh policies, a view that conservatives continue to oppose. With their control over the armed forces, the judiciary and the Revolutionary Guard, the hard-liners seem convinced they can hold on to power. The expression of popular will scheduled for June 8 might well shake that confidence.

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