Iran votes for change

Election: The public wants to humanize, not necessarily overturn, the Islamic regime.

February 22, 2000

REVOLUTION against theocratic tyranny in Iran is peaceful, democratic and from within. The parliamentary election Friday showed massive support for the reforms sought by President Mohammad Khatami, reinforcing his 1997 election. He will have a parliament of allies, cleansed of obstructionists.

These votes for personal freedom, political pluralism and economic growth did not come from enemies of the Islamic revolution of 1978, but from its children. They were educated by the mullahs and never knew the Westernized regime of the late shah.

The result is likely to be an improvement in the lives of Iranians, especially in freer speech and less restrictive dress and cultural codes and police surveillance. It does not mean, however, that liberals have won the country, or even that President Khatami would count as one elsewhere. He has not turned against the Islamic revolution but sought to save it with humanity. He may be Iran's Gorbachev; he is not its Yeltsin.

Most important, he is not in charge. The spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, remains in command of state purpose, foreign and security policy. He was anointed by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, elected by senior clergy and is not to be deposed by popular vote. How his conservative establishment will respond to repudiation is an open queston. Several events since the vote tell much about Iran today.

The supreme court upheld the death sentence for a student who agitated for democracy. The oil minister came out against increasing production to relieve prices. And Tehran's six-mile subway was inaugurated, making it the third city in the Middle East to have such an emblem of modernism.

The election was hailed by Russia, Germany, Saudi Arabia and the United States, each with its Tehran problem. This does not mean that U.S.-Iranian relations will improve overnight. Demonization of Washington is probably what the reformers would last change, if they could.

What should result soon is more personal space for most Iranians. Their expectations, however, may prove unrealistic. President Khatami is a moderate in most things, including reform.

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