But can he deliver?
From "Iran's Vote: A Good Start, Nothing More" by Kenneth R. Timmerman, published in
Wall Street Journal-Europe's editorial page on May 27, 1997. Timmerman is the publisher of The Iran Brief, a monthly investigative newsletter on strategy and trade, and serves as Executive Director of the Foundation for Democracy in Iran.
The overwhelming victory of a purportedly "moderate" cleric, Hojjat-ol eslam Mohammed Khatemi, as Iran's President on May 23 has generated euphoria among Iran's youth and professional classes. Their votes contributed to giving Mr. Khatemi an 3-1 edge against his conservative, anti-Western rival, Hojjat-ol eslam Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, who as Parliament speaker launched a crackdown against Western dress, drafted a law toÝban satellite dishes, and purged Iranian universities last year of thousands of teachers suspected of harboring "liberal" or pro-Western sentiments.
The majority of Iran's 60 million citizens were born after the 1978-1979 revolution, and clearly they are fed up with the stifling social environment perpetuated by the clerical regime. That is the overwhelming message of these elections. The Iranian people have voted for greater freedom, and for more rational government.
What is astonishing is that the regime allowed these elections to occur at all. Indeed, it was never supposed to have been a real election. As in previous races, the ruling elite pre-selected their candidate (Mr. Nateq-Nouri), and instructed the state-run media to support him massively. Mr. Nateq-Nouri was portrayed as a statesman at every turn, opening factories, inaugurating dams, traveling to Russia and to India, while Mr. Khatemi was virtually ignored. Out of 238 individuals who filed candidacy papers (including 9 women), only 4 were finally allowed to run by the Council of Guardians, a group of 6 clergymen and 6 laymen hand-picked by the regime leaders. In the past, this has allowed the Council to pick not only the President, but to pre-select most of the 270-member Parliament as well.
As a former Minister of Culture and a member of the ruling elite, Mr. Khatemi was allowed to run. But just to make sure his candidacy did not take off, the leadership launched a smear campaign in the national media, labeling him a "Liberal" - as much an insult in the Islamic Republic of Iran as it is in today's America.
When that failed to dampen Mr. Khatemi's campaign for change, hard-line supporters of the losing candidate, known as Ansar-e Hezbollah (Friends of the Party of God), tried repeatedly to disrupt the campaign, breaking windows in mosques where Mr. Khatemi was holding election rallies. Mr. Khatemi's cool-headedness prevented further violence by these agents provocateurs, which could have degenerated into widespread clashes across the country and forced a cancellation of the elections. In the end, it would appear, the regime caved and allowed the elections to proceed, knowing their preferred candidate would go down.
In his last intervention before the elections, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamene'i warned officials against rigging the vote - a move seen by many Iranians as a tacit admission of defeat.
"What this vote shows is that the civil society in Iran is much stronger than anyone anticipated," says Farouk Negadar, an exiled left-wing publisher in Britain. "This is why all the foreign analysts and the exiles were wrong about the outcome of the vote. To some extent, that civil society can counterbalance the efforts of the ruling totalitarian elite."
The question now is whether Mr. Khatemi can deliver the change desired by Iranian voters. Many Iranians inside Iran think not. "We are not that interested in this election," said one female student at the University of Tehran who was interviewed by a reporter from the Sunday Telegraph. "As far as we are concerned, it hardly makes any difference. Khatemi is better than Nouri, but it is the difference between bad and worse." Neither of them would do anything to lift the strict dress code, she said, which requires women to wear black robes and heavy head scarves to hide their hair.
In addition, Mr. Khatemi will have few powers as president. In theory, he will be allowed to name a Cabinet; but the Parliament, which will continue to be run by Mr. Nateq-Nouri, can reject ministerial nominations and fire ministers later if they are displeased with their rulings. Mr. Khatemi himself must report to Supreme Leader Ali Khamene'i, who has made it clear that he has no intention of altering the Islamic Republic's anti-American foreign policy, or its support for "freedom fighters" in Lebanon and Israel who continue to launch terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians. Mr. Khatemi will also have to answer to outgoing President Hashemi-Rafsanjani, who was named by Ayatollah Khamene'i last month to head a special panel known as the "Council on Expediency," which can overturn presidential rulings and laws passed by Parliament, if it deems them not to be in the interest of the Islamic Revolution.
Mr. Khatemi's election has excited some Western businessmen, who see an end to U.S. sanctions against Iran. These sanctions are aimed at denying the Islamic Republic access to Western high-technology, which it has used to enhance its ballistic missile, nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs, and at restricting Tehran's ability to rebuild its oil industry since that is its primary source of hard currency. They do not interfere with the import of foodstuffs, medicines, or consumer goods, since they are specifically aimed at the regime, not the people of Iran.
The United States and the West need to take a long, hard look at Mr. Khatemi's public record and his campaign promises, and carefully put his election into perspective. But more than anything, we need to monitor Mr. Khatemi's actions once he takes over as president, which is currently scheduled to occur in August. Mr. Khatemi needs to demonstrate that he is committed to - and has the power to enforce - meaningful changes of his regime's behavior, including an end to training and financing foreign terrorists, and the dismantling of the regime's domestic repressive apparatus, which is responsible for the murder of tens of thousands of Iranian dissidents. In the meantime, the West should not leap at straws, mistaking the craven hopes of the oil lobby, which see an opportunity to cash in, for real democratic change in Iran.