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Khatami: Popular, with Strong Foes

Associated Press Writer
May 24, 1997

An AP News Analysis

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) -- To a nation seeking to unshackle itself from nearly 20 years of rigid religious restrictions, Mohammad Khatami promised only modest changes. But that was enough.

The moderate cleric swept the presidential polls in an election unlike any other: For the first time since the 1979 Islamic revolution that ousted the U.S.-backed shah and installed the clergy, voters had a chance to call for fewer religious dictates.

And they embraced the opportunity, giving Khatami nearly three times as many votes as his conservative opponent. Nearly half Iran's 60 million people -- 90 percent of those eligible -- took part.

Khatami has inspired hope, especially among Iran's youth, a growing and increasingly influential constituency, that his win may finally mean an easing of Islam-based rules and regulations.

But he succeeds another moderate, President Hashemi Rafsanjani, who entered office amid great expectations and in the end was powerless to generate any significant change.

It was the hard-line faction that includes Khatami's opponent for the presidency, Parliament Speaker Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, that prevented any such roll back. In fact, it banned satellite TV dishes and is seeking to tighten codes which, for example, bardating and require that women adhere to Islam's public dress code --covering themselves from head to toe.

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, directly controls the foreign and intelligence ministries, as well as the armed forces. All three were instructed to vote for Nateq-Nouri. This hard-line establishment is likely to greatly constrain Khatami's chance of putting his stamp on policy.

The new president's control over foreign relations also will probably be limited.

The 54-year-old president-elect is likely to try to mend strained ties between Iran and Europe. The European Union abandoned a dialogue with Iran after a German court in April blamed Iran's leaders for ordering political murders in Berlin in 1992.

Iran denied the court's assertion.

However, he said during a roundtable discussion on Iranian television last week, improving ties with the United States, severed after the 1979 revolution, ``would surely not be in our interests.''

The economy is one area in which Khatami may be able to proceed with a relatively free hand -- and he will find plenty to keep him busy. Unemployment is high, and inflation is running at more than 24 percent.

Khatami favors a more centralized government, but he is likely to continue the free-market policies laid down by Rafsanjani.

Rafsanjani and his group of technocrats who backed Khatami in the election are likely to continue to work with the new president in what amounts to a coalition government. Some even believe that Rafsanjani will remain the primary force in the country, pulling strings from the behind the scenes.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Anwar Faruqi has been covering Iran for The Associated Press for almost a decade.