TEHRAN, May 25 -- To the outside world, Iran often seems the very essence of totalitarianism, a place of glowering ayatollahs and rigid censorship where unmarried couples risk arrest for sitting together in a park.
But that image has been blurred by results of Friday's presidential election, in which a moderate Muslim cleric, Mohammed Khatemi, scored an upset victory over the candidate of an arch-conservative religious establishment that once seemed invincible.
Khatemi's landslide win over Ali Akbar Nateq Nouri, the speaker of Iran's parliament, followed a lively, free-wheeling presidential campaign that confounded much of the conventional wisdom in the West about the nature of the Iranian regime.
Popular enthusiasm for the election could be read in the turnout: Of 32 million eligible voters, 29,076,070 -- 91 percent of the total -- cast ballots in the contest, according to the report of final results. Khatemi won with more than 20 million votes, 69 percent of the total. By comparison, in the last presidential election, in 1993, the turnout was about 55 percent.
But while Khatemi's victory may have shattered some stereotypes about Iranian politics, it should not be read as a sign that Iran has embarked on a path to Western-style democracy. What it suggests, instead, is a system that is becoming more pluralistic and perhaps more flexible but one that has not abandoned its Islamic and revolutionary underpinnings.
"In no way, shape or form should this be viewed as a vote to change the system," said a Western-trained Iranian academic who supported Khatemi. "But it is a vote for new ideas, new people, more responsive government."
To some extent, that also appears to be the view of the outgoing president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who finishes his second four-year term in August but will retain great influence as head of a newly expanded Expediency Council. (A president is limited by law to two terms.) Ultimate authority in Iran will remain with its spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
At a news conference this morning, Rafsanjani denied suggestions that the vote represented a "protest" against Iran's 18-year-old Islamic revolution, but he acknowledged the public yearning for change.
"I believe that the vote of the people is important and all the officials of this country are going to pay attention, and within the framework of the constitution and Islamic laws, I will pay attention," he said. "Maybe some of the restrictions that had been imposed have been excessive."
Although Rafsanjani is widely believed to have favored Khatemi, who shares his generally pragmatic outlook, Nateq Nouri enjoyed the tacit backing of Khamenei as well as open support from key government ministers and state-run radio and television. For that reason, many Iranians assumed that the vote would be rigged in favor of Nateq Nouri. In the end, however, popular support for Khatemi was so overwhelming that his opponents had no choice but to let the election proceed without interference.
Despite Khatemi's huge popular mandate, there are major constraints on the ability of any Iranian politician to introduce a more liberal atmosphere. Under the constitution adopted after Islamic revolutionaries toppled the pro-American shah in 1979, the basis of Iran's government is the concept of velayat-e-faqih -- rule by an Islamic spiritual leader.
Candidates for parliament and president are screened for their fealty to this concept by the Council of Guardians, a clerical body whose 12 members are named by Khamenei and the parliament. The council has the power to reject candidates without explanation and annul results of elections it does not like -- as it did in several parliamentary races last year. In this year's presidential contest, the council rejected all but four of 238 candidates.
Both Khatemi and Nateq Nouri are loyal servants of the revolution who hold the clerical rank of hojatolislam, one grade below ayatollah. And the rigid ideological standard imposed upon the candidates means that political debate in Iran takes place within a very narrow range.
Just as politicians in Washington have learned to run from accusations of liberalism, their counterparts in Iran are careful to avoid any suggestion of openness to the West. Both Nateq Nouri and Khatemi laced their campaign rhetoric with warnings against U.S. "hegemony" and Western cultural influence and pleas for stronger economic ties with Third World countries.
Because the language of Iranian political discourse is so constrained, voters have learned to read between the lines. When Khatemi, for example, speaks in his campaign platform of the need to counter "superstition and fanaticism," Iranians hear it as a plea for greater cultural freedom. When he calls for an end to "eavesdropping" on private conversations, they hear it as a criticism of the Iranian police state.
Khatemi, a former culture minister, also was perceived as more broad-minded than his rival because of his relatively permissive attitude toward books, films and music before hard-liners forced him from the job in 1992.
Nateq Nouri, by contrast, was identified with religious hard-liners who are resented by many Iranians for failing to solve Iran's economic problems. And he suffered from accusations that he wanted to require Iranian women to cover themselves with the shroud-like black chador, rather than the scarf-and-raincoat ensemble that many now favor.
Although the distinctions between the two rivals might seem trivial to the outside world, they resonated with Iranians, who saw in them larger indications of the candidates' attitudes toward social freedom and openness to the outside world. Since the revolution, the outcome of previous presidential elections has never been seriously in doubt. But in Friday's contest, Iranians felt they had a genuine choice, which is why the campaign was such a lively one, and why they turned out to vote in such overwhelming numbers.
Khatemi owes much of his success to the young in a country where half the
population of 60 million is under 18. Indeed, because the voting age is
15, many voters in Friday's election were not even born at the time of
the 1979 revolution and have little regard for its slogans. "Youth has
been very influential in bringing Mr. Khatemi to power," Rafsanjani
acknowledged at his news conference.
"New attention should be paid to this force."
In his first public statement since Friday's vote, Khatemi said he hopes he is worthy of its outcome, and he pledged to uphold the rule of law.
@CAPTION: Mohammed Khatemi will take office in August.
@CAPTION: Outgoing President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, right, who could not run for a third term, meets with President- elect Mohammed Khatemi. Rafsanjani will retain influence as head of a newly expanded Expediency Council.