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The Wall Street Journal
Interactive Edition
May 24, 1997

Moderate Iranian Cleric Leads In Presidential-Election Vote

Associated Press

TEHRAN, Iran -- A moderate Iranian cleric headed toward a landslide victory Saturday in a presidential election that promised to set back hard-liners' efforts to impose stricter Muslim social codes. His conservative opponent conceded defeat.

Mohammad Khatami, a former culture minister with wide support among the young, won about 65% of the votes counted so far in Friday's election, Iranian radio reported.

His challenger, Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, trailed with 29%, according to the preliminary results cited by the radio.

"I congratulate your election by the people as president," Mr. Nateq-Nouri said in a message read over Iranian radio. "I pledge to use all my resources in cooperation with you."

No one expects Mr. Khatami to bring fundamental changes to Iran's foreign policy or clergy-dominated politics, but his victory would be a setback for hard-line mullahs who have ruled since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

The hard-liners, who want stricter enforcement of the Muslim code that bans everything from dating to satellite TV dishes, backed Mr. Nateq-Nouri, the country's powerful parliament speaker.

With more than 17 million ballots counted, Mr. Khatami had more than 11 million votes to Nateq-Nouri's five million, the radio reported.

If the preliminary results hold up, Mr. Khatami would receive the needed majority to become president, succeeding Hashemi Rafsanjani, who steps down in August after two four-year terms.

If no candidate wins a majority, a runoff between the top two vote-getters will be held next week. Final results were expected Sunday.

The election was a showdown between hard-line and moderate factions inside the ruling Muslim clergy and many Iranians had suspected that the conservative clergy backing Mr. Nateq-Nouri would do everything possible to stop a victory by Mr. Khatami.

Senior, influential clerics, who have considerable sway over Iran's deeply religious population, had declared it forbidden to vote for Mr. Khatami. And Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country's supreme leader, had tacitly supported Mr. Nateq-Nouri.

Outside a grocery store in western Tehran, ecstatic proprietor Haj Asghar Tehrani passed out sweets -- a traditional form of celebration -- and said he hadn't slept all night waiting for the results.

"This is a blessed day. I am happy not only because Mr. Khatami will become the next president, but also because our votes are being tallied correctly," he said.

Workers stopped to buy boxes of sweets to give to their colleagues.

Mohammad Razavi, the owner of a publishing house in Tehran, said he voted for Mr. Khatami "because of his good work in the past."

"When he was minister of culture we had few problems with things like censorship. Now we have many," said Mr. Razavi, 31.

Mr. Khatami's supporters hope he will bring a more relaxed interpretation of Islam to the presidency. Mr. Khatami enlivened Iranian cinema and literature during his 11 years as culture minister, but he was forced out in 1992 by Mr. Nateq-Nouri's hard-liners, who accused him of being too permissive.

By gaining the support of the youth, Mr. Khatami has succeeded in bringing into the Islamic fold a generation that was not even born at the time of the revolution. More than half the country's 60 million people are under the age of 18.

The election, the first since the revolution in which Iranians had a real choice, generated an excitement greater than at any time since the revolution overthrew the U.S.-supported shah.

Mr. Nateq-Nouri's backers had depicted Mr. Khatami as a pro-Western cleric not sufficiently committed to the revolution. His backers say he wants good relations with Western nations -- except the United States.

So many voters turned out to vote Friday that closing time for polling stations was extended for four hours. Anyone over 15 was eligible to vote -- about 33 million people.

Turnout results were expected to show some 25 million out of an electorate of 33 million had voted.