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The Wall Street Journal
Interactive Edition
May 27, 1997

Review & Outlook Opportunity in Iran

A new generation of Iranians sent an emphatic message Saturday to the clerical bigots who've ruled their country for 19 years: Enough! The U.S. might draw a message too: now would be a good time to review Iranian policy with a view toward something more positive and creative.

In Saturday's Iranian presidential election, young people and women voted overwhelmingly for Mohammed Khatami, the only presidential candidate who came even close to responding to their frustrations and their aspirations for more freedom of thought and action. He scored a landslide upset, trouncing by 13 million votes the dour cleric favored by Iran's high priests, Ali Akbar Nategh-Nouri.

Mr. Khatami is a cleric as well, but he offered Iran's beleaguered citizenry a kinder face than they've seen in the past. Primarily, he promised to curb the country's notorious thought police, the omnipresent snoopers who spy on their fellow citizens for evidence of deviance from religious law. Young Iranians find imaginative ways to evade them, but they still are a sometimes dangerous nuisance. Mr. Khatami's promises of greater freedom of expression and protections of human rights seem likely to have the support of outgoing president Hashemi Rafsanjani, who will now head the powerful "Expediency Council," which serves as a buffer between the presidency and the country's top cleric, the Ayatollah Khameini.

Iran's young people--who make up a large proportion of the population--also are afflicted with low pay and high inflation, which limits their chances for marriage and economic independence. While their wishes for a freer and better life are clear enough, it remains to be seen whether they will get what they want. Mr. Nategh-Nouri, head of the reactionary Iranian parliament, made a point of reminding the election victor that he would be expected to uphold Iran's religious laws and constitution.

Ayatollah Khameini is no liberal either. But even in a carefully controlled election in which the four candidates were selected by the ruling elite, Iranians found themselves with a choice and they used it to deliver a blow at the power elite. Give the ayatollahs credit for leaving themselves open to that.

The Clinton administration responded reservedly to the Iranian results. It said in effect that it is willing to talk with a representative of the government about the activities of Iran that trouble the U.S. The four principal ones are Iranian support of terrorist groups, suspected Iranian development of weapons of mass destruction, violations of human rights inside and outside Iran and a disruptive approach toward the Middle East peace process.

That's a heavy burden of charges and clearly not even a smiling President Khatami, with his love of table tennis and the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville, is likely to jeopardize his standing with the still-powerful religious tyranny by capitulating to American demands. But the U.S. is working with Canada and its European allies rather belatedly to try to thresh out a more coherent and cooperative foreign policy toward Iran. A less confrontational approach may well be formulated for when Mr. Khatami assumes office in August.

A whole string of American foreign policy specialists have checked in recently with articles saying that the U.S. policy of unilateral economic sanctions against Iran has been a failure. The sanctions have been so porous that it can't even be claimed with any certainty that the economic troubles that helped produce last Saturday's outcome were in any way attributable to them. The ayatollahs and mullahs undoubtedly would have found ways to wreck the economy in the absence of U.S. pressure, despite the country's oil earnings.

Another point on which there is a rising awareness in Europe and the U.S. is Iran's geopolitical importance. With the collapse of the Soviet Union a vast region of the world, the trans-Caucasus and Central Asia, has turned towards the outside world, seeking to loosen ties with Moscow. Some of the richest regions, such as oil-rich Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan and mineral-rich Uzbekistan, are traditionally Moslem and will probably gravitate toward Islam now that they have thrown off Communism's official atheism. The Islamic Taliban has just chased the last Russian surrogates out of Afghanistan, finally unifying the country after what seemed like an endless war. Pakistan is now in firmer hands. Turkey has been drifting toward Islam.

It is in the interest of everyone in the West to try to guide Islamic countries toward modern, peaceful coexistence with their neighbors. It was argued on this page last week by a former CIA specialist that the best way to do that in Iran is to loosen the sanctions so that American businesses can reenter the country, adding a

liberalizing Western presence. Clearly the Iranian people, having had their fill of the mullahs, now want liberalizing

influences from wherever they can get them.

The new Iranian president will of course have to make some concessions of his own. He must forswear sponsorship of terrorism; a German court found high-level Iranian involvement in murder on German soil. He already is promising improved protections of human rights.

The task of the West is to find ways to reinforce the preferences that the Iranian people have now so clearly stated. If it can do that, it will be helping not only the Iranians but the cause of peace in Western Asia and the Persian Gulf region.