Today's parliamentary elections in Iran will be watched more closely than
any others held since the country's Islamic revolution which overthrew the
former shah's regime in 1979. For the first time in 20 years, there is
explicit competition over the shape of the Iranian State and power of the
Islamic clergy. Among those contesting the 290 seats, a slate of candidates
supporting President Mohammed Khatami favours the freeing of the press, an
impartial judiciary, and limits on the political role of the 180,000 mullahs.
Mr Khatami, 53, was elected by a 69 per cent landslide vote in 1997,
capturing a liberalising sentiment among the young majority of Iran's 63
million people. In office, he has met rigid opposition from older,
conservative clerics grouped around Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who holds
enormous veto powers and some direct controls in the Iranian system. The
pressure for change has not weakened, however, as last year's municipal
elections and the recent defiance by some Tehran newspapers have shown.
Implicitly bowing to this popular demand, the "guardian council" of clerics
and jurists which vets the list of would-be parliamentary candidates for
un-Islamic tendencies has used its powers much less sweepingly this year.
As a result, Mr Khatami has a good chance of finding a legislature that
supports his so-far tentative reforms.
In his younger days, Mr Khatami was an assistant to the late Ayatollah
Ruhollah Khomeini and no-one is expecting him to try to change Iran's
definition as an Islamic state. But his own writings, which explore
church-state relations during Europe's evolution from divine right of
kingship, suggest a belief that the clergy should be confined more sharply
to mosques and religious schools.
For the Iranian majority, this carries the hope of an end to ruinous
economic policies and political tyranny. Iranian women, in particular,
look to the end of petty restrictions on their lives. The hope for
minorities, such as the Baha'i community (two of whose members, Sirus
Zabihi-Maghaddam and Manuchehr Khulusi, are reported to have received
death sentences for their beliefs in the city of Mashhad on February 3),
is for the lifting of an oppression which goes against the true tenets of
Islam. The outside world will be looking for signs of moderation and
dialogue on subjects such as support of terrorism and development of
ballistic missiles, before welcoming Iran out of its isolation.
©Copyright 2000, The Sydney Morning Herald
Page last updated/revised 021800
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