Iranians went to the polls last week in the sixth general elections held since the Islamic revolution of 1979. The ballot was the most fiercely contested since the overthrow of the shah, and for good reason: The stakes could not have been higher. Voters knew that a win for reformers could break the religious conservatives’ grip on society — and they gave them that win Friday. Although Iran will not be transformed overnight — and a radical reorientation is out of the question — the country is poised to break with the past.
Since all the ballots have to be tallied by hand — and over 30 million people voted — final results will not be known until later this week. And since electoral laws require a runoff if no candidate collects more than 25 percent of the vote in a district — as happened in several of the 290 seats contested nationwide — the definitive tally might not be available until mid-March. Nevertheless, it is clear that the reformist camp’s victory is so overwhelming as to be unassailable.
Recent history had the reformers on a roll going into this election. They first claimed the surprise landslide victory of Mr. Mohammad Khatami in presidential elections in 1997. Last year, they bested conservatives in city and town council elections. Last week’s win will now deliver control of the Majlis, or Parliament, and set the stage for Mr. Khatami’s re-election next year.
The shift in public opinion is already visible in the dwindling influence of public institutions controlled by the conservatives. State security agencies have been on the defensive after having been forced last year to concede that “rogue” agents were responsible for killing prominent liberals. The panel of senior clerics that has the power to vet candidate lists without explanation was remarkably restrained in the runup to this vote, rejecting only 10 percent of prospective candidates.
But even though the prevailing winds favor Mr. Khatami and his allies, he will continue to go slow. The president knows that a confrontation with conservatives plays into their hands. Mass unrest always strengthens hardliners, and their control over the security forces gives them even more power in such a setting. That is why Mr. Khatami backed down from a full-scale confrontation last year when some students were killed, even though he risked disappointing many of his supporters.
But the man to watch may not be the president. Rather, the key figure in the new Parliament could be former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. A confidant of the late supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Mr. Rafsanjani is a leading contender to be the next speaker of the Parliament. Once thought to be a moderate, he has moved to the right and leads a coalition of moderates and conservatives. If Mr. Rafsanjani is the opportunist that his detractors claim he is, he could prove to be an ally of Mr. Khatami. He would follow the public mood and serve as a brake on conservative reaction to reform. If his shift to the right is genuine, then claiming the post of speaker puts him a prime position to frustrate reform efforts.
While most Iranians seem to favor change and breaking the conservatives’ hold on the country, the world must be clear about what reform will entail. The clerics’ control of the economy is sure to be loosened, and their influence over society may be diminished. But Iran is not going to become a secular state, nor will there be a radical break in foreign policy. While Mr. Khatami has said he wants to resume a dialogue with the West — by which he means primarily the United States — it is unclear if Washington is willing to reciprocate. U.S. distrust of the regime in Tehran is deep and the price of normal diplomatic relations may be more than any administration in Washington can pay.
That offers an opening for those countries whose pride is not tied so tightly to Iran’s history. Economic reform will provide opportunities for businesses willing — and able — to explore the market. Its oil reserves and its location provide Iran with the means to assume a wider role in regional politics. Countries willing to assist Tehran in the realization of that goal will find a ready partner.
One clear line must be drawn, however. In the past, Tehran has provided assistance to terrorist groups. Any cooperation with the government in Iran, no matter who heads it, should be conditioned upon a termination of that aid. If Tehran is prepared to be a good international citizen, then the world should reciprocate. These elections should give Iran the opening it needs.
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