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  • Iran’s Remarkable Election
  • Shaul Bakhash (bio)

In May 1997, the Islamic Republic of Iran presented the world the remarkable spectacle of an autocratic, repressive regime that bans political parties holding a free and fair presidential election. In a hard-fought and highly competitive contest, former minister of culture Mohammad Khatami gained an upset victory over Speaker of the Majlis (parliament) Ali Akbar Nateq-Nuri, winning almost 70 percent of the vote to become the Islamic Republic’s fifth president. According to the government, turnout topped 80 percent, a figure not reached since the early years of the revolution. Even allowing for the possibility of some official inflation of turnout statistics, anecdotal evidence suggests that large numbers of people (especially women, young people, and members of the middle class) went to the polls this time after not having bothered to vote in several previous elections. Moreover, the ballots were properly counted, the results publicly announced, and the voters’ mandate accepted by the regime.

In evaluating the significance of this election, of course, certain unusual institutional features of the Islamic Republic must be kept in mind. First, although Iran’s president runs the government and appoints cabinet ministers (subject to confirmation by the Majlis), he does not hold the country’s highest office. Ultimate authority rests with the Supreme Leader or rahbarÑalso known as the faqih (Islamic jurist)Ñwho is selected from among the country’s leading clerics by the clerically dominated but popularly elected Assembly of Experts. The [End Page 80] Supreme Leader, not the president, appoints the chiefs of the military and security forces, the head of the judiciary and of the broadcasting services, and the clerical members of the Council of Guardians, a watchdog body that can strike down any legislation that it deems violative of Islam or the 1979 Constitution. The Supreme Leader is constitutionally empowered to set the broad policies of the Islamic Republic, and in practice he has acquired additional means of interfering in the running of the government.

Second, the Islamic Republic requires that anyone wishing to run for the presidency must be approved by the Council of Guardians. In 1997, with two-term incumbent Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani barred by the Constitution from running again, the Council approved only four out of a large field of such applicants. While most of those rejected were not serious candidates, a number of representatives from legitimate, if officially unrecognized, political groups were barred from running. The election was basically a restricted competition among members of the ruling elite, and became a race between the two front-runners, Nateq-Nuri and Khatami.

Yet this does not mean that no significant differences separated the two leading candidates. Although Khatami is also a member of the clerical elite, the ruling establishment clearly favored the more conservative Nateq-Nuri. The country’s most powerful clerical organization, the influential Friday prayer leaders in almost all the major cities, the majority of members of parliament, the majority of members of the Council of Guardians, the minister of intelligence, and, most important, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei all explicitly or implicitly endorsed Nateq-Nuri. The overwhelming popular vote for Khatami in the face of these endorsements represented an incontrovertible “No” to the ruling clerical establishment and a demand for change—for an easing of political, social, and cultural restrictions; for improved economic conditions; and for a greater say in determining the country’s policies. Khatami won, moreover, with a campaign that stressed the rule of law, tolerance for a multiplicity of views, wider political participation, social justice, and the need to strengthen the institutions of civil society. It was this message, along with Khatami’s palpable moderation, that powerfully resonated with the electorate.

Rise of the Hard-Liners

The election of Khatami was the more striking because hard-liners had been gaining ground in the years preceding the election. In the three years immediately following the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989, a period that coincided with Rafsanjani’s first term as president, social and cultural (though not political) controls had actually been eased. Beginning in 1992, however, this limited liberalization ran into [End Page 81] trouble. A conservative Majlis banned...

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