Iran's Khatami Wins 77 Pct. of Vote
By BRIAN MURPHY, Associated Press Writer
TEHRAN, Iran (AP) - A final ballot count published in Iran on Sunday showed President Mohammad Khatami (news - web sites) winning nearly 77 percent of the vote, a sign his popularity and the reform movement he initiated had exceeded the most optimistic projections of victory.
``Amazing,'' gushed a teen-age girl listening to the returns from Friday's elections at the office of a pro-Khatami youth group.
Iranians were stumped in searching for adjectives to convey the significance of Khatami's landslide triumph. But all agreed on one essential point: Conservative clerics must finally loosen their grip on Iran.
Khatami took 21.65 million of the 28.15 million votes cast, according to final results published Sunday by the Interior Ministry. Even his most fervent supporters had openly doubted he could pass the whopping standard he set four years ago.
The nearest of nine challengers, conservative economist Ahmad Tavakoli, had about 15.6 percent. The final results will have to be endorsed by the conservative-led Guardian Council, which oversees the vote.
At about 67 percent, turnout was down from the 90 percent figure approached when Khatami first won the presidency in 1997. Khatami's supporters had feared many voters would stay away this time because a landslide win was expected.
In a message to the nation, Khatami thanked the people for their votes and asked the ruling establishment to ``take bigger steps to meet the people's demands.''
``Magic of democracy,'' said the headline of the Mellat newspaper, whose staff revolted last week when top editors backed a Khatami rival.
But Khatami is facing an uphill battle.
Iran's economy is ailing despite its oil and gas fields. Foreign investors are wary and unemployment may approach 30 percent. Most major enterprises are controlled by tax-exempt groups linked to the ruling clerics.
Relations with Washington remain in tatters 22 years after the Islamic revolution toppled the U.S.-backed monarchy and 52 Americans were held hostage for 444 days. The Bush administration supports at least a two-year extension of sanctions that block investment in Iran's fuel industry.
Another problem facing reformers is that the 58-year-old Khatami actually wields limited power.
All major decisions rest with the religious authorities - Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his hand-picked group of theocrats, who jealously guard their power.
Their control extends to key institutions such as the courts, police and military - resources they've used to jail activists and journalists and ban dozens of pro-reform publications.
Khatami, himself a mid-ranking cleric, envisions an ``Islamic democracy'' with room for greater openness in the media, arts and politics - including more contacts with Western businesses and governments. He also has encouraged a relaxation of social restrictions, such as allowing unsupervised outings between young couples.
Young people are at the forefront of his supporters, having been raised without a direct connection to the Islamic revolution.
Whether he can use the masses as leverage against the conservatives could be a major test.
After the election, a few supporters took to the streets to wave posters and throw flowers. But major celebrations were few - partly a sign that the victory was widely expected. Authorities also closed some shopping areas and limited traffic to try to deter spontaneous rallies, which they fear could touch off clashes with hard-liners.
Iran's religious overseers have tolerated some new liberties: young lovers strolling hand-in-hand and more revealing head scarves and coats for women. But the lines have been drawn at open criticism of the Islamic system and changes they fear could undermine their influence.
Resistance to change could be a grave miscalculation, some analysts suggest.
``Hard-liners ... have not learned any lessons from their humiliating (election) defeats,'' said Karim Arqandehpour, editor of the reformist daily Nowruz.
Amin Sabooni, a columnist for the state-owned Iran Daily, said some power brokers ``are not very far from a slippery slope.''
Also at stake were 16 parliament seats - apparently dominated by reformist candidates - and two seats on the panel that elects the supreme leader.