A glimmer of hope in Iran for democratic reform

If Iranian President Mohammad Khatami can drum up sufficient support in next week's election, he could gain the backing he needs for his program of democratic change. But it won't be easy. The religious hard-liners, who oppose him strenuously, are doing everything in their considerable power to discourage reform -- from closing down some 40 pro-democracy publications to jailing journalists, writers and political activists. Theocracy and freedom cannot co-exist.
Although Khatami himself is an Islamic clergyman, he is on record advocating "people's right to self-determination, striving to establish a humane, just and progressive way of life." The same cannot be said for the conservative ayatollahs who argue that Khatami is betraying the 1979 Islamic Revolution which toppled the shah and brought the Ayatollah Komeini to power.
Despite Khatami's popularity -- he won 70 percent of the vote in a 1997 election -- the authority of the president is secondary to that of the religious Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini. However, if the reform movement continues to receive support, the power of the mullahs will be necessarily diminished.
Keep down the vote: To prevent Khatami from achieving another landslide, the hard-liners have selected mediocre candidates, knowing that Kha tami will beat them but hoping that a lackluster election will deter voter participation.
If fewer people vote, even if Khatami wins, the conservative clerics can use the turn-out as a reason for denying the social and political reforms the Iranian president is trying to institute. Last Tuesday, unidentified assailants -- who are thought to be allied with the conservatives -- attacked the campaign headquarters of Iran's largest pro-reform party, tearing down posters of Khatami and setting the building on fire.
We hope that such tactics backfire and that, even without a free press, the word of the attack will spread to reformist voters who might otherwise have stayed home on election day.
While the United States' recent history with Iran has been stormy, it remains in our interest to participate in academic, sports and cultural exchange programs with the Iranian people.
Democracy remains one of this nation's most important exports. And who better to demonstrate the product than those who live it every day.

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