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Religious Moderates May Win In Upcoming Iranian Election

By John Daniszewski
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- TEHRAN, Iran

Could it happen again?

In 1997, a relatively unknown cleric stunned the religious establishment in the Islamic Republic of Iran and won the country’s presidency in a 70 percent landslide. His victory was credited mainly to young voters and women weary of moralistic hectoring and failed economic policies from the country’s ruling mullahs.

Friday, Iranians go to the polls in a general election. And many observers believe they will once again humiliate religious conservatives by choosing a parliament majority of reformists -- deputies who, like their hero President Mohammad Khatami, openly favor greater individual freedom, detente with the West and the transparent rule of law.

For three years, Khatami has been thwarted again and again by the hard-line parliament and judiciary -- including the closure of pro-Khatami newspapers, the impeachment of pro-Khatami officials and the jailing of leading reformists. For the reform-minded set, this is payback time.

The election to Iran’s Sixth Majlis, or parliament, is more than exciting, “it is vital,” said 21-year-old Bahare Karimi, a student of commercial management.

Standing amid students from the Islamic Iran Participation Front, the most gung-ho, pro-reform pro-Khatami party, she said: “If the next parliament will be the parliament of Mr. Khatami, surely it will be able to do whatever we want.”

If all goes as these youths expect, it could be a new Iran. The hard-liners would lose control of parliament and Khatami would be given the leeway he needs to carry out his agenda.

Reformers are talking hopefully about early constitutional changes to reduce the clerical establishment’s power grip on elections, the security services and the courts. They anticipate gradual shifts in foreign policy, too, such as eventual resumption of relations with Washington, a loaded political question here that Khatami has been unable to pursue energetically.