Elections reveal Iran’s maturity

By overwhelmingly electing moderate cleric Mohammed Khatami to head their country last week, Iranian voters gave a mandate to their leaders and sent a message about the Islamic republic’s future. That message was primarily aimed at Iran’s religious leadership, but it was also a wake-up call for the world and especially the United States. Iranians said that their nation hasn’t been standing still during nearly two decades of revolutionary theocracy. Iran has developed and changed; it is time for Americans to realize this fact. Khatami’s election must prompt a reevaluation of U.S. views about Iran if relations between the two countries are to improve. The United States has been at loggerheads with Iran’s theocratic leadership since the 1979 revolution that overthrew the Shah — a strong U.S. ally — and the subsequent seizure of American hostages by radical students. America has maintained economic sanctions against Iran since then, claiming that the Middle Eastern nation is a primary sponsor of terrorism in the region. The prevailing view in the United States is that Iran is an outlaw nation, repressive, reactionary, anti-Western and anti-democratic. Americans — even fundamentalist Christians — can’t come to terms with Iran’s total lack of separation between church and state. Yet Khatami’s victory has refocused attention on the Islamic state and challenged our assumptions. First, Iran is a democracy, albeit a controlled one. The past two presidential campaigns have been hotly contested; the candidates have offered voters real choices. Although all presidential candidates must be approved by the nation’s ruling mullahs, those approved have not been mere carbon copies of each other. In the recent campaign, for example, the moderate Khatami beat out the candidate favored by the clerics. His rival, Speaker of the Iranian Parliament Ali Akbar Nateq-Noori, is a hard-line conservative who championed stricter Islamic rule and enmity with the United States and Israel. Furthermore, Khatami’s election demonstrates that Iran’s revolutionary heritage is not as important to voters as it once was. Iran is in many ways a young country — 70 percent of its population is under age 25. These people were not alive or were young children when the Shah was overthrown. The youth of its population has allowed Iran’s revolutionary fervor to mellow quickly into mature confidence. For many young Iranians, jobs, the economy and more freedom are primary concerns. They also don’t share the anti-American sentiment of the conservative mullahs. In many subtle ways, they resist the strict laws governing social activities, dress and relationships between the sexes. The Clinton administration has reacted cautiously to the recent election. Sanctions won’t be lifted and relations won’t be normalized anytime soon. The terrorism issue, in particular, must be resolved. But now is the time to start rethinking Iran, to prepare the ground for future developments. Khatami is only one man and any reforms he undertakes will require keen political skills and will face much opposition. But for the first time in almost 20 years, the United States and Iran are talking about a new relationship. Americans must listen carefully to the message of the Iranian election if we are to build any future together.