Leaders of Iran

Thursday, December 02, 2004

frontline: Nateq-Nouri loses 1997 Presidential Race

frontline: terror and tehran: inside iran: by popular demand - iranian elections, 1997-2001 | PBS: "In 1997, the Speaker of Parliament, Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, enjoyed the implicit endorsement of Supreme Leader Khamenei as successor to Iran's outgoing president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Nateq-Nouri was a hojjatoleslam, a clerical rank just below ayatollah, and had been the Minister of the Interior in the 1980s. He had been the Speaker of Parliament since 1992, where conservative deputies like him held the majority. He was, in effect, the third highest ranking official in the Iranian government, after the Supreme Leader and the president.

Nateq-Nouri also had the outright endorsement of the Militant Clergy Society, to which many of the clerical establishment's leaders belonged. In most circles, his ascendancy to the executive was considered a given. "Never had Iranian officials been so blatant in their backing of a single candidate," writes Robin Wright, a foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, in her book The Last Great Revolution (2000).

His candidacy was given an official nudge forward by the Council of Guardians, which was dominated by conservative clerics and had the awesome power to decide which candidates were fit to run for president. The council disqualified more than 200 other candidates -- 230, to be precise, including all of the women -- who had registered to run. Four men were left, among them Nateq-Nouri and Mohammad Khatami, a moderate cleric who held the relatively obscure post of director of the National Library and was hardly seen as a threat to Nateq-Nouri's candidacy.

Khatami was not a new face in Iranian politics. In 1992 he was forced to resign his post as minister of culture and Islamic guidance, where he was tasked with enforcing the republic's censorship policies. In the first few years he held the post, he strictly enforced the rules; in the latter part of his tenure, however, he relaxed restrictions on films, art, music, and literature, stirring the ire of the conservative-dominated Parliament. President Rafsanjani allowed Khatami to submit his resignation, a political gesture meant to appease the clerical establishment, and Khatami was transferred to the National Library.

That Khatami clashed with the clerical establishment might be seen as ironic. The son of a prominent cleric and a supporter of the 1979 revolution, Khatami's clerical credentials are solid. He, too, is a hojjatoleslam, educated at the theological institutions in Qom, where he became a disciple of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and a close friend of Khomeini's son. He also studied philosophy at secular institutions in Iran, where he was exposed to Western ideals of democracy. The possibility that democracy could blossom within Islam, in fact, would go on to dominate his political thought.

Khatami's political support in the 1997 election came from a coalition of strange bedfellows, including traditional leftists, some of whom had participated in the U.S. Embassy takeover in 1979, and business leaders who wanted the state to open up the economy and allow more foreign investment. Women and younger voters also got behind Khatami's candidacy. A longtime supporter of the freedom of speech and the press, he promised to enforce constitutional civil rights. He campaigned tirelessly.

"He was a populist candidate, would get on a bus and kiss babies and shake hands," says The New York Times' Elaine Sciolino, author of Persian Mirrors: The Elusive Face of Iran. "And he had such an extraordinary personality and such charm. It sounds sort of trite or superficial, but he's as charming as Bill Clinton. And that goes a long way. He charmed the people of Iran. He charmed them with his personality, with his good looks, and with his promises."

The presidential campaign lasted only 12 days, and most candidates' access to the state media, including the television and radio networks, was effectively restricted. But though Khatami had little airtime, he more than made up for it in the televised presidential debates, where it became clear to most that Nateq-Nouri could not compete with Khatami's formidable intellect.

In May 1997, Iranians went to the polls in droves. Nearly 80 percent of eligible voters participated, and fully 70 percent of them voted for Khatami, giving him and his reform agenda a resounding endorsement. Even in Qom, the center of theological training in Iran and a conservative stronghold, 70 percent of voters cast their ballots for Khatami.

In August of 1997, Supreme Leader Khamenei confirmed Khatami as the fifth president of the Islamic Republic of Iran."

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