Iranians pick a fresh face of the revolution

Who will lead the Islamic state into a new future, asks Robert Fisk in Tehran
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The Independent Online
If you believe what you see and hear in the streets of Tehran, Sayed Mohamed Khatemi was elected yesterday as President of the Islamic Republic. Among the middle classes and those who wish their nation's leadership to break the grip of the bazaaris and the more conservative clerics, the philosophy and education graduate who didn't even want to be a clergyman until his father insisted that he study theology at Qom, sounds like a man who can lead Iran into a new future.

But Iran boasts that it an Islamic - not a democratic - republic, and most of the other large cities are likely to fall into line behind the speaker of parliament, Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri. It was he who gained the support of 190 of the 270 parliamentarians in a majlis (assembly) petition and it was he who was feted as a head of state during his official visit to Moscow earlier this year.

The Russians know Iran better than most of its neighbours. Could they have made such a mistake without reason, Iranians ask? Besides, the top clergy of Qom support Mr Nateq-Nouri, even if he doesn't hold the Sayed title which defines Khatemi as a descendant of the Prophet. In other words, it is well to view Iranian elections with unromantic eyes; history is not made here by five per cent swings in Isfahan South.

Oddly enough, Isfahan is one province - along with his own home territory of Yazd - where Mr Khatemi has strong support outside Tehran. His father was Friday prayers leader in Yazd and the local clergy have spoken in his favour. Besides, the Islamic Revolution is 18 years old and needs a new face, someone who represents a younger, more vigorous Iran. Khatemi is the man, after all, who told his followers that Iran must stop "adoring or hating the West", advising them to appreciate its good points as well as its failures.

There must be "freedom of thought and the assurance of being able to express oneself in all security," he said last year. The mentality of Iranians had been created by "two centuries of despotism."

All this sounds hopeful enough; already American journalists, chewing over the very issues - "terrorism", Iran's opposition to the Middle East peace process and the Salman Rushdie fatwa - which have played not the slightest role in the election campaign, are sorting the supporters of the two main contenders into doves, hawks, hardliners and moderates and all the other shorthand definitions which have so little relevance here.

Take, for example, the odd little adventure which Mr Nateq-Nouri's close friend, Ali Larijani - the former deputy minister for foreign affairs - made to London earlier this year.

The Iranian press claimed that although he was ostensibly visiting Britain to secure medical help for his son, Larijani met senior officials in the Foreign Office - in the company of an Iranian diplomat - and tried to explain that the Rushdie fatwa was only a religious edict and could be leniently reinterpreted in the future.

Was this the message the British expected from the adviser of the man who is supposed to represent the orthodox and conservative clergymen of Qom? Might not the West be just as happy with Mr Nateq Nourri as with Mr Khatemi, a former minister of culture whose list of supporters - to put it mildly -has raised a few eyebrows? True, Faiza Rafsanjani, daughter of the outgoing president, is a supporter of Mr Khatemi. So is Mohsen Nourbakch, the governor of the central bank, and Gholam Hussein Karbaschi, Tehran's liberal and popular mayor.

Yet also among the Khatemi supporters is Hojatolislam Mohtashemi, the founder of the Lebanese Hizbollah and one of the creators of the Iranian intelligence service. So is the director of the leftist Salaam newspaper who just happened, in a previous incarnation, to have been spokesman for the Iranian students who took over the US embassy in Tehran and held its diplomats hostage in 1979.

Yet another Khatemi supporter turns out to be Ayatollah Khalkhali, once known as the "Butcher of Evin", who explained his order to execute a small boy in the early days of the revolution by remarking that, if it was a mistake, the child had anyway gone to heaven. Khakhali is rumoured to have hanged cats in his cell at a pre-revolutionary mental hospital. He is not, therefore, the kind of man whom Messrs Blair or Major would have wanted on their campaign trail last month.

Yet it is easy to be cynical and patronising about Iranian politics. If there is no democracy in the Western sense - 234 presidential candidates were barred by the Council of Guardians from standing and the supreme spiritual ruler, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, made it clear that no candidate could change Iran's policy towards America - there was at least a choice available to the electorate yesterday, only one of whom caught the popular imagination.

Convoys of cars carrying young men through Tehran, all screaming Khatemi's name, said as much as the wall-posters of Mr Nateq-Nourri in the angry slums of Islamshahr: on each portrait of the parliament speaker, his eyes had been gouged out with a knife.

The 32 million electorate queued at polling stations throughout the country yesterday, Rafsanjani and Khamenei among them. The latter has urged Iranians to vote according to their conscience.

But a few little asides - about their being "only one right man" for the job - have given the impression that Mr Nateq Nourri is Khamenei's man. Bets will no doubt be placed accordingly.