Events are running the way of the reformers in Iran

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It is doubtful that President Mohammad Khatami of Iran is a close student of politics in this distant island off the north-western corner of Europe. If he were, he would surely be casting an envious eye. Britain's "elective dictatorship" bestows vast powers on a Prime Minister whose party may win barely 40 per cent of the vote. Tomorrow, the day after our own general election, Khatami is expected to win a second term as president in a 70 per cent landslide. Yet the power that ultimately matters in Iran will remain elsewhere ­ in the hands of the hardline conservatives and clergy who take their cue from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme ruler and successor of Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic state.

Iran's presidential elections thus threaten to be a re-run of last year's parliamentary vote, when reformers campaigning under the Khatami aegis won a sweeping majority ­ only for the conservatives to hit back by arresting dissidents, closing pro-reform newspapers and hounding their patrons in government. However clear-cut, the re-election of President Khatami may produce a similar backlash now. But Iran's reformers must not despair at short-term setbacks. In the longer run, events are running their way.

A young, increasingly educated and urban population craves change, while modern communications technology makes it ever harder for the clerics to keep the outside world at bay. For the time being, the high price of oil, which accounts for 85 per cent of Iranian exports, is keeping the country's rickety and largely state-controlled economy afloat, but even so a third of the population lives below the poverty line while the unemployment rate exceeds 20 per cent. Sooner or later oil prices will fall, and the hardliners will have to accept an increased role for the private sector if new jobs are to be created.

Simultaneously, pressure will continue to grow on the Council of Guardians, the conservative, clerically dominated body that has the last word in Iran's affairs, to surrender some of its powers. A triumphant re-election of President Khatami will only accelerate this process. The choice for Iran, the Middle East's second-largest oil producer and potentially its most powerful country, is stark. It is no longer between reform and stagnation ­ but whether reform will be achieved by peaceful compromise or, as its president warned this week, by an explosion of frustration on the streets.

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