Mr Khatami, 53, was elected by a 69 per cent landslide vote in 1997, capturing a liberalising sentiment among the young majority of Iran's 63 million people. In office, he has met rigid opposition from older, conservative clerics grouped around Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who holds enormous veto powers and some direct controls in the Iranian system. The pressure for change has not weakened, however, as last year's municipal elections and the recent defiance by some Tehran newspapers have shown. Implicitly bowing to this popular demand, the "guardian council" of clerics and jurists which vets the list of would-be parliamentary candidates for un-Islamic tendencies has used its powers much less sweepingly this year. As a result, Mr Khatami has a good chance of finding a legislature that supports his so-far tentative reforms.
In his younger days, Mr Khatami was an assistant to the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and no-one is expecting him to try to change Iran's definition as an Islamic state. But his own writings, which explore church-state relations during Europe's evolution from divine right of kingship, suggest a belief that the clergy should be confined more sharply to mosques and religious schools.
For the Iranian majority, this carries the hope of an end to ruinous economic policies and political tyranny. Iranian women, in particular, look to the end of petty restrictions on their lives. The hope for minorities, such as the Baha'i community (two of whose members, Sirus Zabihi-Maghaddam and Manuchehr Khulusi, are reported to have received death sentences for their beliefs in the city of Mashhad on February 3), is for the lifting of an oppression which goes against the true tenets of Islam. The outside world will be looking for signs of moderation and dialogue on subjects such as support of terrorism and development of ballistic missiles, before welcoming Iran out of its isolation.
©Copyright 2000, The Sydney Morning Herald