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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Hopeful Iran Elections Will Open Dialogue

WASHINGTON -- Mohammad Khatami's upset victory in Iran's weekend presidential election could pave the way for the most profound changes inside revolutionary Iran since a brief window opened in the late 1980s after the Iran-Iraq War.


Clinton administration officials, who said in Washington on Saturday that they are "closely watching'' the election aftermath, are hoping any internal thaw will spill over onto Tehran's foreign policy. Notably, it could moderate Tehran's anti-Western rhetoric and support for extremist groups, paving the way for a new dialogue between the United States and Iran.


Although Iran's unique type of Islamic government is not expected to change, anticipation is high that its policies, domestic and foreign, will mellow.


Khatami, a former culture minister linked with the earlier relaxation in the '80s, when war-weary Iran acceded to public demands for new openings, now has an overwhelming mandate to ease restrictions on everything from intellectual debate to female dress, Iran watchers say. "Khatami represented himself as a candidate for change. The high turnout and the margin of victory are a huge endorsement of the changes he hinted at,'' said Shaul Bakhash, a former editor in Iran and now the foremost Iran scholar in the United States.


Iran watchers say they expect Khatami to move gradually. The previous, postwar opening -- which included the return of plays by Arthur Miller and Anton Chekhov to Tehran theaters, nail polish and lipstick on Iranian women and public debate about the role of clergy in politics -- eventually triggered a backlash.


Yet the experts contend that since Khatami was squeezed out of power in that ensuing backlash, he has come closer to understanding public appetites and will feel he can revive the process he helped launch almost a decade ago.


"The majority of voters will feel they sent a strong message to the leadership, and now they will want to see something done about it,'' Bakhash said.


Foreign policy initiatives will be trickier, despite abundant signs of public interest in renewing U.S. relations.


To encourage external shifts, the White House issued a statement Saturday reminding the regime of Washington's terms for a dialogue, dead since the 1985-86 arms-for-hostages debacle.


It went to great pains to point out that the United States is "not against'' either the Iranian people or an Islamic government. Washington is instead concerned about the Islamic republic's "behavior,'' the statement said.


"We need to see if there are real changes in behavior in those areas -- terrorism, proliferation, human rights, Mideast peace -- which have been the source of our concern in the past,'' a senior White House official said.


The mere fact that a perceived long shot won despite open favoritism of Khatami's opponent, parliament Speaker Ali Akbar Nateq-Nuri, by the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country's supreme religious leader, was taken as a positive sign in Washington. Some U.S. officials had predicted Nateq-Nuri would win -- whether or not he received the most votes.