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Election provides welcome turnabout in Iran

That sound from Iran may be the Ayatollah Khomeini turning in his grave. The revolution he fomented and then rode to autocratic power in 1979 seems to have fallen as flat as that of Newt Gingrich.

By the time Khomeini died, the Islamic faith permeated and dominiated all aspects of life in Iran. A series of mullahs kept the cause alive, most recently outgoing President Hashemi Rafsanjani. So it was assumed that Ali Akbar Nateq-Noori, choice of the militant national political machine, would be a shoo-in to succeed Rafsanjani.

Indeed, so sure were the mullahs that they allowed Mohammed Khatami, whom they had once thrown out of the government, to run. Khatami won in a sensational upset with 69.7 percent of the votes.

Only time will tell whether this was just a stumble on the onward march of Islam or whether it's the dead end of an odd experiment. At a time when the institutions of government nearly everwhere are becoming, if possible, more secular, the Islamic revolution -- of which Khomeini's Iran was the most notorious example -- has been one of the most aggressive social forces on earth.

This is a stern theocracy at odds with the decadence with which the late 20th century is almost synonymous. It is unapologetic and unyielding, prepared to challenge the Great Satan wherever the latter can be found, but expecially in America.

The saga of the U.S. hostages at the American Embassy in Tehran set the tone for the new regime. The images linger of young people -- fanatics, we are inclined to say -- unafraid of earthly might and prepared to confront hardship and death for Allah.

Then, almost as quickly and unexpectedly, a country of 70 million people seems ready to repudiate the way of life for which it fought so fiercely. It didn't help that the mullahs were not as versed in economics as theology. Irean's standard of living has taken a beating. But the cry heard repeatedly in the wake of the election was for more freedomfrom the cultural repression of the conservative clerics.

If the revolution is indeed dead, it may not be Allah's fault. The mullahs, meantime, remain a potent power in Iran and will not so easily or quickly abandon their insistence that God play a major role in society.

National Catholic Reporter, June 6, 1997