Iran's president, Mohammad Khatami, reluctant to face four more years fighting repressive ayatollahs in his country, has received a second mandate - more than 76 percent of the vote - to press ahead with the reforms he has sought since 1997.
His next four years won't be easy, though his impressive win should soften the conservative ayatollahs who had ruled Iran with iron fists, and, despite the democratic veil of a new Constitution and an elected president and parliament, still do.
We have noted before how hard it is to force a democracy, where people are in charge of their destinies, to walk in tandem with a theocracy, where reliance on scripture and the anointed interpreters of God's will replaces self-reliance.
Still, Mr. Khatami's reform proposals suggest it could happen within the Islamic system, though not without difficulty. State and religion have separate loyalties and divergent interests.
Barriers to reform in Iran, despite its electoral process, are the so-called “shadow” agencies that aren't elected. Among them: the Guardian Council, made up of a dozen clerics and Islamic lawyers that has annulled ballots and will doubtless continue to do so.
In addition, the Islamic Revolution of 1979, which underlies modern Iran, vests ultimate power in a leading ayatollah, currently Ali Khameini. He controls police and military and can nullify presidential and parliamentary acts.
Mr. Khatami's aims are simple. Iran's administrative structure needs overhaul. Its economy, with 15 per cent unemployment, must be improved, and a more tolerant society developed.
Over the past four years, Iran's conservatives embodied in its theocracy have greeted too many of Mr. Khatami's reform proposals with repression. And while young women in lipstick and sandals can be seen in many urban venues in Iran these days, reformers have been murdered and 40 or more publications have been closed by the predominantly conservative judiciary.
Whether the changes Mr. Khatami can effect are enough to change U.S. policies toward Iran is unclear. What is clear is that channels on both sides need to remain open.
This can't happen if assassination continues to be the way conservatives deal with opposition. And it can't happen while armed, official ayatollah brigades shut down newspapers and magazines that offend them.
When much must be done, there's a tendency to go about it rapidly. That would be disastrous in Iran, most acknowledge. Mr. Khatami's approach of patience and moderation must continue. It also behooves the ayatollahs to give a little. For things to go entirely their way again will require stiff repression, a confession of timidity and fear.
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