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Iranian moderate appears victor in presidential elections

May 24, 1997

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) _ A moderate Iranian cleric headed toward a landslide victory today in a presidential election that promised to set back hard-liners’ efforts to impose stricter Muslim social codes. His conservative opponent conceded defeat.

Mohammad Khatami, a former culture minister with wide support among the young, won about 68 percent of the votes counted so far in Friday’s election, the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported.

His challenger, Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, trailed with 26 percent, according to the preliminary results cited by the agency.

``I congratulate your election by the people as president,″ Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri said in a message read over Iranian radio. ``I pledge to use all my resources in cooperation with you.″

No one expected Khatami to bring fundamental changes to Iran’s foreign policy or clergy-dominated politics, but his victory would be a setback for hard-line mullahs who have ruled since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

The hard-liners, who want stricter enforcement of the Muslim code that bans everything from dating to satellite TV dishes, backed Nateq-Nouri, the country’s powerful parliament speaker.

With more than 14 million ballots counted, Khatami had about 9.5 million votes to Nateq-Nouri’s 3.7 million, the agency reported. The votes counted so far were largely from rural regions thought to favor Nateq-Nouri.

The agency said more than half of the 31,400 polling stations had been counted. Final results are expected Sunday.

If the preliminary results hold up, Khatami would receive the needed majority to become president. If no candidate wins a majority, a runoff between the top two vote-getters will be held next week.

The other candidates on the ballot had received an insignificant number of votes.

Khatami would succeed President Hashemi Rafsanjani, who steps down in August after two four-year terms.

The election was a showdown between hard-line and moderate factions inside the ruling Muslim clergy and many Iranians had suspected that the conservative clergy backing Nateq-Nouri would do everything possible to stop a victory by Khatami.

Senior, influential clerics, who have considerable sway over Iran’s deeply religious population, had declared it forbidden to vote for Khatami. And Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s supreme leader, had tacitly supported Nateq-Nouri.

Outside a grocery store in western Tehran, ecstatic proprietor Haj Asghar Tehrani passed out sweets _ a traditional form of celebration _ and said he hadn’t slept all night waiting for the results.

``This is a blessed day. I am happy not only because Mr. Khatami will become the next president, but also because our votes are being tallied correctly,″ he said.

Workers stopped to buy boxes of sweets to give to their colleagues.

Khatami’s supporters hope he will bring a more relaxed interpretation of Islam to the presidency. Khatami enlivened Iranian cinema and literature during his 11 years as culture minister, but he was forced out in 1992 by Nateq-Nouri’s hard-liners, who accused him of being too permissive.

By gaining the support of the youth, Khatami has succeeded in bringing into the Islamic fold a generation that was not even born at the time of the revolution. More than half the country’s 60 million people are under the age of 18.

The election, the first since the revolution in which Iranians had a real choice, generated an excitement greater than at any time since the revolution overthrew the U.S.-supported shah.

Nateq-Nouri’s backers had depicted Khatami as a pro-Western cleric not sufficiently committed to the revolution. His backers say he wants good relations with Western nations _ except the United States.

So many voters turned out to vote Friday that closing time for polling stations was extended for four hours. Anyone over 15 was eligible to vote _ about 33 million people.

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