A Setback For Iran's Moderates

Iran's conservatives won a decisive victory in elections for a clergy-based assembly that oversees the country's supreme leader, official results showed Sunday.

It was a setback for moderates who had hoped a strong showing in the vote for the Assembly of Experts would help curb the absolute powers of Iran's supreme leader and broaden social and political freedoms for Iranians.

But the results came as no surprise since most moderates had been dropped from the ballot in advance of Friday's vote by a council that reviews candidates' eligibility.

The hard-liners won at least 54 seats on the 86-seat assembly and the moderates only 13.

Sixteen seats went to candidates whose political affiliation was unclear -- but who probably lean toward the hard-line camp -- and three to declared independents, who are believed to be closer to the moderates.

In the capital, Tehran, moderate former President Hashemi Rafsanjani led the polls with 1,682,882 votes. Behind him was hard-liner Ali Meshkini, the current head of the Assembly of Experts, with 1,240,524 votes.

Hard-liners won 11 of the 16 seats in Tehran and moderates won five. Among the hard-liners who won in the capital were Mohammad Yazdi, head of the powerful judiciary, and Ahmad Jannati, who leads the council that vetted the candidates.

The elections were marked by a low turnout, and many Iranians said they stayed away to protest the dropping of most progressive theologians by the conservative-dominated Council of Guardians. The council reviewed a list of 396 applicants and allowed only 167 to run.

Iran's official media had reported crowded polling stations and a massive turnout, but visits to Tehran stations showed many nearly empty and people in other parts of the country reported similar apathy.

Only about 18 million of the 38.5 million eligible voters cast ballots, according to the official results.

Some moderate leaders had said in advance they did not expect to win the elections but still hoped to use the assembly to focus on the growing powers granted to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country's top Shiite Muslim cleric.

The hard-liners want to maintain Khamenei's absolute authority and have battled moderate President Mohammad Khatami's efforts to grant more freedom to the press and the arts and reduce Islamic strictures on the average citizen.

The conservative establishment celebrated the results, and what it claimed was a strong turnout, as a victory for Iran's Islamic system.

Resalat daily, a conservative bastion, hailed the vote as an act of divine love.

"What drew people to the polls was love, love toward the system...and the revolution. The warmth of love toward the system and its leadership could not be hidden," it said in a commentary.

©1998 CBS Worldwide Corp. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report