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Thursday, 24 February, 2000, 03:06 GMT
Khatami's home town on the map

Khatami [right] gets the Ardakan vote

By Andrew North in Ardakan

One of the first towns to fall to Iran's reformists was Ardakan, the birthplace of President Mohammed Khatami.

It is one of the country's oldest desert towns, tracing its history back more than 1,500 years, before the birth of Islam.

Situated on a desert plain, some 300 miles south-east of Tehran, Ardakan was on the Silk Road, the ancient trading route linking Asia with the Middle East.

Today, the town still has an ancient flavour. Many of its houses are built of mud bricks in traditional desert style.

It has always had a reputation for being a conservative place. In Ardakan, when the muezzin calls the midday prayer, shopkeepers close up and the town shuts down.

And until last Friday, its parliamentary representative had always been conservative - espousing the virtues of Iran's Islamic system above anything else.

In the family

Not any longer. On 18 February, the people of Ardakan voted overwhelmingly for Mohammad Reza Tabesh in the general election.

Mr Tabesh was the lead candidate for the Islamic Iran Participation Front - the backbone group in the pro-Khatami coalition.

His campaign message was simple; if you like President Khatami and you want to see his policies implemented, vote for me.

''What we want to do is give people greater rights and to institutionalise the reforms President Khatami promised three years ago when he was elected,'' Mr Tabesh told me.

Mohammed Reza Khatami The president's brother has also been elected
He ran an energetic campaign, distributing thousands of leaflets and holding public meetings across the Ardakan area in the tight one-week campaign.

But Mr Tabesh always held an ace card in this campaign. He's a nephew and childhood friend of President Khatami, and his campaign workers made sure everyone knew.

In Ardakan, that counts for more than in most places. Because it was here that the president was born in 1943, in one of the town's traditional dwellings.

His father was a Grand Ayatollah, in charge of the local religious college or seminary. Mr Khatami lived in the house until he was 18, with five other brothers and sisters.

One of those brothers is Mohammed Reza Khatami, who heads the Participation Front.

Humble beginnings

The Khatami house is built around a large courtyard with a fountain. On the roof at one end is a large upright structure known as a wind-catcher - which literally catches the winds from the desert and directs them down into the house, keeping it cool in summer.

Wind towers in Yazd Wind towers in nearby Yazd
Today, the house is being restored by the local cultural heritage office, with the intention of turning it into a national monument.

Before Khatami's election as president three years ago, barely anyone outside Ardakan had heard of the place.

But just as President Clinton put his birthplace - Hope, in Arkansas - on the map in the United States, President Khatami has done the same for this previously obscure desert town.

For Ardakan locals, Khatami is a hero, and therefore voting for Mohammed Reza Tabesh was the natural choice.

''A victory for Tabesh would benefit the town, much more than voting for someone who doesn't have a link with the president.'' one teacher said.

The behaviour of his opponent, the incumbent right-winger Dr Hosseini Nejad was also telling in the run-up to the election.

In the last few days before the vote, his campaign posters suddenly started featuring images of President Khatami, even though he opposes much of the president's reformist agenda.


However, Mr Tabesh has been careful not to go too far with his pro-reform message.

He is not seeking wholesale change to Iran's Islamic code, and he has been mindful in his election activities not to offend the traditionalists in Ardakan.

woman in traditional dress Mr Tabesh says women want strict dress code
For instance, he held many women-only meetings to ensure the traditional separation of women and men was maintained.

And unlike some Iranian reformist politicians, Mr Tabesh does not advocate a relaxation of the Islamic dress code for women.

''Most women want to wear the hejab, because it is part of Islam.'' he says.

It has been a careful balancing act, but now that it has paid off, Mr Tabesh faces what is likely to be a much greater challenge - delivering on his promises of reform.

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See also:
22 Feb 00 |  Middle East
Iranian politics: A family affair
21 Feb 00 |  Middle East
Analysis: Obstacles to change
21 Feb 00 |  Middle East
Iran's hardliners at crossroads
22 Feb 00 |  Middle East
Iran vote welcomed

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