Beating U.S. Boosts Iran's Moderates

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Iran's World Cup soccer defeat of the U.S. may have helped the campaign by that country's moderate president, Mohammed Khatami, for liberalization and reconciliation with Washington. TIME Middle East bureau chief Scott MacLeod, in Tehran for the game, predicted that an Iran victory would create discomfort for Khatami's conservative foes by prompting massive demonstrations and by showing the "Great Satan" as fair players and gracious losers. While the country's conservative spiritual leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, sought to spin it as a "bitter defeat" for the "arrogant opponent," the fact that it was celebrated on the streets by hundreds of thousands of men and women mixing freely represented a challenge to Khamenei. "Getting people onto the street to celebrate something as simple as a soccer match is a challenge to the conservatives' austere vision," says MacLeod. "Iran's involvement in the World Cup epitomizes what Khatami stands for and what they fear -- a more relaxed society participating in the international community."

But it will take more than a soccer victory to break Khamenei's grip: The conservative-dominated legislature chose the day of the match to impeach the liberal interior minister Abdullah Nouri for allowing a demonstration against the conservative stranglehold. Khatami fired back by appointing Nouri as deputy president. The president's 70 percent majority in last year's election confirmed his overwhelming popular support, but conservatives still dominate the country's political and judicial institutions. So the battle for the soul of Iran is still in its first period, and the mullahs aren't exactly shy with the red card.