Iran Votes

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TEHRAN, Iran: The future of Iran stood at a crossroads as millions of citizens flocked to the polls to choose between Mohammad Khatami, a moderate who promises a more open society, and Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, a conservative who has vowed to strictly enforce the nation's traditional social code. Khatami, a cleric who formerly headed Iran's culture ministry, is immensely popular with the nation's youth, who want the government to ease restrictions on western media and laws mandating rigid adherence to traditional conduct. Nateq-Nouri, the current parliamentary speaker, has the backing of Iran's hard-line clergy, the military and merchants, who seek to limit such liberties. As officials tallied up the vote for release on Saturday, the presidential race seemed tight. But whoever wins, reports TIME's Scott MacLeod, Iran stands to eventually undergo changes that will alter its foreign relations. "Khatami has a proven track record for being an advocate of a more tolerant society. That would translate into more openness with the outside world in terms of trade and investment. Although nothing would happen overnight, this may improve relations with the West, which has been very critical of the Iranian regime since the Islamic Revolution." But MacLeod adds that a victory by Nateq-Nouri could make Iran a more insular nation. The likelihood he will take the election is enhanced, he says, by the fact that conservative trends have been gaining ground in Iran over the past several years. The backing Nateq-Nouri has the recieved from powerful figures in the Iranian establishment also improve his chances of success. "A victory by Nateq-Nouri will mean that conservative forces will be strengthened. The cultural chill we have seen in Iran over the past few years would only deepen."