To no one's surprise, but to the dismay of many – mainly Europeans – the Bush administration's attention in the war on terrorism is increasingly focusing on Iraq and the removal of Saddam Hussein. Meanwhile, however, the people of another member of George W Bush's axis of evil, Iran, may well be on the verge of ridding themselves – with little US help and to marginal Washington interest – of an oppressive regime deeply implicated in the funding of terrorists.
No less a figure than the Ayatollah Jalaluddin Taheri, the imam of the major city of Isfahan, its Friday prayers speaker for the past 30 years and the official representative of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, resigned his posts on July 9 and released a stinging five-page letter denouncing the Islamic Republic's regime of conservative clerics. "I am embarrassed and ashamed," he wrote. "You cannot blame [the United States and the Shah] for the failures and corruption of our country [which] have all resulted in our people turning away from Islam, rising unemployment, inflation, high cost of living and a satanic gap between the rich and the poor."
He describes the regime as a vast mafia that is responsible for "a failing foreign policy, corruption, bribery, brain drain and the harassment and jailing of journalists and writers". These people, he said, "are riding on a stupid camel of power onto the field of politics". And worst of all, this mafia gang funds and supports vigilante forces who "continuously sharpen their dinosaur fangs of violence, with the hope of marrying their ugly, oppressive, fear-evoking bride of violence to religion".
July 9 marked the anniversary of the large, violent 1999 student rally against the regime at the University of Teheran. Thousands took to the streets in Teheran, tens of thousands in Isfahan, where they fought with the militias deployed to stop demonstrations. These were no mild-mannered protest rallies; the demonstrators called for an end to the regime. And when the militias attacked, something quite extraordinary occurred: local police and even members of the "Guardians of the Revolution" (Pasdaran), shielded the protesters and took their side.
Does all this mean that the end is near for the aging heirs of Ayatollah Khomeini's 1979 revolution devoted to continuing suppression of a large, reform-minded majority of the population more than half of which is under the age of 25? There is no quick and easy answer. The reformist parliamentary majority supports timid reformer President Mohammad Khatami and seeks compromise with and concessions from the reactionary mullahs. No radical reformer of national standing who would do away with "mullahcracy" has emerged. Under such circumstances, only a popular uprising could purge the conservative clerics from their seat of power – or force Khatami's hand in doing so. But the prospects for such an uprising are difficult to assess.
Khatami said in early May, "Our society is on the threshold of disorder" and added that "Iran did not vote for me but voted for justice and freedom in the framework of the constitution." Ayatollah Ebrahim Amini, the deputy head of the influential and conservative Assembly of Experts – the body that has the authority to appoint or dismiss the country's supreme leader – said on May 16 that "Iran is on the verge of a social explosion."
But words alone will not put an end to arbitrary, oppressive and corrupt clerical rule. And Khatami's and Amini's words, if anything, underscore that moderate reformers and conservatives alike are aware of the challenges they face and are ready to mobilize their available resources to preserve the status quo.
It is nonetheless obvious from the events of July 9 and subsequent days in which 125 parliamentarians expressed their support for Ayatollah Taheri, despite a ban on such public declarations, that the status quo is highly unstable and that, in particular, the violent actions of hard-line militias and vigilantes could trigger a mass response that neither the government nor the clique of conservative clerics can control. Taheri has labeled those vigilantes who have sometimes interrupted his sermons in Isfahan, "louts and fascists, who are a mixture of ignorance and madness, but whose umbilical cord is connected to the center of power and who are completely uncontrolled and beyond the law." By arbitrary violence through which they intend to protect unaccountable clerical rule, those louts may very well catalyze events that will drive them and their patrons out of power in a whirlwind of violent counterforce.
In a belated (July 12) and largely mildly phrased statement of support, Bush said that, "As we have witnessed over the past few days, the people of Iran want the same freedoms, human rights and opportunities as people around the world. Their government should listen to their hopes." As cautious as Bush's statement was, it evoked immediate and strong condemnation from Khatami and members of his government, charging undue US interference in Iran's internal affairs.
Such disproportionately touchy reaction shows just how tense and unsettled things are in Iran at this point – and how large the opportunities for dramatic change to end 23 years of stifling mullah dictatorship. Overt material Western intervention would be the wrong policy. Iran must come to terms with itself. And yet it is galling to see that EU member countries with very considerable influence in Iran (France, Germany) are staying entirely on the sidelines with barely a peep, not even significant press coverage. As a result of modest reforms over the past several years, most Iranians now have access to international media, including radio and television. The least one should expect is statements of support of the Bush variety to encourage students and ordinary people who put their lives on the line to regain their political freedom.
Some time over the next six to nine months, the US will move militarily on Iraq, unless perchance Saddam makes an earlier exit. Europeans will howl in protest about US imperial unilateralism. They may want to consider that clear expressions of support for the Iranian opposition now could create changes there and in the larger region that might hold the best chance for making military intervention in an isolated Iraq unnecessary.www.atimes.com/atimes/Middle_East/DG18Ak01.htmlE-mail this article