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Next door to Iraq an internal war

Next door to Iraq an internal war

Author: John Harwood
Publication: The Indian Express
Date: December 6, 2002

Americans are fixated on Iraq, where they expect the ground to shake with war before long. But in the process, most are missing the fact that an equally momentous event may be taking shape next door in Iran, where the ground already is shaking because of another powerful force: young Iranians.

It is hard to say which country will turn out to be more important to the shape of the world. The Bush administration hopes regime change in Iraq will open the way for a new, model democracy for the Arab world. But a power shift in Iran caused by popular unrest would profoundly affect the way the wider Muslim world views the prospect of living under conservative Islamic rule. US officials are watching quietly, but very intently.

Here's what's happening: With little notice in the West, Iran has endured several weeks of large and organized protests by citizens angry at their government. The immediate cause is a death sentences that Iran's conservative religious judiciary handed down against a popular university professor for insulting Islam.

The professor, Hashem Aghajari, teaches history at a Tehran university, and he was convicted after giving a speech in June questioning why only the country's religious clerics are considered competent to interpret the Quran, Islam's holy book. "Are people monkeys to imitate (clerics) blindly?" he asked.

For that bit of blasphemy, he was arrested and sentenced to death, and he appears more than willing to become a martyr for the cause of greater freedom in Iran. His sentence, in turn, has brought on weeks of protests by students who see in Aghajari a symbol of their broader frustrations over the rules, restrictions and censorship imposed by the clerics who run Iran's legal and security systems.

The students in the streets have laid bare the continuing struggle between the country's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and its elected president, Mohammed Khatami, a would-be reformer who has been too weak to make many reforms. Ayatollah Khamenei, no fool, grasps the problem he faces, and has asked the judiciary to reconsider Mr. Aghajari's death sentence. Whether Iran explodes may turn on whether the sentence is carried out or reversed.

To understand the significance of students in the streets of Iran, one needs to grasp recent Iranian history. James Bill, a professor of government at the College of William and Mary and a longtime scholar of Iranian affairs, notes that Iranian students took to the streets in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, and each time shook the reigning Iranian government to its foundations. Students were instrumental in the Islamic revolution that drove the Shah from power and ushered in Iran's current Islamic regime in 1979.

"I don't know when, but I think in the next two to three years we're going to hear the death rattle of the right wing," Bill says. "When students come out of the classrooms and the laboratories and gather in the streets, the situation is very serious."

Today's generation of students has no living memory of Iran's Islamic revolution. Indeed, by some estimates perhaps half of Iran's 70 million people are under the age of 21. They were born after the revolution, and have little appreciation for the way its creation shook a world wondering if it was the wave of the future. Instead, today's students know best the way that government restricts their political and personal liberties.

The man in the middle of all this is Khatami. In his five years as Iran's president, he has given voice to the desire for liberal reforms and greater personal freedom. He has, in short, created expectations.

But he has failed to deliver. He now runs the risk of becoming Iran's Mikhail Gorbachev: a reformer with enough vision to open the door to liberalising change, but without the strength to push his country through the door. He could be overrun by his own followers.

And what is the United States to do? Not much, except to watch carefully. Any move to bless the reformers will only taint them as stooges of America.

The great question is what a US military strike in Iraq might do to the reform movement. If it were to eliminate an entrenched regime next door, it might convince Iran's reformers that change is possible. Or by thrusting Washington deeper into the region's affairs, it might cause unhappy young Iranians to set aside their dissatisfaction and rally around leaders warning of attempted American domination of the region. The fate of Iraq may lie in America's hands, but Iran's lies in the hands of those students in the streets.
 


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