TCS Daily

One Step Back, Two Steps Forward

By Pejman Yousefzadeh - May 7, 2004 12:00 AM

There is no doubt that the reform movement in Iran has suffered some recent defeats as a result of hardline efforts to marginalize the pro-democracy faction in Iranian politics, and the failures of reform politicians like Iranian president Mohammad Khatami to deliver on their promises. Nevertheless, the hardliners of the Islamic regime fail to capitalize on the political losses suffered by the reformers -- showing that the Iranian people are tuning the regime out, and that conditions in Iran remain ripe for a fundamental change in government.

A detailed Chicago Tribune report on modern day Iran shows the depth of popular disillusionment with the regime. Among the revelations of the Tribune's story is that the Iranian people are working to silently subvert the onerous rules and laws imposed by the regime; that in many cases Iranians blatantly ignore social and cultural restrictions imposed on them by the reigning mullahs; and that they are looking more and more to the West for closer ties and for cultural influences.

The story also reveals that the Iranian people are becoming less religious -- no surprise perhaps, when one considers the horrid personal example shown to Iranians by too many mullahs, but ominous nonetheless for anyone who has a vested interest in the continuation of the regime.

Indeed, dissension from the political positions taken by the hardline clerics is more and more the norm rather than the exception. Consider, for example, this amazing act of dissent -- which must embarrass and frighten supporters of the regime:

"Seyyed Hossein Khomeini, a Shi'ite Islamic cleric like his grandfather the late Ayatollah Khomeini, told the Voice of America had he been in his grandfather's shoes he 'would never have taken such an action as issuing the fatwa against Salman Rushdie.'

"In an exclusive interview that aired today, Khomeini told the VOA Persian television show News and Views that, historically, some Shiite leaders and scholars have considered themselves Velayat Faghih (supreme leaders) who expect people to abide by their verdicts, even when they involve death sentences. Although his grandfather was included in this group, he pointed out Islam accords this kind of decision-making authority only to prophets, not to ordinary people.

"Khomeini went on to say that he is open to the idea of meeting author Salman Rushdie after watching a series of interviews with Rushdie on VOA, believing that he might benefit from the writer's knowledge about religion, especially the religions in the author's native India."

Needless to say, only a few years ago, such prominent dissent would have been unthinkable. Yet now, it is almost commonplace for prominent and politically active Iranians to deviate from the heretofore-unquestioned "wisdom" of their clerical masters.

Of course, none of this is to say that the battle against the Islamic regime's totalitarian policies will automatically or inexorably be won. The good guys don't always win epic political struggles, and even when they do, their victories are oftentimes too late for those whose lives and freedoms are so dramatically curtailed by regressive political forces like Islamic fundamentalism. And when it comes to the struggle in Iran, victory over the hardliners -- while devoutly hoped for -- cannot simply be assumed.

As CIA Director George Tenet recently pointed out in public testimony, there remain obstacles to a displacement of the hardliners in the regime:

"Iran's recent history is studded with incidents of serious civil unrest that erupted in response to the arrogance of local officials -- events like the 1999 student riots that broke out when security forces attacked a dormitory.

"Even so, the Iranian public does not appear eager to take a challenge to the streets -- in Tehran, apathy is the prevailing mood, and regime intimidation has cowed the populace. This mix keeps the regime secure for now."

I don't know if I would go so far as to describe the current mood as "apathetic." "Disillusioned" might be a better word. But whatever the case, it is clear that bringing about political reform in Iran cannot be taken for granted.

If it is encouragement that the Iranian people need to ramp up their fight against the regime, we in the United States are amply equipped to provide it. We remain capable of beaming satellite television pictures into Iranian homes -- many of which are produced and prepared by Iranian expatriates here in the United States -- to counter regime propaganda. We can continue to give Iranians a different outlet for news and views by enhancing the Persian language service of the Voice of America. And we can increase the pressure on Iranian hardliners while giving pro-democracy advocates a much-needed public boost by regularly calling attention to, and denouncing the amount of political repression, torture, and censorship that currently goes on in Iran and that stands in the way of democratic reforms.

Those who long to see the Islamic regime replaced can help overcome the remaining roadblocks to reform by taking specific actions to aid the reform cause. With all signs indicating that the Islamic regime is decrepit, out of touch, and deeply unpopular, there is no reason to wait.


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