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In Iran, a 'second revolution' gathers steam

Ten days of pro-democracy protests spur militants to counter with a show of conservative force in the streets.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 29, 2002


The deep roots of Iran's Islamic Revolution give meaning to the life of Zeinab Bolooki, an Iranian mother who sacrificed a son during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.

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Every Friday, draped in black, Mrs. Bolooki visits the vast martyr's cemetery south of Tehran, sponges off the white marble tombstone of her son and sprinkles it with a mother's love and red flower petals.

The fierce dedication to Islam, the Iraq-Iran war, and the 1979 revolution once made Bolooki's family quintessential supporters of Iran's conservative clerics. But their desire for reform is indicative of a significant change below the surface of the political battle now playing itself out in Tehran.

"It's like a volcano coming up, which you can't see until it blows." says one Iranian analyst here.

Hardline supporters of the regime vow to bring five million militants onto the streets today, in a climactic show of strength designed to counter 10 days of prodemocracy student protests this month.

More Iranians are choosing sides in an explosive debate that pits Islamic rule - defined by Iran's unelected conservatives, who have held key levers of power since the Islamic revolution - against popular democracy.

Some see the building tension as an indication that another revolution is coming. But the views of once-bedrock pillars of the regime - like Bolooki's conservative family - signal that Iran's second revolution, quietly but surely, is already under way.

"The people have the right to rule themselves, and that right is given by God himself," says Ayatollah Moussavi Tabrizi, the former chief justice of Iran's revolutionary courts, now a reformist attorney. "The system has to respect the people to survive."

A Western diplomat says that the current regime "is under more pressure than at any time since the revolution. Something has to give," he says. "Reformers are no longer prepared to compromise. [President Mohamad] Khatami is still regarded as the only one who can peacefully bring about change, and that's what people really want."

"If [the system] survives the next year intact, I think it will survive," says the diplomat, adding that the conservative camp may not grasp the changes afoot. "It's the same with all dictators - they do not see their own demise."

The Bolookis are evidence of the erosion of that camp. "It's an honor for us, that Iraj [her son] was chosen by God to be a martyr," says Bolooki, pausing for a moment from the weekly graveside wash. The Iran-Iraq war has always been cast here as sacred enterprise, like the revolution itself. The families that gave up so much have never doubted the revolution, or questioned the divine right to rule of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei.

Bolooki and her family, though support the demands for change from Iranian President Khatami.

"We voted for Khatami - every Iranian voted for him - and we hope 100 percent that he does his [reform] agenda," says Bolooki's husband, Morteza Ahroon, lowering a copy of the Koran from his eyes for a moment to speak, while standing next to his son's grave.

And what if hard-liners carry out vows to continue blocking that agenda? "It's like when we go to the battlefront," Mr. Ahroon explains. "We are committed to fight to the end."

Such views are sacrilege to Iran's conservative leaders. But Ayatollah Tabrizi notes that proreform views are now as prevalent among martyrs 'families, the Revolutionary Guards corps, and clerics, as they are in liberal circles.