ORONO, MAINE — President Bush's encouragement of student demonstrations in Iran may be satisfying neoconservatives in Washington who are pressing for a policy of "regime change," but it is not helping the pro-democracy movement inside Iran. If anything, US rhetoric fuels antidemocratic forces in Iran, just as Mr. Bush's "axis of evil" speech benefited the hard- liners who used it as an opportunity to increase the repression of democratic reformers.
Bush's best course would be simply to allow the internal momentum of Iranian politics move at its own speed.
There's no doubt Iran's burgeoning population of young people (70 percent of Iranians are under the age of 25) is fed up with theocratic rulers who quash any challenges to their conservative social and political grip. The recent slogans chanted on the streets were among the most daring ever heard: "Death to Khamenei" (Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei, the country's unelected Supreme Leader), "Referendum, referendum, the way to save the people," and "People, why are you standing idly by, Iran has turned into Palestine."
In a dramatic development, there have been calls for the resignation of the reformist President Mohamed Khatami, reflecting the growing disillusion of many who twice voted him into power with the hope that he would be able to liberalize the Islamic system. While Mr. Khatami's quiescence toward the hard-liners had disappointed many, he had retained significant residual support - until now.
Bush and his administration, however, should not jump to the conclusion that Iran is ripe for a "democratic revolution." The latest student protests, like those in 1999, reveal more about the weakness of Iran's so-called democracy movement than its strength. While protesters have been clear on what they do not want, they have yet to articulate an alternative. They have no organizational structures, no charismatic leader other than the compromised Khatami, and no mechanism for translating their demands into policies.
Whether the flexing of American muscle next door in Iraq has much to do with the growth of unrest - especially among younger Iranians - is hard to gauge. But it is dangerous for the United States to give the impression that it is willing to intervene and help the opponents of Iran's regime. If the situation deteriorates and the regime begins a massive crackdown (which is a possible scenario) would the US intervene to save those "courageous souls who speak out for freedom in Iran"?
Democratic reformers in Iran learned from the shah's failed attempt at imposed secularism in the 1970s that forced democracy will not take root in Iran. What is happening in Iran today is the most promising trend in the Muslim world: a gradual secularization taking place from below. In all its complexity, Iran stands on the verge of a post-Islamic condition in which the appeal, energy, and symbols of Islam are exhausted.
While students demonstrate in the streets, the most important battle is being waged by intellectuals, religious thinkers, and politicians who are trying to blend constitutional democracy with a redefined Islam that limits itself to inspiring social norms, not running a state. Their success could have a positive impact on the whole Muslim world, from Morocco to Indonesia - an impact that Iran's Islamic revolution never had.
The main contribution that the US could make is to deliver a working, prosperous democracy in Iraq that could act as a model for its neighbors. By effectively democratizing Iraq, the US can boost pro-democracy fighters in Iran much more effectively than by simply declaring support for the pro-democracy forces or - worse - by intervening militarily. As one Iranian intellectual put it: "All our modern revolutions came from inside the country. And, given the level of demands inside the society today, a backward establishment like we have now cannot resist these forces forever - provided there is no outside interference."
• Bahman Baktiari, author of 'Parliamentary Politics in Revolutionary Iran,' is director of the International Affairs Program at the University of Maine.