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Iran's revolution at 25: out of gas

Wednesday's silver anniversary marks a peak of political disillusionment.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 11, 2004


Even flying into Tehran at night shows how Iran is ready to celebrate Wednesday - in unprecedented magnitude - the 25th anniversary of the Islamic revolution.

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But the endless strings of bright lights and buildings aglow with the red, green, and white national colors celebrate a political vigor and hope that have now largely faded from Iran.

In 1979, the triumphant toppling of the reviled, US-supported shah changed the face of the Middle East, inspired Islamic militants around the world, and led to humiliation for American diplomats taken hostage for 444 days.

Today, instead of reveling in the Islamic justice and democracy once promised by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iranians are racked with doubts. They question clerical rule, doubt the compatibility of Islam and democracy, and are disillusioned by unmet expectations.

"Behind closed doors, even the clergy is debating velayat-e-faqih [divine rule by clerics] and secularism, and their role in political power," says a Western diplomat. "They are asking: 'Is it so wise that we are running the state, that we are doing things against the will of the people, which is against Islam?' "

Many of the two-thirds of Iran's population who are under 30 - and have little more memory of the revolution than dire warnings from elders that the bloody upheaval must never be repeated - view Wednesday's silver jubilee with apathy.

The crisis between reformers and conservatives continued Tuesday, when the hard-line Guardian Council (a 12-man unelected body) released its official list for the Feb. 20 parliamentary vote - and confirmed the rejection of more than 2,000 candidates as "unfit" to stand.

Analysts say the conservative clerics are trying to retake control of the 290-seat parliament, which they lost to reformers in 2000. The hard-liners calculated that the rejection of candidates would draw only minor protest from a public that has grown disillusioned after seven years of failed democratic reform. They were right.

"After 25 years, we are at the end of attempts to legally reform the system, and there are real fears and worries," says a former revolutionary, whose skepticism is widely echoed.

Wednesday's celebrations are "nice to remind ourselves that we came from that very bloody fighting [of the revolution]," says the analyst, who asked not to be named. "But this is part of a dead end: If you don't want another revolution, and legal reform doesn't work, there is nothing left but a miracle."

In the early years of the revolution, Iran tried to forge a modern Islamic state after decades of repressive and undemocratic rule under Shah Reza Pahlavi, the last emperor during 2,500 years of Persian monarchy.

Ayatollah Khomeini himself warned against handing political power to clerics, and banned them from running in the first two post-revolution presidential races. But in the Shiite branch of Islam - to which nearly all Iranians adhere - political and religious rule has always been entwined.

It was the charismatic Khomeini who determined that final say in all matters should rest with the position of Velayat-e-faqih, the Guardian Theologian seen among Iranian believers as God's deputy on earth. Khomeini assumed that position. Since his death in 1989, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has filled the role.

"To supervise the state is Shia tradition, but to run the state itself is different, and was new with Khomeini," says the Western diplomat.