Cultivating Iran's next reform

Iran's phony election is over and there is no great gain for the cause of democracy.

The hard-liners who run the country - specifically the 12-man Guardian Council appointed or approved by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei - barred thousands of opposition candidates from running, thereby guaranteeing its own control of the 290-seat parliament.

The reformers were vanquished and their forces demoralized. So where does Iran go from here?

Not, apparently, down the road to gradual change for the better, which the opposition had been working for. Instead, the "dictatorship of the mullahs," as one foreign expert on Iran calls it, is emboldened in power, their "economic benefits, their state enterprises, and non-spiritual interests" safely preserved.

With the reformers themselves disheartened, and the students and women who supported them disillusioned, a new kind of protest movement must emerge if change is to come from inside Iran.

Discontent is rife, particularly among the two-thirds of the population under 35. The economy is stagnant and there are only about 400,000 jobs for the million or so Iranians who enter the job market each year. Political activists are tossed into jail and pro-reform newspapers are shut down. There is major disaffection with an extremist Islamic regime, but that regime has cleverly relaxed some of its more severe social restrictions - chadoors have become tighter-fitting; women display makeup. There is hand-holding in public, and some wild partying, without official reprisals.

Yet apathy is so widespread, experts say, that political protests that might shake the government are unlikely. Nobody can foresee whether a more robust and broader-based reform movement might emerge.

With the mullahs thus entrenched, what can we expect of Iran internationally? Not much, apparently, in the direction of rapprochement with the US. Tehran would like an end to the isolation that is sorely affecting its economy. Privately, Iranian officials claim to have been helpful to the US in Afghanistan and Iraq. But though there have been gentle probings from Washington suggesting dialogue, the overtures have lain dormant without reciprocation.

Iran, after intercession by the British, French, and Germans, has recently made a number of admissions to the International Atomic Energy Agency about the extent of its secret nuclear-development program, which is a source of concern to the West, and especially to the Bush administration. But whether Iran was frank enough remains to be seen. It has argued that the program was always intended for peaceful purposes. But a new discovery of an advanced centrifuge, apparently a Pakistani copy of a German design, hidden in an Iranian Air Force base, raises questions about links to the Iranian military and its nuclear program.

In the midst of a reelection campaign at home, President Bush is unlikely to embrace any dramatic reversal of policy before November toward a country he included in his "axis of evil." And with a lot of unfinished business in Iraq, any kind of US military action against Iran is, to say the least, unlikely.

Ironically, America's contribution to constructive change in Iran might be made not in Iran itself, but in neighboring Iraq, where the US is striving to create a free and modern state.

Iran's internal politics may be stagnating under repression, and its foreign policy may be frozen in its isolation, but what happens in Iraq could be a catalyst for change in Iran. If Iraq can become a burgeoning economic power under a democratic system of government; if Iraq can become a model religious state not run by a theocracy, the ripple effect upon Iran could be significant.

In the meantime, the US must continue to be vigilant about Iran's nuclear pretensions, offer moral support to the forces advocating democracy in Iran, and await the trend of events.

John Hughes is a former editor of the Monitor.

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