Iran's inner wrestling

Iran's image as a bastion of theocracy has been showing cracks ever since Mohammad Khatami won the Islamic Republic's presidency in 1997. A moderate by Iranian standards, the new president has opened doors to freer expression and wider international contacts. But the openings - such as the publication of newspapers critical of the clerical establishment - have been followed by renewed efforts to slam doors. Iran's security and law enforcement mechanisms, after all, remain firmly in the hands of the top religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. By far the most ominous silencing of voices of change occurred late last year when five Iranian dissidents, three writers, and a husband-and-wife team active in opposition politics, were murdered. The outcry within Iran, and the criticism from outside, have been sharp and sustained. Now, an official announcement has placed the blame for the killings on overzealous officers within the Ministry of Intelligence. That agency is among those over which President Khatami has had no authority. The president's supporters are pushing for reforms that put the ministry, and its network of spies and agents, under normal governmental - instead of clerical - control. That could revolutionize the Islamic revolution. The Intelligence Ministry is closely allied with the most conservative religious authorities. It's hard to say where a shake-up of the ministry might lead. But there's little question that the official admission of criminal behavior by ministry personnel both springs from, and will add to, the Iranian public's readiness for change and its willingness to criticize the current clerical system. Iran is a pivotal nation. It occupies a crossroads of global energy trade and is center stage between regions jostled by long-running conflicts. Any evidence there of less rigid government, with a capacity for self-correction and reform, is welcome.

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