Iran sanctifies misuse of power

Things have been quiet in Iran since the student riots of July. The conservative clergy that runs the country quickly put the lid back on, but the next outbreak is only a matter of time. Demonstrators clamored for freedom of the press and the rule of law. Their fury showed the urgency and depth of demands for nothing less than the right to crack the official mold and live their own lives.

The background is President Mohamad Khatami's struggle for liberal reform against the clerical establishment's refusal to change. Parliamentary passage of a sharply restrictive press law sounded the alarm. The banning of Salam, the oldest liberal Tehran newspaper, touched things off.

With national elections due next spring, the regime will not allow its critics full freedom to campaign. The next parliament will either give Khatami the support he needs for modernization and democracy or back the Islamic system brought in by Ayatollah Khomeini 20 years ago. For the people of Iran, especially the youth, this is an issue of destiny. The voting age, male and female, is 15.

Iran's condition today is dismal in every respect. Behind restraints on human rights - in dress and behavior - is an economic decline that affects the realities of life.

Since 1979, the population has grown from 35 million to 65 million. The economy hasn't grown near enough to provide the jobs and opportunities of a normal existence. Unemployment is high, and so are prices. Young people hoping to marry face a housing shortage.

Despite a recent revival of oil prices, the economy is a shambles. Current difficulties cry out for diversification to create jobs - and for foreign investment to create that diversification and those jobs. But the state channels scarce resources to oil and gas production. Energy is the largest hard-currency export but is not labor intensive. Investors are repelled by prevailing incompetence, corruption, and mismanagement.

The revolution put most of the economy, some estimates say 80 percent, into the hands of the bloated government which devours subsidies. Gasoline prices are the lowest in the world, but consumption outstrips Iranian refinery capacity, so the government must import some gasoline.

Enormous conglomerates like the state foundation that administers the confiscated business properties of the former shah bumble along as they please. Privatization to shake things up is hardly even talked about. An agricultural country, Iran must import food.

Observers speak of systemic corruption by a network of clerics determined to remain in power and those the clerics select to run the economic machinery. These people are chosen not for competence, but for loyalty. They are rewarded with contracts, jobs, and privileges.

The judiciary is under right-wing control. The baseej goon squads that broke up the July demonstrations are part of a security apparatus under the authority not of the president but of the supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

In these circumstances, the call for reform, for freedom of expression, and the rule of law has profound practical significance: to create a level playing field for individuals, entrepreneurs, and investors.

The reformers aren't challenging Islam but the misuse of religion to sanctify the perversion of power.

Their success would help to stabilize a region whose wobbly structures are a matter of serious concern to Europe and the US.

Two decades after the infamous seizure of the US embassy and its staff in Tehran, the Clinton administration expresses some appreciation of what Khatami is trying to do. But the US is a spectator of events. As a player, it would have influence. But its policy is still to isolate and punish Iran. The clerics, for whom an external enemy is a propaganda asset, can still raise a cry of "Death to America."

*Richard C. Hottelet, a longtime foreign correspondent for CBS, writes on world affairs.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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