Yanking the Persian Carpet

Even though President Bush has tagged Iran as "evil," there was nothing evil when President Mohammad Khatami last week challenged the all-powerful Islamic clerics to allow constitutional democracy to flourish.

Mr. Khatami, himself a cleric but with a strong electoral mandate for reform, could finally be launching a second revolution in Iran since the Shah was run out of town in 1979.

To help tip the balance away from theocracy and toward democracy, the United States now needs enough diplomatic silence to avoid giving the the hard-line Guardian Council another reason to rebuke Khatami. Although the US claims some Al Qaeda members have found refuge in Iran, it may have been Khatami's influence that led Iran to hand over 16 Al Qaeda members to Saudi Arabia in June.

The sometimes-timid president plans to introduce a bill in parliament that would expand his executive powers under the constitution. He used strong language to criticize the ability of the ruling clerics to veto reforms passed by parliament: "My repeated warnings on violations of the Constitution have been ignored."

Khatami could call a referendum on the issue if the council vetoes the bill. That might push rising social tensions over Islamic rule onto the streets. Iran's disillusioned youths are becoming a ticking social time bomb in the Mideast; this makes the country's internal politics worth watching.

Mr. Bush has expressed doubts about Khatami's commitment to reform. Let's hope he is wrong. In taking this bold step, Khatami himself seems to be at rope's end in bringing more freedoms to Iran. By seeking a confrontation with the conservative religious leadership, he knows he has 70 percent of the voters behind him.

Iran is a key player in US efforts to bring peace to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And its 66 million people appear far more interested in stability and growth than exporting revolution and terrorism. Iran also needs more democracy to possibly ensure it doesn't develop nuclear weapons.

Rewarding Khatami for his courage, say, with relaxed trade sanctions, might be in the US's interest.

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