In Iran, a 'second revolution' gathers steam

Ten days of pro-democracy protests spur militants to counter with a show of conservative force in the streets.

The deep roots of Iran's Islamic Revolution give meaning to the life of Zeinab Bolooki, an Iranian mother who sacrificed a son during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.

Every Friday, draped in black, Mrs. Bolooki visits the vast martyr's cemetery south of Tehran, sponges off the white marble tombstone of her son and sprinkles it with a mother's love and red flower petals.

The fierce dedication to Islam, the Iraq-Iran war, and the 1979 revolution once made Bolooki's family quintessential supporters of Iran's conservative clerics. But their desire for reform is indicative of a significant change below the surface of the political battle now playing itself out in Tehran.

"It's like a volcano coming up, which you can't see until it blows." says one Iranian analyst here.

Hardline supporters of the regime vow to bring five million militants onto the streets today, in a climactic show of strength designed to counter 10 days of prodemocracy student protests this month.

More Iranians are choosing sides in an explosive debate that pits Islamic rule - defined by Iran's unelected conservatives, who have held key levers of power since the Islamic revolution - against popular democracy.

Some see the building tension as an indication that another revolution is coming. But the views of once-bedrock pillars of the regime - like Bolooki's conservative family - signal that Iran's second revolution, quietly but surely, is already under way.

"The people have the right to rule themselves, and that right is given by God himself," says Ayatollah Moussavi Tabrizi, the former chief justice of Iran's revolutionary courts, now a reformist attorney. "The system has to respect the people to survive."

A Western diplomat says that the current regime "is under more pressure than at any time since the revolution. Something has to give," he says. "Reformers are no longer prepared to compromise. [President Mohamad] Khatami is still regarded as the only one who can peacefully bring about change, and that's what people really want."

"If [the system] survives the next year intact, I think it will survive," says the diplomat, adding that the conservative camp may not grasp the changes afoot. "It's the same with all dictators - they do not see their own demise."

The Bolookis are evidence of the erosion of that camp. "It's an honor for us, that Iraj [her son] was chosen by God to be a martyr," says Bolooki, pausing for a moment from the weekly graveside wash. The Iran-Iraq war has always been cast here as sacred enterprise, like the revolution itself. The families that gave up so much have never doubted the revolution, or questioned the divine right to rule of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei.

Bolooki and her family, though support the demands for change from Iranian President Khatami.

"We voted for Khatami - every Iranian voted for him - and we hope 100 percent that he does his [reform] agenda," says Bolooki's husband, Morteza Ahroon, lowering a copy of the Koran from his eyes for a moment to speak, while standing next to his son's grave.

And what if hard-liners carry out vows to continue blocking that agenda? "It's like when we go to the battlefront," Mr. Ahroon explains. "We are committed to fight to the end."

Such views are sacrilege to Iran's conservative leaders. But Ayatollah Tabrizi notes that proreform views are now as prevalent among martyrs 'families, the Revolutionary Guards corps, and clerics, as they are in liberal circles.

Iranians gave Mr. Khatami nearly 80 percent of the popular vote and elected a proreform parliament in three elections since 1997. But those landslides have not convinced conservatives to loosen their grip. Two key bills now before parliament seek to limit their power. But even if passed, the bills must be approved by the same authorities they are meant to limit.

Their passage "will be the greatest service done to Islam, and to the survival of the [Islamic] system," says Ayatollah Tabrizi. If the bills are vetoed, "reformists may reconsider their behavior, in a lawful way ... and the legitimacy and credibility of the system will be questioned.

Meanwhile, the rhetoric is escalating. A week ago, supreme leader Khamenei ordered a halt to students demonstrating in support of a university professor facing a death sentence for insulting Islam. Launching National Basiji Week this past Sunday, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the powerful former president, said that the procleric militants must prevent "Satan's cavalry and infantry" from causing insecurity.

The Basiji provoked several low-key clashes in recent weeks with students, who chanted "Death to the Taliban, in Kabul and Tehran," and openly questioned the rule of Mr. Khamenei's office of Velayat-e-faqih. Top reform leaders on Sunday warned students to avoid a violent confrontation, to prevent a "state of emergency."

Two events this year frame the debate in Iran. The first was President Bush's labeling of Iran as part of an "axis of evil." The second was the resignation of a senior prayer leader in Isfahan in July and the devastating accusations he made in an open letter.

"When I remember the promises and pledges of the revolution, I tremble like a willow thinking of my faith," wrote Ayatollah Jaluddin Taheri, a long-venerated cleric who has since been placed under house arrest.

Ayatollah Taheri struck at the ruling clerics as corrupt hypocrites and a "gang of shroud-wearers," whose "deviations" were undermining Islamic rule. He accused Khamenei of being propped up by "louts and fascists, who sharpen the teeth of the crocodile of power."

While the volatile drama plays itself out enthusiasm for icons of the revolution is flagging. Adjacent to the martyrs' cemetery is the gold-domed shrine to the leader of the revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, revered here as the "Imam of the Age."

Normally, there's standing room only in the cavernous complex. But on the first Friday of the holy month of Ramadan in early November - an especially holy day for religious obeisance - just a few worshipers were seen.

The sparse turnout shocks analysts in Tehran, because of what it says about the crisis in the hardline camp. "This means that Khatami ... has been able to change many things in Iran, even though you can't see them clearly," says an Iranian analyst.

"The basic problem since Khatami was first elected, is that if you take the reform process to its logical end, you get regime change," says a European diplomat in Tehran. "The big question is: Are we closer to an open fight, where 80 percent of the people will tell the rest that they are a minority?"

But the influence of that minority remains large. "It doesn't take many," says an Iranian academic, who asked not to be named. "In Tehran, if you have 10,000 people - and they have that number - that can stop everything."

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