Pending Regime Change in Iran

As much as American conservatives want the US to push for a regime change in Iran, they should relax. Political turmoil in Tehran is heading that way anyway.

In Iran's awkward mix of democracy and theocracy, the Muslim clerics on the powerful Council of Guardians overplayed their hand this week in a losing battle with elected reformers. The council barred one-third of the current members of parliament from running in the Feb. 20 elections and eliminated more than half of the candidates registered to run.

This was a desperate act, and a clear sign that the self-appointed heirs to the 1979 Islamic Revolution are willing to risk a popular revolt over their clumsy power play.

The head of parliament's security committee, Mohsen Miradamadi, who was one of those barred from running, says the clerics are trying a "coup."

What's really behind this "coup"? The 12-member Council of Guardians, led by Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, doesn't like the way things are headed in Iran. They want to keep more clerics, especially supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, from jumping over to the reform side.

But the slide toward democracy now seems unstoppable. After Mohammad Khatami was elected president as a reformer in a surprise win in 1997, reformers then won control in parliament in the 2000 elections. The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, helped the reformers, allowing the United States to open back-channel talks with the Khatami government over Iran's holding of Al Qaeda members.

Meanwhile the US keeps 130,000 troops in post-Hussein Iraq next door. The government has also come clean with international nuclear inspectors about Iran's secretive nuclear program.

Most of all, the hard-line clerics also face the resentments of jobless youth - more than two-thirds of Iranians are under 30.

If the Council doesn't back down on its aggressive vetting of candidates, the normally moderate Mr. Khatami warns of a "harsh reaction."

This is the biggest political showdown in Tehran in the quarter century since the revolution. While both sides may compromise, that will be difficult: The stakes are high in determining who holds the upper hand in negotiating with a US eager to solve a number of issues. The generous US response to the recent massive earthquake in Bam shows just how eager.

Iran's real battle, however, is finding an interpretation of Islam that can coexist with Western-style democracy.

As Khatami stated last month: "Democracy is the only alternative. We can take it as Muslims."

The US need only wait for that to happen.

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