The Other Middle East Frontline

Iran's restless youths want rights as well as jobs

With the US and Europe fixated on Iraq, where insurgents are trying to stop the masses from adopting democracy, next door in Iran a parallel struggle for democracy remains largely unnoticed. It shouldn't, especially given the West's concern over Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Young Iranians, who make up more than half the population and are restless from massive unemployment, have been pushing for Western-style political and social reforms for nearly a decade. But they've been losing ground to the conservative ruling clerics, especially over the last year, and need discreet international support.

The West has an imminent opportunity to assist them. On Jan. 12, a fresh round of talks will be launched between Iran and a trio of leading European nations. The goal is to strike a grand bargain: In return for a host of economic benefits, Iran will guarantee that its nuclear-power program will not be used to develop nuclear weapons.

Powder keg under the clerics

Why are the ruling mullahs even negotiating? They know that they must create jobs soon if they want to prevent the youths' restlessness from erupting into a rebellion. That gives them an incentive to provide guarantees for cooperating on nuclear issues.

But Western countries, rightly concerned about Iran's nuclear ambitions, should not be content to open their markets and offer other benefits in exchange for security assurances alone. A more fundamental concern must also be addressed: Iran's human rights record.

A government that rules its people with arbitrary interpretations of law and restricts civic freedoms when they interfere with its agenda is unlikely to make a reliable diplomatic partner. Case in point: Iran reneged on previous nuclear agreements.

Thus, in these coming negotiations, the three European Union nations - Britain, France, and Germany - should more strongly insist that improved human rights and basic liberties be part of any final deal.

The struggle for democracy in Iran has reached a critical stage. It's been a quarter century since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 replaced an autocratic secular leader with a cleric-controlled, limited democracy. Under this government, all was (and is) subject to approval by unelected ruling clerics.

By the 1990s, many Iranians were disillusioned by this dubious experiment of imposing Islamic authority over a democracy. In response, they elected reformist cleric Mohammed Khatami to the presidency, much to the surprise of Iran's hard-liners. But despite his early progress, the clerics soon stymied Mr. Khatami's reforms, clamped down on the press, and blocked reform politicians from office.

This crackdown has worsened in recent months, causing the UN General Assembly to pass a new resolution criticizing Iran's human rights record. The world body cited in particular "increased persecution for the peaceful expression of political views, including arbitrary arrest and detention without charge or trial." It also noted some positive developments in Iran's human rights record, however - among them an April announcement of a ban on torture.

But this fall, nearly two dozen Iranian journalists and activists held at a secret detention center were tortured and kept in solitary confinement, according to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) statement released last week.

More recently, two Iranian women were sentenced to death for adultery. One of the women was to hang, while the other was to be stoned. After human rights groups launched protests, both cases were suspended.

Stoning is a legal form of execution for adulteresses in Iran. But the practice has been used rarely since 2002. The change is widely speculated to be the result of pressure from the EU, which has emphasized human rights in trade talks with Iran.

Making an offer Iran can't refuse

The EU trio should be encouraged by that progress and strengthen their call for better human rights for Iranians. They need to be clear that economic benefits will come to Iran only in proportion as it values its people, granting them due process of law and letting them decide the future of their country.

The clerics, squeezed between this international pressure and the restlessness of its young masses, will have little choice but to move Iran forward.

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