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Analysts Debate Taking Advantage of Political Divisions in Iran - 2002-08-14


Iran claims it has cooperated in the war on terrorism by handing over 16 al-Qaida fighters to Saudi Arabia. But U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said Iran continues to harbor terrorists. This ambiguity reflects the politics of present-day Iran, divided between reformers and conservative clerics.

Despite overwhelming popular support and landslide election victories, Iran's reformers are losing the battle, says Said Arjomand, professor of sociology at the State University of New York. He believes they lack a realistic strategy and a willingness to fight.

"There was a lot of wishful thinking on their part that they could really talk and the conservatives, the theocratic government's proponents, would simply listen to them and change their ways, which was very naďve," he said. "They are still not organized effectively. They have not been able to exert any pressure on the regime, and slowly there has been this demoralization. The people are tired of waiting."

The reformers are also lacking an effective leader, says Professor Arjomand. President Khatami has not lived up to expectations. He appears to be more suited to the classroom than to the rough and tumble of politics.

"I think he is too gentle. He is not a fighter. He is not assertive. So the clerics who are his seniors, really got the better of him," he said. "They kind of smile and hug him, and then they go and destroy his allies. And he just smiles back. He keeps lecturing instead of being a real leader of this movement."

But remember that President Khatami is only the number two man in Iran, notes a report by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, composed of former policy makers and academicians from a variety of countries.

Supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei has the greater power, which he exercises on behalf of the clerics. The 12 jurists, half of them clerics, on the Council of Guardians act as a de facto upper chamber that can veto legislation of the reform-minded parliament.

Even so, says the ICG report, slowly but surely Iranian civil space is expanding with the clerical side in retreat. Technocrats are becoming more prominent as they favor economic development over insisting on the fine points of religion.

There will be many up's and down's until reform prevails, says Abbas Amanat, professor of history at Yale University and author of the forthcoming book, "In Search of Modern Iran." Freedom will not come easily, but come it will. And it will come at the hands of the current kind of reformers, he says.

He believes it is a mistake to be too impatient with them because there is no real alternative. There is no use trying to appeal over their heads to the general populace.

"If you are excluding Khatami and his supporters, who else would remain there that you can address? The general public has not in any way been politically organized since the regime made sure that there would not be any force of opposition," he said. "So the general appeal does not really go too far."

Professor Amanat doubts any kind of popular uprising will occur. Revolutionary passions are spent.

He adds that criticism by the United States and the international community is important. "I do not think this should come with sheer threats to the very existence of the regime or God forbid, some kind of a military action," he said. "Rather, it should be a very pointed and clear criticism of the policies of the present regime with names, with specific cases so that it would allow the forces of the opposition to take advantage of this kind or criticism."

The ICG report advises: "The complexity of Iran's domestic situation makes it all the more difficult, but also imperative, for the international community to exercise caution, properly fine-tune its actions and anticipate their impact."

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