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As Protests Continue in Iran Many Wonder if this Time They Will Bring Change - 2003-06-23

Just back from a visit to Iran, Abbas Amanat says the current demonstrations differ from previous ones.

“There is a sense of expectation,” he says, “an intense sense of expectation among all levels of the Iranian population for a change. And that change, for better or for worse, has been associated with some kind of pressure from outside rather than solely an initiative from inside Iran. Certainly, the United States seems to play a very important part in the Iranian assumption of what is going to happen in the future.”

U.S. armed forces are now next door in Iraq, notes Mr. Amanat, who is chairman of Middle East Studies at Yale University. And President Bush says nuclear weapons will not be tolerated in Iran. Geopolitics has been rearranged in the region, not necessarily to Iran’s advantage. The clerical government, says Professor Amanat, is on the defensive.

The rhetoric of the protesters, particularly the students, has been stronger this time, says Shaul Bakhash, professor of Middle East history at George Mason University. “Hang the supreme leader, Ayatollah al-Khamanei,” some shouted. Doing this in a repressive environment is quite significant, says Professor Bakhash.

“The slogans that the students used called not only for democracy but were aimed directly at the supreme leader,” he says. “They were a multi-campus and a multi-city phenomenon. The students were joined by members of the middle class who came out in their cars to honk horns and give moral support to the students. I think the fact that the regime in the end saw these as a serious threat is borne out by their use of thugs and bully-boys to beat up the students and attack them with clubs and knives and chains.”

But Professor Backhash cautions that there are still limits to protests. They will not bring down the regime until other key elements of the society join in. Above all, say analysts, we await the verdict of the so-called bazaar, the wealthy merchants who figure prominently in the economy.

But courage is what counts, says Professor Backhash, and there is more on display than before.

“We also have had in the last few weeks statements signed by a large number of Majlis deputies calling for greater openness and democracy,” he says. “And just in the last few days, 135 intellectuals, writers, newspapermen and political activists not only calling for democratization, but clearly calling into question the extremely wide powers exercised by the leader and the fact that he is considered to be above criticism or supervision.”

U.S. President Bush praised the demonstrations as another blow struck for freedom by the people of Iran. His administration appears to have concluded that the reformers within the Tehran government, under President Mohammad Khatami, are not capable of achieving this freedom. It is up to the people.

Michael Ledeen, a neo-conservative writer on international affairs, emphasizes this point in an interview with VOA’s Farsi service. He says of the protest movement:

“It encompasses all classes of people and all walks of life, as well as all age groups, young people, old people. It’s not just young students demanding special privileges for themselves. It’s a national movement of all people demanding freedom. They have clearly given up any hope of peaceful internal evolutionary change; that is, reform is finished because they want Khatami to go along with the others.”

Mr. Ledeen calls Iran the most dangerous terrorist state. The U.S. Government strongly criticizes what it believes to be an Iranian effort to develop nuclear weapons and says it must be prevented. A more moderate, democratic government in Iran could remove the problem.

Iranians reply that their country, like North Korea, needs nuclear arms to prevent a U.S. attack. Iranian foreign minister Kamal Kharrazi says Iran would allow inspection of its nuclear facilities if all economic sanctions and other restrictions on it are lifted.

There are various reports of U.S. plans for possible military action against Iran. Michael Ledeen, among others, says that is not going to happen. In the case of Iran, Washington believes in moral, not military suasion. Iranians will determine their own destiny.

“The day that all the central squares of the major cities of Iran are full of people demonstrating against the government and demanding that they go, that regime will come to an end,” he says. “And there is no room really for military operations in that scenario. It is a political revolution. It is not a military uprising.”

The Iranian regime is also jeopardized by the state of its economy. Islamist rule has not made the progress it promised. Foreign Affairs quarterly reports that even though there has been a 100% rise in annual oil income since the 1979 Islamist revolution, per capita income has declined by at least 30%. While the government admits that 15% of the population lives below the poverty line, private estimates run as high as 40%.

A survey conducted by Iran’s interior ministry shows that almost 90 % of Iranians are dissatisfied with the government. Twenty-eight per cent want fundamental change, and 66% favor gradual reforms. Less than 11% are satisfied with the status quo.

In Foreign Affairs, Jahangir Amuzegar, an international economic consultant and a finance minister in the pre-1979 Iranian government, writes that civil society is rapidly expanding in Iran. Non-governmental organizations are forming by the thousands to deal with a variety of social problems. Though many newspaper have been shut down, others are taking their place, and close to two million Iranians have access to the Internet.

This burst of information can lead to regime change, but Professor Amanat is not certain what would follow.

“What is not very clear is the alternative,” he says, “namely, if the predominance of the clerical elite is going to be questioned, very few people would vouch for the so-called reformers that are supporting President Khatami. They have been largely, if not entirely discredited in the eyes of the majority of Iranians as an alternative to the high-ranking clergy.”

Professor Amanat says westerners should not expect their secular style of government to be imitated in Iran. It is bound to be something else. The clerics will be gone and their fundamentalist power, but religious influence will linger.

“One can say with some certainty that the majority of the people in Iran are no longer in favor of a religious regime of any sort or indeed a regime that would be dominated by religious principles,” he says. “This, however, does not mean that the Iranian people are entirely turned away from religion. Islam indeed is going to be a very powerful force in the Iranian society but not necessarily as part of the political setup that hopefully will emerge in Iran.”

The clerical government has reacted to the protests with some caution and restraint. The police have not been unleashed, and vigilante attacks on students have subsided. There are fears that the use of too much force may prompt other groups to join the protest and lead to an all-out challenge to the regime.