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Analysts: Rare Demonstration in Iran Hints at Momentum for Change - 2004-09-27

A rare pro-democracy demonstration took place in Tehran on Sunday, sparked by foreign TV channels and the promise of a Zoroastrian mystic to return to Iran on October 1st and solve the country's problems.

According to press reports, about two thousand people milled around streets in downtown Tehran, many of them driving cars up and down major avenues, honking their horns and flashing victory signs. Hundreds of volunteer militiamen arrived on the scene, but there were no violent clashes.

Demonstrations are rare in Iran, although Iranian students have taken to the streets several times to call for change from the country's conservative clerical leadership. In 1999, the closure of a reformist newspaper led to student protests and six days of rioting. In 2003, thousands of students held nightly marches in Tehran calling for democratic reform.

The demonstration on Sunday appears to have been catalyzed by the statements of a Zoroastrian mystic, Ahura Pirouz Khalegi Yazdi. Dr. Ahura, as he's known, has been appearing regularly for the last three months on a Los Angeles-based Iranian expatriate TV channel, saying he has the spiritual power to heal Iran's problems. He promised to return to Iran on October 1, along with thousands of other expatriates, if Iranians in the country showed their support for him.

Ali Nouri Zadeh is a member of the Arab Iranian Studies Center in London and has a program on the popular expatriate Iranian radio and TV show Yaran. He said Iranians are so desperate for change nowadays that they are willing to believe anything. He added that many who don't put faith in Dr. Ahura's claims still went into the streets out of a desire to see something happen.

"The majority of people who participated in the demonstration came out either out of curiosity or they came out expecting something big is going to happen," he said. "I mean, I was talking to a university professor and he was telling me: I know all this is a shamble, it's crooks, and all of that, but I came out with my wife and my children just to see what's going to happen."

In 2000, reformists aligned with President Mohamed Khatami were voted into power on an agenda for change. But in the last four years, the Council of Guardians, a highly-conservative, 12-man appointed watchdog body which supervises both legislation and elections, has blocked most proposed reforms. Before the country's last parliamentary elections, the Council struck hundreds of reformist candidates from the rolls, ensuring that conservatives returned to control the parliament.

Tensions in Iran have been further aggravated recently as the country's nuclear program has come under international scrutiny. On September 19, the International Atomic Energy Agency told Iran to freeze all operations connected with uranium enrichment or face possible retaliation. But Iranian officials declined to do so, saying that Iran is developing atomic power for peaceful purposes and describing U.S. claims that it is developing nuclear weapons as "lies."

According to Mohamed El-Saiid Abdel Moamen, Professor of Iranian Studies at Ein Shams University, the demonstration points to the broader tension over access to information in Iran. The reformers in government, led by President Khatami, are in favor of greater openness towards the outside world, says Mr. Moamen. The hardliners who surround Iran's supreme spiritual guide Ayatollah Ali Khameni, on the other hand, view foreign media as a threat to their power, and try to curtail access to it.

There's a ban on satellite dishes in Iran, says Mr. Moamen, and the installation of dishes takes place in secret. This is an attempt on the part of the regime to stop foreign cultural infiltration. The regime controls and monitors the foreign channels and penalizes those who are caught watching them.

But according to Mr. Moamen, it is increasingly impossible for the government to control access to TV, radio and the Internet. Expatriate Iranian communities, particularly in the United States, operate several radio and TV channels that oppose the government, says Mr. Moamen, and that have vast audiences.