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Iranian Reformers Step Up Calls for Change in Leadership's Hard-Line Policies

Reformers in Iran are creating new challenges to the country's hard-line leaders. They say change must come from within or Iran will face the same fate as Afghanistan's Taleban or Iraq's Saddam Hussein.

About 130 reformist lawmakers in Iran warned hard-liners recently that the country is facing a crisis. In a strongly worded protest letter issued Sunday, they accused the conservatives of stalling reforms and denying the will of Iran's voters.

They said there has been no time in Iran's recent history as critical as the present because the lack of political and social reforms has intersected with a clear U.S. intention to change the geopolitical map of the Persian Gulf, as demonstrated in Iraq.

Analysts say the letter from the lawmakers, which did not have the backing of Mohammed Khatami, Iran's reform-minded president, was so hot that Iranian authorities banned its publication.

Last week, another protest letter did make it into Iran's press. More than 115 liberal dissidents and intellectuals railed against the conservative clerics, whom they accused of clinging to power by misusing religion. They said the hard-liners have been implementing a reactionary interpretation of Islam.

They warned that without extensive reforms, Iran's clerics could go the way of Saddam Hussein and the Taleban.

Iran analyst, Pakinam el Sharkawy, a political science professor at Cairo University, said the reformists are calling for the hard-liners to wake up and make the internal changes Iranians have longed called for.

"The tools that the parliament and intellectual elite usually use are these open letters," she explained. "And it usually happens when there is a real need or a turning point in the course of the system. It was happening before, after the Afghanistan war, and they really wanted to reopen the discussion with the United States. This time it is happening again after the war in Iraq."

Ms. Sharkawy said the reformists are using the U.S.-led campaign in neighboring Iraq to urge Iran's leaders to implement needed changes.

"The moderates say we have to take the lesson from Iraq and we begin for ourselves an internal reform to prevent any action against us," said Ms. Sharkawy. "But the conservatives, I do not think, will listen so much to this dialogue. They are just waiting for what will be the next step [by] the United States of America."

In recent days, U.S. officials have accused Iran of harboring members of the al-Qaida terrorist network who were involved in suicide bombings in Saudi Arabia earlier this month. They also accuse Iran of meddling in post-war Iraq and of pursuing a secret nuclear weapons program. Iran denies the charges.

Diplomatic pressure on Iran could intensify very soon. In mid-June, the International Atomic Energy Agency is expected to issue a decision regarding Iran's nuclear program. Though Iran insists that its uranium-enrichment plant at Natanz is entirely peaceful, the United States charges that Iran is actively working to develop a nuclear-weapons capability. The United States wants the energy agency to declare Iran in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Iran says it wants to exploit uranium deposits in order to become self-sufficient in nuclear fuel. It also says it has arrested and deported 500 al-Qaida suspects over the past year.

Iran's ambassador to the United Nations, Javad Zarif, said his government is trying to identify a group of al-Qaida suspects now in custody and could turn them over to Saudi Arabia. He added that Iran is willing to deal with the United States on these concerns.

"If the United States is prepared to deal seriously with the issues that are of concern to us and probably with issues of concern to the United States, then there won't be any problem," said Mr. Zarif. "And we are interested in a process of reducing tensions with the United States. But we will certainly not respond to a language of pressure and intimidation."

Iran expert, Ahmed Menissy, at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, said he believes the United States is putting pressure on Iran because it wants it to change its behavior, and not necessarily its government.

He says the United States is putting pressure on Iran to confine it to its borders and not to meddle in U.S. efforts in Iraq. But he adds that if the United States attempts to bring an end to the present government in Iran and install one more favorable to the United States, then the United States would find that change almost impossible to achieve.

Mr. Menissy also says the United States should not think it can play on the rivalry that exists between Iran's reformists and hard-liners. He says the reformists would never accept that. Instead, he says, the reformists will make the case that foreign interference must be avoided at all costs and the only way to do that is to bring about needed political changes.

Among the changes the reformists are urging, he says, are the establishment of an independent judiciary and an end to arrests and illegal summonses by the courts.