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Opposition to Iran's Clerical Rule is Growing - 2003-07-08

Bahman Baktiari, a professor of international affairs at the University of Maine, reflects the thoughts of countless Iranians at home and abroad. "Regime change is inevitable in Iran. I do not mean a forced or military change. I mean it as evolutionary, gradually taking place. The Iranian regime today, the clerical regime, is far weaker than ten years ago when they had much more control."

Mr. Baktiari writes in the Christian Science Monitor that "what is happening in Iran today is the most promising trend in the Muslim world: a gradual secularization taking place from below." The Iranian government is escaping the coils of strict Islamist rule.

At the heart of the opposition are Iranian youths who now account for 70 percent of the country's population. Analysts note they have little loyalty to a 1979 theocratic revolution that occurred before they were born and has led to an oppressive rule they want to end.

Their recent ten-day protests were perhaps the stormiest to date. They demanded that Supreme Leader Khamenei answer to the people and not claim to speak for God. In response, a senior cleric said they should be charged with waging war on God, a crime that carries the death penalty. When the students faced club-wielding vigilantes, they fought back until they were beaten into submission or carted off to jail.

The students have shown their mettle, say analysts. Now they must get organized. Thanks to repression as well as individualism, the regime's opponents tend to act on their own. Nor has a leadership emerged capable of uniting the various groups.

This is a critical problem, says Said Arjomand, a professor at the State University of New York who has recently returned from a trip to Iran. "There is obviously widespread discontent with the regime, and there are several groups, the students, being the most obvious one, and various other elements in society who are trying to express their discontent. But the problem is lack of organization. There does not seem to be any overarching organization or any contact among them. And that I think is serious because each group is trying to do something without much coordination."

Non-governmental organizations are rapidly forming in Iran with some help from the ministry of the interior. They contribute to Iran's spreading civil society, says Professor Baktiari, though they are narrowly focused in pursuit of a particular goal. "So you have a lot of women NGO's that pursue greater flexibility for women in the regime. There are several youth NGO's that pursue cultural flexibility and cultural autonomy for youths, and there are several NGO's that are active in terms of dialogue and search for a common ground. There are a variety of them, and they also provide another area of challenge to the Islamic regime today."

But to mount an effective challenge, says Professor Baktiari, NGO's must learn to work together, to build bridges to one another and to other like-minded groups. This lack of organization, he says, leads in frustration to periodic outbursts, cycles of enthusiasm that come and go. Better to have a steady application of political pressure.

And one other bridge is also needed to clerical opponents within the regime. It is true, says Professor Baktiari, that the reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, has proved disappointing, but there are a growing number of others who can be enlisted in the opposition. "There is a group of clerics who have coalesced around the ideas of Khatami for civil society and a greater opening within Iran, and they enjoy substantial support among the younger clerics in the seminaries. So I will say today one of the major areas of combat within the Iranian regime is not so much between the students and the regime but rather within the clerical establishment between different clerics."

Writing in Foreign Affairs journal, Jahangir Amuzegar says it is a mistake to think Iran's Shia clergy are a unified force. A highly unstructured hierarchy allows ten or so grand mullahs to have their own disciples and issue their own religious edicts.

An international economic consultant and a former Iranian cabinet minister, Mr. Amuzegar cites the case of Ayatollah Taheri, who resigned from his post as Leader of Friday Prayers in Isfahan. Though he had participated in the 1979 revolution and shared its values, he condemned the clerical rule that has led to unemployment, drug addiction and disregard for the law.

Mr. Amuzegar writes that this was the harshest criticism ever leveled at the regime by an insider. Supreme Leader Khamenei dismissed the attack but conceded some of the points were valid.

Bruce Laingen is president of the American Academy of Diplomacy and was one of the 53 Americans taken hostage in Iran in 1979. With first-hand knowledge of the wrath of the mullahs, he nevertheless agrees they are open to change. "There are some elements of the clerical leadership in Tehran, the clerical community, who feel that Khomeini, the founder of the revolution, took religion into the secular branch of government in a sense to dominate it. There are many clerics in the Shia community in Iran who feel that was a departure from Shia norms, and I think those who feel that way will increasingly be heard from in the months and years ahead."

Still, change has only gone so far. He and the other surviving hostages await an invitation from the government of Iran to return as guests rather than prisoners.

He believes Iranians will take their time about changing. Their slow pace is to some extent calculated. "I sense that among the mass of the Iranian people, however much they may want change, they do not want forceful, dramatic, violent change. They had that up to their ears in the hostage crisis, in the Iran-Iraq war, in the revolution. They are prepared to express their views but not to encourage institutional change at this point. I do not anticipate revolution, but there has to be evolutionary change."

Like others, Professor Arjomand is opposed to foreign intervention in Iran, which he says would do more harm than good. But he favors extensive contacts outside the country, especially with Iranians abroad. "America and Europe, I think, could do a lot by first of all covering these demonstrations and activities, pressing for fair trial of the large number of people who have been arrested. I would say any kinds of non-political, cultural, civic, human rights contacts with Iran. All those could be very helpful."

Professor Arjomand says Iran welcomes this kind of outside help while taking charge of its own destiny.