Jewish World Review July 19, 2002 / 10 Menachem-Av, 5762

David Warren

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The end is nigh | Iran has come to the boil. Against the background of huge public demonstrations, the reformist party that controls the largest block of seats in the elected but largely powerless Iranian Parliament yesterday threatened to walk out, if the ayatollahs continued to stall measures for social and political change.

The party's leader, Reza Khatami (brother of the Iranian president who is now discredited as a reform leader) delivered a rebuke to the tyranny the ayatollahs have imposed. He said their stalling will leave the Iranian people with only two choices: "dictatorship or uprising". He was following in the footsteps of Ayatollah Jalaleddin Taheri, the Imam of Isfahan, who resigned last week in protest against clerical absolutism.

With the deterioration of Iran's political situation, has come a small but significant change in American policy towards the country.

Last Friday afternoon, while the media were checking out for the weekend, the U.S. president, George W. Bush, delivered his most under-reported speech. It was timed to land Friday morning in Iran, Islamic sermon time, and this was part of the intended effect. The White House was delivering a "maximal" affront to Iran's "maximal" Shia fundamentalist regime. The speech deviated from the previous U.S. policy, which had been re-enunciated earlier in the week at a State Department press conference, of having nothing to say about Iranian demonstrations. It was fed to Iran in Persian ("Farsi" to the snobs), by a private, Iranian-exile satellite TV station in Los Angeles.

Mr. Bush weighed in with the demonstrators who had taken to the streets, by the hundred thousand in Tehran, Isfahan, Shiraz, Tabriz, and by the ten thousand in Meshed and elsewhere -- huge events that also went almost unreported in our mainstream media.

Without naming names (as he also had not in his June speech disowning Yasser Arafat), he showed the U.S. no longer makes subtle distinctions between the "moderate reformist" President Mohammad Khatami, and the "hardline" theocratic regime of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei; just as the demonstrators in Iran have ceased to make this subtle distinction, now observed exclusively by the ethereal types in Europe's foreign offices. In the last couple of years it has been clear to everybody else that the two -- Khamenei and Khatami -- are a Mutt and Jeff act, trying to prevent the regime from collapsing.

In every matter of significance, including rhetorical support for Hezbollah terror, Mr. Khatami sides unreservedly with the other ayatollahs. The "reform process" in Iran turns out to be similar to the "peace process" that re-launched Arafat in Oslo: something that takes forever, and moves consistently backwards.

Mr. Khatami's chief use to the regime, now that his value as a lightning rod for civil dissent has expired, is to drive a wedge between the U.S. and its European allies. He provides the carefully groomed face and manners that persuade the Europeans to rescind their trade sanctions and withdraw human rights complaints against the monstrous Iranian regime -- concessions the Bush administration has refused to make. (A European trade mission was prostrating itself before the mullahs even as the demonstrations were gathering.) To the Americans, as now to the vast majority of the Iranians, the regime means gibbering fundamentalist idiots at home, and Hezbollah terrorists abroad.

It is a regime which not only desperately seeks nuclear weapons (the Russians are, under intense U.S. pressure, gradually withdrawing from a project to build a reactor for the ayatollahs at Bushehr); but has publicly declared it would use them to annihilate Israel the moment they were available. It is the principal source of arms for the world's Islamist terrorists; and the power behind a huge buildup in weaponry including medium-range missiles by the Hezbollah in Lebanon (who operate there under Syrian protection. At least twice in the present year, Israel has been on the verge of going to war with Syria, to destroy this growing cache.)

There was a furious response from the Iranian regime to Mr. Bush's speech. (In fact, the only way a reader of most Western newspapers could have learned of the speech, was in reports of this reaction.) The "supreme leader", Ayatollah Khamenei, expressed his outrage at "interference in Iranian affairs", then prattled on about Mr. Bush's legitimacy after the Florida recounts. He was still burbling away yesterday. The supposedly reformist Khatami was actually more vituperative, and demanded a U.S. apology. He has since promiscuously suggested that by discreetly lobbying for better relations with the U.S., the reformist Parliamentarians "act like CIA spies". Since such a charge would carry the death sentence in any Iranian kangaroo court, it was calculated to shut them up. (But as they showed yesterday, they don't shut up.)

What had Mr. Bush said? Among other things, "In Iran today, students are repressed, journalists are jailed, lawmakers are tried and intimated, lawyers arrested, newspapers are closed one after another on charges of advocating reform or criticizing the ruling regime while unemployment is mounting, causing the flight of brilliant students, scholars and intellectuals."

A fairly straightforward description of the reality.

"We have seen throughout history the power of one simple idea: when given a choice, people will choose freedom. As we have witnessed over the past few days, the people of Iran want the same freedoms, human rights, and opportunities as people around the world. Their government should listen to their hopes."

Something to shock the ears of European diplomatists, a few of those in his own State Department, and the editorial board of the New York Times.

(The evening after Mr. Bush spoke, police in Tehran arrested, then flogged, 45 young people who had attended a birthday party where there was dancing; a rare item that made it into news briefs in the West.)

The hinge, the turning point, for the Iranian regime, may have been Tuesday last week, when the Imam of Isfahan, Ayatollah Jalaleddin Taheri, quit his job. He was among the most prominent clerics installed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in 1979. His courageous and very public defection sent a thrill through the demonstrators all over the country.

Isfahan was, after all, the epicentre of that 1979 revolution, which brought down the Shah.

Ayatollah Taheri's five-page screed against the new tyranny was built around an apology for his own cowardice in failing to speak out before. It included an eloquent defense of Ayatollah Montazeri, the regime's most famous domestic critic, who has been under house arrest for years. In particular, it applauded Montazeri's recent "fatwah" or ruling against the practice of suicide bombing: denouncing this unambiguously as an affront to Islam.

The regime responded immediately, by banning media from reporting Taheri's resignation, and then closing a prominent Tehran newspaper for mentioning it. This hardly prevented the news from spreading.

In a further sign that the regime was losing its grip, it then confined its police to barracks in Isfahan, as it had done the previous day in Tehran -- doubting their loyalty. Instead they sent foreign thugs with paramilitary training, chiefly Palestinian and Iraqi Arabs, and Uzbeks and Tadzhiks from Afghanistan, to beat the demonstrators down. It was a desperate measure -- an implicit acknowledgement that the whole Persian people have now sided with the opposition.

To understand how this could have happened, it is important to realize that almost two-thirds of the Iranian population was not yet born in 1979, when the Shah fell and Ayatollah Khomeini brought the world's first Islamist, terrorist regime to power. And most of his cronies, still in power, are now quite old. Iran's formerly very high birthrate (it has since plummeted) created the mother of all generation gaps. To the students in universities, and other young people coming of age in a time of Internet and satellite TV, the ayatollahs have nothing to say. Their parents, too, are sick to death of living under the Shia version of Islamist tyranny; but while their parents were cowed into submission, the kids refuse to sit still.

They have been told all their lives that the United States is the "Great Satan". Therefore they love America. (On the night of 9/11, huge numbers of Iranian students appeared spontaneously in the streets of many Iranian cities, carrying lighted candles to mourn the victims of Al Qaeda in New York and Washington. And there were illicit fireworks displays this year on the 4th of July.)

They have been fed from birth the most extraordinary diet of sick-in-the-head anti-Semitism. So Israel seems pretty cool to them, too.

And they have been taught that Islam -- submission to the will of Allah as interpreted by the ayatollahs -- is the whole meaning and purpose of their lives. So most are intensely secular. Or else they embrace an Islam that is increasingly apolitical, mystical, unworldly.

Lately they have also taken to celebrating Zoroastrianism. I have heard several accounts of police busts of "infidels", presumably converted Muslims practicing ancient Persian rites, or merely studying the Gathas of Zarathustra. Last March the ayatollahs forcefully commanded the public not to observe Norouz, the ancient Persian fire festival and New Year. But throughout the country, according to numerous reports, flower, food, and candy stores were sold out from festive preparations; and there were bonfires and fireworks aplenty at the solstice. And in the middle of Shia Islam's holiest month, the mosques were almost empty each Friday.

Despite the risk of arrest and flogging, the students actually goad the religious authorities, and dare the police -- turning out in such numbers as the police cannot handle. Girls make a point of wearing short skirts to the rallies; boys bring beer; the Stars and Stripes get unfurled, together with the Shah's old royal banner.

The students first, and now every part of Iranian society except the people whose livelihoods depend on the tyranny, demand re-admission to the modern, explicitly Western, world. (Several of the Persians I correspond with have emphasized this point: "We are a Western people. We are not part of the East.")

Yet the majority are also intensely Persian (Iran, more empire than nation, also contains several large minority nationalities). Here is a country that was also a civilization, that has been at or near the forefront of humane culture for several thousand years, reduced to a thugocracy. Like Italy, Greece, the culture never quite disappears, the pride in ancient -- and pre-Islamic -- accomplishments remains ever available. The Arabs could conquer and Islamicize Iran, but they never succeeded in "Arabizing" it. And chiefly Persian-speaking Shia Islam long considered itself not merely more legitimate, but more culturally advanced than its chiefly Arabic-speaking Sunni rival: a religion more of the spirit than of the sword.

The question remains: are the mad mullahs finally entering the garbage chute of history? It is the question we asked of the Soviet regime, when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, and of the Chinese Communists in Tiananmen Square. Neither regime was reformable. The Soviets lost their nerve, and collapsed; the Chinese politburo, red in tooth and claw, massacred and survived. The Bush administration is betting, for the moment, that the unreformable ayatollahs will lose their nerve. But if they do somehow keep it, the U.S. Fifth Fleet is waiting offshore.

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JWR contributor David Warren is a Columnist for the Ottawa Citizen. Comment by clicking here.

06/17/02: Those darn American imperialists!

© 2002, Ottawa Citizen