After a court in Iran sentenced dissident academic Hashem Aghajari to death for challenging clerical rule, several thousand university students took to the streets in Tehran. They protested for about two weeks before the government threatened to crack down and declare a state of emergency. No one has forgotten the government’s hard-line response, in July 1999, to crowds rallying against the closure of a liberal newspaper. Most of the student protesters rounded up then remain in jail.
It is only a matter of time before growing demographic rifts in Iranian society trigger more tremors. The struggle for reform in Iran is increasingly a fight between fathers and sons. Roughly a majority of Iran’s 65 million people is under the age of 30. From the devout to the secular, students at the Sharif Technical University, where the largest protest occurred, are some of the brightest in the country. But with unemployment pushing 22%, those about to graduate face a bleak job market.
Many students complain that the 1979 Islamic revolution hasn’t benefited them as much as it did their predecessors. Others chafe at the fact that some of their religious professors sit in jail for having made the “wrong” interpretation of Islamic law. Still others resent prohibitions against dancing and singing in public. All share a common desire for greater freedom of expression.
Reformers draw their strongest support from this younger crowd, especially among those born after the revolution. The politics of this generation gap were highlighted when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s grandson joined the student protesters on the streets. And Mohammad Bagher Zolghader, a general in the Revolutionary Guards, recently urged soldiers returning home from duty not to be swayed by their children’s views.
Aghajari’s sin was to call for a “religious renewal” of Shiite Islam in a June speech commemorating the death of Ali Shariati, an important but suppressed thinker behind the revolution. The speech drew from Shariati’s teachings -- specifically, his contention that Shiite clerics have no monopoly on the interpretation of Islamic law. Conservative clerics in the regime immediately called for Aghajari’s head.
For Aghajari and other reformers in Iran, the fight for expanded free speech and democratic institutions is as much political as it is theological. In challenging the orthodoxy that the faithful must blindly follow doctrine as if they were “monkeys,” Aghajari pushed the envelope at a tense time for the nation’s clerics. Several months ago, Ayatollah Jalaluddin Taheri, a long-venerated and senior prayer leader in Isfahan, published a scathing open letter calling them “louts and fascists” who had betrayed the principles of the revolution. He remains under house arrest.
The student turnout may have given Iranian President Mohammad Khatami a new, if perhaps short, lease on political life. During past political crises in Iran, popular discontent has served to bolster Khatami, the icon of the reform movement. But some of the students’ slogans suggested budding distrust in Khatami’s ability to deliver on the campaign promises that swept him into office in 1997 with 80% of the vote. When one student speaker at a rally remarked that the president “only smiles beautifully and speaks nice words,” there were raucous cheers from the crowd.
But Khatami may be ready to throw down the gauntlet. Taking aim at the two main bastions of conservative sentiment, he is pressing legislation that would limit the discretionary powers of the judiciary and the Council of Guardians. The judiciary has imprisoned dozens of reformers, including some of his inner circle. The unelected guardians are no less an obstacle to reform because the council vets most candidates for election and all legislation coming from parliament. Khatami has threatened to quit, and take most of the parliament with him, if his conservative foes bottle up his legislation.
The Bush administration has done little to encourage democracy in Iran. Hopes for improved relations -- opinion polls released in September showed that 74% of the Iranian respondents favored dialogue with the United States -- have been largely dashed by the U.S. The administration blocked Iran’s application to the World Trade Organization, limited exports of food and medicine to Iran and tightened restrictions on assistance to refugees. Then it included Iran in its “axis of evil,” which has further enabled conservative clerics to pose as defenders of the republic.
The mullahs have successfully exploited the country’s sense of foreboding of being surrounded by the United States. A U.S. invasion of Iraq, they contend, would put American soldiers in Afghanistan, in Central Asia, in some Gulf states and in Baghdad. The only appropriate response to such encirclement, the conservative clerics say, is unity, not unrest. To top it off, the administration has put reformers in an extremely awkward position by asking the Iranian government for help in U.S. efforts to invade Iraq.
The reformers have vowed to keep up their fight, and Aghajari will not be an easy opponent for the ruling mullahs. A dynamic public speaker, he is a decorated veteran who lost a brother and a leg in the Iran-Iraq conflict of 1980-88. Aghajari had refused to appeal the death sentence even though Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, ordered the judiciary to reconsider the verdict. Last week, Aghajari’s attorney filed the appeal. Student leaders recently released from jail have pledged to conduct campus referendums on the legitimacy of the conservative clerics.
If a second Iranian revolution is brewing, it has a way to go before boiling over. Still, the same people who, two decades ago, led the protests that brought down the shah know well the political potential of students on the streets. The reform movement, taken to its logical conclusion, will produce regime change from within and democratically. That is the type of democratization in the Middle East that the U.S. should do everything in its power to support.