MCHUGH: Common Ground is radio’s weekly program on world affairs. I’m Kristin McHugh.
PORTER: And I’m Keith Porter. Iran plays a large role in the interlocking pieces of the Middle East peace puzzle. Iran has also maintained its status as one of the two remaining members of President Bush’s so-called “axis of evil,” both for its human rights record and for its support of terrorism, especially against Israel. But there are increasing signs Iran may not always remain an Islamic republic. Priscilla Huff has more.
BERNARD LEWIS: The regime is cordially detested by the overwhelming majority of its people. It was established with high hopes and with massive support. It has turned out to be a tragic disappointment.
HUFF: Princeton historian Bernard Lewis is convinced, nearly a quarter century after the rise of the Islamic Republic, Iran is at a crossroads.
LEWIS: Now comes a real threat to the regime. They face a danger of contamination of democratic ideals and democratic examples from a new Iraq, [that] might spread across the border. And there are many ways in which they can spread across the border. Through, as I said, through the religious connections, the pilgrimage connections, to the holy places, the family connections, between Muslim Shi’ite divines on both sides. They feel, they have to do something about it. They feel they have to do something to counter this American sponsored democratic threat.
HUFF: Iran’s religious leaders are worried about democracy insinuating itself from Iraq to the west and Afghanistan to the east. Nearly 25 years ago the ayatollahs were in a different position. Cliff May was a reporter for the Hearst newspapers and CBS radio in 1979.
CLIFF MAY: I very particularly remember visiting the holy city of Qom, and standing in a huge crowd in the broiling sun, waiting for the Ayatollah Khomeni. to appear. When he stepped out onto the roof of his small house, he looked exactly like an old testament prophet. The crowd went wild with cheering. Mothers were holding up their babies with one hand as high as they could so that he could bless them. One man told me, “There was Moses, and there was Jesus and there was Mohammed and now there is Khomeni.” That was a fairly widespread view at that time in that place. A generation later, not many people view it quite that way.
HUFF: Today, the majority of the population does not remember the time that brought about the revolution, as more than 60 percent of Iranians are under the age of 30. Along with the differences in demographics, there are also signs of change. Guy Dinmore traveled to the town of Hamadan for the Financial Times. There, Dinmore talked to teachers about their meeting with a leading intellectual, who was jailed for the speech he made to the students in Hamadan.
GUY DINMORE: These meetings were always broken up, but these people keep doing it, these university teachers, these university students, and the high school teachers, keep organizing these meetings and they keep getting beaten up. And I think it’s testimony to an amazing process that’s going on in Iran, that people around the country are persevering with this and not giving up.
HUFF: Iran does have a democratically elected parliament and president, Mohammed Khatami, but in the Islamic Republic, the real power lies with Ayatollah Ali Khameni and his fellow clerics on the Council of Guardians. Despite wielding absolute power, which has allowed religious leaders to assassinate dozens of democratic activists in Iran since 1990, the former Israeli Ambassador to Iran observes the ayatollahs are careful to conserve their power. Uri Lubrani.
URI LUBRANI: They know that bloodshed is the trigger for a much bigger convulsion. And therefore they are very careful. But what has happened is that the majority of the Irani public, the majority has come to the sad conclusion that there is no hope for them within the rule of the ayatollahs, that not only are they not able to make ends meet economically, but their souls are incarcerated.
HUFF: Uri Lubrani knows this, as he’s stayed in touch with some of the people he met since his time as Israel’s ambassador to Iran in the days leading up to the revolution. Iran also remains one of the top threats to Israel’s national security, through its sponsorship of Hamas, Hezbollah, and other terrorist groups. Lubrani wants the US to take action, both for Israel’s security and because the ayatollahs threaten America.
LUBRANI: I was very, very gratified and surprised, I have to say, having Iran included in your President’s axis of evil. That was, I think, a dramatic development and a very welcome and an extremely powerful one. But this spirit has to be continued. It has to be continued at an accelerated pace because time is now of essence. As long as these ayatollahs will be in power, they will not want you either in Iraq or succeeding in Afghanistan, because your culture—American culture, Western culture—is anathema and has to be kept out.
HUFF: And yet, Lubrani also says, there is a mania for all things American these days in Iran, especially among the huge population of young people. Ladan Boroumand, an Iranian, insists, most of her countrymen and women continue to demand intangible things, many of which are distinctively American.
LADAN BOROUMAND: Freedom of speech, assembly, and association; freedom of conscience and worship; the separation of religious authority from political power; and freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention. These demands correspond to the model of a secular democracy.
HUFF: That prompts the question, if Iranians want democracy, how should it be brought about? While Iran’s religious cadre maintains much of the effective power, public support for President Khatami has grown, as seen in the number of reform-minded candidates winning seats in Parliament in recent elections. Iran’s huge population of young voters appears to be putting their hopes in President Khatami’s slow push for change. And Guy Dinmore of the Financial Times, is not convinced Iranians want a revolution.
DINMORE: The general view, I think, which is widely held in Iran is that Khatami is hugely respected. I would say he is even worshipped by quite a lot of Iranians. He’s certainly a very charismatic man. But he is sort of constrained by his lack of authority and more powerful people around him. And either the process is going to take an extremely long time to come to fruition or indeed at some point everything will snap and there will be the upheaval that many people are expecting.
HUFF: While Iranians themselves may prefer change from within over bloodshed, Princeton’s Bernard Lewis thinks he knows what the ayatollahs want in the face of a germinating seed of democracy.
LEWIS: What is necessary from the point of view of the Iranian theocracy is that the democratic experiment in Iraq should fail.
HUFF: President Bush has promised the next government of Iraq will be by, for, and of the Iraqi people, which echoes the beginnings of American democracy. That confirms Iranian leaders’ fears of democracy crossing the borders, fertilized by the US. Ladan Boroumand wants America to do more for her people, such as sponsor radio and television broadcasts.
BOROUMAND: Creating a strong public space, safe for the people to talk and interact could help the pro-democracy movement. Not only could it help, but also the United States engaging or, you know, investing something in pro-democracy movement after all these years of betrayal could have a symbolic and psychological positive effect for Iranian pro-democracy movement.
HUFF: But reporter Guy Dinmore isn’t convinced the US should up its role in Iran.
DINMORE: I would like to remind the American government that I think it has to be shown that US intervention in Iran for the last 50 years or so has generally been fairly disastrous.
HUFF: The Bush administration has made it clear, it wants to see democracy and equal rights spread everywhere. Iran’s ayatollahs want to remain in power. And that desire, to maintain power, is what experts identify as the underlying crisis of government in Iran. In their analysis, if the revolution of 1979 was to overthrow the absolute power of the Shah, it was not to bring about a theocracy. They point to the fact, the ayatollahs had to work with the socialists to bring about the revolution, the same people they marginalized, imprisoned, and even killed once the religious leaders gained power. Bernard Lewis of Princeton University.
LEWIS: In a sense, what we have seen under the ayatollahs is the Christianization of Islam, using that word not in any moral or doctrinal sense, but in a functional and institutional sense. They have created something which never existed before in Islam, the functional equivalence of a papacy, a college of cardinals, a bench of bishops, and above all, an Inquisition. and in shallah they will soon have a reformation.
HUFF: For Common Ground, I’m Priscilla Huff.