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Suspense in the Final Act as the Drama Nears Its End in Iran

By Stanley A. Weiss
International Herald Tribune
April 4, 2000

LONDON -- The curtain is about to come down on the Islamic Revolution in Iran. As with any good drama, the audience can only guess how the play will end. In fact, the final act is only now being written by the players themselves.

Act I ran from the 1979 return of the exiled Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini until his death a decade later after his successful revolution to overthrow the Pahlavi dynasty and establish himself as the Supreme Spiritual Leader - God's representative on earth. It included summary trials and executions, the seizure of the U.S. Embassy and holding of 52 Americans hostage for 444 days, and an eight-year war with Iraq costing 500,000 Iranian lives.

Act II covered the next eight years, beginning with the selection of Ayatollah Khomeini's successor as supreme leader, Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei, a dedicated opponent of reform, more political hack than revered theologian. The action continued through the two-term presidency of Hashemi Rafsanjani and his unsuccessful attempts to create a more pragmatic economic and foreign policy. By mid-1997, Iran was more corrupt than during the years of the shah.

Act III opens with the surprise election as president of a little known, reform-minded cleric, Mohammed Khatami.

How this real-life drama will end turns on the way the ruling cabal - a coalition of hard-line ayatollahs and ''bazaari'' merchants - resolves the classic dilemma of totalitarian states.

Repression breeds reaction. The more tightly the regime clings to power, the greater the people's demand for reform. But the more it loosens its grip, the greater the call for even more freedom.

The right-wing ideologues in Iran have consistently underestimated the forces for change. They were shocked that their handpicked candidate lost the presidential election, but not too concerned because they continued to dominate the local councils and the Parliament. Now, in successive elections, the so-called conservatives have lost their majorities in both.

The supreme leader and his cohorts also underestimated the effects of Mr. Khatami's lawsto liberalize the press. Radio and television were still controlled by the state, but independent newspapers flourished. Hundreds of dailies, weeklies and monthlies sprouted, espousing every point of view.

The hard-liners fought back, clapping journalists and editors in jail. But each time one paper was closed, another would spring up in its place. Political reformers sought the rule of law, and courageous journalists risked their lives calling into account the powerful figures in the country's ruling elite.

Akbar Ganji and Abbas Abdis are the Woodward and Bernstein of Iranian investigative reporters. Their Deep Throat is Saeed Hajjarian, a former deputy minister of intelligence and one of President Khatami's closest confidants. He is a man who knows too much. Last month's attempt to assassinate him was an act of revenge against the country's major reform architect and a warning to the president to drop an investigation that could implicate top Islamic figures.

Mr. Ganji's best-selling book ''Dark House of Ghosts'' alleges that a secret death squad made up of senior Iranian officials authorized the murders of dozens of writers, academics and other dissidents, as well as the attack on Mr. Hajjarian. Using allegorical references, Mr. Ganji describes them as the Master Key and the Gray Eminences - the ghosts that inhabit the dark house.

In an article entitled ''His Excellency in Red,'' he also implicated Mr. Rafsanjani and helped marginalize him in the recent parliamentary elections.

The articles and the book raise serious questions. So far the official word on the series of gruesome assassinations in late 1998 is that ''rogue'' officers in the Intelligence Ministry have confessed to the crimes. No trial has yet taken place, and the main suspect reportedly committed suicide while in prison.

Last summer was the turning point. When the hard-liners approved a new law to muzzle the press and banned a newspaper supporting Mr. Khatami, university students peacefully protested. Police stood by while Islamic vigilantes beat up the students. That night, in an act unprecedented even under the shah's violent regime, the goons and the police raided the Tehran University dorms, killed at least one student, injured dozens and arrested hundreds. The students rioted for six days, shouting ''Either Islam and the law or another revolution.'' The riots were the biggest challenge to an Iranian government since the last days of the shah.

The vast majority of citizens are too young to remember him. What the people now see is an Islamic state that controls too much of their lives - from what they wear to how they act. What they want is a modern, moderate Islamic society.

Democracy is coming to Iran. The only question for the actors and the audience is whether it will arrive after a bloody counterrevolution or whether continued reforms will bring this drama to a peaceful end.

The writer is chairman and founder of Business Executives for National Security, an organization of U.S. business leaders. He contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.


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