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Shah Khamenei

By Thomas Friedman
The New York Times
August 15, 2000

Watching Iranian politics today is a lot like watching the Weather Channel during hurricane season. The weatherman comes on and points to a group of clouds somewhere in the mid-Atlantic. He tells you it's not a hurricane just yet, but if you study the cloud patterns you can see the storm forming. If the current winds and temperatures persist, he concludes, it will definitely be upgraded from tropical storm to hurricane.

And so it is with Iran. Right now, the struggle between the reformers and conservatives there is still just the political equivalent of a tropical storm, with the occasional bursts of student rioting and mysterious murders. But if you look at the trends closely, and if temperatures in Iran keep rising, this low-grade struggle could turn into an Iranian version of the perfect storm.

What's driving this storm is the behavior of Iran's top leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is increasingly behaving as if he were "Shah Khamenei." He and his conservative allies have been mounting a creeping coup against the democratic process in Iran. If it continues, Iran could feature the first big civil clash of the globalization era -- that is, a popular struggle between localizers, who want to keep Iran isolated from global trends and dominated by religious theology, versus the globalizers, who increasingly know how the rest of the world lives and want to be part of it.

Here's why: In May 1997 the cleric Mohammad Khatami, running as a moderate, was elected president by a stunning landslide. He trounced the conservative candidate, who was supported by Ayatollah Khamenei. Mr. Khamenei carries the title supreme leader, he sits above the president and he controls Iran's religious institutions, courts, Revolutionary Guards and Islamic business conglomerates.

Soon after becoming president, Mr. Khatami unleashed a flowering of liberal Iranian newspapers and magazines, run by journalists, cartoonists and writers pushing for a more open, democratic Iran, with more rule of law and a healthier civil society. But he was hamstrung in pushing through more liberal laws by the fact that the Iranian Parliament was still dominated by conservatives. He preached patience, telling his followers to abide by the process and wait until the parliamentary elections this spring.

Well, the parliamentary elections happened and the reformers, once again, trounced the conservatives, winning nearly 200 of the 290 seats -- a real popular rebuke to clerical rule.

That was too much for the conservatives, who, led by Ayatollah Khamenei, then launched their creeping coup against democracy. Using a crude press-control law rammed through the last Parliament at the eleventh hour, and a judiciary still entirely under their thumb, the conservatives shut down some 20 reformist newspapers and magazines and threw a host of leading journalists in jail on charges of insulting Islam. Ebrahim Nabavi was jailed Saturday, just as he was being honored by his peers as Iran's best satirist, while Muhammad Quchani was jailed Sunday after being honored as the country's best political writer.

Ayatollah Khamenei's Council of Guardians also ruled that Parliament had no authority to investigate any institution that he oversees -- i.e., the army, the Revolutionary Guards, the conglomerates and the courts. And in an unprecedented claim of authority, Mr. Khamenei ordered the new Parliament not to overturn the draconian press law. This is the Soviet Union, Islamic style.

One cannot say enough about the courage of Iran's liberal journalists in resisting this creeping coup, and even exposing how government agents sent by the conservatives murdered several dissidents in the winter of 1998. These journalists are real heroes of democracy in Iran.

That's why it's gut-check time for President Khatami: He was elected by Iran's reformist majority to open their society. He told them to be patient and follow the process. They did and now they're in jail. President Khatami is coming to the U.N. in September to push his plan for making the year 2000 a year of "dialogue among civilizations." Well, dialogue begins at home. It's Iran's civilization that's imperiled, and if President Khatami can't protect that, something tells me the brave men and women of Iran, who fought the anti-democratic shah, will fight the anti-democratic ayatollahs.

Beware: hurricane forming in Iran.


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