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Iran's Clergymen Find Themselves the Target of Wrat
Many Blame the Mullahs For Sluggish Economy And Social Repression

By Hugh Pope
The Wall Street Journal
February 13, 2001

TEHRAN, Iran -- In the tense run-up to Iran's presidential elections in June, the struggle isn't just between reformists and conservatives. A sluggish economy and strict social controls are also causing popular frustration with the most visible symbol of the 22-year-old Islamic republican regime: the clerical classes.

"People are angry. They are fed up with the social power of the clergy, and their mixing of religion in politics," says Fariborz Raisdana, a 52-year-old economist and opposition political activist.

Grumbling abounds on the streets of Iranian cities. Participation is waning at the keynote ceremony of the revolutionary era, mass Friday prayers. With limited places of entertainment, girls in the richer northern part of Tehran flout Islamic rules on modesty by cheekily pushing their headscarves far back on their heads, wearing ever-shorter coats and sometimes picking up new male friends by flirting with passing drivers. Meanwhile, taxi drivers often show their disdain for the mullahs, or clergymen, by zooming past them even though their shared taxis have empty seats.

"They've ruined the country. I'll never pick one up," says a grizzled Tehrani private-taxi driver, reduced to working a main traffic artery after losing his pension and spending five years in jail for being one of the shah's chauffeurs.

In presidential, municipal and parliamentary elections since 1997, Iranians voted massively for change by backing the reformist wing of the revolutionary clerical elite. But a conservative faction retained the pinnacles of power and blocked political liberalization. It underlined its view in recent weeks by jailing another swath of reformist dissidents. The infighting has also held up vitally needed economic reforms.

Resistance to change and openness isn't just because of a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam. The conservatives are backed behind the scenes by an opaque network of businesses ranging from oil to free-trade zones controlled by early Islamic republican leaders and their families. They have "quite a high control of the economy," says Mr. Raisdana, one of the few dissidents who still has the courage to speak out.

Despite his bravado, Mr. Raisdana is frightened. Last month 15 government agents who planned and carried out the murders of four dissidents in 1998 were given heavy sentences, but the court didn't push to find out who had ordered the killings -- or scores of other unsolved incidents.

Reformist demonstrations by students have been quickly and bruisingly suppressed; radicals now talk of God's will, not democratic support. They know that ordinary Iranians don't have the stomach to fight them on the streets. The smiling and still-popular reformist clergyman-president elected in 1997, Mohammed Khatami, has also been unwilling to risk potential civil conflict by outright confrontation with the conservatives.

The best exit strategy for the clerical class could be to give Iran a new sense of purpose with the re-election of Mr. Khatami in June. The question is, on what terms? Conservative hard-liners neutralized Mr. Khatami's reformist agenda in his first term, so he is hanging tough as he negotiates with them on what elbowroom he can have before he says he will run again.

In a back-street mosque of the sweet-tempered old south Iranian city of Shiraz, neighborhood mullah and Khatami supporter Ali Mohammadpur is on the front line of the struggle to keep people on the clergy's side.

"When I speak to the youth they don't accept it any more if I say, `do this because so-and-so said so.' You have to give a reason, otherwise they don't accept it," says the mullah, 30, who tries to bring people into his mosque through community-outreach programs like soccer games. "The modern Hizbollahis \[Islamic radicals\] are very hot. They put people off."

Even if they have cooled toward their clergy, Iranians look unlikely to run back into the arms of the shah's exiled son, or of exile groups or indeed of once-dominant Western powers. Few have forgotten how the West supported Iraq in its 1980-88 war against Iran, which killed more than 200,000 of Iran's 65 million people. Instead, intellectuals forecast a return to nationalist ideas and old cultural roots.

In Shiraz, hundreds of people come each day to visit the mausoleum-garden built in memory of Hafez, Iran's most famous poet. His verses about love, wine and God are more popular than ever today, and his book of poems competes as Iran's bestseller with the Islamic holy book, the Koran. A sample couplet:

Drink wine, Hafez, be glad, be wild! Don't emulate others who turn the Koran into a hypocritical trap.

"The world is going one way, and we are getting lost in petty things," sighs Parviz Khaefi, a 60-year-old poet and scholar who watches over a study center attached to the Hafez complex. "The main reason why people backed Khatami is because they hoped that, through him, they could reach a democratic republic. Now the government is at a dead end, and, any time the clerics feel threatened, they unite . . . the conservatives know that if Khatami goes, they all go. Our society is holding its breath, waiting for something to happen."


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