- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 2, 2000

TEHRAN Iranian reformers are raising the ante in their confrontation with the hard-line Islamic government just days before a key session of the new parliament, issuing their most explicit public demands yet for an end to two decades of theocratic government.

Some 1,000 students and reformers were treated to the unusual calls for freedom from religious rule during a Sunday evening gathering at Beheshti University, on a hillside overlooking this capital of 12 million people.

"It is time for the institution of religion to become separated from the institution of government," said reform leader Hashem Aghajeri to cheers from a packed auditorium.

The women, dressed uniformly in black head scarves and robes, were separated from the men in accordance with edicts from Iran's Islamic government. Yet men and women alike applauded every call for an end to such restrictions on social as well as political life.

"Religion has performed badly when it has been [coupled] with power," said Mr. Aghajeri, speaking among the largest such reform meeting since the 1979 Islamic revolution ousted Shah Reza Pahlavi.

The gathering was held to welcome the release of one of the leading reform clerics, Hojatoleslam Mohsen Kadivar, after 18 months in jail for questioning the absolute authority of the Islamic leadership.

Mr. Kadivar was joined in the front of the auditorium by others recently freed from jail and relatives of those still imprisoned.

Despite a resounding electoral victory in February in which reformers won control of the Majlis, or parliament, hard-liners retain control of the security forces, intelligence agency, judiciary, radio and TV, and economic foundations.

The latter has used this power to arrest and sentence intellectuals and journalists for statements that question the "velayat-e faqih," the religious principle on which the clerics base their right to govern.

Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, Iran's clerically appointed "supreme leader," has of late adopted some of the reform slogans of his chief rival, the democratically elected reformist president, Mohammad Khatami. But many believe this is simply a device to cling to power.

"The conservatives propose reforms, but I think it is an excuse to impede the process of reforms since the election of Khatami in 1997," said Davoud Hermidas Bavand, a former Iranian diplomat and currently professor of political science at three universities.

"The conservatives are now taking new positions" critical of the nation's economic and social failures "in order to try to emasculate the power of the reform legislature," he said in an interview yesterday.

Those failures are increasingly evident to a frustrated public, as could be seen yesterday in the midday heat of Qassemabad, a village south of Tehran where dozens of unemployed young men stood about stoned on opium.

Villagers told a visitor that the police allowed drug dealers to freely sell their wares even to small children, who have been injecting heroin as young as age 12.

"There are addicts in every home," said one man. "The police do their best, but there are so many of them."

"I am afraid to send the small children outside they will get addicted to opium," said one mother, sitting on a red and black Persian carpet in a cool home as tea was offered to a visitor. "Khatami could do something, but he is afraid."

The villagers, when asked if they wanted an end to the Islamic government, disagreed among themselves, and it was not clear to what extent some feared to fully express their feelings.

But at least two men in the village said they would support a system in which political power lay in secular hands and religious leaders, while still a force, did not run the government.

Even among the clergy, there is opposition to religious rule. Based in the holy city of Qom, leading ayatollahs believe that religious leaders are not intended to exercise political power.

In that spirit, they have refused to grant Ayatollah Khamenei the high religious title he would like in order to follow in the footsteps of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic.

Even the man selected by Ayatollah Khomenei to follow him as supreme leader, Grand Ayatollah Hosein Ali Montazeri, is under house arrest because he questioned the need or the right of clerics to exercise unchallenged power.

The applause of the reformists on Sunday showed they too questioned this power.

"Governments that suppress thinking under the name of religion are not only not religious governments, but are not even humane governments," Mr. Aghajeri said to applause.

The struggle for the soul of Iran is expected to intensify next week when the new reform-minded Majlis begins work, with the issue of press freedom at the top of its agenda. The drama will increase in September when the students return to school.

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