- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 5, 2005

By any measure, these are difficult times for the mullahs in Tehran. They have watched as popular revolutions have toppled autocratic regimes in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, and U.S. military power has led the way in replacing dictators next door in Iraq and Afghanistan with nascent democracies. Since this year’s State of the Union address — in which he said that America “stands with” the Iranian people as they stand for their freedom and denounced the regime for “depriving its people of the freedom they seek and deserve” — President Bush has continued to insist on far-reaching change that would end the clerical dictatorship that has ruled the country since 1979.

“I believe the Iranian people ought to be allowed to freely discuss opinions, read a free press, have free votes, be able to choose amongst political parties. I believe Iran should adopt democracy,” the president said last month. He added that many countries are suspicious of Iran because it is ruled by “a non-transparent regime…run by a handful of people.”

In recent weeks, Iran has been rocked by a series of popular demonstrations against the government. On March 25, at least six people were killed and more than 40 others wounded following an international soccer match at Azadi Stadium in Tehran. According to some press accounts, the deaths resulted from a “stampede” which began after riot police fired into the air to disperse revelers. Some Iranian commentators, reflecting the government line, claimed that mobs attacked public buildings and damaged public buses in the Iranian capital.

Critics of the government tell a very different story. Iran Press News, a Los Angeles-based news service that has contact with dissidents inside Iran, reports that Revolutionary Guards attacked youths in Tehran for singing an Iranian nationalist song that the regime has banned. Demonstrators were beaten in unprovoked attacks, and women, who are barred from attending soccer games, were arrested for protesting against such discriminatory practices.

The Student Movement Coordination Committee for Democracy in Iran, which is in regular contact with its own network of sources inside the country, says that the demonstrations have spread to other cities, and that government militiamen were seen using clubs, knives and chains against demonstrators. Moreover, elsewhere in Iran several women protesters were beaten to death for taking off their veils, and others were to be lashed for “un-Islamic behavior.”

Last week, the regime got even more bad publicity, as an Iranian defector said that Zahra Kazemi, a 54-year-old Canadian freelance journalist, was tortured and raped before she died two years ago while in government custody. The defector, a former Iranian army doctor now living in Canada, said he had examined her body at a military hospital in Iran on June 26, 2003. As one despotic regime after another loses its ability to tyrannize its own people, the world is being reminded of lengths to which Iran’s ruling mullahs will go to cling to power.

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