- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 27, 2004

Either a revolt or a revolution is under way in Iran against the oppressive rule of Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Council of Guardians dominated by extremist mullahs.

Political predictions are notoriously problematic. Thus, the European upheavals of 1848 marked a turn in history that didn’t turn. The Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989 was commonly misjudged as the beginning of the end of the Chinese Communist Party. Upon learning at Versailles of the storming of the Bastille in 1789, King Louis XVI inquired: “Is it a revolt? The Duc de La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt retorted: “No, Sire, it is a revolution.”

During the last century, Iran surprised the world twice. Its 1906 constitutional revolution inaugurated unprecedented individual liberties and representative institutions. In contrast, the 1979 Islamic Revolution featuring spiritual leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini plunged Iran into a theocratic despotism alien to its culture. Indeed, it marked the flip-side of the budding Iranian democracy under Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh that the United States shipwrecked with a 1953 royalist coup d’etat in favor of Mohammed Reza Shah, the second and last in the Pahlavi line.

An indigenous Iranian democratic revolution seems vastly more promising than in neighboring Arab states. According to experts, the Council of Guardians and Leader Khamenei enjoy but 10 percent to 15 percent popular support. In contrast, the Iranian people voted overwhelmingly for a more liberal president, Mohammed Khatami, and a 290-member Majlis during the last two elections.

Under Iran’s constitution, however, the Leader and Guardian Council stand at the apex of power. Article 94, for instance, stipulates that, “All legislation passed by the [Majlis] must be sent to the Guardian Council… with a view to ensuring its compatibility with the criteria of Islam and the Constitution.” And Articles 110 and 113 make the leader superior to the president on every significant executive matter.

Ayatollah Khamenei and the Council have worked hand in glove to block political, free speech and judicial reforms enacted by the Majlis. The ruling mullahs are seeking to placate widespread resentment of their brutal grip on power by blinking at commonplace defiance of strict Islamic behavioral codes. Iranian youths routinely wear Western dress, listen to pop music, and flirt or otherwise show signs of affection in public without punishment by the religious police.

But as King Louis XVI’s letters de cachet provoked the storming of the Bastille, the Guardian Council may have ignited a democratic revolution in disqualifying more than one-third of candidates for the impending Feb. 20 Majlis elections because of their liberal stripes. Emboldened by the political floundering of the United States in neighboring Iraq, the 12-member council hopes to push its dominance into the Iranian parliament by excluding rivals to their hand-picked slate.

They had reason for optimism their latest despotic gambit would succeed. A popular student uprising was suppressed in 1999 without awakening public protest. And the sound track of President Khatami during his two terms has been to speak for democratic reforms but to carry a twig, not a big stick a la U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt.

The council’s disqualifications, however, may prove to have been the last straw for the seething and sullen Iranian people. Eighty disqualified parliamentary incumbents protested with a sitdown strike. The Guardian Council and Leader Khamenei flinched in lifting the ban for 200 candidates. Fear of the twin oppressors receded. The strike continued in support of the remaining disqualified candidates. The chief election official pledged to scuttle balloting unless the disqualifications were renounced. Six vice presidents and 24 ministers resigned to signal opposition to the Guardian Council.

Even the timid President Khatami, joined by Speaker of the Majlis Mahdi Karroubi, issued a flinty statement last Saturday that portends a defining confrontation. It maintained the disqualifications were against “Islamic democracy,” and that the ongoing attempted orchestration of the elections is “against the dignity of the noble Iranian nation.” The two insisted on “fair, free and competitive elections and hope• … the Guardian Council reconsiders disqualification as soon as possible.” And on Sunday, the Majlis enacted an emergency bill to marginalize the council’s vetting power, which it instantly vetoed.

The council’s slender support does not guarantee its overthrow by a democratic revolution. Brutality and ruthlessness regularly defeat widespread peaceful opposition. The Bolshevik Revolution succeeded for 75 years in the Soviet Union by practicing and inculcating terror and fear. The reviled and reptilian military thugs in Myanmar hold an iron-grip on power despite virtual universal support for Nobel Peace Prize icon and National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Saddam Hussein’s widespread execration was no match for his indiscriminate wretchedness, torture, and general barbarism.

On the other hand, Iran has twice tasted the freshness of a democratic dispensation. Its political culture is mature, resembling that of Turkey’s. A majority of Iran’s citizens are young and unthrilled by the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and these include the Ayatollah Khomeini’s grandson. An Iranian woman lawyer, Shirin Ebadi, recently captured the Nobel Peace Prize for opposing the mullahs. And the exhilarating fervor that greeted the overthrow of the shah of Iran and the taking of American hostages for 444 days has long since dissipated amidst corruption, economic hardships, and petty mullah ambitions.

The odds thus seem favorable to an Iranian democratic revolution in 2004. The United States should scrupulously resist intermeddling to avoid tainting indigenous democrats by association with the much hated shah.

Bruce Fein is an international consultant and constitutional lawyer at Fein & Fein.

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