Iran's mullahs hit back

Wall Street Journal Europe August 5, 1999

by KennethR. Timmerman
Click here to readbiographical information

Washington, DC-The clerical regime in Tehran has launched amassive crackdown on the dissidents and student leaders who organizedthe protests that rocked 18 Iranian cities last month. This week50,000 troops from the Revolutionary Guards and paramilitary unitswere deployed around Tehran in mock anti-riot exercises. On Tuesdaythe clerics passed a law that would make almost any criticism of thestate illegal and punishable by death. On Wednesday they banned thereformist Salam newspaper, whose original closure sparked theprotests, for five years. Just three weeks ago pro-democracydemonstrators were marching through the streets without fear.

There has been virtually no protest from inside Iran against theselatest repressive measures. The demonstrations have died out, and thestudents have gone home. Is it the end of Iran's pro-democracymovement?

Key to the turnaround was President Mohammed Khatami, theself-styled reformer called "Ayatollah Gorbachev" by many in theWest. During early demonstrations, protesters held aloft portraits ofthe popular president, appealing to his public pledges to uphold the"rule of law" and to allow greater freedom of expression. Despitetheir appeals, Mr. Khatami remained silent. He neither supported thestudents, nor called on the security forces to intervene.

But as the protests spread and became more violent, so did thepressure on Mr. Khatami to get off the fence. Finally, on July 13, hemade his first public statement. "I am sure these people have evilaims," he said of the protest organizers. "They intend to fosterviolence in society, and we shall stand in their way." DefenseMinister Ali Shamkhani chimed in later that day, warning protestersagainst violence. "We will enforce security at any price."

Behind the scenes, it turns out that Mr. Khatami had beensubjected to intense arm twisting by the top commanders of theIslamic Republic Guards Corps. They sent him a letter on July 12,signed by 24 senior IRGC officers-- including the commanders of itsland, sea, and air forces--warning him of the consequences of failingto put down the protests.

"Mr. President, if you don't take a revolutionary decision today,and fail to abide by your Islamic and nationalistic duty, tomorrowwill be too late and the damage done will be irreparable and beyondimagination," the commanders warned. Their letter was printed oneweek later by Kayhan, a Tehran daily published by the intelligenceministry. "Our patience has reached its limits," the commanderswrote. The letter was widely interpreted inside Iran as a scarcelyveiled hint of a military coup should Mr. Khatami fail to get thesituation under control.

With Mr. Khatami firmly on board, the regime launched itscounterattack on July 14, bussing tens of thousands of governmentemployees to Tehran to stage a pro-regime rally. While no one wasfooled as to the authenticity of the rally, it was an impressive showof force. Addressing the crowd, the secretary of the NationalSecurity Council, Hassan Rouhani, a top aide to President Khatami,said that pro-democracy protesters would be arrested and could facethe death penalty. Since then, some 1,400 have been arrested,including all the prominent student leaders who organized theprotests. International human rights groups have issued appeals intheir favor, hoping to prevent them from being executed.

Last week, in his first trip outside of Tehran since thedisturbances, Mr. Khatami simultaneously reconfirmed his commitmentto the clerical system, to reform, and to repression of thepro-democracy movement in speeches in the Western Iranian city ofHamadan.

While condemning the intelligence ministry attack on studentdormitories, Mr. Khatami said that the subsequent pro-democracymovement was "an effort to go beyond the boundaries. It was toexpress vengeance toward the system... an act against nationalsecurity with deviant slogans." He added that such protests mean thatsecurity in Iran can only be guaranteed through "force andrepression." At the same time, however, Mr. Khatami pledged tocontinue his reforms. "We are under a covenant with you to defend thelegitimate civil and legal freedom of this nation," Mr. Khatamisaid.

Westerners might accuse Mr. Khatami of talking out of three sidesof his mouth. But to an Iranian audience, steeped in the codedrhetoric of 20 years of absolute clerical rule, Mr. Khatami's messagewas clear. The "legitimate freedoms" he pledged to defend derivedfrom the Constitution of the Islamic Republic, adopted at theRevolution's heyday in 1980. That constitution guarantees a broadrange of civil and political rights to right-thinking men of Persianethnic background. It relegates to second-class status women andreligious and ethnic minorities, and declares holy war on advocatesof secular government, who are considered to have sinned againstreligion.

The West should have no illusions about Mr. Khatami, what herepresents, or how he sees the future of Iran. Western-styledemocracy has no place in his vision. But he and his clericalcolleagues have unleashed forces which none of them will be able tocontrol.

The most significant motor of change in Iran over the past twoyears has been the liberalization of the laws governing the press.Hundreds of new dailies, weeklies, and monthlies have sprouted upinside Iran, sporting every point of view from the openly pro-Westernand pro-democracy tone of Neshat, to the rabid Islamic extremists ofJebheh, a daily associated with the Ansar-e Hezbollah, the vigilantegroup accused of working hand in glove with the intelligenceministry.

It is no coincidence that the student protests on July 8 weresparked by an attempt the day before to close the most prominent ofthe pro-reform newspapers, Salam. Several dozen journalists have beenarrested over the past month, editors and publishers have beenconvicted in special courts, and several papers closed. Clearly theregime believes they have broken the back of the pro-democracymovement.

But the real question now is how far can the clerics push ordinaryIranians into abandoning their thirst for freedom and theiraspirations for some semblance of a "normal" life. The regime leadersfeel they can push very far. They may discover that they have made afatal mistake. Now that Iranians have begun to taste freedom it isincreasingly unlikely they will be willing to give it away.

In the months leading up to next February's parliamentaryelections, students and pro-democracy forces will be organizing,coordinating, and planning. They, and not the regime, won the firstround by showing, if only for a week, that they had conquered fear.And they have swallowed the bitter pill of their earlier disillusion,having seen President Khatami for what he is: a radical cleric whoultimately believes that maintaining the system is more importantthan freedom.

Mr. Timmerman publishes an investigative monthly newsletter, The IranBrief, and is a Contributing Editor for Reader's Digest.