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The final days of Iran's religious dictatorship?

By Steven Martinovich
web posted November 18, 2002

For the older generation it must have been like traveling back in time to late 1970s. Thousands of Iranian students have protested in the streets of Tehran every day this past week or so shouting slogans like "This is our last warning to you," "Iranian students are ready for an uprising" and "Death to dictatorship." The target of those slogans this time wasn't the Shah, but rather the militant religious clerics who led those protests two decades ago. The students have even taken to tweaking the nose of those clerics by singing "Ey Iran," the nation's anthem under the Shah.

A protest by students in Tehran for Aghajari
A protest by students in Tehran for Aghajari

It is history professor Hashem Aghajari who has prompted the students to take to the streets in recent days. Aghajari, a leading member of the reformist political party Islamic Revolution Mujahedeen Organization, was sentenced on November 6 to death by hanging on charges of insulting the Prophet Mohammad. Aghajari's crime? Delivering a speech in June entitled "Islamic Protestantism" which called on his fellow Muslims not to blindly follow religious leaders. Aghajari has decided not to appeal his sentence to hopefully force the judiciary to reflect on the severity of his sentence.

The Aghajari verdict sparked a war of words between Iran's relatively reformist political leaders and its conservative clerical judiciary. The situation has reached the point that Ayatollah Ali Khameni was forced to appear on national television on November 11 threatening to use the military to restore order. Along with the recent protests by a growing number of Iranians in recent months against their religious leaders, it is clear that the future of Iran's theocratic regime isn't a very bright one.

Hashem Aghajari

Aghajari's sentence, one that many believe the government is now desperate to vacate in order to quell this potential uprising, was seen as an effort to crack down on reform and create fear and intimidation for allies of President Mohammad Khatami, the main force for reform in Iran. Iran's mullahs have clearly underestimated the desire for change in their young people, the largest segment of the country's population.

That was seen in a September poll conducted by Iran's National Institute for Research Studies and Opinion Polls that found that 74 per cent of respondents supported dialogue with the United States. The poll also found that 45.8 per cent believed America's policy on Iran is "to some extent correct." Not surprisingly, the pollsters found themselves arrested and hauled before a court on a charge of "publishing lies to excite public opinion."

Along with the question of political rights, the dismal nature of Iran's economic prospects has also galvanized the students. Political power often depends on being able to meet the needs of a populace and in many Muslim nations, including Iran, that simply means food, jobs and education. The failure of the Iranian government to limit corruption and poverty has demoralized millions of youth. Some 53 per cent of Iranians live below the poverty line and only 24 per cent of those employed work in the industrial sector.

Whether their grievances are political or economic, it's obvious that many in Iran aren't happy with the legacy of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. With an average age of under 30, many Iranians weren't even alive when he was swept into power in 1979 and don't look at the revolution with any deep fondness. They are tired of the slow pace of reform and continued restrictions on social and political freedoms. Even Mohammad Reza Khatami, brother to the president, recently threatened to resign his parliamentary seat due to a lack of reforms, stating that soon Iranians have only two choices, "dictatorship or uprising."

"They have tied our feet, they have broken our hands and cut our tongues," said a student at a protest a few days ago. "Until when shall we remain silent? Until when shall we close our eyes? We will not tolerate oppression anymore."

They may not have to much longer.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.

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