Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Channeling history in Iran

USA Today:

Posted 11/7/2005 9:27 PM

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the fundamentalist who ruled Iran for a decade after the 1979 revolution and held 52 U.S. hostages for 444 days, was a menacing figure — controlling an oil-rich country bent on terrorism and religious tyranny. There were sighs of relief all around as Iran's policies moderated somewhat after his death. But not any more.

Suddenly, it's as if Khomeini is being channeled by the new, inexperienced president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In the past couple of weeks, he has called for the destruction of Israel, fired moderate ambassadors and spewed Khomeini-style rhetoric.

With Iran believed to be developing nuclear weapons and the region already in turmoil — Iraq is next door — that's hardly helpful. Or is it? In an unintended way, the slight, bearded former mayor of Tehran might yet re-open a needed debate in Iran about its future.

Ever since he made his outrageous remarks calling Israel a "disgraceful blot" that should be "wiped off the map," there has been a global outpouring of censure. The Tehran stock market has plummeted. Iranian commentators have called for moderation. Tehran has offered to return to stalled nuclear talks with the Europeans. On Wednesday, Iran's parliament is due to vote on a new oil minister — an Ahmadinejad crony with little experience. Opponents are promising a fight.

This is good news. Since Khomeini died, a council of ayatollahs has held final say in all matters, and it has managed, not always easily, to tamp down increasing public discontent with oppressive religious rule and stagnant living standards. It has tolerated small liberalizations by the country's president and parliament to ease social tensions, but the country hasn't properly faced its tough reality: Despite oil revenues, the economy is in shambles, wracked by corruption and high unemployment.

Ahmadinejad's answer was to promise large handouts. Meanwhile, the U.S. presence next door in Iraq and international pressure on the nuclear issue have provoked a stirred resentment across the Iranian political spectrum. Those factors have combined to stall the country's internal debate.

Democratic ferment remains, though, and over time can be encouraged.

Condemnation of the new president's excesses might yet help force a more public debate inside Iran.


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