Skip to comments.Protests highlight mass disenchantment in Iran
Posted on 06/19/2003 7:50:40 PM PDT by freedom44
TEHRAN (Reuters) - Pro-democracy protests in Iran have lost some of their early momentum, but deep-seated and widespread disenchantment with the country's Islamic clerical rulers has not been sated by the brief letting off of steam.
Demonstrations continued for a ninth night in Tehran on Wednesday night. But protesters numbered hundreds rather than the thousands who turned out last week. There were smaller protests in several other cities.
The dwindling intensity of the demonstrations -- which Washington hailed as a cry for freedom -- is of little comfort for the clerics against whom they were directed.
Even conservatives who have resisted the reform efforts of President Mohammad Khatami and his allies in parliament acknowledge Iran's "Islamic democracy" is facing a legitimacy crisis with parliamentary elections looming in February 2004.
"I'm worried about the next parliamentary election," influential former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani said this week. "We should not distance people from the polling booths by our disagreements."
Local elections in February showed the depth of political disillusionment, with turnout dropping to just 12 percent in Tehran. Reformists crashed to their first electoral reverse since Khatami swept to power in a 1997 landslide.
Disenchantment with the status quo has if anything deepened since then and as the recent street protests showed, many Iranians are becoming bolder and more radical in their demands.
"The debate in Iran has accelerated considerably in the last year or so," said a local political analyst who declined to be named. "Previously taboo subjects are now being openly voiced. The call for reform has become a call for wholesale change."
Witnesses of the recent protests said slogans directed at members of the clerical elite were unprecedented in their venom.
Reformist legislators, dissidents and academics have also dared to pen open letters to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei challenging his right to remain above rebuke.
Public anger has also been directed at Khatami, whose 1997 election raised great expectations among many Iranians, most of whom were born after the 1979 Islamic revolution.
Dismayed at Khatami's failure to break conservative resistance to his agenda of improved democracy, justice and social freedom, protesters have called on him to resign.
But, some analysts say, Khatami's hand may have been strengthened by the protests.
"Khatami and the reformists will be telling the conservatives who have blocked him: 'Look, this is what happens when you don't listen to the people'," political analyst Hossein Rassam said.
With Iran's clerical rulers also under intense pressure from Washington over its alleged nuclear weapons programme, speculation is growing in Tehran that two key reform bills which had seemed doomed to failure could become law.
The bills are aimed at curbing hardline influence over the judiciary and electoral processes. Khatami has said that without the bills he has as little authority as an ordinary citizen.
After flatly rejecting the bills as unconstitutional and un-Islamic, the conservative-controlled Guardian Council has recently met delegations from the reformist-held parliament to try to reach a compromise.
NEED FOR RECONCILIATION
"I advise parliament and the Guardian Council to reach a reconciliation. We should not go towards the elections while fighting," Rafsanjani said this week.
Meanwhile, the potential for unrest remains.
"The thing that's different about these protests has been the lack of a clear pretext. People came out purely and simply to whinge at the regime," said one European diplomat in Tehran.
"This means that whenever a pretext does comes up, people will be even more ready to come out and protest again."
That pretext may not be far off. On July 9 Iran will mark the fourth anniversary of a violent attack on the Tehran University dormitory which sparked five days of protests and riots.
Student leaders have said they plan to commemorate the anniversary with large gatherings.
But as the events of the last week have shown, any protests will meet a tough response. Analysts say one of the key factors holding back massive demonstrations in Iran is intimidation.
On Friday night and Saturday morning hardline Islamic vigilantes in Tehran attacked protesters at will.
Brandishing metal bars, chains and knives the vigilantes, who are fiercely loyal to conservative clerics, stormed several university dormitories and attacked protesters in their cars, leaving dozens injured.
"What happened on Friday night is an emphatic reminder of just how powerful these people are," said the European diplomat.
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