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The Heat Is on Iran's Clerics

November 18, 2002

Iran is in ferment. Students and political reformers who oppose the ruling hard-line Muslim clerics have been galvanized by the mullahs' death sentence against a popular professor who challenged their authority. The peaceful protests sweeping university campuses seem on the verge of leading to something bigger. The United States needs to be ready to welcome change in Iran, possibly sooner rather than later.

The sentence against Hashem Aghajari, a historian and politician who is allied with reformist President Mohammad Khatami, has sparked fury.

In June, Aghajari delivered a speech in Hamadan, the historic center of Iran, that asserted that interpretations of the Koran by past clerics did not have to be seen as sacred--a direct challenge to the Islamic rulers of Iran who insist on unwavering adherence to medieval Islam.

The clerics, who are constantly looking for ways to diminish the elected Khatami, pounced, ruling it blasphemy against the prophet Muhammad. In Iran, that's a hanging offense.

The protests reflect widespread revulsion toward the iron-handed clerics among those born after the 1979 Islamic revolution. In 1997 and 2001, reformers scored big in parliamentary elections. The hope of the reformers is to ease Iran's international isolation, stimulate the economy and soften stringent dress codes for women, but their efforts have been blocked by the veto powers of the clerics.

The often-timid Khatami has begun to go on the offensive, introducing legislation last month challenging the broad, secretive powers of the cleric-controlled judiciary, which has repeatedly jailed politicians, journalists and others deemed subversive. One bill would permit him to revoke any judicial decision he sees as unconstitutional, including sentences like the one against his ally Aghajari.

Khatami's hand may be strengthened enough by the demonstrations to force his enemies to accept curbs on their powers. Indeed, so egregious is the sentence against Aghajari that even the Basik, or volunteer Islamic militia, expressed doubts about it. Aghajari has declined to challenge the verdict, putting additional pressure on the government to repeal the sentence or face bigger protests.

The ruling theocracy can't win. If it executes the courageous professor, Khatami can claim him as a martyr. If the clerics back down, reformists likewise will be strengthened. Either way, the struggle reveals an Iran immensely more complex and hopeful than the label "axis of evil" would imply.

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