Features

Persian gulf

Iran | Its ruling clerics may hate America, but Iran's restive population disagrees

Issue: "Simpsons: Fair or Foul?," June 11, 2005

Iran's reigning mullahs and the reformists who would mend the regime's theocratic ways finally have something in common: Iranians don't like either of them. That will likely mean thick voter apathy when the country elects a new president on June 17.

For most of the country, disillusionment with the government is escalating. Frustrated by repressive Islamic laws, Iranians elected current president Mohammed Khatami in 1997, hoping he and his reformers would create more democratic rule. But power still resides with unelected clerics. The reformists have accomplished little.

The result might surprise many Americans. Seventy percent of today's Iranians are below the age of 30 and have scant memory of the anger that spawned a U.S.-hating Islamic theocracy in 1979. These Iranians are not simply against their own regime; they are probably the only broadly pro-American population in the Middle East.

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Vigorous national discussion-and windows to the outside world-have helped engineer the change. Some 75,000 Iranian blogs have sprouted on the internet, making Farsi the fourth most popular blog language in the world. While authorities have imprisoned political bloggers and shut down reformist newspapers, they have not been able to block all outside news and entertainment from satellite TV and the internet.

One prominent Iranian blogger from Tehran told WORLD that pro-American sentiment has grown partly out of dislike for the regime. The 27-year-old writes an English-language blog under the pseudonym "Mr. Behi."

"In my generation I rarely-better say not at all-see such big opposition to the U.S.," Mr. Behi said. "If you look at the reformist parties today, you will see many who were among former anti-U.S. groups, but now they are trying to make better ties. The Islamic republic loves having enemies! If you listen to speeches made by the supreme leader, you will hear 'Enemy' two times in each sentence! They always justify their shortcomings as a result of '(Enemy) action' and hit the opposition with the tag of 'Spy.' That is one reason why people do not consider the West as the enemy."

Iran's Guardian Council, a body made up of six Islamic clerics and six lay jurists, vets all election candidates and legislation. In May the council approved only six of over 1,000 presidential candidates. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, worried over low voter turnout, then pressured the council to approve two more candidates-the only reformists in the pool.

Meanwhile, some Iranians support a referendum to change the constitution so that the hardline unelected half of government won't have final say on policies. Other Iranians want Reza Pahlavi, the son of the shah deposed in 1979, to return as a constitutional monarch, and still others want a republic.

Mr. Behi said he favored a democratic federal government, but offered a caveat: "Note, however, that many people here may disagree with my ideas. Iran has 70 million politicians." Whatever the disagreements, the question for Iran now is not if, but when and how the ruling mullahs will go.

'This prison is like my home'

Barely a month ago the prospects for Hamid Pourmand were grim. The Iranian Assemblies of God lay pastor was arrested last September along with 85 other Christians, but he was the only one left in prison nine months later. A former army colonel, Mr. Pourmand faced bogus charges related to failing to inform the army of his conversion to Christianity 25 years ago.

Charged with apostasy, he faced the death penalty. His plight attracted international attention. But on May 28 came a stunning acquittal. "I don't know who you are, but apparently the rest of the world does," the judge reportedly told Mr. Pourmand. "You must be an important person, because many people from the government have called me, saying to cancel your case."

Mr. Pourmand still has to serve out a separate three-year sentence relating to his conversion. According to Compass News, however, he was in good spirits: "Don't worry about me," he said, waving to his family. "This prison is like my home now, you know!"

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