Release Date: February 29, 2000
Eric Margolis, c/o Editorial Department, The Toronto Sun
333 King St. East, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5A 3X5
Fax: (416) 960-4803 -- Press Contact: Eric Margolis

Younger Iranians Reject the Politics of Khomeini

by Eric Margolis

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN -- Iranian voters issued a thunderous call for change this week by overwhelmingly electing a new parliament of reformers and moderates committed to modernizing Iran's economy and society. The dramatic vote, with a remarkable 80% voter turnout, and the election of younger politicians, reflects Iran's new political demographics: half its 72.6 million people are under 21.

Religious conservatives still hold the reins of power in Iran: the Council of Guardians, with veto power in Iran's system of Islamic checks and balances; military and militia; intelligence agencies; and judiciary. But, barring an armed counter-revolution, the dour theocracy established after the 1979 revolution by Imam Khomeini -- like all revolutions, is softening under pressure from younger Iranians who want economic and social liberalization.

Iran's elections generated excitement across the normally introspective, apathetic Muslim world. This is because Iranians appear to have achieved a significant step in resolving the leading problem that bedevils Islamic nations: how to reconcile Islamic law and custom with democracy and the needs of modern society.

The 1979 revolution marked the end of western colonial domination and exploitation of Iran's oil. It's easy to forget that in 1945, the only independent Muslim nation on earth was Afghanistan. Even today, a majority of Muslim nations are still under heavy western or Russian post-colonial influence.

Britain and Russia dominated Iran from 1900 to World War II. In 1941, Britain invaded and occupied neutral Iran and put a puppet, Mohammed Reza Shah, on the throne. Iranians claimed Britain's invasion was as much naked aggression as Germany's invasion of Poland in 1939. The Shah, like Mideast oil sheiks, supplied oil to the west at give-away prices in exchange for arms, protection from their neighbors and subjects, and secret Swiss bank accounts. A nationalist regime that briefly seized power was overthrown by the US in 1954.

Iran's revolution ended American economic and political domination, but brought a draconian Shia Islamic regime that brooked no opposition and imposed strict religious rectitude on Iranians, a highly sophisticated people with a glittering, 2,500-year civilization and deep sense of historical injustices.

Iran's bitter opposition to US and Israeli influence in the Mideast provoked barrages of anti-Iranian invective from the west. Washington branded Iran a `rogue state' and sponsor of terrorism. Ironically, the bloodiest acts of Mideast terrorism were conducted against the Islamic regime by an Iranian marxist underground group sometimes funded by the US, the Mujihadin-I-Khalq, which assassinated half of Iran's leaders. Far worse, in 1980, the US and Britain encouraged Iraq's dictator, Saddam Hussein, to invade Iran and overthrow its new Islamic government. The result: an eight-year conflict in which 500,000 Iranians died. Britain secretly supplied Iraq with anthrax and poison gas technology for use against Iran.

Over the past 20 years, Iran has emerged from a backward-looking clerical dictatorship that often violated human rights into a unique, hybrid system in which religious conservatives and Islamic law co-exists with liberal reformers and democracy. It's an uneasy relationship, sometimes violent. Yet behind all the turbans and black chadoors, Iran was, in fact, changing and modernizing rapidly. Democracy, though half-formed and flawed, had taken root in its formerly arid political soil.

Real democracy means the ability to change governments peacefully. This week's vote in Iran was a bombshell for the Muslim world which, after Africa, is the globe's most politically retarded area. Iranian voters broke the hold of religious conservatives on parliament. For any Muslim nation, such change was a great leap forward.

Contrast `rogue' Iran to the other US-dominated Mideast states. Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states are all autocracies with sham elections. Turkey, hailed by the western media as a role model for Islamic nations, is run by a military oligarchy behind a faŤade of democratic politicians. Military-ruled Algeria, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, are worse.

Ironically, in `rogue' Iran, citizens and press have more political freedom of expression than anywhere else in the Mideast -- Israel excepted. Iran even has a developing legal system, however imperfect, unlike its neighbors, where he who holds the gun is the law.

Western women take great offense at Iran's modesty laws, yet few realize Iranian women have far more political and social freedom and rights than they do in most other Muslim nations, save Egypt and Pakistan. Like other Muslim nations, Iran is struggling to reconcile a more active role for women in society and the economy with the traditional Islamic view that a woman's primary role is to raise well-educated, civilized children and be queen of her home.

Look for Iran to gradually open its economy which has been stifled by over-regulation and high taxes; continued skirmishing between conservatives and moderates; a slight improvement in relations with the west; and fast-improving relations with the Arab world. Unfortunately, Iran is likely to continue sabotaging Arab-Israeli peace efforts and will continue fueling civil war in Afghanistan by backing anti-Taliban forces.

The US needs a friendly Iran to assure access to Caspian oil. Iran seeks an end to America's punishing economic embargo and attempts to overthrow the regime. This week's dramatic vote offers the first modest steps towards inevitable reconciliation.

[Eric Margolis is a syndicated foreign affairs columnist and broadcaster based in Toronto, Canada.]

[Evidence obtained by the Guardian backs a report by Human Rights Watch. This makes detailed accusations of abuse, including deaths under interrogation, against the "People's Mujahideen" of Iran (MKO).

The Mujahideen are a 4000-strong anti-Iranian dissident army, currently under US protection in a camp in Iraq. They have a vociferous public relations campaign in Britain and the backing of some Washington neo-conservatives.

The group, known as the "tank girls" because of the preponderance of women in its ranks, has also won the support of the Daily Telegraph, which wants it to help overthrow the mullahs in Tehran.--David Leigh, "'Tank girl' army accused of torture" Guardian, May 31, 2005]

[Even by the standards of Washington politics it was an unusual spectacle - the veiled leader of a Middle East group banned in the US as a terrorist organisation delivering a speech by live video-link to applauding members of Congress inside the Capitol itself.

But since the organisation is dedicated to the overthrow of Iran's theocracy, the People's Mujahideen Organisation and its political co-leader, Maryam Rajavi, are given leeway in the US as they campaign to have the "terrorist" tag removed and to become eligible for US funding of Iranian opposition groups.--Guy Dinmore, "Iran opposition group seeks US legitimacy" Financial Times, October 26, 2005]

VIDEO: "The problem of the Mujahadeen," BBC Newsnight, January 19, 2007

Copyright © 2000 Eric Margolis - All Rights Reserved
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