Iranian Protesters Lack Muscle

Iran's ruling ayatollahs have little to fear from the student protests that are raising the hopes of regime-change proponents in the Bush administration.

Without a coherent message and a national organization, it is doubtful that a disgruntled, youthful majority can pose a credible challenge to the Islamic regime at this time.

These are the last days of the month of Khordad in Iran. Elite students at Tehran University stage their traditional anti-government demonstrations before the dead of summer sets in. Final exams that drive students to cram all night studying by rote are coming to an end.

Tehran, an urban nightmare without the infrastructure to accommodate decently even a tenth of its population, can only look forward to a long season of unbearable heat and choking pollution.

Restive young people loiter along bustling sidewalks with little hope that their punishing education would mean a secure future. There is little hope as well that the current explosion of youthful protest would be able to change this condition.

It was in the same month 40 years ago that the Shah's regime brutally quelled street demonstrations, later executing a number of protest leaders and sending into exile a little-known cleric named Ayatollah Khomeini.

For the next decade and half, Islamic activists worked across the country in urban neighborhoods and villages, creating a support system through local mosques without which an Islamic revolution would never have come to pass.

Today's opposition has the media savvy to make its presence known worldwide with a few nights of demonstrations. But it clearly lacks the patience and political know-how to back its protests with an effective, nationwide organization.

The Islamic government, since its inception, has consistently strengthened its roots in a power-base of urban and rural poor, using well-funded foundations to secure political loyalty with gifts of food, clothing, medicine and educational material. The Shah's dictatorship never had the ubiquitous role that the Islamic regime plays in the daily lives of ordinary Iranians.

Equally strong is the Islamic regime's hold on the armed forces. Confident of its base of support, the government has even arrested several members of Ansar Hizbullah, the highly organized vigilantes who have attacked protesting students and damaged a dormitory.

While the riot police are very visible, they have mostly avoided violent clashes with demonstrators. The regime has learned a valuable lesson from the Shah's mistake of ordering his troops to answer stone-throwers with live rounds. One dead body on the street in Tehran, Isfahan or Shiraz, where recent protests have taken place, could lead to a drastic shift in public opinion.

The United States' vocal support of the protests also gives clerics additional credibility as they warn young Iranians not to be "fooled and misled by American plots."

"America, realizing that they cannot defeat us in war," said Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamanei, "now publicly supports anarchy from within Iran."

Speaker of the Parliament Mehdi Karoubi, countering Bush administration charges that pro-democracy activists are being silenced said, "We have democracy in Iran. The national elections are symbols of democracy in the country. You will see once again massive turnouts in the upcoming parliamentary elections. The Iranian people don't like American-style democracy. They have proved this in practice."

America can best show its commitment to democracy in Iran, and the Persian Gulf region as a whole, not by trying to force another regime change. It would do better with policies that indirectly help a still-strong reformist movement in the country.

More diplomatic and cultural exchanges, as well as the lifting of crippling economic sanctions, could boost the reformists, as a more open and prosperous Iran would make Iranians even less inclined toward fundamentalism than they already are today.

Most crucially, if greater power sharing between reformists and conservative clerics evolves, the traditionally skeptical Iranians would start gaining confidence in their own civil institutions. The process could serve as desperately needed model for the entire region.

Saba writes widely on Middle Eastern and American social, political and cultural issues.

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