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US Should Use "Soft Power" to Engage Iran


In the past few days, thousands of Iranian students have been peacefully protesting against the death sentence for apostasy handed out to Hashem Aghajari, a liberal dissident.

Aghajari is a 45-year-old history lecturer, journalist and veteran who lost a leg in 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War. His speech titled “Islamic Protestantism” infuriated the conservative clerics dominating Iran’s judiciary. In it, he compared Iran’s current clerical rulers to the medieval Catholic popes. Stating that “Islam is in a dire need of a structural shakeup,” he called for an urgent “renewal” of Shiite Islam. Especially irritating to the clerics was his questioning of the Shiite Muslim practice of emulating senior clerics as role models. “Are people monkeys to emulate someone else?” newspapers quoted Aghajari.

The death verdict by the conservative judiciary came amid President Mohammad Khatami’s introduction of the two most important pieces of legislation since he entered office in 1997. One bill would enable the office of the president to warn and sanction conservative judges who have shut down reform-oriented publications and incarcerated numerous journalists and intellectuals. The other bill would curb the veto power of the conservative, nonelected Guardian Council to bar many reformists from participating in elections.

Many Iran experts believe these two pieces of legislation mark the climax of the ongoing power struggle between the reformists and conservatives in Iran and view Aghajari’s death sentence as a warning shot by the conservatives to intimidate the reformers.

Iran’s elected pro-reform Parliament has passed both pieces of legislation, but the Guardian Council is expected to either reject or significantly water them down. Lacking popular support, the conservatives have resorted to delay tactics that have inhibited real progress in Iran. Frustrated and fed up by the pace of reform, students have even chanted, “Khatami, Khatami, resign, resign.” Khatami, who has previously backed down from the brink of confrontation, has said this time he will resign if the two bills are not passed by the Guardian Council — thus depriving the Islamic theocracy of any form of legitimacy.

The students’ growing demonstrations in support of Aghajari’s right to free speech and the Parliament’s swift and overwhelming passage of the two bills reflect the mood of the Iranian people. For them, the hope of an Islamic utopia has become a reality of broken promises wrapped in oppression, high unemployment, inflation, lack of opportunity and minimal forms of self-expression.

The Iranian people no longer consider Islamic fundamentalism an ideal to strive toward but a failed ideology, like absolute monarchy, communism and authoritarianism. Having rejected fundamentalism, they are yearning for democracy.

The outcome of this power struggle is vital for America. Because an effective reform movement committed to democratic principles in Iran can have a moderating influence throughout the Islamic world.

The Bush administration ought to listen to European allies and engage the reformists. It should abandon the notion of fomenting a revolution. Reformists, like Aghajari, who risk their lives to promote democracy, do not deserve to be, mistakenly, branded along with the tyrannical, corrupt mullahs they are fighting against.

If America actively engages Iran’s reformers and helps to bring into law these two pieces of legislation, the nullification of velayat-e faqih (the supreme leader’s absolute power and final say on all matters) will not be far behind. A free press is the linchpin of any democratic society. A democracy will cease to exist without it, and a dictatorship will cease to exist with it.

By exposing corruption, ineptitude and injustice, a free press in Iran will be the beginning of the end of the Islamic theocracy. By helping to empower the reform movement in Iran, President Bush can inspire and ignite the imaginations of Muslims the world over.

America’s soft power — its ability to inspire, offer hope and show a more promising future centered on the pillars of freedom and justice — is a far more potent force in our war on terrorism than solely relying on high-tech hard power. The same way that Iran’s Islamic revolution galvanized the fundamentalists across the Islamic world, its successful embrace of democracy will embolden democracy-seeking moderates across the region and help to reconcile the differences that exist between the Islamic world and the West.

REZA LADJEVARDIAN can be reached at:


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