The World Tribune

Hoover Digest

The ayatollahs' crisis: Youth, courage and revolutionary ideas

By Robert Morton

Friday, July 16, 1999

The days of rage have returned to the streets of Tehran. Student demonstrators, many openly supporting warmer ties with the U.S. and Israel, have run out of tolerance for the Islamic regime of the ayatollahs. When at least five of their number were killed by police, protests broke out in university towns throughout the nation.

The uprising occurred at a time when a new leader in Israel was laying the groundwork for peace accords with its hostile neighbors the most powerful of which is Iran. Thus the prospect of another revolution in Iran has caught everyone's attention from Jerusalem to the State Department. After all, Iran before the fall of the Shah in 1979 was a powerful American ally and sympathetic to Israel.

The protesters were backing Iran's allegedly reform-minded President Mohammad Khatami. But on July 14, it became clear they had been set up like a bowling pin. The government closed the cities, ordered its subjects into the streets for a counter-demonstration and sentenced the students to some good old fashioned Islamic justice.

For his part, Khatami, speaking on national television, said of the students: I am sure these people have evil aims. They intend to foster violence in society, and we shall stand in their way."

The U.S. administration, spinning like a top as always, wrangled this lead out of the New York Times on July 14:

"The Clinton administration, fearful of the consequences of the Iranian government crackdown on pro-democracy student demonstrators, is worried that its muted public statements about the protests have been twisted to the benefit of Islamic hard-liners, administration officials said Tuesday."

So do we have a genuine social revolution breaking out in Iran?

Readers old enough to remember when Jimmy Carter moved from Plains, Georgia to the White House can also recall an era when the Shah of Iran made the Persian Gulf safe for the Free World. That was before anti-American students took to the streets and the Ayatollah Khomeini made his triumphant return from exile in Paris in 1979.

Now his successor, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has tested two generations of intermediate range missiles, including the Shabab-4 missile which has a range of 1,400 miles and is being developed by Russian companies along the lines of the SS-4 missile. Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism and continues to nurture its relationships with outlaw communist states such as North Korea and to tap Russia's strategic industries to advance its geopolitical agenda in the Middle East which includes the destruction of Israel.

Too much is at stake for the ayatollahs to go gently into the good night. The shah could travel to Washington. The Ayatollah Khamenei has nowhere to go. Still before July 14, the regime had responded queasily to growing public antipathy. When a series of dissident leaders were assassinated late last year, the government launched a series of investigations and issued conflicting accusations for the killings even admitting that its own security forces were involved. Last week before finally cracking down on the protests, Khamenei himself loudly decried the police brutality and claimed that the students had "hurt my heart."

Visiting Tehran in late 1978 as an American correspondent left indelible memories of a society in radical transformation Writing stories by candlelight in a hotel stricken by the nightly power outages is one image that comes to mind as is having a camera stripped of its film by Iranian troops guarding the American embassy.

On the last day of the year, an interview with a government official was cut short by a secretary hurriedly entering the office and whispering in Farsi: "There's trouble in the streets." Just what trouble she was referring to became clear when two Americans, one a writer the other a translator, made their way back to their car three blocks from the office.

The mob of students advancing down the street recognized them for who they were: citizens of the great Satan. Remonstrations by the translator that we worshipped the same God were unpersuasive. What saved our necks was a small group of students who somehow made the case to the majority that we were or might be "good Americans."

And from there, on the way to the airport, we stopped at a well-known restaurant in northern Tehran. Here to, the revolution had left its sobering mark. That morning a person had been killed on the street within feet of the front entrance, and the fear inside was palpable.

But no memory from that trip stands out like an earlier briefing at the U.S. embassy. The American official was asked to comment on an item in Newsweek's "Whispers" column that said aid to the Ayatollah's Khomeini's uprising was being channeled from Soviet-bloc sources in East Europe. In other words, the communists were behind this insurgency which stood to threaten American interests not only in Iran and the Persian Gulf region but throughout the Middle East.

The American diplomat erupted in anger. "This is a genuine social revolution," he shouted as he terminated the interview.

Months later, that individual served more time in Iran that he had bargained for, and without the customary leave granted the American foreign service. He was one of the hostages in the U.S. embassy whose imprisonment helped relieve the nation of Jimmy Carter's services for a second term.

Throughout the 1980s and '90s, Iran has been the region's most powerful foe of both the "great Satan" and Israel, the "little Satan." The close ties between the Shah and the United States was replaced by a strategic alliance with the Soviet Union and now Russia.

Now as U.S. spokesmen like the State Department's James Rubin stumble around for words to describe America's position on the uprising, Assad Homayon has some advice. A senior fellow at the International Strategic Studies Association, Homayoun was the shah's minister at Iran's embassy in Washington when the throngs took power in 1979.

"The United States should not choose between bad and good clerics in Iran," he said. "President Khatami has lost his opportunity to promote his promised reforms. He has betrayed the students and is under the control of Khamenei. The United States should stand behind the freedom-loving students, the Iranian people and the long-term peace and stability of Iran.

In other words, what we have in Iran this time is a "genuine social revolution."

The above column was published in the July 19-25, 1999 edition of the National Weekly Edition of The Washington Times. Robert Morton is managing editor of that newspaper and a media fellow at the Hoover Institution.

Friday, July 16, 1999