Iran: The Reformers Are Showing Signs of Life

The paint is still fresh in the new office of Hamid Reza Jalaiipour, 44, who has just opened Bonyan, his seventh Tehran newspaper in five years. Iran's courts, controlled by conservative clerics, shut down the other six for renegade views. Even so, Jalaiipour is upbeat about the democracy movement in the Islamic Republic. "The pace may have slowed a bit. But the reform movement will put its mark on the Majlis [parliament] and even the judiciary," he vows.

The mood is surprising, especially since reformists were reeling in late January when President George W. Bush named Iran as part of an "axis of evil" developing weapons of mass destruction. Just after Bush's speech, most reformists joined the mullahs and President Mohammed Khatami in denouncing the U.S. Now, though, the tough Bush line seems to be spurring a new debate about Iran's politics and its relations with the U.S. Indeed, Jalaiipour is calling for direct relations with the U.S. and for Iran to back Saudi Arabia's recent initiative for Mideast peace if the Palestinians go along with it. "We need direct and responsible dialogue with the Americans," says Jalaiipour, a University of London-educated sociologist.

Airing such views carries grave risks in a country where the judiciary regularly jails dissidents. Still, not only in the press--which now publishes 10 pro-reform dailies--but also in the Iranian parliament, reformists are challenging conservative clerics more assertively. In late February, 170 of Iran's 290 lawmakers demanded that the government launch an investigation of all U.S. allegations about Iran. That followed the Administration's accusation that Iran was smuggling weapons to the Palestinians. The lawmakers also called for any rogue factions inside Iran to be dealt with immediately if they were found to be behind such arms shipments. "That was an important move on the part of the Majlis," says Nasser Hadian, a law professor at University of Tehran.

The demand for an investigation followed a bold walkout by legislators in January. The protest was led by Majlis Speaker Mehdi Karrubi when a parliamentary deputy was jailed for insulting the judiciary. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei later pardoned the deputy. Now, observers are waiting to see if five other deputies will be jailed for convictions on similar charges. If not, it means the mullahs are backing down and "we can call the Majlis an island of [reformist] strength," says Hadian.

Can the reformists move beyond symbolic victories to real change? While the mullahs are unlikely to give up control of the judiciary, reformists hope to gradually improve social and economic freedoms. A key law banning torture was approved by the Majlis on Mar. 5.

What's unclear is whether incremental reform will be enough for Iran's youth, who make up 60% of the population and are clamoring for jobs and freedoms. They've taken to the streets on occasion, inspired by broadcasts beamed in from Iranian dissidents abroad. Some youths who never lived under the Shah even talk about his son, Reza Pahlavi, 41, as a political alternative. Based in the U.S., Pahlavi is calling for Iran to hold a referendum to create a secular democracy.

That's considered a long shot. Still, there's no doubt that the movement for change in Iran is far from dead. In the fight against the mullahs, there are plenty more rounds left.

By Rose Brady

With Haleh Anvari in Tehran

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