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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Iran in Ferment

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Iranian student protests of the last few weeks -- the largest in at least three years, with scores arrested -- reflect widespread discontent with current conditions, felt not only by the younger generation but by Iranians of all classes and age groups. Student aspirations for political freedom, accountable government, economic opportunity and an easing of social controls are widely shared. But the response by politicians also demonstrates the political bankruptcy of the hard-line conservatives who oppose the students, not to mention the failure of political leadership of the reformers who support the students.

The hard-liners retain considerable coercive power, but they have no ideas or policies for dealing with the serious economic problems facing the country, or with Iranians chafing under the clerical monopoly on power. Their response to the demands for change has been to shut down newspapers, imprison critics, insist on clerical supremacy and label protesters "agents of foreign powers."

Reformist politicians, well represented in the Majlis, or parliament, are much closer to the popular temper. They are critics, after all, of arbitrary arrests, a politicized judiciary, interference in elections and suppression of press and social freedoms. Voters elected Mohammad Khatami to the presidency by large margins and gave a reformist coalition a workable majority in the 2000 elections. But after a promising start, the reformists appear to lack a strategy for translating this considerable public support into effective politics.

This was evident in the reformists' weak response to protests -- from the violent crackdown on student protests in 1999 to the latest demonstrations. Support for the students by reformist deputies in parliament has been mild. The days when the reformers called mass political rallies of their own, or encouraged the general public to actively engage in the political process, seem to be over.

Understandably, students and reformists wish to avoid clashes with club- and chain-wielding thugs. The club-wielders were out in force when several thousand people joined in student-led demonstrations outside Tehran University last week.

Khatami and the reformist parties are correct in their conviction that peaceful change through the political process is preferable to violent change. But the reformers have failed to exploit numerous opportunities to press their political advantage. As a result, most middle-class Iranians have dropped out of the political process; disillusioned students may soon do so as well. Strikingly, the most powerful spokesmen for reform today are individuals of immense courage rather than political parties or movements. The academic Hashem Aghajari got a death sentence for arguing that Islam does not require Iranians to blindly follow the dictates of religious leaders. Another intellectual, Qasem Sho'leh Sa'di, dared to take supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini to task for clerical corruption.

The reformist parties are vesting considerable hope in two bills before parliament. The first would curtail the authority of the Guardian Council to disqualify candidates for elected office; the second would enhance the president's authority. If enacted, these laws would be significant.

But enhanced presidential powers won't help if Khatami is unwilling to challenge the conservatives when they manipulate the constitution and institutions of the state in contravention of the law. He needs to display the firmness he exercised early in his first term, when he forced the intelligence ministry to admit its agents were complicit in the murders of Iranian intellectuals and political figures.

The idea dear to some in Washington and even in Tehran that the United States can help resolve the political deadlock in Iran is not persuasive. The Bush administration expresses support for the democratic forces in Iran but has yet to find a way to engage with the government and organized political groups in Iran. Reform can be effective but only with determined, organized political leadership and broader political mobilization. Otherwise, the efforts of students and others may be squandered.

Shaul Bakhash is a history professor at George Mason University and author of "Reign of the Ayatollahs: Iran and the Islamic Revolution." He contributed this comment to the Los Angeles Times.