July 26, 2002

July 26, 2002 | Commentary on Middle East

Iran's Summer of Discontent

It's turning into another long, hot summer for Iran's rulers.

Riots are bubbling up throughout the Middle Eastern nation, just as they have in past summers, and the list of reasons are as long as the beards of the old men who govern the country: Economic stagnation. Political corruption. Rising unemployment. Falling living standards. Inadequate housing. Political and social repression.

In fact, it's so bad that even a good old "death to America" rally held recently in the capital of Tehran-and heavily promoted by the ayatollahs-brought out just "tens of thousands" of Iranians to the streets, according to wire reports. A decent crowd, yes. But a far cry from the hundreds of thousands who used to turn out voluntarily for such events 10 years ago.

As Iranian President Mohammad Khatami and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei are finding out, time, not the United States, is the greatest enemy of their Islamic revolution. Iran's students, nearly all of them born years after the 1979 revolution, are tiring of the slow pace of reform and continued restrictions on social and political freedoms. Even the urban poor, the greatest supporters of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979, are becoming increasingly restless.

Meanwhile, the aging leaders of the 1979 revolution seem unable or unwilling to handle the country's growing economic problems, control outside influences such as the Internet and satellite TV, or relate well to a population where the average age is under 30.

Iran's liberal reformers have warned Islamic hard-liners that their continuing resistance to long-overdue political, economic and social reforms may trigger a popular uprising. Even Mohammad Reza Khatami, the brother of President Khatami, threatened on July 17 to resign from parliament if the hard-liners keep digging in their heels. He said that if the government continues to stall reforms, the Iranian people have only two choices, "dictatorship or uprising."

"Uprising" is becoming an increasingly good bet. Earlier in July, a popular religious leader, Ayatollah Jalaleddin Taheri, a Muslim cleric who used to lead prayers in the city of Isfahan, resigned in protest against the hard-liners' stranglehold on power-a big deal in a country essentially run by religious leaders. And reform rallies continue to grow in Iran's major cities: 100,000 turned out in Tehran and Isfahan alone; in smaller towns, about 10,000. This is not a cultish fad in a mostly rural country of 62 million.

President Bush has put the United States squarely on the side of the Iranian people. "The people of Iran want the same freedoms, human rights and opportunities as people around the world," he said in a July 12 statement. "Their government should listen to their hopes."

But President Bush's support should go beyond words. The United States should maintain economic sanctions on Iran, imposed because of its hostile foreign policy and support of terrorism. (Remember, Iran is one of the countries that form the president's "axis of evil.") But it also should press its European allies, Japan and international financial institutions to deny Iran loans, aid and debt relief until it halts its support of terrorism and respects the rights of its own people. Iran has pocketed about $40 billion in direct investment from other countries, has a gross domestic product of $100 billion, and enjoys extensive trade with countries such as Japan, Italy and France, according to the 2002 "Index of Economic Freedom," an annual survey published by The Wall Street Journal and The Heritage Foundation.

Firm and relentless pressure is needed to force change in Iran. That pressure is already being brought to bear-both from within the country and from the United States. If other nations join in, then Iran's long, hot summer eventually could enable the Iranians to bask in the cool wind of freedom.

James Phillips is a research fellow specializing in Middle Eastern affairs in the Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy institute.

About the Author

James Phillips Senior Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Related Issues: Middle East