Leading Article: Are we witnessing the birth pangs of a new, liberal Iran?

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The Independent Culture
ANY POLITICAL leader who can motivate tens of thousands of his supporters to come on to the streets and chant "we donate to the leader the blood in our veins" deserves to be taken seriously. So we should treat with caution reports that Iran's "supreme, holy and infallible" leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is losing his grip. It remains illegal to criticise his actions and he controls the judiciary, the police and security forces. He, as well as the mullahs and bazaari who act in concert with this "Supreme Leader", has shown himself brutally willing to stifle dissent and frustrate the attempts of the democratically chosen president, Mohammad Khatami, to build the "civil society" with greater openness, respect for human rights and democracy that he promised on his election two years ago.

However, the present wave of protest - led by students, as in the 1979 revolution that exiled the Shah and installed the first modern theocrat, the Ayatollah Khomeini - confirms the degree to which President Khatami has succeeded in raising legitimate expectations. The present instability may not necessarily resolve itself in the old guard's favour. It is at least now possible that a historic shift is taking place in Iran, by which the uncompromising hostility of the regime to almost all things Western is being undermined by the appeal of those same Western, liberal values. If so, then the events in Tehran and other cities will have an effect quite as momentous as the revolution of 1979.

By the early Nineties, the kind of world predicted by analysts such as Samuel Huntington, the American academic and former national security official, began to look all too real - one where religious cleavages would constitute international battle lines to replace the ideological split of the Cold War. An "iron belt" of militant hostile Islam threatened to stretch from Morocco via the Middle East and Pakistan, to Indonesia in the east and as far south as Nigeria and Sudan.

This theory was flawed; nationalism, the division between Shi'ite (as in Iran) and Sunni traditions in Islam and the enduring strength of US influence in Turkey and Saudi Arabia saw to that. But there was still sufficient force to the idea for it to destabilise what passed for a new world order. The recklessness of pariah states such as Libya, Iraq and Iran in sponsoring terrorism and aggression only confirmed the worst fears. What we are seeing in Iran now may be the beginning of the end of that tense and unhappy era. The Iranian uprising has been foreshadowed in different ways, for example in Bahrain, Algeria and Lebanon, where moderate, reformist Islamic influences are gaining. Are we witnessing an Islamic "velvet revolution"? The prospect of the triumph of the values of the Great Satan may be distant, but it is nevertheless real.