Clerics start to lose their grip in Iran

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The Independent Online
FOUR DAYS ago, in a speech that was totally ignored in the West, Iran's influential culture minister, Ataollah Mohajerani, claimed 80 per cent of the Iranian army and Revolutionary Guards voted for President Mohammad Khatami in last year's elections.

It was an important assertion because - if true - it means that the Iranian President who demands a "dialogue among civilisations" has the muscle to ensure his country never again falls into the hands of conservative clerics.

If President Khatami says Iran seeks a peaceful resolution to the Afghanistan crisis, then that is what it will do. If he says his government will not try to kill Salman Rushdie, then Rushdie is safe from all but the most intransigent elements.

Mr Khatami's ministers have been saying the same thing for months, but now the effective suspension of the death sentence carries the president's imprimatur.

Can the Iranians do any more? Instead of invading Afghanistan - where their diplomats have been murdered and thousands of their fellow Shia Muslims massacred - they have chosen to meet neighbouring countries and accept a US proposal for an immediate ceasefire, a negotiated settlement for all Afghanistan's ethnic groups and an international investigation into the slaughter of civilians.

While President Clinton is denying the clash of civilisations, President Khatami has been describing how "if humanity at the threshold of the new century and millennium devotes all its efforts to institutionalise dialogue ... it would leave an invaluable legacy for the benefit of future generations."

Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa against Rushdie will stay. Khomeini has achieved saintly status in Shia eyes - his shrine south of Tehran will be a place of pilgrimage for centuries - and, though such parallels are inherently flawed, the fatwa can no more be struck from the record than Christians can delete the less attractive epistles of Saint Paul.

Rushdie will have to live out his days with the fatwa extant if no longer applicable - unless a freelance killer decides to honour Khomeini's wishes. This is not an attractive state of affairs for Rushdie, nor for the British Foreign Office, but President Khatami's statement on Tuesday is about as good as they are going to get.

The President can control the country's armed forces - that was the thrust of Mr Mohajerani's statement in Beirut - but does he have the support of the Iranian intelligence services and the powerful bonyads, which originally put a price on Mr Rushdie's head?

The security services appear to be loyal to the President - it is they who have been supplying the Taliban's enemies with arms and who have been continuing the battle inside Afghanistan against the men whom Mr Khatami himself calls "criminal fanatics".

True, a lone assassin could endanger Iran's new foreign policy by obeying the fatwa and thus projecting the conservative clerics once again, but the irony is that while Rushdie's death sentence remains a critical issue in Britain, it is of virtually no importance in Tehran.

The battle between Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Mr Khatami's supporters is being fought in the press where the magazine Rah-e No (New Way) has carried an article by the late Grand Ayatollah Abolqassem Mousavi Khoei that seemed to question whether Iran's government should have a supreme spiritual leader at all.

Rah-e No earlier published an essay by the pro-Khatami dissident Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who said Ayatollah Khamenei, as supreme leader, should supervise state affairs - but without paramount power.

The articles appeared in the prelude to the 23 October elections for the Assembly of Experts which can name - and dismiss - Iran's supreme spiritual leader. Rah-e No has now paid the price for exercising such freedom of speech: the authorities have temporarily suspended publication after Ayatollah Khamenei privately expressed his displeasure.

The Supreme Leader may indeed be enthusiastic for a war against the Taliban although President Khatami, by embarking on serious political negotiations at the United Nations to avoid a conflict, has effectively prevented any military offensive. Ayatollah Khamenei is on the defensive.

Meanwhile, Iran - so long the target of Western condemnation for its alleged "backwardness" and fundamentalism - now finds itself in the position of condemning the Taliban's pseudo-Islamic laws against women and their ferocious punishments - knowing full well that the Taliban is a paid creature of Saudi Arabia, Washington's favourite ally in the Gulf.