By one of those happy coincidences in which no Iranian ever really believes, both The Economist and the New York Times have discovered that Iran's religious leaders are not happy with the way things are going in the Islamic Republic. As readers of my columns have known for some time, many of the country's leading ayatollahs have figured out that when the Islamic regime is finally brought down, the people's rage is likely to be directed against the clerics as well as the political tyrants. Shiite Islam will be a major casualty in the coming democratic revolution, and the more-thoughtful mullahs and ayatollahs are already joining the ranks of the revolutionaries.
Both The Economist and the Times senior clerics in the holy city of Qom are quoted as supporting a clean separation between mosque and state, in which the ayatollahs will return to their traditional religious function, leaving the management of the affairs of state in the hands of the representatives of the people. Neither publication pointed out that the regime has extended its repression to Qom in recent months, rounding up outspoken teachers and theologians and sending them to Tehran, where they vanished into the black hole of the institutions of Islamic Justice. Despite this attempt to silence religious critics with the regime's iron fist, several of the surviving remnant spoke openly to the Western journalists about the illegitimacy of the regime and the misery it has brought to the Iranian people.
On Monday, reporter Nazila Fathi carried the story one step further, reporting on an incendiary letter issued by the Ayatollah Taheri, the former Friday prayer leader in Isfahan who broke with the regime late last year by resigning his position and attacking the country's leaders in the most-explicit possible terms. Taheri's latest tirade called on Iranian clerics to condemn the five-year old house arrest of the venerated Ayatollah Montazeri, one of the authors of the country's post-revolutionary constitution, and the designated successor to the Ayatollah Khomeini until shortly before Khomeini's death, when Montazeri condemned Khomeini's unconstitutional seizure of absolute power.
Last week, Fathi reported in the Times that 100 legislators issued a letter demanding Montazeri's release, spurred by reports of the aging cleric's failing health, and by the regime's denial of medical treatment. Taheri, as usual, was unsparing in his language, condemning the clerics for cowardice, and refusing to carry out their "divine and human role." "How come we could come to peace with Saddam Hussein, but it is impossible to agree with a Muslim ayatollah?" he intoned.
Both the Taheri letter and the interviews with the two Western publications suggest yet another turning point in the saga of the failing Islamic Republic. In recent months, student demonstrators have been joined by other segments of the population, from workers in the oil and textile industries (the two main sources of hard currency), to teachers and mounting numbers of ordinary citizens. The addition of significant numbers of religious leaders would give even greater force to the calls for a national referendum with free elections to follow.
As their end draws ever nearer, the regime's leaders are increasing the terror that alone keeps them in power. They obviously hope to accelerate Montazeri's death by withholding medical treatment, and summary trials and executions are now a staple of the daily news. They have calculated that if they kill enough actual and potential dissidents, the rest of the population will bend to the will of the regime. But they are walking a perilous tightrope, because dissidents are cropping up on all sides, and if the regime proves unable to silence tem, then the opposite dynamic will take effect, and the people will be more likely to bring down their oppressors.
Meanwhile, back in Washington there is not the slightest sign that our policymakers feel any obligation to come to grips with the Iranian crisis. Somewhere in the constipated bowels of the national-security bureaucracy a presidential strategy declaration festers. Secretary of State Powell, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, and National Security Adviser Rice have been too busy fine-tuning their language on the prospects of safe passage for Saddam, and on the degree of largesse we are prepared to offer North Korea in return for future worthless promises, to spare a moment for the long-suffering Iranian people.
Did any of them notice the quiet movement of more than 200 top al Qaeda personnel from Iran to their enclave in northern Iraq in recent days? Did any of them notice that a top North Korean general took a long, devious route from Pyongyang to Tehran to discuss strategy with the mullahs?
Probably not. If they had, they would have been forced to do something before the long-standing promise of the Iranian regime to respond to President Bush's tough language in their own way — in the heartland of America — is fulfilled. Maybe then they'll notice.
Faster, please. We don't need more dead Americans.