Magazine article Insight on the News

Economic Strife Dampens Iran's Revolutionary Zeal

Magazine article Insight on the News

Economic Strife Dampens Iran's Revolutionary Zeal

Article excerpt

Few analysts believe that today's Islamic regime in Iran will fall, despite turmoil at the top and a tired, frustrated populace. Indeed, a feeling of hopelessness pervades 15 years after the revolution.

In late June, thousands of black-clad Muslims gathered in Iran's holy city of Mashhad to celebrate the festival of Ashura, the most important event in the Shiite Islamic calendar. To the din of drums and cymbals, the celebrants chanted Islamic slogans, beat their backs with chains and even cut their heads with swords. Ashura normally is peaceful, marking the time when Shiite Muslims mourn the death of the Prophet Mohammed's grandson, al-Hussein, 1,314 years ago. But at the peak of the ceremony, a bomb exploded, shattering the ornate gold and colored glass of the shrine of Imam Reza. Densely packed into the mausoleum, 25 mourners died and 70 more were injured.

Despite its reputation, Iran is a relatively stable country and the killings shocked most Iranians. The Islamic authorities accused an Iraq-based opposition group known as Mujahideen-e Khalq Organization of planning the attacks. Yet the smoke had barely cleared before Iran's unofficial rumor mill started up.

"There is so little information here, nobody knows what to believe," complains a young woman in a smokefilled tea shop in Isfahan. But it's clear that few Iranians swallow the official version. Many blame minority Sunni religious groups - about 15 percent of Iran's population follows the Sunni branch of Islam - who are angry at the destruction of a Sunni mosque in Mashhad in January. Others talk of a struggle for power among Iran's Shiite hierarchy, or accused Israeli agents of planting the bomb. And with official news confined to revolutionary propaganda, rumors become fixed in the popular consciousness.

"Who watches Iranian TV anymore?" shrugs Mahmoud, a cameraman with the state-controlled broadcasting company. "It's just the mullahs talking."

The Mashhad bomb is the latest in a series of violent attacks on Tehran's Islamic regime. In February, President Hashemi Rafsanjani survived an assassination attempt - at least his seventh - when shots were fired at him on the anniversary of the Iranian revolution. On the same day, riots broke out in the southeastern town of Zahedan after a clash between security forces and the local Sunni minority. Only weeks later, gunmen killed a senior cleric in Mashhad, a city that two years previously saw Iran's worst urban rioting since the revolution.

"It's far from a revolutionary situation "says one professor, speaking on the condition of anonymity, "but the dissension and discontent are serious because people are questioning the nature of the regime itself."

Many of the disturbances can be traced to economic discontent. Rafsanjani won a second presidential term in May 1993 running against challengers who already had endorsed his policies of economic reform and liberalization. Yet public dissatisfaction - largely with rising prices and stumbling policies - has slashed his support.

Rafsanjani, rumor has it, has tried to resign three times this year - although he made a rare television interview to deny the story. But with his economy in tatters - oil revenues have slumped, inflation and unemployment are rampant and beggars have returned to the streets of Tehran - Rafsanjani is facing growing pressure.

Conservative figures in the establishment accuse him of neglecting Iran's revolutionary principles and the parliament is refusing to uphold his reformist policies. Even Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei, Iran's spiritual leader, has offered scant support, diplomats say. …

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