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IRAN - Forbidden Iran, January 2004

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Synopsis of "Forbidden Iran"

A Brief History

Undercover With the Underground

Nobel Prize Winner

Government, People, the Press

Human Rights, Blogs, Nuclear Threats




The Struggle For Democracy
The Modern Past Khatami: The Harbinger of Change The Student Uprising The Third Force

Thousands protest against the fundamentalist regime

Thousands protest against the fundamentalist regime at Tehran University in 2002. Demonstrations like this have drawn increasing numbers of ordinary citizens into the streets. (AP/Wide World Photos)
The Third Force - The opposition movement sweeps Iran

President Khatami was re-elected in another landslide victory in June 2001, but disillusionment with government "reform" was widespread, and young voters insisted that their support for the president was conditional on substantial change. Their expectations were now higher, and the situation more volatile.

Heightened tensions exploded in October 2001 when hundreds of thousands of protestors took to the streets for weeks, clamoring for democratic freedom and engaging in violent clashes with police. The demonstrations were significant not only for their size but also for the participation of ordinary citizens, whose presence signaled the broadening of the opposition. Strikes by teachers, workers and nurses, attended by thousands, throughout 2001 and 2002, further reflected that resentment toward the regime was no longer confined to the students.

Even more significant was the movement's break from Khatami. Public criticism of the president intensified throughout late 2001, culminating in calls for his resignation in November 2002 during several weeks of protests when the regime sentenced a pro-reform professor to death. With its rejection of Khatami, the opposition became known as the Third Force, an independent movement outside of the official political camps of the reformists and the conservatives.

The growing political crisis in Iran garnered worldwide attention in 2003. Iranian activists inside the country spread word through the Internet of anti-regime sentiment, and exiles and Iranians abroad used radio and the Web to organize against the clerics. Then the harsh reprisals faced by opposition activists were highlighted by the case of Zahra Kazemi, a Canadian photographer of Iranian descent who was tortured to death in July 2003 for taking pictures of the notorious Evin prison, where political prisoners are held. And in October 2003, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to lawyer Shirin Ebadi, for her efforts in fighting government repression and advocating for human rights inside Iran.

Meanwhile, Iran has once again become the subject of increasing scrutiny from the United States. Washington would like to see the anti-American ruling clerics ousted from power and has dismissed Khatami as ineffectual. President Bush has issued statements endorsing the democratic aspirations of ordinary citizens protesting against the ruling regime. Student and opposition activists said that they do not want a U.S. invasion or U.S. troops occupying their country. But some hawkish officials and analysts are pushing the White House to help foment democratic revolution in Iran, in the hopes of achieving a change in the regime.

The Bush administration is facing considerable pressure to adopt a strategy for dealing with the Islamic Republic of Iran as suspicions surface about its possible nuclear weapons development, with possible implications for the stability of the entire Middle Eastern region. As the internal political crisis threatens to explode, Washington will need to decide how to engage with the Third Force.

The opposition movement in Iran has proven that it is capable of loud and violent outbursts. It has shown its commitment to defiance of the Islamic regime. But it continues to lack organization and a coherent political vision, in part because the clerical regime has arrested many of its leaders, but also because the movement is still growing. It remains uncertain where the future of the Third Force lies, what its relationship to outside powers will be and whether it will become a truly revolutionary movement that succeeds in reshaping Iran's government.

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