BRUSSELS — Images of Iran seem stuck in a time warp that dates back to the early 1980s, when the country was considered to be one of the world’s “rogue states” due to its militant standoff with the United States and its state support of Islamic terror groups. Now it is a flawed democracy — with a distinctly patchy record on human rights — trying to break free from the chains of a theocratic constitution that gives the clergy a veto over the decisions of elected politicians and allows it to control key appointments to positions of power.

Reformist President Mohammad Khatami, re-elected in 2001 with 77 percent of the vote in a contest with an 83-percent turnout rate, is battling for power. He was blocked by a conservative Parliament in his first term, but his opponents were swept away in the February 2000 general election when the reformists won 80 percent of the vote and a clear majority.

Since the last presidential elections, the Parliament has passed legislation to loosen restrictions on the press, to abolish torture and improve human rights, to raise the age of marriage for girls from a child-molesting 9 to adolescence, and to break the economic gridlock by privatizing some of the state enterprises that control 85 percent of the economy. The unelected Council of Guardians has blocked the first three bills and forced the last to be watered down. This body is controlled by the conservative Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamanei, who was selected by the clergy to replace Ayatollah Khomeini as spiritual leader upon the latter’s death in 1989.

Thus the reality is that within Iran two contradictory state structures are vying for power. The conservative state comprises Khamanei, the Council of Guardians and the Judiciary — intent on applying Shariah Islamic law to the limit, including public stonings and hangings, amputations and floggings — backed by the electronic media whose directors are appointed by the clergy.

The reformist state is increasingly the people, the president, the Parliament and the print media. One example in this struggle is the campaign being waged against proreformist newspapers and their journalists. Mohsen Mirdamadi, once a militant who led the student group that occupied the American Embassy and now a member of Parliament and chairman of the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, is the publisher of the newspaper Nourouz. This is his fourth newspaper — the others were all closed by the courts. On July 20 it was reported in the rightwing publication Syasat-e Rouz that Nourouz would suffer the same fate, with additional punitive measures to be taken against Mirdamadi himself. In the last three years, 30 of the paper’s journalists have been jailed. Yet, in contrast to the Judiciary’s actions, the Parliament has already granted a license for the paper to re-open under a new name.

The reality of the Islamic revolution was never as clean and tidy as it is now portrayed. The corrupt regime of the shah was swept aside by a coalition of forces ranging from the communist Tudeh Party to Khomeini’s Islamic fundamentalists. The blood was barely dry on the tarmac before the coalition members turned on each other. In less than three months of savage civil conflict, Khomeini won as his Islamic Revolution Guards swept alternative futures into history’s “might have beens.”

More than two decades later, however, the competing visions of reformers and conservatives are clashing once again.

In his Jan. 29 State of the Union address, U.S. President George W. Bush spoke of an “axis of evil” threatening the U.S. that was comprised of Iran, Iraq and North Korea. They were sponsoring terrorism and developing weapons of mass destruction, he asserted. But it is difficult to see things this way in the case of Iran. The democratic government is desperate to kick-start the economy and wean it away from an overwhelming dependence on oil, to deal with the 30-percent rate of unemployment (including 3 million young people who have never had jobs) and to become a “normal” Islamic state. Bush’s speech played into the hands of the Iranian conservatives by forcing the reformers to join them in a united front against the U.S.

The Iranians may have chemical weapons, but unlike the Iraqis they have never used them. Evidence of an Iranian nuclear-weapons program is unclear. The U.S. claims that the new Russian reactor being built in Bushehr can be used for military purposes, but the same could be said of facilities in almost any country with a nuclear energy program. The Iranians support the Nonproliferation Treaty, and have criticized the U.S. for abandoning the ABM Treaty — hardly the actions of a country hell-bent on developing nuclear weapons. Iran has offered no-first-use of its 1,500-km range Shahab 3 missile and to refrain from developing the longer-range Shahab 4, based on the North Korean Taepodong, for military use.

As for terrorism, the Taliban and its al-Qaeda allies murdered a group of Iranian diplomats when they seized Mazar-e-Sharif some years ago. When the U.S. commenced its campaign against Afghanistan, Iran closed its borders to the Taliban and al-Qaeda. While a small number of the wilder “bonyad,” the independent Islamic foundations outside parliamentary or presidential control, may have flirted with or even have links with al-Qaeda (although it would in religious terms be the equivalent of a partnership between the Rev. Ian Paisley and the pope), there is no evidence of government support. A number of individuals and organizations in Britain have similar links but Bush didn’t threaten to blame and maim Britain in his State of the Union address.

So the European Union has rejected the counterproductive U.S. approach in favor of a trade and cooperation agreement with Iran that will be negotiated in parallel with separate agreements on terrorism and political dialogue. The latter will include human rights, the Middle East, weapons of mass destruction and drug trafficking.

A safer and more secure world, with the West in partnership with the “Dar al Islam” will come from talks rather than tanks, and from common action rather than covert action. That will do more to thaw out politics in Iran than all the bellicose threats from Washington.

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