LIMASSOL, Cyprus — Earlier this year, U.S. President George W. Bush granted Iran a membership card in the “axis of evil” — a triad of nations so iniquitous that they deserved to be cast out of the world community.

There were reasons for Bush’s judgment. Iran had attempted to ship a freighter full of weapons to Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority — arms that would have helped terrorists step up the murder of civilians in an already bloody land. And Iran’s government has sought to develop nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction.

Still, the “axis of evil” didn’t quite make sense, unless it was just a dramatic way to point out some disparate bad guys. Iran, Iraq and North Korea are in no way allied, and compared to the homelands of Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Il, Iran is a complex place. Moreover, recent developments in Iran show exactly why there is more hope for that nation’s future than hawks in Washington would allow.

On Sunday, the Washington Post reported that Iran had detained and expelled to Saudi Arabia 16 al-Qaeda terrorists who sought refuge after fleeing from neighboring Afghanistan. All of the al-Qaeda members were Saudis, and they were handed over even though Tehran is aware that Riyadh will share intelligence from their interrogations with Washington. The return of the suspects is one of many acts of quiet cooperation Iran has provided in the war in Afghanistan.

“We asked (the Iranians) to hand them over and they did,” said Prince Turki Faisal, the former head of Saudi intelligence. “Iran has not only cooperated with Saudi Arabia in this conflict in Afghanistan, but cooperated extensively with the United States.”

The good news comes after a month of turmoil over reform within Iran. Ayatollah Jalal Al-Din Taheri, the Friday preacher of the city of Isfahan, last month announced his resignation from the post he had held for over three decades. He didn’t walk out in despair of Muslim women who are showing too much ankle under their skirts, or teenagers who play Western music at home.

Rather, he denounced Iran’s human rights violations and the regime’s failure to meet the people’s expectations of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. He blamed the reactionary leadership for corruption and inability to solve the problems of unemployment, poverty, prostitution, illegal drug use and AIDS.

In a July 11 resignation published in the newspaper Azad, Ayatollah Taheri wrote, “The great catastrophe of the flight from religion, disillusionment, unemployment, inflation, poverty, the deepening of the disparities between the classes, (economic) stagnation, and the drop in state revenue, the sick economy, and administrative corruption . . . the embezzlement and bribery and absence of an effective solution (to these problems) . . . have tragic consequences, and each moment they threaten . . . the state and the life of the nation.

“We have failed to solve the state’s many problems through boasting, lies, violating human rights, chasing after factional interests and spreading empty slogans. Our main failures are not maintaining the rule of law, the activity of irresponsible noncivilian institutions, the presence of mafialike groups in the (political) arena, the restrictions placed on the Majlis (parliament) and more.”

Taheri also called for the release of Ayatollah Montazari, once designated Ayatollah Khomeini’s successor, who has been under house arrest since 1996 for criticizing the Islamic regime: “The unjustified tragedy of the reactionary and inhuman incarceration of the religious jurisprudent (Montazari) has grave results and a shameful end.”

In short, Taheri’s letter, translated by the Middle East Media Research Institute, or MEMRI, in Washington, called for a government that is responsible to the people in the way that democratic leaders are the world over. Theocrats or not, Iranian leaders must address social ills and not hide behind religious tyranny and hypocrisy, or they will lose the support of the people.

But Taheri’s letter demonstrates a more important fact, as far as the rest of the world is concerned. Iran is on a different planet than either Iraq or North Korea. Such criticism couldn’t possibly appear in totalitarian Pyongyang or Baghdad.

The letter is just a small part of a reform movement that is growing in Iran. While the movement draws support on university campuses, it doesn’t comprise a band of out-of-touch radicals (like antiglobalization demonstrators in the United States, for example). Its ranks include Iran’s reformist President Mohammad Khatami-Ardakani, who himself has struggled with the entrenched clerics and Islamic courts.

The government reacted furiously to Taheri’s resignation. The Supreme National Security Council banned discussion of the affair in the media, although conservative papers were allowed to dog-pile on Taheri. Several papers defied the order, and at least one was closed, MEMRI reported. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei warned Taheri against defying the regime, and implied that critics were enemies of the state and of the Islamic Revolution.

The situation remains unresolved, with conservatives still holding most of the reins of power. But the controversy suggests that Iran is a very different place from Bush’s cartoon villain. It’s a pity that Washington can’t acknowledge that students, political reformers and, it appears, even an ayatollah are waging a brave fight to hold Iran’s rulers accountable.

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