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Iran: Analysts Say Democratic Changes In Iraq May Inspire Similar Trends In Its Neighbor

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (file photo) Iraq held its first multiparty elections in 50 years on 30 January. The elections are considered a first step toward the establishment of a democratic government in the country after decades of rule by Saddam Hussein. While observers agree that many hurdles remain before Iraq's transition toward democracy can be considered a success, some say even the small changes so far may inspire the beginning of similar trends in neighboring Iran.

Prague, 11 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003 sparked many concerns about neighboring Iran -- in particular about Iranian interference in Iraqi internal affairs.

But some Iranians pushing for more freedom and openness in their country hope that democratic changes in Iraq will gradually flow across the border.

Mohsen Sazgara is an Iranian activist and researcher who in August 2003 received a three-month jail sentence for criticizing the regime. Speaking from London, where he is currently receiving medical treatment, he told RFE/RL that he is watching events in Iraq carefully.

"I personally hope that Iraq's [transition to democracy] will be completed successfully so that it can also help our nation," he says. "For sure, neighbors with democratic governments are much better for us than dictators such as Saddam Hussein or backward groups such as the Taliban."

Sazgara -- who faces an additional year in jail when he returns home -- says the recent events in Iraq have the power to encourage many young Iranians to push even harder for democratic change in their country.

"Our young generation in particular has shown -- especially over the past eight years and during the reform movement -- that it has a strong desire for democracy, human rights and civil society, and a strong desire to join the international [community]," Sazgara says. "And when democratic changes take place in our neighboring and brother country Iraq, with its many ties to us, it encourages our youth, and emboldens our young people to ask for change in our current constitution."
"If the Iraqis have a good government with an Islamic democracy, without any special rights for clerics, the Iranian government will not be able to justify its situation to Iranian citizens." -- Mohsen Kadivar, Iranian cleric

Sazgara says the establishment of an elected government in Iraq will raise critical questions about Iran's current system of government, where a senior cleric is given near-absolute power over all matters related to the Islamic Republic.

Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, a prominent journalist and editor in chief of several dailies in Tehran that have been banned by the authorities, also believes Iran cannot remain immune to the changes in Iraq.

"The Shi'as in Iraq have accepted the notion of having a secular government, and they are slowly moving toward the democratization of their country -- free elections, democratic institutions, a free press," Shamsolvaezin says. "All of this in and of itself will have an impact on the situation in Iran."

Scrutiny from the United States and Europe may add to the pressure for change in Iran. But whether the motivation comes from within the country or abroad, Shamsolvaezin -- who is also the spokesman for Iran's Society for the Defense of Political Prisoners -- says change in Iranian society is inevitable.

"I think that future developments in Iran will move toward more democratization -- either under international and U.S. pressure, or under pressure from civil society institutions inside the country," he says. "Of course, many of the forces inside the country would like a native democracy with deeper roots -- a homegrown modernity to be formed in the country, so that that foreign elements will not impose and inject democracy into the country."

Many believe that real reforms are impossible under Iran's current climate.

Mohsen Kadivar, a reform-minded Iranian cleric, recently told a Reuters reporter that, "If the Iraqis have a good government with an Islamic democracy, without any special rights for clerics, the Iranian government will not be able to justify its situation to Iranian citizens."

Growing speculation about the possibility of a U.S. strike on Iran also has some observers warning that military action would only reverse any progress toward reform.

In a commentary published 9 February in "The New York Times," 2003 Nobel Prize Laureate Shirin Ebadi warned that a foreign military intervention in Iran would have disastrous consequences for human rights in the country.

Speaking to RFE/RL, Ebadi says the U.S.-led campaign in Iraq did lead to elections, but opened the country to massive violence and unrest that shows no signs of abating.

"The military attack against Iraq led to the fall of a dictator and the organization of elections under UN supervision," she says. "But we should not forget that the growth of extremism and terrorism, and the increase of unrest and insecurity, the killing of a large number of innocent civilians -- all of these things are a result of the military attack against Iraq. Democracy should grow and blossom from inside the society. An exported democracy, a democracy that is being thrown on the people of a country with bombs, is useless."

Ebadi says a lively dialogue is ongoing in Iran about human rights, and that activists continue to view such discourse as the best framework for achieving democratic reforms and political pluralism.
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is the author of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.