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Borrowed time

President Bush stopped to chat with reporters after church last month and was asked about the anti-government demonstrations in Iran.

The president said he believes freedom is a powerful incentive and that the demonstrations are "the beginnings of people expressing themselves toward a free Iran, which I think is positive."

Hardly incendiary remarks, but official Tehran's reaction - or rather over-reaction -

showed how defensive and thin-skinned the increasingly beleaguered clerical regime has become.

Accusing Bush of "animosity and deep hostility" - fair enough, considering Bush included Iran in the Axis of Evil - a spokesman for Iran's foreign ministry said, "These remarks are a blatant interference in Iran's internal affairs." This from a regime that routinely refers to the United States as Satan. The hard-line clerics who seized power in 1979 hold on to it because they control the security forces, the courts and the military and retain the power, often exercised, to overrule the country's democratically elected but ineffectual president, Mohammed Khatami.

But their revolution is a spent force, meaningless in a country where 70 percent of the population is under 30. They have known only a joyless religious repression and social control and a moribund economy. The clerics know that their country would turn on them in a second.

Nightly student demonstrations, put down by heavy-handed police tactics with help from gangs of pro-regime thugs, have featured the slogan "Kill the mullahs!" and 250 university teachers have signed a statement accusing supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of heresy for asserting that he is God's representative on Earth.

The question is: What can and should the United States do to hasten the end of clerical rule in Iran? And the answer is: Very little, other than positive expressions of support like President Bush's and a pledge to work with any true national government. The United States is indeed tainted by a history of meddling in Iran's internal affairs, from toppling a popular prime minister in the 1950s to supporting a repressive monarchy right up until its overthrow. Any Iranian exile group officially supported by the United States would likely be hopelessly tarred within Iran.

The change may not come as fast as we would like, but it will come.

The Birmingham Post-Herald

July 7, 2003