Iran's shadowy Third Force


Conflict: As the rift between conservatives and reformers has narrowed, a consensus has grown for citizens' rights and government accountability.

July 30, 2002|By Michael Slackman | Michael Slackman,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

TEHRAN, Iran - The young police officer charges into the crowd, his knuckles white from gripping the long barrel of a tear gas gun he doesn't want to fire. His shouts are lost in the din, so he hollers louder until he can be heard: "Please, please, brothers and sisters, leave here. Leave here now."

But no one leaves.

Instead, more people defy a government ban and pour into the streets around Tehran University to mark the third anniversary of student demonstrations that were violently crushed by police. It isn't just students this time. It is elderly women with their black chadors pulled tight. The disabled on crutches. A boy on a bicycle.

"We aren't afraid," the boy says. "They can't frighten us."

This is the Islamic Republic of Iran that the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini left behind, a land divided, snagged in the struggle for the soul of a nation. Hard-liners and conservatives, radicals and reformers continue playing out a decades-old fight for dominance, with neither side victorious.

But the chasm between the camps has narrowed as public consensus has formed around broad ideas such as the need for government accountability and for citizens' rights.

Behind that consensus is talk of a new force emerging. The Iranians call it the Third Force, a movement that encompasses almost everyone who is not in power and yet is so ill-defined that no one can say for sure what it is.

It is a social force, a political force: both, and yet neither. Religious groups, reform groups, radicals and conservatives are all claiming title to this emerging power. The Third Force appears to cover everyone who is disgusted and disaffected, which, judging from the crowd outside Tehran University, cuts a wide swath across the social, political and economic strata of Iranian society.

It is easier to say what the Third Force is against: It is against the hard-liners who rule the country by decree, elevating themselves above the law by controlling the police, the military and the courts. It is against a dynamic that emphasizes politics over policy, and it condemns everyone in power, the right and the left, for failing to fight the social, political and economic turmoil that drags Iran down as a nation and makes daily life difficult for its people.

On these points, most everyone but hard-liners agrees.

"In my opinion, the Third Force is a political trend in our country," says Taha Hashemi, a moderate conservative who wears religious robes and edits a daily newspaper. "They are criticizing the actions of the political parties. They are saying the parties were not successful."

Hamid Reza Jalaeipour is an influential reformist who sees his nation moving toward democracy. "The Third Force is the youth that are disappointed," he says, referring to the 65 percent of the population that is 25 or younger. "In some aspects, I am speaking for the Third Force, too."

The dissatisfaction has reached into the heart of the reform movement, which people had hoped would open the economy and promote freedom of expression. The movement's largest faction, the Participation Front, has threatened to quit the government and parliament. Such a move, if taken, would allow it to claim membership in the Third Force, too.

"If [hard-liners] stall reforms, then only two ... choices remain: dictatorship or uprising," Mohammad Reza Khatami, brother of President Mohammad Khatami and leader of the Participation Front, said in a speech last week.

On the surface, little has changed in Iran since Mohammad Khatami was elected in a landslide last year to a second term. The social reforms that Khatami pressed for in his first years in office, such as eased restrictions on relations between young men and women, remain in place and in some cases have advanced.

And as in his first years in office, his agenda and his supporters are harassed and intimidated by the security apparatus. Newspapers are closed, journalists jailed, and reform politicians arrested and jailed.

The push and pull between the Iranian masses and the self-anointed religious leadership is most evident in the streets, where men and women are constantly challenging the bounds of what is considered acceptable and the morality police try to push back.

"Keep your hejab [head covering] proper," a police officer shouts over a loudspeaker above his cruiser as he patrols in front of the Golastan Shopping Center in west Tehran one recent evening. "Keep your hejab proper."

Plainclothes police with walkie-talkies and handcuffs on their belts patrol through the crowd outside, frightening women with a glance.

But inside, in the shops, window after window is filled with a defiant theme: red. Red women's clothing and accessories. Even the religious garb intended to guard female modesty is red, not the black that religious authorities prefer.

At the time of the shah's secular regime, women wore the black chador as a show of political defiance. Today, they wear red.

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