WASHINGTON, Nov. 24 (UPI) -- Although Iran's ruling mullahs support a regime change for their old foe next door, they are also fearful a democratic post-Saddam Iraq will encourage radical reform at home -- and the United States should encourage the efforts of Iran's reformers.
Discontent with Iran's theocratic government is widespread, and that has Iran's clerical rulers on edge.
Echoing that view, a Western diplomat in Tehran, said, "The conservatives are basically scared that they'll be next in line after Iraq."
In fact, one young Iranian reformist recently expressed the popular hope that "if the U.S. Army takes neighboring Iraq, it will come and straighten out this place as well."
On July 12, President Bush increased pressure on the Iranian clerics, stating "uncompromising, destructive policies have persisted" in Iran despite recent elections that brought advocates for reform to power.
The mullahs, Bush charged, are obstructing "reform while reaping unfair benefits." It is time, the president declared, for the Iranian government to listen to its people.
Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi rejected Bush's statement as "interference in [Iran's] internal affairs" and as "arrogant." The supreme Iranian religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameni, reacted angrily in his retort.
"The language of the U.S. president resembles the language of Hitler," he accused, adding that Bush's words were "coming from a person thirsty for human blood."
But it appears many Iranians agree with Bush's assessment of the Islamic republic.
A recent Iranian public opinion survey found that 63-percent -- nearly two-thirds of the respondents -- believe freedom and economic opportunity can come to Iran only as the result of "fundamental change" of its system of government. Only 21 percent of Iranians believe that the Guardian Council, the highest governing body of the land, represents the will of the people while 71 percent back a referendum to choose a new form of government.
Needless to say, these results shocked Iran's ruling clerics. Even worse for the theocratic leadership was the fact that 74-percent of Iranians told a government pollster that they favor establishing a dialogue with the United States.
The mullahs spent two decades trying to persuade the people of Iran that the United States is "the Great Satan." Clearly, those efforts have failed, and spectacularly so.
Polls are not the only evidence of growing favorable sentiment toward Americans inside Iran. After the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, thousands of Iranians compassionately gathered for spontaneous pro-American demonstrations on the streets of Tehran.
So how did the mullahs cope with this great failure to indoctrinate the public against the United States? They ordered the government polling agency closed and its director arrested for "publishing lies to excite public opinion."
Such oppression is nothing new in Iran. Akbar Ganji, a journalist, criticized Khameni for promising democracy, but instituting a clerical tyranny. Ganji described the Islamic republic as "basically anti-democratic, but also 'irreformable'" and called for civil disobedience to force Iran's rulers to accept a referendum leading to a new form of government. For his outspokenness, Ganji now sits in jail indefinitely.
Ganji is not alone. The Khameni regime quashes most pro-reform or pro-west speech. Over the past three years, the cleric-controlled judiciary has shut down more than 50 reformist newspapers and sentenced their reporters to brutal floggings and to jail. This year, six schools were closed for teaching "western" music.
This summer that same judiciary banned Iran's leading reformist opposition party, ordering 33 Freedom Movement leaders jailed.
The growing chasm between the theocratic ruling class and the Iranian people is stark. The chasm is driven, in large part, by the growing influence of the discontented younger generation. Iran's 50 million youth want secularism, freedom, economic opportunity and modernity.
"The new generation wants change and they want it now," Muhammad Ali Abtahi, Iran's vice president, said.
Simply put, Iran, a nation with the youngest average population in the world, is hostile to religious thuggery and the strictures of theocratic rule. The typical Iranian is not even very religious; less than 1.4 percent of the population attends Friday prayers.
The youth-driven reform movement is gaining momentum in part because of the sad state of Iran's economy. Iran suffers from 30-percent unemployment and a falling standard of living, even though the oil-rich nation was once one of the developing world's wealthiest.
The recent resignation of a respected cleric has encouraged reformists. Ayatollah Jala al-din Taheri, 76, attacked the ruling clerics for "crookedness, negligence, weakness...Genghis-like behavior" and for treating Iran as "their private, hereditary property."
"For 23 years the nation has suffered, while many exploited their power for political and financial gain.... Is this what we promised the oppressed?" Taheri asked.
Taheri warned Khameni that his regime was becoming illegitimate in the eyes of the public.
"A regime may hold (if it) is heretical, but not if it is oppressive," Taheri said.
Many in Iran's elected parliament support Taheri.
More than a third, 125 of 270, of the parliamentarians expressed their solidarity with Taheri in a published letter that states: "You are considered to be among those eminent clerics who have remained righteous and have not exploited their power. We hope that your comments will be heard (by the regime's) upper echelons and that the rights of the people will be upheld."
Khameni fired back at Taheri, casting him as an enemy of the Islamic revolution.
"All the enemies of the Islamic revolution fed by the U.S. and Israel have benefited (from your announcement of resignation) and are saying that the letter proves (that the public) rejects the doctrine of the imam (Khameni)," Khameni said.
The fact is that the public does reject the doctrine of the imam. The people want democratic freedom to replace theocratic oppression.
It is past time for reform in Iran, and unlike Iraq, the change in Iran will come from within. Reform-minded Iranians are ready to embrace democracy and abandon the system that supports terrorism in the name of "the Islamic revolution."
If the Bush administration is serious with regards to encouraging constructive reform and change in Iran, it will seek to build new bridges to Tehran, and not back the Iranian people into a corner. A promise to resume diplomatic ties and lift economic sanctions in exchange for serious reform is one type of western "music" many Iranians long to hear.
(Robert L. Maginnis is a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel and frequent analyst for television and radio networks.)
(Outside View commentaries are written for UPI by outside writers who specialize in issues of public interest.)