Iran - a Land of Paradoxes

Iran is marking the 23 rd anniversary of its Islamic Revolution with nostalgic blasts at ``America, the Great Satan,'' thanks, in part, to President George Bush naming Iran as part of the ``Axis of Evil'' involved in terrorism and the production of weapons of mass destruction. Beneath the surface, however, Iran is no longer Ayatollah Khomeini's sharia state.

Iran does deserve to be classified as a regional and, perhaps, a global promoter of instability; its support for the fundamentalist Islamic terrorism of Hizbollah in Lebanon is, indeed, aimed at further undermining the diminishing chances for an Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation. But internal developments in Iran are complex, and demonization of the Islamic Republic is not helpful. Neither is a drawing a simple dichotomy between ``conservatives'' and ``reformers,'' the latter led by President Khattami, helpful.

In many respects, Iran is perhaps the most interesting country in the region, with the greatest potential for development leading to - not to a Western-style democracy - but greater opening and liberalization. The paradox is that Iran's potential is embedded in its ideology as an Islamic state. After the first turbulent and murderous years of the Iranian revolution, the last few years have shown some remarkable developments. Among them:

Elections: these are confined to an Islamic discourse, and all candidates and parties must secure the imprimatur of the highest Islamic authority in the land before they can be listed on a ballot. But despite these restrictions, there is a fierce contest between various groups and interpretations;