Thursday, December 21, 2006

Saner Voices in Iran

NYT Editorial

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran has not been having a very good month, which is good news both for the beaten-down people of Iran and for the outside world.

The populist demagogue, it seems, is not so popular with important elements of Iranian society growing uneasy over the price Iran may have to pay for his belligerent pursuit of nuclear technology. This week, Mr. Ahmadinejad’s oil minister acknowledged that foreign banks were pulling back from financing Iranian oil projects because of the worsening nuclear dispute.

The clearest evidence of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s troubles came in last week’s elections for municipal offices and the national council that oversees the work of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Mr. Ahmadinejad’s supporters fared surprisingly poorly. The main gainers came from two very different opposition groups, one aligned with former President Ali Rafsanjani, an establishment conservative, and the other with remnants of the cautious reform movement led by former President Mohammad Khatami.

Mr. Rafsanjani, a venomous foe of Israel (with his own nuclear appetites), is so notorious for the corruption that marred his presidency that his political career had almost gone into eclipse. Mr. Khatami’s followers are more high-minded, but still managed to fumble Iran’s best chance for reform in decades. What distinguishes them from Mr. Ahmadinejad’s supporters is their recognition that Iran exists in the real world. They understand that its future requires good relations with foreign investors, trade partners and educational institutions.

Mr. Ahmadinejad has been systematically dynamiting those relations, by defying the International Atomic Energy Agency and the United Nations and with his loathsome circus of Holocaust denial. Though meant to whip up voters, that travesty failed to save his supporters from electoral defeat.

Last week, in a remarkable show of courage, students at one of Tehran’s elite universities openly denounced Mr. Ahmadinejad as a dictator and a fascist, forcing him to cut short his planned address.

Their anger had been stoked by a blatantly political purge of professors and students, a crackdown on basic personal freedoms, and worries that economic mismanagement and diplomatic provocations were blighting their future. Two weeks ago, the students chanted, “Forget the Holocaust — do something for us.” Last week, one of them told a reporter: “A nuclear program is our right. But we fear that it will do more harm than good.”

Indeed it would, and it is encouraging to hear from Iranians who recognize that threat. Washington needs to keep pushing for effective economic sanctions that will compel Mr. Ahmadinejad to recognize it as well.

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