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Religion dominates in new Iran Constitution

The Western world is getting its first look at an English translation of Iran's new Islamic Constitution -- a document that could play a pivotal role in the oil-rich Middle East.

Iran's leaders see it as the blueprint to bring their country out of political turbulence. The recent election of a new president for Iran, won by Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, is the first step to put that plan into effect.

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But also at stake in this Constitution is the future stability of Iran as the last buffer zone between the Soviet Union and the oil fields of the Gulf.

Moreover the document may have great impact on Muslims around the world. They are watching closely the fate of this effort to make religion the dominant factor in a modern political state.

Ironically, the Iranian Constitution-framers have been faced with the same crucial issue faced by the American forefathers two centuries ago: how to create a centralized government while still protecting the freedom of religion and democratic decisionmaking from human tyranny.

The Americans chose to protect freedom of religion by separating church and state. Tyranny they countered by checks and balances between the executive, legislative, and jidicial branches of government.

he Iranians solution goes a different route. It can only be understood in Iran's unique context, Middle East experts say.

The Constitution reflects a search for a religious basis to bind up wounds suffered under totalitarian control, and to bring unity of purpose to a diverse population with passionately devided factions.

It separates branches of government. But it seeks to prevent tyranny not by checks and balances or church-state separation, but rather by Islam itself. Hence its concentration of power in the Islamic clergy.

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The country's "leader," now Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, becomes supreme commander of th armed forces, approves credential of presidential candidates, and appoints leading judicial figures. A "guardian council" must review all new laws to ensure compliance with Islam.

This power of the clergy has touched off a wave of controversy. Has the Constitution, Iranians ask themselves, frozen in the hands of a powerful few the same monarchical powers that the revolution aimed to eliminate? The question has added interest for Muslims, since Islam as an ideal is highly democratic and rejects monarchical control.

Islamic experts such as Iranian Dr. Mehdi Hairi of Georgetown University believe tyranny will not prevail. Ayatollah Khomieni's status is explained, he says, by his popular support. But Islamic leadership eventually will shift to a broader-based council, he feels.

Also, he argues that the process by which Iran's religious leaders emerge will prevent abuse of authority. They must prove their reliability to the community over a long time, he says.

But other Middle East experts see the Constitution as an ironclad guarantee for tyranny. The reason such a threat to seen as the issue in the Iranian context, says Dr. Marvin Zonis of the University of Chicago.

"The issue isn't freedom-as-opposed-to-tyranny, although that's important to ys and a minority of Western-educated Iranians. The vast majority of Iranians see the issue as one of Islamic justice. That's why they can be satisfied with a document giving power to the few."

But real support among Iranians for the Constitution may have been deceptive -- a matter of utmost concern for the new president.

For one thing, there has been opposition from Ayatollah Khomeini's rival, the Muslim leader of Azerbaijan, Ayatollah Shariat-Madari. He repeatedly has pointed to a contradiction between the document's ideal of popular sovereignty and the power given Ayatollah Khomeini.

Also most of the Azerbaijanis and Iran's ethnic minorities (the Kurds, the Turkomens, and Baluchis) boycotted the November constitutional referendum. They compromise 40 percent of Iran's people.

In Iran itself, many Iranians worry that the apparent support of the Constitution was more of an affirmation of Ayatollah Khomeini, says Dr. Hamad Algar of the University of California, Berkeley.

In the face of such uncertainties, the ability or inability of the new (leader-supervised) president to perform his duties may be the first indicator of the workability of the new constitutional framework. A final test may lie in whether it accommodates Iran's minority groups, not least the Western-educated professionals.


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