Friday, April 15, 2005

Former Khomeini Staff Member Calls for Democracy

The internet blog, The Word Unheard published the following response Mohsen Sazegara's recent article, Iran's Road to Democracy published by OpenDemocracy.
A former member of Ayatollah Khomeini's staff and one of the student leaders of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran is calling for democracy - true democracy - in Iran (PDF here) and has sparked a timely and interesting debate. His story is compelling, his approach is as a realist and he sees transition to democracy in Iran as natural and inevitable. READ MORE
A formative moment came in 1984. I was then deputy minister for heavy industry and president of the Industrial Development and Renovation Organisation. Something happened that made me say to myself: something is going wrong in this country. But we were in the middle of the war with Iraq, and I felt I had to stay in the government. It took about a year before I resigned.

With the end of the war in 1998 [1988], and the death of Imam Khomeini in 1989, I decided I needed time to study. I refused offers of a variety of posts in the new government, saying that I would prefer to study history. I gradually realised that there were big mistakes in the underlying ideas of the revolution. I saw a kind of fascism at work in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Naturally, he has been arrested, gone on a hunger strike while imprisoned, and subsequently been released. The regime decided that it would be unwise to detain him further, as he was spontaneously referred to as mayor of Tehran and large protests were scheduled to demonstrate in the streets of Tehran against the regime's political prisoners. Sazegara asserts that the call for democracy in Iran can be delayed by the regime but not avoided.
Those in power in Iran have created a fascist version of Islam – an absolutist and authoritarian system. Everything has to be unified, singular, one, a total state. They even use the methods of fascism, like that militia of thugs, the Revolutionary Guards. They are called “white shirts”, a variant of Nazi Germany’s “brown shirts”. They are at every demonstration in Iran, violently attacking all opposition groups.

But now things are really changing. That’s what I told my interrogators: “it” has happened and is happening in Iran. By “it” I mean one thing: the promise of democracy.

This promise is being led by what I call the “reformation movement”, based on a fourfold set of principles: democracy, human rights, civil society and involvement in the international community. This is something much wider and deeper than the “reform process” of President Khatami, which is now dead.
So who is Mohsen Sazegara, a man recently arrested by the Islamic Republic's regime for "making propaganda against the regime"?
Mohsen Sazegara served on Ayatollah Khomeini’s staff during the cleric’s exile in France and accompanied him on his “victory flight” back to Iran in February 1979. He was part of the inner sanctum of power in the new Islamic Republic, helping found the notorious Revolutionary Guard Corps and authoring its constitution. Throughout the 1980s Sazegara held a range of bureaucratic positions within the regime, including political deputy of Islamic Republic radio and television and vice-minister of planning and budget.

Sazegara’s disillusionment with the regime intensified after the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88. He came to believe that the conceptual foundation the Islamic Republic was flawed and that Islamism must be eschewed in favour of a pluralist and tolerant democracy. He developed and published these views in a variety of journals later closed by the regime, including Golestan-e-Iran, Jamee, and Toos.

In 2001, the Council of Guardians refused to allow Sazegara to register as a candidate in the presidential election. He became one of the chief organisers of a campaign for a referendum on a new Iranian constitution. He has been arrested repeatedly and endured two hunger strikes. He remains one of the Islamic Republic’s most vocal dissidents.

In March 2005, he joined the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on a two-month fellowship.
Read the entire piece. It is well worth your time.

Kaveh Ehsani disagrees and thinks the idea of a referendum is foolish fantasy. While he makes some valid points, it seems as if he is resigned to the idea that if the Mullah's cannot be dethroned through peaceful protest then Iranians will just have to live with whatever can be managed within the Islamic "Republic's" existing system.
This plan [a referendum to change Iran’s constitution from an Islamic Republic to a secular polity inspired by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights] is all tactics and literally no strategy. Suppose millions of Iranians (the website is called click the internet link and sign this petition. What then? The notion that the coercive apparatus of the Islamic Republic – the “guardians of the revolution”, the veterans, the “devotees”, families of martyrs – will stand by to see this system’s demise is simply too divorced from Iranian realities.

The claim that civil disobedience will then force the regime’s hand is speculative, since there are daily instances of local riots and upheavals in Iran, but there is no linking organisation to channel discontent into collective demands.

If the regular electoral tallies of the eight years since Mohammad Khatami’s election in 1987 have proven anything, it is that the “conservative” forces in Iran have the solid devotion of 8-12 million supporters. By calling for complete system change (without having built the political and organisational network to back it up) the referendum movement is inviting a brutal crackdown, with no means on the ground to resist it. No undemocratic regime will stand aside and accept regime change, unless actual organised opposition overwhelms it. Electronic signatures on a website will not do.

Changing an unpopular political system will be difficult. It is the task of political leadership to ready and organise the population in practical ways to make it possible. No such network-building has been pursued by those calling for the referendum. It is easy enough to call for signatures for a change; the job of building such political networks is far harder, thankless, and risky.
He makes an excellent observation about the need to have a framework, an organization prepared to step into positions of power and responsibility. He is correct on that point. However, that is not likely to happen with the IRGC prowling around killing, beating and arresting all those who would attempt to do so.

From a standpoint of American security, leaving the framework of this regime of lunatics in place is not an option. Removing them without considerable bloodshed is likely not a possiblity.

Mansour Farhang counters that there are a great many in Iran (and enough by his measure) who understand the risks and are driven to rid themselves of the Mullahcracy.
A coalition of Iranian dissidents inside the country have issued an appeal for a nationwide referendum to choose between the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran and a new constitution based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This invitation is a veiled method of announcing that the reform movement of the Khatami era is dead and nothing but a secular democracy can liberate the Iranian people from the grip of their tyrannical rulers.

Since many signatories of the appeal began their opposition to the reigning ayatollahs as reformers, their call for a plebiscite on the essential claims of the theocratic order is equivalent to rejecting the legitimacy of the regime and embracing the democratic path.

Iranian activists abroad ought to be inspired by the courage of the brave men and women who struggle for freedom in the oppressive environment of the Islamic Republic. We are all aware that they risk arrest and torture by publicly protesting the arbitrary rule of the self-appointed viceroys of God on earth.
With a sense of fear and a vivid recollection of Hizballah (yes, Hizballah) and IRGC violence against protesters in 2003, Afshin Molavi is both afraid and ready to participate in bringing change.
And yet, here we were in 2003, four years on from those protests, and a bearded thug – a member of Ansar-e-Hezbollah, loosely affiliated with regime hardliners – stood in the way: a stark symbol of the violence that underpins the regime. With chants of Mashallah Hezbollah (Mashallah meaning literally “what God wishes”), he and his henchmen rushed the crowd, their sticks crashing on backs, fists flying, prompting screams and roars of anger. Nearby, police in anti-riot gear watched. Revolutionary guardsmen rumbled by on fat motorcycles. Helicopters circled overhead.

When the dust settled, I saw a tattered sign on the ground. It read, in both Persian and English: referendum. Instinctively, I reached down to pick it up: a souvenir of the day’s events. My second instinct, the “Islamic Republic instinct”, kicked in, and I put the sign back down: was the souvenir worth the trouble I would be in if I got caught with the sign?
So the question is, what are we left with at the end of the day?

A decision. Pure and simple. There's just no tapdancing around the issue.

Islamic Republic, Yes or No?
Italian blogger, Stefania, has also weighed in.