Friday, July 07, 2006

Iran: Tentative Moves toward a Broad Anti-Regime Platform

Amir Taheri, Arab News:
Since the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last summer, efforts have been made to bring together opponents of the Islamic republic with a plan for action on specific issues. It now seems that those efforts have met with some success, enabling the opposition to coordinate tactics against the Ahamdinejad administration.

"Everyone has the feeling that things are coming to a head (in Iran)," says a former Cabinet minister under President Muhammad Khatami. "People seem ready to forget (past) disputes and work together to save the nation from the most dangerous crisis in its recent history."

Efforts to harmonize oppositional action come after years of fruitless negotiations to form a united front capable of offering a credible alternative to the regime.

The reasons for the past failure might have been evident from the start.

A good part of the opposition consists of individuals and groups that, having participated in the Khomeinist revolution of 1978-79, have broken with it over the years. While not admitting that Iran is on the wrong trajectory, these former Khomeinists are not prepared to condemn the revolution as the source of the nation's misfortunes, including an eight-year war with Iraq and more than 150,000 executions, over the past 27 years.

Another major bloc within the opposition consists of those who speak in the name of Iranian nationalism and/or pluralistic democracy and see the revolution itself as the evil child of religious despotism.

Then, there are those that have waged armed struggle against the Islamic republic in the name of ethnic rights, religious differences and ideological causes.

Another reason for the cleavage is the fact that a good part of the opposition, ranging from monarchists to Communists and passing by conservative republicans, has had its leadership in exile for years.

The exiles have held a series of meetings, most recently in Berlin and London, to harmonize their activities, without, however, agreeing on a common platform.

The arrival into exile in recent months of several former prominent figures of the Islamic regime, including four Cabinet ministers, a former mayor of Tehran and some former commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, has helped facilitate contact between internal and external dissidents.

However, the real impetus for greater harmony among opposition groups has come from a new form of opposition based on economic and/or social grievances. Within these new groups, university students, and industrial workers may have the greatest potential for challenging the regime in a meaningful way.

The emerging consensus within the opposition appears to be based on at least six points. READ MORE

The first is that past differences should be set aside in favor of joint action. Some anti-regime groups are even prepared to envisage a broad front that would include former figures of the regime who have decided to distance themselves form the radical Ahmadinejad administration. The idea is that, provided they are allocated a certain space, many former regime insiders will be ready to switch sides as the crisis intensifies.

The second is that anti-regime action should be organized around specific issues related to the interests of broad segments of society. In that spirit, opposition groups from different backgrounds have worked together in support of a series of industrial strikes that have hit various cities, including Tehran, in recent weeks.

The third point is that any attempt at a speedy politicization of economic, social, ethnic and cultural demands could be counterproductive. This is why most opposition groups, including those in exile, have refrained from claiming credit for recent workers' strikes and student demonstrations. The emerging analysis within the opposition is that the regime is more vulnerable when forced to offer economic, social and cultural concessions that could undermine its totalitarian hold on society.

The fourth point is that most opposition groups have agreed to set their maximum demands with regard to the future form of government on hold. The monarchists are no longer insisting on a straight return to the pre-revolution system while the disillusioned Khomeinists have toned down their opposition to a constitutional referendum that might allow a return to monarchy in some form. Even the People's Combatants Organization (Mujahedin Khalq) now agrees that the future form of government should be decided by the people.

The fifth point is that the issue of Iran's nuclear ambitions must not be allowed to divert domestic and international attention from growing unrest inside the country.

Opposition leaders believe that Ahamdinejad is deliberately seeking a limited military clash with the United States on the nuclear issue to defuse internal tension and rally the people behind his increasingly beleaguered administration. While no one in the opposition is publicly asking the United States to withdraw the threat of military action, everyone agrees that any limited operation that would wound the regime but leave it alive and in place could give the Khomeinist system a second life.

Finally, there is agreement that the initial phase of action against the Ahmadinejad administration must be led by independent personalities with no partisan affiliations. Student activists, leaders of unofficial trade unions, women's rights advocates, well-known academics, managers of nongovernmental organizations, and even independent theologians, are expected to feature prominently in the initial stages of what opposition leaders believe is a decisive showdown with the regime.

The new consensus is already facing its first test over the campaign launched in favor of political prisoners.

Akbar Ganji, a former Revolutionary Guard interrogator-turned- dissident, gave the signal for the campaign last week during his current tour of Western capitals. Ganji, recently released from political prison after a solo hunger strike in Tehran, has called for a massive hunger strike, inside and outside Iran, in sympathy with political prisoners in the Islamic republic.

A number of prominent figures inside Iran have already echoed Ganji's call. These include Dr. Muhammad Maleki, a former chancellor of Tehran University under the Khomeinist regime, Mrs. Simin Behbahani, possibly the most popular Persian poet alive, and prominent Iranian-Kurdish writer Jalal Qavami. Mrs. Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, is also expected to join, although she has been reluctant to challenge the regime openly. A number of prominent theologians in Qom and Mash'had, including Ayatollah Hassan San'ei, have also been contacted, to endorse the campaign.

No one knows quite how many political prisoners there are in the Islamic republic. (Estimates by human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, vary between 3,000 and 85,000. According to Iranian human rights groups, more than 2.5 million Iranians have been in and out of prison on various charges since 1979.)

"It is a measure of our national tragedy that almost anybody who is somebody has spent some time as political prisoner in the past quarter of a century," says Maleki. "We must make it clear that we cannot take any more of this. Enough is enough. No civilized society would put people in jail because of disagreement with the rulers."

Ahmadinejad is trying to cast himself in the role of a champion of Islam against the "infidel" by adopting a tough stance on the nuclear issue and preparing for a showdown with the G-8 next month. The challenge to his administration, however, may well be coming from Iran's factories, offices, universities, and religious seminaries.
A must read.