Skip to comments.Frontpage.com's Symposium: Whither Iran?
Posted on 06/27/2003 6:54:11 AM PDT by DoctorZIn
As young Iranians take to the streets to protest against tyranny and to fight for freedom, it has become clear that a revolutionary situation might be developing in the country. How much power do the ruling mullahs really have? Is it possible that the Iranian people might actually overthrow the despotic clerics in the near future? What policy should the U.S. government pursue toward this boiling situation?
To discuss these and other questions with Frontpage Symposium, we are joined by: Dariush Homayoun, ex-Minister of Iranian Information (under the Shah) and today the most prominent leader of the Iranian opposition; Kaveh Ehsani, a research director at Jomhur Research Institute in Tehran and an editor of a journal called Goft-o-Gu (Dialogue); Reza Bayegan, a commentator on Iranian politics who was born in Iran and currently works for the British Council in Paris. He contributes weekly columns to the Iran va Jahan Website and is a regular guest on Iranian radio shows in exile; Daniel Brumberg, an Associate Professor of Government at Georgetown University, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and author of Reinventing Khomeini: The Struggle for Reform in Iran; and Jacob Heilbrunn, editoral writer and staff member of the Los Angeles Times, in Washington, DC.
Interlocutor: Welcome gentlemen. At this very moment, Iranians are protesting on the streets of Iran. Is a democratic revolution pending? Will there be a Tiananmen-type crackdown? What is your reading of the events?
Ehsani: A revolution? Probably not. Similar protests, on an even bigger scale, have take place in the past 6 years. The current student protests were spontaneous by all accounts and began with demands for maintaining tuition-free education. Chances are that protesters were provoked to come out of the campuses and give more radical political slogans as a result of provocations by agents of hardliners in Iran. This provocation limits the scale of protests as violence naturally intimidates others from joining in, as well as justifying crackdowns in the name of law and order. Also, this may have been a tactical move ahead of the expected larger student protests on the anniversary of July 9, the date that security forces cracked down on student campuses three years ago. The current skirmishes will take the wind out of that potentially larger and more universally recognized event.
Bayegan: The clerical regime has exhausted all its possibilities for survival. It no longer makes any bones about its total disregard for the nation's wishes and aspirations. Mr Khameini unabashedly threatens the students with further vigilante attacks should they continue their protests. The shouts of the young and old denouncing the regime and its custodians are heard everyday and are gathering strength by the minute. People have recognized that Khameini and Khatami are only variations on the same sordid theme of tyranny and repression. The Islamic Republic never was, and never will become, compatible with democratic principles.
The student movement in Iran is acting in a disciplined manner and its behavior is in total accordance with the tenets of a non-violent movement to bring about political change in the country. As the regime feels more and more threatened and takes further drastic measures to crush this peaceful protest, it makes itself uglier and uglier in the eyes of the population.
In Iran, the students have traditionally symbolized innocence and intelligence. These two qualities make them appear saintly in the eyes of a population who will not forgive anyone who dares to harm them under any pretext whatsoever.
The veneration and love the Iranians bestow on their Shia Imams comes from their belief that these great religious characters stood up for their convictions and died in the service of truth and justice. They were martyred by their accursed opponents who only thought of their own immediate political survival. Mr Khamenei cannot pretend to preserve the Shia faith by shedding the innocent blood of the Iranian youth. He is seen more and more as the cruel, unprincipled man who is really the antitheses of what he pretends to be. He is increasingly seen as the enemy of justice and the persecutor of the people. The students shouting Death to Khamenei! in the streets during the past seven days are clearly demonstrating what they think of the man who calls himself the leader of all Muslims and the protector of the underprivileged.
The comparison with Tiananmen Square is correct in so as far as the Iranian regime will act with the same cruelty if not worse to repress the student movement. What we have to realize however is that the Iranian government poses a far greater danger to world security than the Chinese government did in 1989. The Chinese government, although qualifying as a brutal dictatorship, did not harbor members of international assassins that were responsible for blowing up almost 3,000 people in New York in a single day and did not fund terrorist groups that were carrying out daily acts of violence in the Middle East in order to undermine peace and stability. The success of the freedom movement in Iran will not only serve to save the Iranian nation from a repressive regime, but needs full international support to put an end to a major menace facing the whole world and endangering the cause of freedom and democracy.
Ehsani: The situation in Iran is disturbing enough by itself and we should refrain from making hyperbolic statements of this kind that only serve to further confuse the picture: Iran is not ''the major menace facing the whole world''. The world has just witnessed the de-facto illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq, based on the same kind of rhetoric. Although the reviled Baath regime is no longer there the consequences of that invasion and occupation for regional and world stability, for the functionality of multilateral institutions, and for the long-suffering Iraqi people are at best uncertain and quite disturbing.
As for Al Qaeda 'destroying peace and stability in the Middle East' I am sure very few informed and intelligent reader, no matter what their political persuasion, would label the pre-9/11 situation in the Middle East as 'peaceful and stable'!
Even the comparison with China is problematic: What if in 1989 several of China's neighbours had been invaded militarily, and there were hundreds of thousands of hostile troops on its borders, and the US administration and Congress were allocating substantial amounts of money and openly calling for the overthrow of the Chinese regime? Would China have become a greater menace to ''world security'' under such circumstances?
After half a century of flawed politics in the Middle East, most of which has been based on a simplistic and reductionist rhetoric of defining ''the evil enemy'', it is high time for insisting on more nuanced and insightful political analysis. Iran is certainly such a case, so let us avoid resorting to reductionist and apocalyptic rhetoric which will only hinder our understanding of a complex situation.
Currently, and for the past few years, any and all social gatherings and collective actions, no matter how apolitical and innocuous, (like people celebrating a soccer match, or New Year, or accompanying the funeral of a public figure, etc.) are harassed by groups of thugs and provoked into violent confrontations.
The logic is clear: Once any small gathering can be provoked into violence and crackdown it will prevent other sympathizers from joining in. This was definitely the case with these demonstrations. I sympathize with and fully share the emotional outrage of Mr Bayegan against the attacks on student demonstrations. But the fact of the matter is that the demonstrations did start spontaneously, over tuition demands, a highly important issue especially for provincial students. The unorganized students were then attacked by quickly assembled bands of thugs. And since the hardliners have encouraged a culture of public violence by attacking any legitimate public gathering, the disorganized students responded by counter-attacking, thus opening the way for large scale repression of the campuses. All of us who want to see democracy proceed and succeed in Iran need to keep our head, and avoid emotionalism, and analyze the political situation for what it is. The adoption of disciplined and appropriate tactics by the democratic movement are vital now.
Unfortunately, I believe the recent protests were a clear short-term victory for the hardliners. My guess is that the attacks on student demonstrations were orchestrated to radicalize the situation ahead of July 9, the anniversary of the crackdown on university uprisings in 1999. Once university gatherings become politicized and controlled by riot police the chance of the public at large practically supporting these actions become very remote.
Bayegan: There is nothing in Mr. Ehsani's statements that I disagree with. He is right in asking for discipline and the use of appropriate tactics in the fight against dictatorship. He also stresses the avoidance of emotionalism and advocates a clear-eyed approach to the reality of the political situation in Iran which I find very refreshing. I do not however quite understand what he means by saying that "Once university gatherings become politicized."
As in the Civil Rights movement in the United States, the larger political issues are also at the heart of what the students in Iran are asking for. The Iranian students are angry and frustrated over the betrayal of a promise made by President Khatami during his campaign to bring about meaningful political change. If the slogans are more radicalized it is because the situation has become increasingly desperate and radicalized.
Ayatollah Khamenei has been more clearly identified as the enemy of freedom and democracy and President Khatami has demonstrated that when the chips are down he will side with the supreme leader rather than stick his neck out for the political aspirations of those who have elected him to office.
The thugs attacking and intimidating people are nothing new in post revolutionary Iran. It has been part and parcel of the regime from the early days of the revolution. They do not attack people because the slogans are more radicalized. Their violence is directed towards anyone whom they suspect of not sharing their belief in the Velayat-e faghih or the absolute rule of the supreme religious leader. They have dragged sleeping students from their dormitories and thrown them out of windows. It will require discipline, creativity and organization on the part of the students to deal with these thugs without resorting to violence.
Interlocutor: Jacob, what do you think of this exchange between Prof. Ehsani and Mr. Bayegan?
Heilbrunn: I'm afraid I have to give the nod to Mr. Ehsani on this one. Part of the problem that we now face is that these regimes--by that, I mean Iran, China, and so forth--have an object lesson in what not to do, that is, they've seen what happened in 1989 in Eastern Europe. And they have no intention of going down that road.
Given the brutality of the Iranian regime, which clearly exceeds the Shah's, I'd be surprised if it were to collapse quickly. Nevertheless, population trends are clearly not on the side of the mullahs. If they were smart, they'd cede power now rather than face what is sure to be a bloody uprising. But whether that happens in five or ten years is anyone's guess.
I'd also like to say that, while I devoutly wish that the mullahs are toppled, it's not clear to me that a new Iranian government would be all that friendly to the U.S. or Israel.
Bayegan: Mr. Heilbrunn, I do not think we can lump China together with Iran. Iran is much less manageable and far more volatile. There is no counterpart in Iran for the well-organized and disciplined Communist Party of China.
What we should keep in mind is the importance of outside pressure and the will of the international community to take the regime to task for its terrible human rights record, its shady nuclear program and its support for global terrorism. Every time any world power decides to close its eyes to these and do business with the mullahs, the regime feels confirmed in its behavior and the opposition suffers a setback. The message the international community sends to the Iranian people is of major importance. If the population feels it is left on its own, of course it will lose heart and will find it more difficult to challenge the regime.
You remark that you are not sure whether a new Iranian government will be friendly to the United States or Israel. I should say that a new democratic government in Tehran, voted into office by the people in a free election would have no reason to be hostile to either the United States or Israel. The free flow of information and intelligent political debate will be the best antidote to xenophobia, bigotry and dogmatism. A free Iran also will benefit from the intellectual and material contribution of a strong diaspora in the United States and elsewhere, who are bound to play an important role in establishing friendly ties between Iranian people and the West.
Heilbrunn: I'm even less convinced than before after Bayegan's response. International pressure is important and it's good to see that the European Union is toughening up its stance toward Iran. But what on earth prompts Mr. Bayegan to believe that, given the manifest tensions roiling Iranian society, it's going to become a flourishing democracy overnight? And wasn't Iran's brief experiment with democracy confined to the Tobacco Constitution? Mr. Bayegan's words sound more like wishful thinking to me than reality.
Interlocutor: Thank you Jacob. Mr. Homayoun, let me let you jump into this discussion. As the ex-Minister of Iranian Information and today the most prominent leader of the Iranian opposition, you obviously have an insiders view. What is your take of the situation?
Homayoun: Thank you Jamie. Due to the revolutionary situation in Iran and being in Los Angeles, in direct and constant contact with the fast evolving situation, I can tell you this: yes, there is a revolutionary situation in Iran, a movement encompassing all social groups. It is democratic in its message and peaceful in its nature. So far even the government have shown some restraint. The movement is not confined to one city and one part of a city; it is a series of demonstrations varying in size and intensity, even in tactics, but with a remarkable persistency. It is fast creating its grass roots leadership and communications network with the help of Iranian media in LA.
The success of this movement and its transformation into a revolution depends on many factors, not least of which the US position. This is an increasingly important factor in determining both the popular mood and the Mullah's reactions. The US government for the first time speaks with one language and a clear message. This is most welcome and spares both countries from a lot of trouble. People in Iran do not see any thing wrong in having the Americans backing their struggle for regime change, and the US should not be shy about its stand and fully backing the people. What was good for Eastern Europe is all right for Iran.
A Tiananmen square is the last thing the ruling clerics want. They simply do not have the guns. Iran today has no resemblance to the China of 15 years ago. It has no leadership comparable to Deng Shiao Peng and his group and can show not a single achievement in any respect. And China was not so vulnerable to American pressure. The situation in Iran seems beyond control in the sense that even if the government can contain this wave of demonstrations, it could not prevent its re-emergence. Any one familiar with the situation in Iran would agree that a large part of the population, especially among the youth, has nothing to lose and a growing part of the government has started worrying about its future.
Interlocutor: Daniel Brumberg, you have been sitting patiently waiting to give us your input. What do you make of the developments?
Brumberg: Thanks Jamie. Well, I too would dearly love to see the present regime replaced by a liberal democracy that has good relations with ALL Middle East states, and of course the US. But there is very little reason to believe that the student protests will blossom into a popular movement capable of bringing down the regime.
The college/university population is something like 550,000 in Iran. A very small fraction of students are participating in these protests. Indeed, while the protests were going on in Tehran, with some 3,000 students protesting, a soccer match was being played, attended by something like 100,000. The only way for these protests to blossom into something much larger is for the wider professional middle class and traditional urban merchants, the bazaar, to come out in open and sustained support of the protestors. This is unlikely to happen.
Indeed, the bazaar class, which has close ties to the clerics, and which is represented by the Servants of Construction Party, are now closer to former president Rafsanjani than the more radical reformists, represented by the Islamic Participation Front. The latter is a genuine reform movement, and one sign of its commitment to change is that many of its members have been persecuted or intimidated. It is a moral outrage to claim that these reformists are simply a "nicer" version of the clerical establishment. Unfortunately, the IPF members in the Parliament are not supporting the students, which is a crucial mistake, since the students provide the leverage the reformists need to push the conservatives to agree to some kind of compromise on reform.
This brings me to my final and main point. The notion that the Islamic Republic is on the verge of collapse is erroneous. There is a cottage industry of intellectuals, political activists and Iranian monarchists in Washington and Tehran that seizes upon every protest movement to argue that there is some kind of popular rebellion under way. Some even argue, quite erroneously, that the recent protests are on a par with those that brought down the Shah in 1978/79. This is a deliberate distortion of the facts, an unfortunate confusion of policy advocacy with political analysis. It feeds the impression that the US should somehow intervene and support the protestors. But such a policy is the kiss of death. It will not embolden more people to come out into the streets, rather it will only isolate the students.
Iranian nationalism is such that any perception of outside interference makes it difficult to widen the circle of protests and resistance. We saw this in parliament, where a letter was signed by 217 out of 273 MPs denouncing "the statement ...by the US president" which is "clear interference in the internal affairs of Iran." If parliament is hesitant to support the students, our administration must bare some (but certainly not all) the blame.
Political change in Iran is a long term, difficult and messy affair that will take years if not decades to unfold. In the end, the best we might get is a liberalization of Iran's autocracy rather than a substantive shift to democracy. Liberal autocracies are the hall mark of Middle East regimes. And, I might add, many of them are closely aligned with the US. The effort to "speed" change along, spearheaded by our neo-Conservatives, will produce precisely the opposite of what is desired. The sad fact is that the US will probably have to live for a long time with a regime in Tehran that is not to our liking, and which we cannot really influence, certainly in a positive way.
Interlocutor: Sorry, call me naïve or deluded, but I have a hard time understanding how the U.S. is supposed to stand by and just watch freedom-loving people fighting for liberty and not show them that we encourage them and that they have our support. Were we supposed to ignore the Sakharovs and Scharankys as well in the former Soviet regime, when they were fighting a despotic regime for freedom? Shouldnt we take a public stand in support of the Iranian freedom fighters just as a moral and ethical principle? Wouldnt it demoralize them if we stood silent and not reached out to them?
Heilbrunn: I'm going to split the difference: Jamie is absolutely right to state that the U.S. cannot stand by passively. Too often the U.S. has remained silent, or practiced a kind of grim realpolitik, that amounts to moral abdication--Nixon and Kissinger bowing and scraping to Moscow, Bush the elder to Beijing. President Bush, by contrast, has struck just the right note -- encouraging words for the demonstrators, coupled with a no-nonsense warning about developing a nuclear weapon. That said, I'd have to agree with Brumberg about the slim chance of a speedy revolution.
Bayegan: Thank you Jamie. What better way of copping out from providing support to the freedom movement in Iran, than fatalistically sitting down and saying: nothing doing. I think the mullahs would just love to hear that their regime is immovable and that they can count on 'years if not decades' of delaying political change. But they are far from being that optimistic. We can see their desperation coming out in the statements such as the one made by Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, a member of the Guardian Council asking for death sentences to be handed out to the protesters.
The long and unyielding struggle of the Iranian people for democracy demonstrates that they refuse to take the defeatist attitude of saying to themselves that because their country is in the Middle East, they are doomed to be ruled by autocrats. Those who underestimate the political awareness and intelligence of the Iranian people are in for a big surprise.
Ehsani: It is always amusing to see Iranian Monarchists like Dariush Homayoun claiming to lead a ''peaceful revolution'' in Iran via their base in Beverley Hills! The analogy Mr. Homayoun draws with Eastern Europe is also confused and murky: Is he talking about a scenario like Yugoslavia, or Czechoslovakia? A disastrous civil war, or a velvet revolution?"
I am afraid that Monarchists and their satellite televisions have been paving the way for a bloodbath in Iran, because their only hope of returning to the elite status they enjoyed would be through chaos and implosion. Iranians have not been through the hell of the past 25 years in order to bring an unrepentant and autocratic elite back to power, nor the kind of corrupt and undemocratic dependence fostered by successive US administrations.
I think Daniel Brumberg has it right. There is a genuine reformist movement in Iran, which should be supported by the international community. Currently this movement is becoming increasingly more inclusive and democratic as it expands its demands and ranks by including committed democratic and republican activists, both secular and religious, inside and outside the country. I am not as sceptical as Mr. Brumberg about the future potential of Iran to make a transition to democracy. The basis of this transition is being layed in the new political coalitions taking place on the basis of national reconciliation, human rights, and genuine popular sovereignty.
Overall, I fear the Bush administrations support of street violence in Iran, and its complete neglect of an existing, legitimate, and embattled democratic movement in Iran which is embodied in elected representatives in local governments and the national parliament, as well as by activists and intellectuals supporting these democratic reforms outside the government.
Brumberg:. The U.S. is supporting a process of change in Arab mixed autocracies, a process that may in some cases yield positive results, but rushing the process would be dangerous. In the long run the Islamic Republic of Iran has mechanisms and institutions that are vulnerable from decay and redefinition. This will happen, but it simply won't happen on Washington's time scale. It also will probably yield something of a mixed regime, one that is not fully free of clerical interference but not the "liberal secular" democracy that some dream of. That said, if I am proven wrong, I'd be happy to bring a big Humble Pie and consume most of it in front of the other members of this round table.
Bayegan: Mr. Ehsani describes Homayoun and the monarchists like him as unrepentant and autocratic, trying to return to their elite positions. He forgets just what Homayoun was doing immediately before the victory of the Revolution. The 'elite position' that he held was looking at the world from behind bars. He was jailed by the government of the then prime minister Azhari in order to conciliate the revolutionaries. It was not the first time he went to jail either. He had been arrested or prohibited from writing many times for publishing controversial articles and fighting for democratic change. Just read his books to see how 'unrepentant' he is about the record of the government during the Shah. Mr. Ehsani's comments about the United States trying to foster a kind of corrupt and undemocratic government in Iran shows the same propensity to rely on political clichés and resonates the slogans dished out by a government that has trampled on the fundamental human rights of the Iranian people for the past quarter of a century.
Homayoun: Mr. Brumberg in his high hopes about reformers in the Islamic Republic is where the student movement and a majority of Iranian people were 4 years ago. Those high hopes evaporated after reformists showed their endless capacity for capitulation under the slightest pressure. People continued to vote for them mostly because they were considered a lesser evil. But even that did not last in the local recent elections.
Today the reformers have lost popular support and are as hopeless against their rivals as ever. I wonder what realistically could be expected from such a hapless group on the way to its legal and political extinction? Their failure to support demonstrations is more than a mistake. It comes from a deep commitment to preserve the regime. This is why they have lost all credibility. They have, in the past, again and again let down the people, their constituency, who waited for a signal from them to pour into the streets and force reforms on the conservatives. They however had nothing for the people of Iran and the outside world but smiles and speeches. No wonder that President Khatami is getting a rougher treatment at the hands of the protesters.
It is true that reformers are more inclusive and that is why so many ex Revolutionaries are hoping to join them in a wider circle excluding all the others. But recreating the revolutionary coalition is as impossible as reinventing Khomeini. This sad chapter of Iranian history is folding and what we should all be striving is to prevent it from descending into bloodshed and chaos. Here is an opportunity for the US government. By its unequivocal support for the people, while refraining from military action, it is already helping to create a critical mass that eventually would overthrow this whole regime, including the beloved reformers of ex revolutionaries. Iranians see no reason to be shy about that sort of support, nor should Americans be.
It would be a mistake to read too much into the present predicament of the protest movement -- which by no means is confined to the students and actually has spread more widely over other segments of the society. We must take into account the terror apparatus defending the religious Mafia. What we have right now is but the first round. The scale of Iranian people's hatred for any thing Islamic in government be it 'Velayat e Faqih" or the absolute authority of the chief cleric, or religious democracy (whatever it means) is such that this hollow regime would not last long.
The condescending view that democracy is not for a people like Iranians and the most permissible for them is a more liberal Islamic regime perhaps under the former president, a previous idol of the progressive establishment, ignores the fact that Iranian society under the mullahs is already the most secular in the Islamic world and whatever form of "liberal autocracy" is prescribed for the middle eastern countries, the Iranian people are fast distancing themselves from Islamic, middle eastern and third worlds.
Interlocutor: Excuse me for a moment. Sorry Prof. Ehsani, I think it is very unfair of you to criticize someone trying to promote change in a totalitarian regime from exile. We do not know Mr. Homayouns situation. His life -- or his familys life -- for all I know, could be in physical danger if he went back to Iran under those tyrannical and brutal despots. My father, a Soviet dissident, was also accused by some people of trying to make a change in the Soviet regime from the West. I am still trying to figure out why the critics who made this charge against my dad preferred that he languish in the gulag and that his wife be eventually widowed and his children be orphaned.
Moreover, Prof. Ehsani, I find it somewhat curious that you focus on criticizing the people who ruled Iran before Khomeini and whoever might rule after -- and that they might not represent full democracy or whatnot. This is like the people who were opposed to overthrowing the Soviet tyranny because the Tsar wasnt a liberal democrat and because a post-Soviet reality might not be utopia. For me, these kind of arguments are defences and exonerations of tyranny. We all know that the Soviet regime was far more evil than anything Russia had ever seen or could possibly see after it. We all know that Khomeini killed more people in several weeks in power than the Shah did during his whole regime. The ruling clerics in Iran are far worse than their predecessors, and far worse than whoever their potential successors would be if there is a revolution. The bottom line is that we should we support the various forces to dislodge the despotic mullahs. No?
Ehsani: I very much doubt that the Russian population who brought down the Stalinist system did so with the aim of restoring Tsarist feudal autocracy! People wanted something better, a democracy where people could chose their own leaders and make their own laws. In the process of transition the Russian people did not start a civil war to take bloody revenge on the approximately 15 million members of the Communist Party for the crimes committed by Stalinism. Instead, in the Russian Duma today the Communist Party is represented by a substantial faction of deputies, and I am sure there are some deputies or factions with nostalgia for the Tsarist days as well.
The fact of the matter is that the corruption and repression of the Pahlavi Monarchy triggered the revolution of 1979. If Iranians are trying to change and democratize their political system now it is not with the aim of resurrecting a delegitimized Monarchy they once rejected overwhelmingly. Iranians simply want a better political system, a democratic system in which hereditary, sectarian, ethnic, or gender privilege has no place in determining access to power. This is irrespective of whether Khomeini killed more people than the Shah, or not.
In a democratic system anyone who respects the rules of the game should be allowed to participate, as long as they have not committed crimes against the people, and as long as they own up to their historical responsibility and their past deeds. This should apply to both mullahs and monarchists. If the monarchists are willing to follow this South African inspired formula of truth and national reconciliation, and do not actively advocate violence and radical regime overthrow as the only viable political solution, they can contribute to the democratic process. But I am afraid thus far their words and deeds have only contributed to heightening the danger of a bloody crackdown and wholesale repression in Iran. Without having significant public support in the country they have claimed responsibility for any and all public protest from afar, as Mr. Homayoun's statements clearly demonstrate. Those outside Iran can play a role in helping pave the way for democracy, but it would be immoral for them to be advocating violent solutions the consequences of which they are not willing to share.
Interlocutor: Mr. Homayoun?
Homayoun: I am not here to waste my time engaging in polemic from predictable quarters. The whole situation in Iran is regrettable and I am sorry for all those sinking with this despicable regime. We are trying our best to minimize the unavoidable fall out of its demise, which seems more and more inevitable.
As for the charade of reform and reformers, there is no need to probe their sincerity. They have proved totally ineffective. What about eventually heeding the message from inside Iran, and not, of course, of those with vested interests?
Right now our main concern is to prevent the regime's North Korean type nuclear brinkmanship. Americans are saying that they have no plans for attacking Iran; they also leave no doubt that they are dead serious about dealing with such policies and tactics. Now what is the position of the reformers, those beacons of enlightenment? They are energetically pursuing nuclear weapons and endangering Iran's national security.
Interlocutor: Gentlemen, please bear with me for a moment and answer a question that very much interests me. Let us suppose that tomorrow, for whatever reason, Iranian women would be given the option whether or not to wear hijab. In other words, if a woman doesnt want to wear it, she doesnt have to wear it. And there will be no punishment or physical recursions for choosing not to wear it. So, Iranian women are simply given the option of how they would like to dress. Question: out of every 100 women, how many would wear hijab? My Iranian friends have answered this question to me, and all of their answers have estimated that less than 5% would wear it. What do you say?
Heilbrunn: Almost none would wear it.
Homayoun: What I am sure about is that a few young Iranians would opt for hijab or any religious restrictions. Iranians have not completely turned against Islam, only against clerics; their attitude towards religion has become pragmatic and personal. As far as the way of life is concerned nothing Islamic has any attraction for the westernizing youth. This is also true about politics. Nothing tainted with this regime has any future in our country. People laugh at such oxymorons as Islamic democracy and religious nationalist movement that excludes non Shi'i Iranians.
Bayegan: Although it has been imposed, the practice of wearing it has become a habit for some women. It will take time, confidence building and education for men and women to discard the hijab. I would say initially probably more than ten percent would keep it. Also, women would abandon it more quickly in Tehran than in smaller towns.
Ehsani: Of the Iranian friends you are speaking with, maybe only 5% of the Iranian women they know would choose to wear hijab. But if we are speaking of all women in Iran, including village women, tribal women, urban working class women, as well as Islamists, the figure might be closer to 50%. Of course it is impossible to say, and the issue of hijab itself is less important than guarantees of women's full formal political and legal rights.
Interlocutor: Ok, last question. The ruling clerics in Iran represent a vital danger to American and Western security. They harbour and abet terrorists, they are meddling in Iraq, and, if they get nuclear weapons, we are in for a nightmare. So, gentlemen, the priority of U.S. foreign policy must be regime change in Iran. I say we need to pursue the Reagan Doctrine in the Iranian context: while Reagan went on the offensive against the Soviets by supporting anti-Soviet guerrillas throughout the world, Bush now needs to do the same: take the offensive vis-à-vis Iran and support all forces to put pressure on the regime and make efforts to decapitate it from all angles. Is this a legitimate policy proposal? Where do you stand? If President Bush called you and asked you for advice, what would you advise him?
Brumberg: At the moment the clerics do not pose a vital threat to our security. Iran is a nuisance in many ways, but not a vital threat. In the wake of the Iraq situation, and in particular, given the clear efforts to shape intelligence to fit and legitimate a preconceived policy, one has to be careful about exaggerating "vital" dangers etc...
Indeed, what is really reprehensible is the politicization of this issue, and in particular the incessant and constant effort to shape intelligence about Iran to legitimate the administration's burning desire to topple the regime in Tehran. The more we engage in this kind of activity, the more we do damage to our credibility, and credibility will, for example, play an important role in galvanizing international support on the Iran nuclear issue. There is not doubt that down the road, if Iran does develop a nuclear capacity, this will pose a threat to the entire Middle East, because that very capability will elicit a response from Israel, a state whose very existence Iran rejects. So the entire region will be destabilized, and Israel may feel compelled to hit Iran, most likely with conventional weapons. So Iran's security is undermined by moving towards a nuclear capability; even some leading ministers have said as much in Tehran. But the notion that we can address that threat through a policy of regime change is a flight from reality.
The current "empowerment" approach of the administration is really a poor excuse for avoiding unsatisfactory reality, and that reality is this: the clerical regime in Iran may be unpopular, but it has very substantial institutional foundations, and thus the probability of its falling is very small indeed, and will not be raised by US radio and TV broadcasts etc...There is a huge, gaping gap between the rhetoric of the administration and it capacity, indeed the capacity of any administration, to topple the clerical structure that based in Tehran and Qom.
I should add that the notion that this regime will somehow implode from within, as did the Soviet Union, is based on a very dubious analogy between the Soviet, Leninist/Marxist system and the multi-dimensional system of autocracy in Iran. The two operate in very different ways both institutionally and ideologically. Soviet communism was a constructed ideology, and so is Khomeinism. But the latter still has roots in a historical religious tradition -- however mangled by some clerics -- that is part of Iranian society. The current battle ism, in part, to redefine that tradition, redefine that ideology from within, a long term process that cannot be advanced by Iranian monarchists sitting in Washington or Los Angeles.
Ehsani: Once again I am surprised at the analogies used in this roundtable. Was the Reagan doctrine so successful in Afghanistan that it should be exhumed to deal with Iran now!? Didn't the Reagan/Bush Afghanistan policy produce the likes of Hekmatyar and eventually the Taliban? Weren't the al-Qaeda the offsprings of that policy? Didn't that policy contribute to the unmeasurable misery of the Afghan people, and eventually to the tragedy of September 11?
Virtually every statement made in this final question is deeply flawed! Dealing with the regime in Iran demands measured and well thought out social and political analysis and insight, not simplistic ideological rhetoric.
The rhetoric of the present US administration sounds just like the belligerent and apocalyptic rhetoric used by Ayatollah Khomeini and the ideologues of the Islamic Republic! The priority of the US, and anyone committed to a stable and peaceful Middle East should be to support the growth and consolidation of democracy in Iran, not a half thought-out and reckless notion like 'regime change' through popular uprisings. Iranians have already tried that scenario in 1979. Fortunately, the population is by now far too sophisticated and politically mature to be easily swayed into yet again following the same path, without knowing what lurks at the end of the tunnel.
Iranians themselves have been engaged in effectively changing the regime for the past 6 years through elections, vigorous public debate, resistance against ideological rhetoric, and a growing movement of civil disobedience. The notions of changing the constitution, making all political positions subject to universal elections, the consolidation of rule of law, and national reconciliation are the absolute priorities for Iranians, and it is what they struggling towards.
The current political deadlock in Iran needs to be broken, and outside pressure can help this process along, but only if it is well thought out and consistent.
For example, national parliaments across the globe can and should start voicing solidarity for the Iranian Parliament and deputies who increasingly have been playing the leading role in confronting the conservative establishment by passing fundamentally democratic legislation and challenging the hardliners for abusing power and undermining even the existing laws. Human rights organizations, journalists, and public opinion should start consistently supporting jailed and harassed journalists, pollsters, political activists, students, and intellectuals who have been fighting the democratic battle for the past 6 years, instead of just the students demonstrating today in the streets. I shudder at the thought of the US government fomenting unrest in parts of Iran and encouraging guerrilla operations. Iran has such a shaky government, and that government has so antagonized its people that a political push along with strong moral support for the overthrow of the Islamic regime would be enough for a regime change, as a result of popular pressure. No one can predict what shape that upheaval would take. There are many models, almost all of them peaceful.
What the US administration should do to pursue its national interest is to balance it with the need to maintain the Iranian peoples goodwill. Iran's independence and integrity should be preserved in all circumstances. As for Irans nuclear ambitions, the mullahs hopefully could be persuaded under intense and unified pressure from the US, Russia and Europe. In a word, you should advocate regime change through popular demonstrations, strikes and other forms of disobedience, and nuclear disarmament by diplomatic means backed by the threat of serious consequences.
Bayegan: President Bush should not let up the pressure on the Islamic Republic. So far his approach to the Iranian situation has displayed moral clarity and political acumen. President Bush has drawn a clear and distinct line between this incorrigible system which he has correctly identified as the enemy of peace and freedom, and the genuine aspirations of the Iranian people to bring about democratic change. He should not compromise this stance. He should steer clear from supporting undemocratic and unpopular groups like Mujahedin-e Khalq who have helped to keep the regime in power by the virtue of standing for an even harsher alternative than the Islamic Republic itself. Iranian people think of them as a strange cult and believe them to be as merciless as the Khmer Rouge. They should not be supported by the United States simply because they oppose the Islamic Republic. The enemy of my enemy could end up becoming a more dangerous foe as it was proved by the painful lesson of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
There is a consolidation of democratic forces around the idea of a referendum to determine the political future of the country which is rapidly gaining strength. It is attracting intellectuals and those who are interested in fighting by the dint of their arguments rather than Kalashnikovs and hand grenades. It enjoys considerable support inside and outside the country. These forces who can be counted on as faithful friends of the West by the virtue of their philosophical adherence to democracy and secularism should be given full support.
For its noncompliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty , its terrible human rights record and its support for international terrorism, further economic sanctions should be imposed against the Islamic Republic. Governments and international companies should be discouraged from doing business with the clerical regime. Bringing about a regime change in Iran should be done through ostracizing the whole system, supporting the democratic opposition and imposing further economic sanctions.
Heilbrunn: The Bush doctrine makes far more sense than the Reagan doctrine. Reagan did not attempt to pressure the mullahs; he coddled them to the extent of delivering a birthday cake. Bush is reserving the right to launch an air-strike if he deems it necessary to decapitate the Iranian nuclear program. But for now, he's managed to pull the European Union on board in threatening economic consequences should Iran continue to go full speed ahead. Bush has it right: with demonstrations inside Iran and increased pressure from abroad, time is on our side.
Interlocutor: Gentlemen, our time is up. It was a real pleasure to have all of you here. Thank you. We'll see you again soon on Frontpage Symposium.
The success of this movement and its transformation into a revolution depends on many factors, not least of which the US position. This is an increasingly important factor in determining both the popular mood and the Mullah's reactions. The US government for the first time speaks with one language and a clear message. This is most welcome and spares both countries from a lot of trouble. People in Iran do not see any thing wrong in having the Americans backing their struggle for regime change, and the US should not be shy about its stand and fully backing the people. What was good for Eastern Europe is all right for Iran."
I am sure the US will help topple Iran's evil regime, as we toppled Saddam. Bush put Iran on the Axis of Evil list for a reason.
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