Iran's people choose a future

About the author
Pirouz Azadi is a university professor who lives and works in New York.

Iran is preparing to hold a presidential election on 17 June 2005. This is the latest in a series of elections since 1997 when Iran’s people have continually voted in large numbers in favour of fundamental reform. After such reform stalled, voter turnout plummeted at the parliamentary election of 2004; this in turn led to a parliament dominated by a conservative majority.

As a result of the failure of reform, the disillusioned Iranian public feels marginalised, ostracised, disenfranchised, disillusioned and frustrated. Many people have concluded that the June elections will be simply “make believe”; and every indication suggests an extremely low turnout.

But to avert any danger from the “wrong” result, Iran’s establishment – a “parallel” government run by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – would still, if required, resort to fabricating the ballot numbers. If so, it will claim once again that its people – “yearning for martyrdom” – have reaffirmed their commitment to the Islamic Republic and its new president. And the regime will continue to preside over a system characterised by human-rights violations, the suppression of ideas and freedom, a stagnant economy, corruption and waste of resources, nepotism and cronyism, unemployment and brain drain.

Iran’s people are too aware of the nature of the present government to expect real improvement in their circumstances while it remains in power. This attitude itself represents a form of challenge to the legitimacy of the current system. It is also a reminder that Iran’s people have other traditions – of culture, tolerance, and constitutional rule – that long predate the Islamic Republic. This makes Iran, with its 3,000-year continuous history, significantly different from those of its neighbours which were carved out of the collapsing Ottoman empire by the British and the French.

Pirouz Azadi is responding to Mohsen Sazegara’s proposal for a referendum on a new Iranian constitution, “Iran’s road to democracy

Iranians present a wide range of responses in our debate, “Democracy & Iran

For an introduction to openDemocracy’s debate, see David Hayes’s “Iran between revolution and democracy

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The theological establishment in Iran is in turn conscious that Iranian people have much broader historical memories and experiences than the ones it would like to impose on them. In this circumstance, could the idea of a popular referendum to support a new constitutional settlement (including the participation of the 3 million Iranians living abroad) appeal to the government as a way to avoid civil war, a chaotic 1979-style revolution, or military confrontation with the United States? If Iranian people could make their voices heard through such a process, they might be able to create a passage to modernity that would include a new relationship between state and religion – perhaps even a model for the rest of the Islamic world to emulate.

A national referendum, overseen by international observers, to determine the form of the constitution and government that the majority of Iranian people yearn for seems the only possible solution for the current impasse. The referendum proposal has spread into discussions across every segment of Iranian society. If the process of peaceful dialogue continues, the referendum could set in motion an independent, home-grown transition toward the rule of law, order, security and development for all Iranian nationals – whose anchor is democracy.

There is still a long road ahead for the Iranian people. Whatever the outcome of the referendum proposal, there is a need to investigate the unfinished business of the Islamic Republic’s years in power – from human-rights violations, mass executions and torture of political prisoners, to mysterious disappearances and assassinations. But as in the rest of the Islamic world, the Iranian people may conclude that for their society to be ethical, healthy and progressive, it needs to discard the “superior” class of clergy that governs it.

The 3 million overseas Iranians, including the million in the United States alone, will undoubtedly play a crucial role in the realisation of Iranians’ dreams for a new, free, open and democratic relationship with the outside world – and with each other.