Iranians on the freedom path

Nazenin Ansari
14 February 2006

"Iran is my land. Although her name has espoused history since ever, the world has forgotten her since 27 years ago. Nowadays, my country's name is back on everyone's lips for a threat, bigger than ever, emanating from the idiocy of those theocrats who govern us, is hanging above us all. A looming menace that, with the sagacity of our people, we are determined to turn into an opportunity for awakening."

So commences a letter from Iranian student activists beseeching the "people of Iran" to unite and participate in a "Congress for the Freedom of Iran", and pleading with the international community "not to abandon us once again … when the atomic issue is resolved." The signatories of the 10 February letter include political prisoners such as Amir Abbas Fakhravar, Peyman Aref, Manouchehr Mohammadi, Arjang Davoodi and Akbar Mohammadi.

The letter is written at a time when the regime in Tehran has been given until 6 March to consider – in the words of Sean McCormack, United States assistant secretary of state for public affairs – "what pathway it wants to follow. Does it want to pursue the pathway of understanding and dialogue or does it want to pursue the pathway of isolation?"

Also in openDemocracy on the internal politics and external relationships of Iran, and the prospects for democracy in the country:

Ardashir Tehrani, "Iran's presidential coup"
(June 2005)

Emadeddin Baghi, "Iran's new era: nine lessons for reformers"
(August 2005)

Nazila Fathi, "The politics of illusion in Iran" (August 2005)

Trita Parsi, "The Iran-Israel cold war" (October 2005)

Nasrin Alavi, "Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's fear" (November 2005)

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On that day, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will meet to discuss a formal referral of Iran to the United Nations Security Council, opening the door to possible trade sanctions.

According to Mehrdad Khonsari, a former Iranian diplomat who is currently a senior research consultant at the Centre for Arab & Iranian Studies in London: "from an Iranian viewpoint, going to the Security Council after nearly three years of time-wasting dialogue with the EU3 will mark the start of a new process of diplomacy when at least ten new political actors – namely the ten non-permanent members of the council – will need to get fully familiarised with the Iranian file. This will inevitably lead to the wastage of more time – in line with their wishes. Acting tough and defying the international community has clear domestic consumption benefits for the regime. Moreover, they have nothing to lose and indeed much to gain, if they play this game right to the very end, and essentially come to some kind of an agreement at that point."

In the meantime the three European union states known as the "EU3" - Britain, France and Germany – have come to learn to expect the worst from the regime in Tehran after it managed to subvert the framework of the Paris Agreement, suspending all uranium enrichment and reprocessing activity, that was agreed in October 2003.

The reaction of British foreign minister Jack Straw to the breaking of the seals at Iran's Natanz nuclear facility in January speaks volumes: referring to the sobriquet "Tehran Jack" conferred on him by Iran's members of the diaspora, he said that "I was not taken aback ... we held out a hand of friendship to them". But now Iran has rebuffed Europe's goodwill and cooperation.

Accordingly governments on both sides of the Atlantic are appealing directly to the people of Iran to try and alter the thrust of the nuclear policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran whilst at the same time denouncing the clerical regime as a threat to the future of the world.

Iran's place in the world

On 7 February, Sean McCormack spoke to the Persian-language weekly newspaper Kayhan (London): "I would like to speak to the Iranian people ... what they need to understand is that the world has a great appreciation for the Iranian culture, for Iran's history. The Iranian people are a great people and what the Iranian people need to understand is that the action in terms of the international community with respect to Iran's nuclear program is not directed against the Iranian people, they are directed at the behavior of the regime that the Iranian people don't deserve and the Iranian people also have to understand that the Iranian regime is not telling them all of what is going on. The world is not trying to prevent Iran from having peaceful nuclear energy, in fact, the world has made attempts to provide a proposal that would allow Iran to have peaceful nuclear energy but also provide assurances that the Iranian regime, those small number of people who control power in Iran, won't try to use the rights under NPT to develop peaceful nuclear energy to in fact to develop the nuclear bomb."

Potkin Azarmehr, an Iranian human-rights activist in London and an ardent campaigner for secular democracy, echoes the sentiments of many political dissidents in Iran. Azarmehr believes that "Iranians will only trust the intentions of the international community when the United Nations Security Council passes a resolution that not only condemns the nuclear intentions of the Islamic Republic, but also censures it for its abuse of the basic human rights of Iranians and its support for global terrorism at the expense of the prosperity of Iran."

Appealing to the Iranian citizenry, Jack Straw told the BBC World Persian Service on 9 February: "there are ways in which the street, the Iranian people, the Iranian intellectual elite, can influence even this government. And I think it's very important that they should try to do so."

But Shahram Kholdi, a fellow at the University of Manchester, believes that the majority of Iranians who vacated the political scene in 1976, save for the period when they voted in the reformists, will silently remain on the sidelines until April 2006, when the new Assembly of Experts determines the victor in the power struggle between the ideological guru of President Ahmadinejad, Ayatollah Muhammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, and Ayatollah Khamenei.

"They will then turn to the leadership they can trust, whether within the Islamic Republic or outside Iran." Kholdi maintains that an alternative leadership to the clerical system, that has gone unnoticed, could indeed emerge outside of Iran: "No one ever thought in 1976-77 that Mr Khomeini had the appeal to unite the internal and external opposition to Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi."

According to McCormack, the United States "as well as other countries around the world will continue to support rhetorically as well as with funding those people interested in the building of a true civil society, those people interested in a developing a political space where they can have freedom of expression for men and women and all members of society regardless of religion or gender."

openDemocracy's global security correspondent Paul Rogers writes a weekly column tracking developments in the "war on terror". Among his reports on Iran's security policy and the possibility of an extension of the war to Tehran:

"Confident Iran"
(March 2005)

"America's Iranian predicament"
(August 2005)

"The Iran nuclear chess-game" (September 2005)

"Iran in Israel's firing-range"
(December 2005)

"The United States, nuclear weapons, and Iran" (January 2006)

Paul Rogers has also written a report for the Oxford Research Group on the likely effects of a military attack against Iran's nuclear facilities, including the prospect of heavy civilian casualties:

"Iran: Consequences of a War" (February 2006)

However, few believe that the NGOs that have benefited from this support inside Iran have the potential to bring about a regime change in the same way that the mosques did in 1978-79. Furthermore, Kholdi argues that in a country such as Iran, where a homogeneous civil society has yet to develop, leadership, as the element to unify and galvanise the populace into a force for change, is indeed crucial.

Shaheen Fatemi, dean of the graduate school of business at the American University of Paris and the editor of the Paris-based internet news site Iran va Jahan (Iran and the World) believes that the atmospherics of the political situation inside Iran today, does not allow for the organization of people-power internally.

Like many Iranians, Fatemi argues that, were it not for the tragedy of 11 September 2001 and the spectre of a nuclear bomb in the hands of the mullahs, the international community would continue to ignore the abuse of human rights in Iran, in the same way that it had done for the past twenty-seven years. "No foreign power can ever care about us Iranians, more than we care about ourselves."

He states that, "the Islamic regime has complete control of all media and does not allow any citizen who is not from within the clerical system to actively participate in the affairs of the government. More than 150 publications have been banned. Any trade union activity is considered illegal and violently put down. Students are under tight control and those who dare protest are not only expelled from schools and universities but are also prohibited from enrolling in educational institutions ever again. Human-rights organisations are not allowed to be active. Overall, Iranian society today is under constant guard by the intelligence and security services."

He therefore argues that the onus is on Iranians who live in democratic societies outside of Iran to establish an accountable, transparent and democratic structure that can take the lead in bringing about change inside Iran.

Shaheen Fatemi wonders "why there has not been a meeting like the one held in Bonn for Afghanistan and in London for Iraq. Why is it that none of the parties concerned have shown any interest in asking the 'free' – those who can freely speak their mind – what do they think and how can they play a role?"

Notwithstanding, all sides agree that Iran is on the verge of a major political, social and strategic shift. With a rich history, a mature polity and a highly motivated population yearning for progress and modernity, if given a chance, Iran has the potential to reverse the situation both at home and in the middle-east region.

As the Iranian student activists write: "…None of us could be entangled in partisan politics, be it republican or monarchist, socialist or anything else for that matter. So long as our people are oppressed, our children raised as barbarians and taught to live as cave dwellers, we are Iranians aspiring to love and freedom…. We look forward to the extended hands of our sisters and brothers, to those of the children of Adam and Eve, those of the noble peoples of the world, to come to our rescue in helping us regain our due place in the concert of the civilized nations."

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