On May 21, 127 deputies in Iran’s parliament sent an open letter to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The letter called for the Supreme Leader to end abuse of power in Iranian institutions directly under Khamenei’s control, like the Council of Guardians, Iranian radio and television, the judiciary, the Revolutionary Guards, and the all-powerful Expediency Council. Khamenei’s response? He ordered Iran’s media to drop all mention of the letter, and cease criticism of his regime, “the most democratic in the world.” (Ironically, the only other person who agrees that Iran is a democracy is Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, and his advisers in the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs).
While it is tempting to see the parliament deputies’ letter as a sign of struggle between the Islamic Republic’s reformists and hardliners, Western officials should abandon such a lazy dichotomy. After all, it has been years since the Iranian people have abandoned thinking of their struggle as one between two regime factions. We see no substantive difference between the Islamic Republic’s moderates and conservatives. They both seek to prevent the collapse of the Islamic regime, the very goal for which most Iranians strive. Indeed, the only real difference between moderates and hardliners is that the moderates always threaten to resign but never do, while the hardliners don’t bother to go through such a charade.
So what do Iranians want? Some circulate the idea that the way forward is to push for a nationwide referendum to determine what system of government Iranians want. Many Iranian groups claim credit for first pushing the idea of a referendum, but the idea first came about in the aftermath of the 1998 murders of Iranian dissidents Darius Foruhar and his wife Parvaneh Iskandari. Darius Foruhar was a famous democrat from the period of 1953, when the Central Intelligence Agency helped overthrow the popular Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq. The 69-year-old Foruhar had been stabbed 26 times; his wife 25 times. The root of the scandal was that the murders occurred while the two dissidents were under surveillance by Iran’s intelligence ministry. The intelligence ministry proceeded to destroy the surveillance tapes. In the end, the Iranian government arrested Said Emami, an intelligence ministry deputy, for ordering the hits. Emami was then “suicided” while awaiting trial. (Michael Rubin has a good English-language account of these events in his book, Into the Shadows: Radical Vigilantes in Khatami’s Iran). The brutality of the murders, followed by the brazenness of the cover-up convinced many that there simply could be no reform, and that there should be a referendum as the way forward.
Unfortunately, the Islamic Republic has co-opted the idea of the referendum as its own. While the referendum may have worked four years ago, it can no longer provide a reasonable way forward. Every political group now wants a referendum to further its own agenda. The monarchists want a nationwide referendum to see whether there should be a constitutional monarchy. President Mohammad Khatami wants a referendum to see if the people will pass two bills to give him greater powers. The Iranian National Front party wants a simple yes or no to the Islamic Republic referendum, the same option offered in 1979. Expediency Council chairman (and former president) Hashemi Rajsanjani wants a referendum to see if people want normalized relations with the United States, something that would mean a business windfall for the politician considered to be Iran’s most corrupt. The Islamic Iran Participation Front wants a referendum to see if Iranians want reform.
Unfortunately, in all the lofty discussion of referendums, one basic problem remains: The ruling clergy have given no indication that they would consider any referendum binding. All indications are they would not. Take the case of the University of Hamadan: Last week, students erected five ballot boxes for students to voice their opinion in a symbolic referendum. Regime thugs violently confronted the students and set fire to four of the five ballot boxes. Students have established a 24-hour vigil to protect the remaining ballot box. So much for Iranian democracy, Mr. Armitage!
Many referendum advocates hope that the clergy will buckle under international pressure to abide by the results. But since when has the international community put real pressure on the Islamic Republic? Despite the doubling of capital punishment in the Islamic Republic and a backsliding human rights record, the European Union has doubled trade with Iran. With student protesters disappearing everyday into the Islamic Republic’s gulag, and newspapers closed down for even the mildest criticism, it was the United Nations that took the Islamic Republic off the blacklist of the worst human-rights offenders.
Change through referendum is a fool’s paradise. Unfortunately, the only practical alternative is revolution. Iranians themselves acknowledge that they want regime change, so a revolution need not be a far-fetched goal. It will take some convincing though. Iranians don’t want a repeat of the chaos, anarchy, and killing of a quarter-century ago. Some fear that a revolution would turn violent, but it need not. Whether during the monarchy or the current period of religious apartheid, it has always been the government, not the protesters, who resorted to violence. During the 1999 student protests, a Marze Por Gohar member was shot in the face while holding peaceful vigil.
But, despite the risks, why not lay out a blueprint for a peaceful revolution? What if Marze Por Gohar laid forth a detailed plan to dispose peacefully the clerical regime once and for all? Isn’t it worth it to try to save our precious land and culture any way possible? We believe Iranians should dispose the clerical regime by ourselves, without outside assistance. We only publish in American publications to escape the censorship of our native Iran. It is time we rise up, and realize our quest for a secular republic. Freedom is not free. We know the risks, since we were out on the streets in July 1999. We must show that we are not all talk, and trust that international support will follow once the world community sees action. We have exhausted all other options. There is no viable alternative. If we fail to live up to our responsibility, we risk having foreign forces make the first move.
— Babak Namdar is assistant director of foreign policy for Marze Por Gohar, an Iranian political party advocating a secular republic.