With the disappearance of the last vestiges of hope for democratic transformation within the existing political system, the Iranian opposition to clerical dictatorship is closing ranks and converging on a common agenda for the future of the country. At the beginning of Mohammad Khatami’s presidency, even many of those Iranians who were sympathetic to the Islamic Revolution privately felt reform was the regime’s last chance. They argued that either Khatami would succeed in transforming the religious state into a democracy, or his presidency would be remembered as the final nail in the coffin of the Islamic republic. Unsurprisingly, a term and a half into his presidential mandate, Khatami is looking increasingly like an undertaker. His public credibility has all but vanished and the political movement that became synonymous with his name lies in tatters.
For instance, one leading Iranian dissident, Hashim Aghageri, has reacted to the Guardian Council’s massive disqualification of reformist candidates by declaring that Iran’s reform movement is finished. In an open letter published by ISNA, the Iranian news agency, this history professor–a reformist himself–said that hopes for mending the system from within are over, and advises Iranians to oppose the regime through passive resistance.
Iranian activists from all over the political spectrum are uniting over the issue of passive resistance and other methods of civil disobedience. A book published two years ago, entitled Winds of Change, has helped to inspire the movement: The author is Reza Pahlavi, son of the late shah of Iran, who is leading a campaign to overthrow the mullahs’ dictatorship from his home in exile in the U.S. Arguing that violence breeds more violence, he has been insisting on a peaceful plan of bringing down the regime through political non-participation. He has also proposed a democratic referendum on the future of the country as the only way out of the present political quagmire.
Many of the reformist intellectuals who once vehemently supported Khatami and his effort to change the republic from within now have also come to see such a referendum as the only viable option. One of these people is the prolific satirist Ebrahim Nabavi. Reflecting on the legacy of the reformist movement in a recently published article, this hugely popular writer says: “What we can all do at this moment is to make up for our past mistakes. We have no choice but to carefully navigate our country’s vessel through its surrounding stormy waters and towards the free and democratic world. The reformist movement at this point should concentrate on forcing the hardliners to accept a national referendum on the future of the country.”
What Nabavi means by “forcing the hardliners” is to persuade them to see that a quiet departure is their only route to self-preservation and the most generous deal they can expect from the nation. Twenty-five years of mismanagement and impetuous policies in the name of revolutionary Islam has brought the country to the verge of collapse. Iranians are left unprotected not only against man-made and natural calamities, but also against a government that has consistently assaulted their human rights and freedoms. How a government with such a disastrous record has been able to survive for so long has mystified even those Iranians with long political experience. Fereydoun Hoveyda, Iran’s ambassador to the U.N. during the time of the shah, blames the British, French, and Germans for propping up the Islamic republic, thus preventing its downfall.
In an article published on February 13, 2004, he asked “how a group of incompetent and often corrupt lower ranking clerics” who have brought nothing but misery and bankruptcy to our nation have been able to survive except with the backing of those powerful European governments in whose economic benefit it is to keep them in power.”
Whether or not one agrees with this theory, it is true that the Islamic republic has succeeded in defrauding (or as Hoveyda argues, bribing) key European countries–and even elements within the Democratic party–by creating the impression that the mullahs are interested in democratic reform. One should keep in mind that a dictator like the Ayatollah Khomeini, who thought nothing of ordering the mass execution of hundreds of his opponents, also found it expedient to call himself a democrat. Many Iranian activists who had a soft spot for Khomeini’s revolution turned a blind eye on profound and irreconcilable defects of the system. They waited patiently, hoping that one day a democratic state would emerge.
One of these activists who supported the 1979 Revolution was Shirin Ebadi, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Faced with the mass disqualification of candidates, she has declared that she will refuse to vote in an undemocratic election where people are deprived of the right to vote for whomever they wish. The decision of the influential Nobel laureate to stay away from the polls is bound to give a moral boost to the advocates of political non-participation and civil disobedience.
Ironically, the reform movement, which was an ineffective force in its prime, is showing signs of vitality on its deathbed. Disgruntled candidates have not only boycotted the polls, but have also broken a taboo by openly criticizing Ayatollah Ali Khamenei–Iran’s supreme leader–as duplicitous. The recognition that the Islamic republic is the common enemy of freedom and democracy has induced the country’s political activists–monarchists as well as republicans–to form a united front against dictatorship.
–Reza Bayegan is an Iranian-born commentator currently living in France.