Mehrangiz Kar is a renowned Iranian human-rights lawyer and writer. In the January 2003 issue of the Journal of Democracy, she laid out a concise and powerful case against Iran’s theocratic constitution, detailing the structural impediments that make reform within the current constitutional framework impossible. Iran’s repressive government is a sham democracy: Even those branches that are elected by popular vote are subordinate to the clerical Guardian Council, appointed by Supreme Leader Ali Khameini. While some Iranians and outside observers maintain that reform-minded politicians such as current President Mohammad Khatami can liberalize the Islamic republic from within, Kar’s argument implies that only fundamental constitutional change can produce a truly representative government in Iran.
Kar has suffered severe consequences for expressing her views. Like countless other Iranians who have criticized their government (see these alerts from Reporters Without Borders for just a few recent examples), she was imprisoned in 2000 after participating in an international conference at which she discussed constitutional change. Her husband was later arrested as well. Yet despite Tehran’s persistent efforts to prevent the airing of calls for meaningful governmental reform, Kar’s views have gained prominence through a new movement advocating a nationwide vote, or referendum, on whether to keep Iran’s Islamic constitution.
The referendum idea may be Iran’s best hope for a democratic future–and America’s best hope for a non-belligerent, non-terror-sponsoring Iran. The current movement was started by a group of prominent and experienced Iranians–including a jailed lawyer, a former president of Tehran University, and Kar herself–and has caused waves both inside and outside the country, generating a degree of unity among an otherwise fractious opposition and giving non-Iranians a reasonable if incomplete plan of action to rally behind. The practicalities have still to be worked out: For one, it is far from clear how to induce Tehran’s mullahs to agree to such a vote, or more accurately, how to drum up the economic and political pressure that will force them to do so. But those who support the idea say what’s important right now is galvanizing the pro-democratic opposition and spreading the idea among Iranians at large. Once that’s been done, and international backing has been secured, the practical details can begin to take shape.
The Birth of a Movement
The referendum movement, as it exists today, was born in November 2004, when eight Iranian intellectuals and student leaders launched an online petition calling for the “staging of a national referendum with the free participation of the Iranian people, under the supervision of appropriate international institutions and observers, for the drafting of a new constitution that is compatible with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and all its associated covenants.” According to Mohsen Sazegara, who along with Kar was one of the original signatories, the petition has been signed by 35,000 people–including 300 prominent writers, scientists, and intellectuals–and has so far been the subject of hundreds of articles. An open letter inside Iran supporting the idea gained 565 signatures from political figures and activists. (The referendum petition’s website, 60,000,000.com, which Sazegara and others say has been blocked in Iran, refers to the original signatories’ belief that the vast majority of Iran’s roughly 65 million citizens supports the idea.)
Perhaps even more significant than the numbers is the fact that the movement has garnered support across the Iranian political spectrum, from left-wing groups to nationalists to moderate monarchists such as Reza Pahlavi, son of the last shah. “This referendum has for the first time ever in the life of the Islamic republic caused a movement that has mobilized various ideologies,” says Hossein Namdar, an Iranian-American who hosted one of the petition’s original signatories on the latter’s recent visit to the United States. “All these political groups and activists, with different ways of thinking, are agreeing on one thing: a referendum for establishing a new constitution, based solely on the desire of the Iranian people.”
Longtime activist Bijan Mehr, who participated in the student movement during the Iranian revolution and is now an involved member of the Iran National Front, a secular nationalist group, says the referendum movement is “probably the most successful idea after the revolution.” Khosro Shemiranie, an independent Iranian journalist living in Canada who has interviewed many Iranian dissidents and political prisoners, puts it this way: “You can support the referendum movement or oppose it, but you cannot ignore the fact that this move has caused a new wave in the sad ocean of disappointment and frustration” caused by the failure of President Khatami’s reform movement. “All parts of the political forces that have access to an information stream are discussing the issue.”
The referendum proposal has important precedents: In 1963, for example, a referendum secured Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi’s “White Revolution,” a modernizing program of land reform, economic privatization, and education. Another referendum cemented the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
The idea has remained popular among dissidents ever since. According to Akbar Atri, a student leader and another of the 60,000,000 petition’s original signatories, the past 20 years have seen many calls for referenda coming from opposition leaders. Atri himself led the call for a referendum on college campuses two years ago to determine the popularity of the Islamic regime; he and others pointed out that they were merely submitting the government to the test used to justify its creation. Sazegara, who is currently a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, initiated a nationwide referendum campaign after his candidacy for president was rejected by the Guardian Council in 2001.
The idea of holding a referendum is one thing; the realities of doing so are quite another. The main aims of the movement right now, according to Sazegara, are to educate the Iranian public and organize an umbrella organization, with its own elected leadership, for groups that support the idea. (The original signatories have declared that they do not wish to have leadership roles, he says.) Once the movement’s supporters have organized themselves they will begin to promote the goal through nonviolent civil disobedience. “We need to put enough pressure on the regime to agree to a referendum like this,” says Sazegara, “and to put pressure we need to mobilize the people.” Boycotting the presidential elections in June is one way to publicize the movement and confront the regime with its own popularity deficit. One well-known dissident, Abbas Amir Entezam–Iran’s former deputy prime minister and ambassador to Sweden who was arrested shortly after the 1979 revolution and has been imprisoned for most of the time since–has called on Iranians to use the upcoming elections as the occasion for the referendum itself.
But mobilizing the public can be quite difficult in a country where media and nongovernmental groups are unable to operate freely, and where dissenters are put in prison. Sazegara, who held several powerful government posts before losing faith in the revolutionary project, was arrested–twice–after publishing an open letter in 2001 arguing for the need to change the constitution. Atri was the subject of a government investigation when he managed to slip out of Iran early this year; according to the New York Sun, he had already been arrested once, in 2000, and severely beaten by police at the time.
Iranians elsewhere also suffer for their vocal opposition to the regime. Nayereh Tohidi, a professor of women’s studies at California State University Northridge and a supporter of the referendum movement, says, “I have paid a big price for being open in my opposition to the regime and leading some of the campaigns for human-rights causes, especially when some of my friends were arrested and put in jail, like Mehrangiz Kar.” Tohidi has not been back to Iran since 1994, when she was told by friends that the regime had singled her out for her political activities in the United States.
Further, while the referendum movement has managed to secure a politically diverse coalition, not all opposition groups and dissidents are on board. According to Tohidi, some leftist and nationalist groups fear that the referendum movement, with the help of the United States, will work for a restoration of Iran’s erstwhile monarchy. Though none of the original signatories has ever supported that idea, the movement itself maintains that Iranians should be able to choose whatever kind of regime they would like, provided it meets the requirements laid out in the petition.
Others find the referendum proposal impractical, or criticize the movement’s leaders for failing to propose a clear plan of action. Mohammed Parvin, founder of the Los Angeles-based Mission for Establishment of Human Rights in Iran, believes a referendum should be held only after the regime has been brought down through nonviolent confrontation. “Although the architects and supporters of the referendum have used the ‘civil disobedience’ term,” Parvin says, “they really don’t mean it. That is why they have reduced it to the ‘referendum’ and later the ‘dialog of referendum.’” He believes the push for a referendum has distracted Iranians with inconsequential talk, and that if the referendum actually took place as the movement’s leaders envision it, the vote could be used to legitimize the Islamic republic.
Finally, some voice skepticism about the movement because of Sazegara’s past–he was a student leader during the Iranian revolution and a founder of Iran’s notorious Revolutionary Guard Corps, the clerical regime’s primary enforcer.
None of these criticisms is devastating, however. First, the notion that the United States is backing a monarchy, and using the referendum movement as its agent, is more a reflection of Iranians’ historic fear of foreign interference than of reality. (It might not hurt for Americans to publicly renounce such designs, however.) Second, while Parvin is probably right to emphasize civil disobedience to weaken the regime, the idea of a referendum is an important rallying point. Without it, isolated acts of civil disobedience may lack an organizing principle, as well as focused international support. Finally, Sazegara is not alone among the revolutionary generation in losing faith in the Islamist project. He says that while as a young person he believed revolution could lead to freedom, he gradually realized it did just the opposite. “Today,” he says, “the revolutionary discourse in Iran has been changed to a liberalistic discourse. We can talk about a new paradigm: We have entered the paradigm of democracy and liberalism.”
This is in itself encouraging. While it’s difficult as an outsider to gauge the appeal of any indigenous movement, the standing of those who favor the idea and the reported mood of the Iranian people suggest promise. Khosro Shemiranie, the independent journalist, relates, “I have personally spoken to hundreds of people inside Iran and my experience shows that a wide majority of Iranians are seeking change through a nonviolent process. Many of them have asked me to sign the [petition] in their names… I believe that if it were possible to promote the idea of referendum in Iran a big part of the population would favor it.”
And the outcome may be one Americans can appreciate, though of course that’s hardly guaranteed. Bazhad Karimi, an Iranian who lives in Holland and heads the Iranian People’s Fadaian (Majority), which calls itself Iran’s largest secular party, believes that “based on the people’s current psychology and thinking the new constitution will be founded on human rights and the separation of religion and politics, and it will be democratic.” Atri, who has a bachelor’s degree in political science and is currently completing his master’s in the same field, credits a series of Western philosophers–including Hobbes, Montesquieu, and particularly Locke–for influencing his political views. (He says these and other Western political thinkers have been translated into Farsi.) And Iranians are surprisingly pro-American: According to a September 2002 poll, 74 percent favored a resumption of relations with the United States, and 46 percent felt U.S. policies toward Iran were “to some extent correct” (this was after Bush had included Iran in the “Axis of Evil”).
So what can be done to support the referendum movement? The Bush administration recently pledged financial support to nongovernmental groups working in Iran to promote democracy and human rights–a clear shift in policy from years of refusing to fund anyone inside the Islamic republic. This is good news, but caution should be exercised. Many of the movement’s leaders and supporters say that accepting money from the United States would only undermine their cause. Such funds are therefore best spent indirectly, for example by supporting independent media and institutions that provide information, training, and other services to opposition groups.
It is also important to publicly and officially criticize Tehran’s sponsorship of terror, its nuclear program, and its human-rights violations, as well as to make known the efforts of Iranian dissidents. And given the recent failure of the EU3’s latest appeasement effort (that is, its attempt to sweet-talk Iran into giving up its nuclear program), if the Europeans are going to be convinced to put their economic interests aside and work to isolate and weaken the Tehran regime, it is probably now or never.
The notion that Iranians can take control of their future, provided with the right kind of external support, is not a pipe dream. Iran’s population is largely young, urban, and educated. A heartening number of Iranians have already expressed their democratic aspirations, albeit at great personal risk; the referendum movement is an attempt to give all Iranians a chance to do so. Says Mehrangiz Kar, “The referendum movement’s leaders think that the Iranian people are capable of doing something for themselves.” Or as Bijan Mehr puts it, “We have to recognize that this movement belongs to all Iranians–all the political factions in Iran need to work on this and consider this as their own. And when the referendum becomes a national movement, then I think it will find its way to success.”
Let us all hope that day comes, and that it’s sooner rather than later.
–Rachel Zabarkes Friedman is an associate editor of National Review.