Among the citizenry of the Islamic republic, some called openly for dialogue with the United States. This was a bid to end Iran’s pariah status and salvage its economy from catastrophic downturn. In the West, there were some who were, yet again, thrilled by the seemingly civil discourse of Iran’s president, Mohammad Khatami, as he rushed to condemn the terrorist attacks. Many Western analysts concluded that Iran might be ready to cooperate in the anti-terror campaign.
But to the astute observer of Iran it came as no surprise when, four weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, the regime’s “supreme leader,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, did his best to stamp out all these high hopes. Any negotiation, much less cooperation with the United States was, he declared, inimical to the interests of the Islamic republic. His injunction was accompanied by threats to punish heretical tendencies within the political community.
Khamenei’s threats were enough to cow dissent in the government apparatus. “President” Khatami publicly acknowledged that foreign policy was the prerogative of the “supreme leader.”
Whatever Western pragmatists think, the clerical rulers of Tehran cannot become a bona fide partner in the global war against terror. Through the past 22 years, the Iranian theocracy has thrived on terror. The prime victims of this practice have of course been the people of Iran. But the regime has also championed terrorism of global reach, and since 1983 persistently tops the lists of states sponsoring terrorism.
The record is unmistakable. Details are set forth in official reports of the United Nations, Amnesty International, the U.S. State Department and numerous other sources. More tangibly, they are reflected in terrorist indictments against Iranian officials issued by courts in Germany and the United States.
Behind a benign facade of electoral process and claims of an Islamic version of democracy, the Iranian regime remains one of the world’s most cynical oppressors and an enemy of democratic values. Candidates for elected office, including the presidency, are carefully screened. They are allowed to run only on proof of indisputable allegiance to the established theocracy and its leadership. And even when they are elected, their decisions on subjects that matter most are systematically reversed by nonelected bodies, with names such as the Council of Guardians and the Expediency Council.
All this is not to say that no positive change has occurred in Iran in recent years. It would be untrue and unfair to claim that. A reformist movement called “Second of Khordad” (for the date of Khatami’s first election, in May 1997) sprang out of the frustrations of Iranian youth and struggled bravely to survive in spite of the ruthless persecution of its original leaders. Persons of great courage, intellect and understanding have emerged in Iran. They have for the most part been imprisoned for having voiced their dissent. They have my respect and admiration regardless of their political leaning and affiliations.
Khatami himself rose to the presidency on the crest of this movement. But he has failed abjectly and all but caused its demise. His servility and lack of resolve, as well as his ultimate loyalty to the basic tenets of the regime, have eroded the support Iranians offered him in two successive presidential elections.
Khatami’s advocacy of democracy within the confines of a dogmatic state is self-defeating and ultimately doomed. Democracy is not merely the rule of the majority. It is based on free and undeterred expression of thought and respect for human rights, including full and unadulterated recognition of equal rights for women and among ethnic and religious minorities.
It is the realization of these indisputable facts that has given birth to a new political movement in Iran, called the “Third Force,” that is today chanting: “Beyond Khatami!” A new generation of alert and restive Iranians is stirring. This past fall, they were seen in their distinct colors throughout Iran during defiant street demonstrations calling for a “national referendum,” as a means to rid themselves of the regime, chanting “Death to the Taliban, whether in Kabul or in Tehran!”
In no uncertain terms, the 50 million youth of Iran want secularism, freedom, economic opportunity and modernity. They have come to the painful realization that a prerequisite for attaining these goals is a complete change of regime. Our world has witnessed the dawn of new democracies, brought about by successful nonviolent civil disobedience and mass resistance movements from Africa to Latin America and through Eastern Europe. Let there be no doubt that Iranians thirst for the same chance to restore their unalienable right to self-determination, thus restoring the civility, dignity, tolerance and sovereignty for which the land of Persians was known for so many centuries.
The writer, son of the late shah of Iran, lives in this country and is advocating change in Iran through nonviolent resistance.