Milton S. Eisenhower Symposium
Johns Hopkins University
Ladies and Gentlemen, good evening.
I am delighted to be here with you this evening, and to have this opportunity to address the Milton S. Eisenhower Symposium. I especially want to thank the MSE Co-Chairs Mohammed Elsayed, Danielle Calderone and Nikki Ackerman for welcoming me to speak tonight.
The focus of this year’s Symposium series is particularly important to me and my compatriots in Iran. As your series explores how technology and communication allow for new interaction; as you discuss how the progressive youth of today are affecting political movements – these matters are being put into practice by the youth of Iran today to express their discontent and push for a change of regime.
We are here tonight to discuss a fundamental aspiration of millions of Iranians: The quest for freedom, democracy and human rights. This is an issue of epic proportions, but given our short time together this evening, I wish to share with you my thoughts on the path, rather than the obvious merits of our collective desire to achieve this goal.
However, before we discuss the future of my nation, I would like to briefly review with you some its recent, tragic history.
The cataclysmic shift the clerical regime brought to my homeland and the region over 30 years ago was immediate. The destabilization of the Middle East began as soon as the revolutionary regime of Iran established itself and set out to implement its foremost mission: to export its brand of Islamic rule and Revolution beyond Iran’s borders, targeting the Middle East first.
The clerical regime’s vocal provocations enabled Iran’s long-standing nemesis, Saddam Hussein, to take advantage of the early chaotic days of the revolution to attack and invade strategically valuable territories within Iran, in September of 1980. This led to a long, disastrous war, lasting eight years and resulting in heavy casualties on both sides, with millions of Iranians killed, wounded, maimed and displaced from their ruined cities, towns and villages.
To the east of Iran, the former Soviet Union found an opportunity to invade and occupy our neighbor Afghanistan. This also became a decade-long costly conflict, causing untold loss of life for our Afghan brethren, ruination of their cities and economy, while at the same time giving rise to the Taliban, ushering in Al Qaeda and ultimately, resulting in the disaster on 9/11 here in the United States.
From the early days, founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and the clerical regime of Iran set out to defy and denigrate the West. Within Iran, Khomeini set out to neutralize what he called the “westoxification” of the modernizing Iranian society of the 1960s and 1970s. Beyond Iran, Khomeini promoted an “anti-imperialism” mantra within the region. This goal was simple: pressure the United States and force its exit from the region, specifically from the neighboring oil producing countries.
Khomeini and the clerical regime selfishly and sadistically committed to extend the Iran-Iraq War by including a vision of conquering Jerusalem via Karbala, Iraq, which Khomeini commemorated by establishing the “Qods Day” holiday. Central to this ideological front was Khomeini’s desire to extend his reach and direct zone of influence within the Near East, targeting Lebanon and the immediate Palestinian population. The rise of Hezbollah, or the “Party of God” – the direct brainchild of the clerical regime – has been part of its grand strategy of imposing regional hegemony under its dictate and dominance. A cornerstone of this plan included a strategic alliance with Hafez Assad of Syria, with whom the clerical regime refined the art of recruiting, instigation and direct provocation of neighboring states, in an extension of its “External Line of Defense” vis-à-vis western forces.
In a continuous attempt to frustrate the United States as well as pressure its regional allies, Iran’s clerical regime has in its three decades of rule systematically armed, financed, trained and, in fact, inspired various radical militant and terrorist groups directly or indirectly, wherever, and whenever it has desired, to escalate tension or demonstrate its de facto command and control of conflict in the Middle East.
It is critical to understand that the clerical regime sought – and continues to seek – to challenge America and its regional allies as a convenient way for it to deflect attention from its abhorrent policies of ongoing repression and terror against my fellow Iranians. While our precious national resources are being utilized by the clerical regime to export revolution, the Iranian people are being left without access to basic necessities, rapidly losing a standard of living that was once the envy of many around the world, and they live in a state of perpetual tyranny.
It took little time for most Iranians, including those who believed in and contributed to “Khomeini’s revolution”, to become disillusioned. Resistance and the earliest forms of defiance of the regime soon began in war-torn Iran. It began first among the courageous women of Iran who have endured the harshest treatment since the arrival of the regime. Today, it is the very children of those brave parents whose blood is been spilled on the streets of Iran.
In our unwavering struggle to achieve freedom during these past three decades, we have had to unfortunately bear witness to countless tales of oppression, humiliation, discrimination, torture, public stoning, hanging and executions – a permanent part of the regime’s bloody narrative. The world, however, had been mostly unaware or oblivious to our tragic story, often failing to see beyond the regime’s double-talk and totalitarian façade.
Often, western governments were too busy seeking trade and business with the ruling mullahs, habitually looking away from the flagrant violations of human rights within Iran, and closing their eyes to violence such as the assassinations of dissidents and regime opponents in foreign lands.
Contrast the world’s thirty-years of silence on the tyranny of this regime to the extremely loud and well-organized protests frequently directed at my father’s government in the 1970s. The difference could not be more distinct or disturbing. Then, the world seemed quite attuned to and concerned with the issue of human rights in my country. Today, with thirty-years worth of full graveyards and more on death row than ever before in Iran, the global silence on the stunning human rights atrocities committed by this supposedly religious regime has been astonishing and disappointing. It is quite frustrating for me and for many of my compatriots to conclude that the global standard on human rights seems to be capriciously administered and certainly has been discounted for Iranians since the establishment of the world’s only modern day theocracy.
In recent months, the world’s tone has begun to change, in no small part due to its frustration with the clerical regime unresponsiveness to various United Nations resolutions and demands. Recently, Secretary Clinton cited human rights as a motivating factor in her announced targeted sanctions against eight members of the power elite of the Islamic Republic. It was a good first step – and long overdue. However, there is much to do and time is pressing. The humanitarian crisis within Iran is now spilling beyond its borders, with thousands of political refugees being held in camps in Iraq and Turkey and other nations. Many of these refugees now exist in a stateless status. Members of my team have been to the camps in Iraq and the stories of torture and retribution at the hands of the regime that these Iranians have to share is quite disturbing, and unfortunately all too common today in Iran. Moreover, these refugees provide probably the best witness testimony to the human rights abuses of the regime, and they need to be heard by the media.
Over the years, I’ve held countless meetings with heads of states, prominent members of international legislative bodies, such as the British House of Lords, the US Congress, and the European Parliament during which I have alerted them all to the inevitable fact that – sooner or later – the tyranny, radicalism, militancy and terrorism of the clerical regime in Iran will end up reaching beyond the Middle East. Unfortunately, history is witnessing the exact migration of such ideology not only to Europe but even here in America. The world can ill afford to view such problems as only regional or a disagreement among Muslims – these are now global problems. Calls for “Jihad” have not come only from mosques in Damascus or Beirut. They have also come from the suburbs of Paris, London and Madrid! We only recently witnessed a failed Jihad plot to detonate a bomb in Times Square in New York and now the entire continent of Europe is under a travel advisory for unspecified terror threats.
Now you can add to the clerical regime’s blood-soaked record a new malevolence: Iran’s nuclear program.
It appears that while the world would not concern itself with the human rights abuses in Iran or the exporting of militancy by the clerical regime in Iran, its nuclear efforts suddenly seem to have captured the world’s attention. The world has been awakened to the lethal combination of having the world’s number one sponsor of terror and chief financier of militancy the world over having its finger on a nuclear trigger.
The nuclear issue has become top priority for shuttling diplomats from western capitals and at the United Nations. However, I am here to tell you that it is not necessarily the critical or most potent issue when it comes to motivating the Iranian citizens, who see their economic misery and human rights conditions as a greater justification to defy the clerical regime.
Finally, some governments are now taking a tougher stance vis-à-vis the regime and echoing the protests of and lending their support to Iranians back home. This welcome change of events came as a result of last year’s post-election fiasco in Iran, giving rise to what is today known as the “Green Movement.”
For the first time in three decades, the world took a much closer and deeper look at Iran and Iranians. The world media, YouTube and Twitter played a great part in bringing never before seen images of our people’s struggle against their oppressors while informing the world about their true aspirations. Quite dramatically and overnight, the world witnessed the coming off of two masks: that of a double-talking, reform-faking regime; and that of an Iranian nation reaching to the world and courageously showing its rejection of a failing, totalitarian regime.
Of course, none of the wall-to-wall coverage of last summer’s news reports was a revelation to Iranians who had witnessed the very same treatment over the years. Many of you may not know that the exact same popular uprising and violent response by the regime occurred – but outside of cameras – under former President Khatami, the so-called “reformist President”, in 1999, after which Khatami declared his pledge to preserve the regime at any cost. So, Iranians know full well that the regime will not hesitate to kill as many people as necessary to hang on to power, and the world should also be clear on that. The difference between 1999 and today is that the youth in my nation are armed with mobile technology and Twitter and can immediately broadcast to the world disturbances and atrocities as they occur. The Islamic Republic can no longer abuse its citizens behind a veil.
Today, committed and courageous Iranians march together, waging an unprecedented campaign of civil disobedience and defiance against their rulers. Most importantly, they have maintained a remarkable discipline in refraining from violence. This is our path, and ultimately our way out of the economic, social and political dead end the clerical regime has brought to our homeland.
What is to be done?
Diplomacy, although exhaustively attempted, has failed to deter the clerical regime in any way. Instead, it continues its prolongation tactics while proceeding with its nuclear program. The Western powers fail to truly understand that the regime views its guarantee of survival in having the ability to equalize its power under a nuclear umbrella, thereby neutralizing the superiority of conventional foreign military forces, and reaching its goal of regional dominance and hegemony under a modern day Shi’a caliphate. With nuclear capabilities, the clerical regime hopes to finally force the U.S. out of the region as a whole. This grand scheme and scenario is evidently unacceptable to the U.S. as well as its European and regional allies.
As another scenario, a military confrontation or strike at Iran would be disastrous. Having often stated my vehement opposition to it because of the unfathomable prospects of war and ruin against my homeland, it is my belief such an attack would not only be ineffective against the regime’s well-entrenched and well-scattered nuclear program, but more importantly, it would eliminate the chance of a peaceful resolution of Iran’s political situation. It would severely set back the cause of democracy in Iran and thereby bring a much heavier human and financial toll to Iranians and the region alike.
Sanctions alone, or the continuation and strengthening of those that have already been applied thus far, cannot be viewed as an end in itself. Although impactful to some extent in the short term, I do not believe that, in the long term, economic sanctions as a matter of unilateral economic policy will yield the ultimate desirable result, especially while the political status quo prevails.
So if not diplomacy, military action or sanctions, what option remains? We must increase the domestic lever of pressure on the regime. All arrows point to what I have been arguing for years: empowerment.
It is only by empowering the people of Iran that we can hope for a far less costly and far more legitimate process of political change in Iran. This is why I have such a strong commitment and dedication to a campaign non-violent civil resistance and disobedience: history shows there is no force more powerful than that of a willing and committed people. As demonstrated already, Iranians have the ability, desire and courage to wield that power – especially if they are backed by the international community, at every level, every turn and every chance.
Since June 2009, we have witnessed the powerful effects of a pro-democracy movement across the country. All of this has occurred without leadership, structure, or assistance from the international community – only social media, mobile phones and word of mouth. Imagine how much more could be done if the world focused on lending a hand to the courageous women and men who have been demanding their rights in the streets of Iran. The time has come to engage – not the regime – but the people of Iran, and to strengthen their movement by giving them better means of communication and organization.
For those who argue that the situation in Iran is now a fact of life and a fait accompli, and that we have to adapt to it in order to have ties to this emerging market, I say this: it is a far wiser position to not engage with a regime that is bound to collapse at some point, and instead engage with the aspirations of the opposition. It doesn’t make sense to continue engaging with this regime that has proven to be a failure across the board. It has driven our economy to the brink of collapse and brought talk of war to our doorstep. Iran will only achieve its true potential under a different form of government – which is why I advocate so strongly for a secular democracy. Therefore it is the people and the potential of Iran that you have to invest in, rather than engage with the existing order.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Time is of the essence, the clock is ticking and our window is closing. Diplomacy cannot be open-ended. War should be avoided. Capitulation is unthinkable. There can only be one real solution: the moment has come for the world to invest in the people of Iran themselves. Change from within, and at the hands of the Iranian people, is the only legitimate, and the least costly solution. I know my compatriots are doing all they can, with great passion, sense of duty and sacrifice. Do heed their call, and let them know that they are not alone. To the students of Johns Hopkins I encourage you to raise awareness on this campus and join with other student movements across the world that are bringing visibility to the human rights abuses and lack of freedom in Iran. To the faculty and media, I encourage you to analyze and write about the disastrous governance of this regime and the demands of our freedom-seeking citizens and our civil society. There is much to cover. If we all unite in our voices and efforts, Iran will one day – and hopefully very soon – return from this dark journey into the light.