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SLUG: 1-01242 OTL Crisis in Iran 12-13-02.rtf









Host: Crisis in Iran? Next, On the Line.


Host: I'm Dan Noble and this is On the Line. Thousands of students are demanding an end to the authoritarian rule of Iran's Islamic clerical regime. The protestors took to the streets on December 7th, known as National Students Day. The Iranian government dispatched police and Islamic vigilantes to break up the demonstrations. Hundreds of students were arrested and many beaten. In a sign that dissatisfaction with Iran's clerical rulers is spreading, industrial workers in a number of cities staged symbolic strikes in solidarity with the students. Meanwhile, a leading Iranian moderate has warned that the Islamic establishment could face the fate of the deposed Shah if it continues to ignore calls for reform. Is Iran's theocratic regime facing a systemic crisis? I'll ask my guests, Michael Ledeen, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute; Babak Yektafar, a producer for Washington Journal, a television show on the C-SPAN network; and Roya Boroumand, director of the Boroumand Foundation for the Promotion of Human Rights and Democracy in Iran. Welcome and thanks for joining us.

Host: Roya Boroumand, what precipitated the protests?

Boroumand: In this case, I think the protests started with the death sentence against a historian and reformist, a member of the ruling oligarchy, Mr. [Hashem] Aghajari. But as usual and as each time in students protesting, one cause of action is a current event, but each time the students go back to their demands and their claims which have to do with the legitimacy of the regime and the democratic reforms.

Host: Well, the president of Iran [Mohammad Khatami] is now in the second year of his second term of office. Mr. Ledeen, how effective has he been since he was elected as a reformist?

Ledeen: Well, he's a virtual president, I think is the easiest way to sum him up, because in the second year of his second term he has still not accomplished any reforms. Even though he claims to be a reformist and even though he has the overwhelming support of the electorate -- more than seventy percent of voters voted for him. I would just like to expand on the numbers you gave at the top of the show, Dan. My understanding is that hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated on December 7th and 8th and 9th and that thousands of people were arrested, not as the government has said, a few score people [about sixty]. So, the dimensions of the protest and the depth of the rage of the Iranian people against this regime are really very profound and very strong. And what we're seeing is a movement that's growing and has been going on now for several years, but in the last twelve to fifteen months in particular it's really gotten traction. And the significant factor of the weekend of December 7th was that you had people who were not students swarming onto the campuses, marching onto the streets of the towns to join the student protest. It's no longer a student protest. It's now a national movement.

Host: In fact, there was a recent poll which showed that seventy-five percent of the people surveyed wanted to improve ties with the United States and the pollsters themselves were arrested.

Yektafar: Yes, the pollsters were arrested and they are on trial currently for not just daring to take this poll, but I'm not sure that the fact that the result of the poll was so much in favor of having relations with the United States had a major impact on putting them on trial. But that is true, as Mr. Ledeen just mentioned, that it has gone beyond just student protest and that particularly this past weekend, since that was quartered off and they only allow demonstrations inside the campuses, people, just citizens, average citizens went into the campus and joined the demonstrations. And this in a lot of ways is because of the 1999 protest that never really came to any conclusion because it was basically shut down by the government. It's been brewing since then. And it's my understanding that in a couple of days, the so-called reform front is having a summit to see how, because of the events -- that are kind of spinning a little out of control they feel -- how they can best use that to their advantage.

Host: Mohammad[-Reza] Khatami, who heads the Islamic-Iran participation front has said that Iranian students will "break from the establishment" if they feel that their calls for reform are being ignored. Now, he happens to be the younger brother of the Iranian president. What significance does this have, Miss Boroumand?

Boroumand: I think, you know, we have to be very cautious in listening to the discourses of the reformists in power in the parliament or in the government. The students have certainly put some hope in the reformist elite to bring about significant changes, and that's the first term of President Khatami. I think the 1999 riots were significant because the students, a large part of the students knew that the reformist elite does not necessarily want the same reforms. And if you look at the Amir Kabir University site of two days ago, you have an analysis regarding the fact -- looking at the history of civil disobedience and democratic changes. And the analysis says that usually a moderate reformist elite inside of a repressive ideological regime, authoritarian ideological regime, comes up in order to regain legitimacy for that regime and although they are willing to open up a little bit as far as freedom of expression is concerned, or even some kind of political dialogue with their opponents, they are in no way willing to go. And so, they're in no way willing to bring about structural changes in the constitution and in the political system that would allow, actually, competition and that would allow the opposition to come into the political game. So, they say and it's on their side, that there is no, nothing to expect from an inside reformist elite. Because they are not here to go, they are here to save the face and regain legitimacy for a regime that has lost legitimacy.

Host: Well, Mr. Ledeen, the reformers have had electoral successes, but they have little to show for their efforts so far. Why is this?

Ledeen: Because they have no power, because all the power is in the hands of the regime. And that's why I called it a virtual presidency. Khatami is a virtual president because he has no authority. And the clearest sign of this is this wanted pair of bills that he's trying to get through parliament, which in essence say to the government, "Hey, I'm the president and you have to listen to me. You have to pay attention. You have to do something that I want, not just the things that you want." But they laugh at him. So, he has no authority. I think that what Roya said is crucial, which is that what I now call revolutionary movements in Iran, has gone way beyond any call for reform. This is no longer, as some people would have us believe, a fight within Islam over which version of an Islamic republic is going to be foisted off on the people of Iran. This is now an explicit call for the end to an Islamic republic to a national referendum to decide what form of government the country should have in the national elections to elect their own leaders. And if that sequence of events takes place, believe me there will not be a religious leadership in Iran anymore in the political sector. They will be relegated back to the mosque. And, interestingly enough, the call for the separation of mosque and state doesn't come only from the secular oppositions of this regime, but comes from some of the most important religious leaders in the country, like Ayatollah [Marteza] Montazeri, Ayatollah Jalaleddin Taheri, and so far, all of whom now fear, actively fear that when this regime comes down, because most everyone in Iran is convinced that this regime is coming down, it's only a matter of time, that they will bring Shiite Islam down with it. And they want to save Shiite Islam and in order to save it, they're trying now to separate it from politics all together.

Yektafar: I don't think that we should overlook the fact that regardless, well, despite the fact that as it's seen, the government of President Khatami has not achieved what it set out to achieve, it has given a certain platform for this kind of a debate. Now, granted, on a number of occasions they have been shut down, but the fact that it is a public display and that it has opened up certain avenues for people to vent their frustrations who actually call for referendums which was something that you couldn't even think about five, six, seven years ago. I think that to a certain extent, there should be a little bit of credit given to the fact that that much at least has been done. Much more needs to be done. And also, it's always interesting to me that since the theocracy came into power about twenty-three years ago after the revolution, what I've always seen with them is that it's been this reactionary type of a policy only because I don't think they've ever, ever believed in their own legitimacy. It's this ever-constant fear that something is going to happen -- and a lot of that has to do with the history of Iran -- that will cause the overthrow and of course almost every change of government and dynasties that we've had in the history of Iran has led to bloodshed, some sort of bloodshed. And that lack of coherent policy is also fanning this whole displeasure.

Host: Roya Boroumand, do you agree?

Boroumand: I agree in part. I think that it is true that the opening that actually started under Mr. [Hashem] Aghajari has given the students and other people an opportunity to discuss fundamental issues which are democracy and human rights, which were taboo in the 1980s. Now, the reason the regime has always feared and doubted in its own legitimacy is because Mr. [Ali] Khamenei and his supporters were only maybe five percent of the Iranian clergy. And they are far from being traditionalists and Muslim traditionalists. It's a very modern, totalitarian ideology. And so they know better than anyone else that they don't represent the Iranian people and the constitution reflects that. So, of course, you know, President Khatami, you say that he has no power. But the problem is not that he has no power. The problem is that he believes in concepts that do not allow him to do anything. Because the constitution has a lot of things, good things, you know, freedom of thought, the independence of the judiciary, freedom of association, but each of these are conditional to some undetermined and vague Islamic

Yektafar: Within a very strict framework basically, that doesn't allow for any expansion.

Boroumand: And it says, unless incompatible with Islam, unless this, unless that. And all of these nice laws and standards are not relevant. The constitution says all civil, penal, financial, economic, administrative, cultural, etc. regulations should be based on Islamic principles. This principle will in general prevail over all of the principles of the constitution. So, in fact, who is going to interpret Islam? My mother? An Islamist jurist in Tabriz? Mr. Khomeini, Mr. Khamenei, Mr. Khatami? What does that mean? How can you run a country based on this nightmare?

Ledeen: Well, it's because Khomeini basically tricked the Iranians. He lied about what he was going to do. Before he came back to Iran, he said he wanted separation of mosque and state. He wasn't going to play along with politics. He was just a religious figure and all of that. Then he came back and he invented something which had never existed in history.

Boroumand: Yes. He had done that in the 1970s, but it was kept very well hidden.

Ledeen: No, but I'm talking about what's public, what he said to the Iranian people.

Boroumand: You know there was always a little something. Our problem with the Iranian elite and the intellectual elite is that they don't pay attention to political discourse. There was always a little something. You can't expect the ordinary Iranians to after all these years of dictatorship to be fine analysts of political discourse.

Host: One of the speakers before the students a week or so ago said that the Iranians now "are paying the price of our fathers' mistakes."

Boroumand: Exactly.

Host: What mistakes were those?

Ledeen: They were bringing down the Shah and bringing in the -- they said "our parents' mistakes of twenty-three years ago" -- they were very explicit.

Boroumand: See, in the last days of the Shah, there was a prime minister from the opposition in the government, Mr. Shapour Bakhtiar. He said to the Iranian opposition and intellectual elite: "Form your political parties and participate in elections and change the regime if you want to do it, but do it through the laws." They decided that they did not care for democracy and that they did not care for the rule of law and they went to the barracks and took over the barracks. That's the mistake. The second mistake was to vote for something they didn't know about. They had a referendum: yes or no to the Islamic Republic. What does that mean? I was a seventeen-year-old student. I was in Paris, saying I'm not voting. What is that question? That is not a question. They all went and voted.

Host: Well today, what is it, more than sixty-five percent of the Iranian population is under the age of twenty-five. What does this tell us about them?

Yektafar: More important than that, the fact that there's no future for it. The job market, their economy has done nothing, it's been stagnated. The investment fund, investment in Iran hasn't improved. I mean, it's basically non-existent. And even the attempts at creating these free-trade zones, the Kish Island and so on and so forth. It hasn't done anything for them. A lot of it of course has to do with the fact that other nations and other countries are hesitant to invest and deal with a nation that hasn't proven itself to be a very stable political entity.

Host: Mr. Ledeen, how should the United States encourage democratic reform in Iran?

Ledeen: We don't want democratic reform. We want democracy.

Boroumand: Right. We want democracy.

Ledeen: We want freedom for the Iranian people. It's not a matter of encouraging reform. It's a democratic revolution that we want. We're a revolutionary country. So we should support the Iranian people. We should do for the Iranian people what we have done for the Polish people, the Hungarian people, the Czech people, the Philippine people, the Yugoslav people. The Iranian people are every bit as worthy as the people protesting against [Slobodan] Milosevic, and we should seek the same kind of end to the regime in Iran as we helped to accomplish in Yugoslavia to Milosevic. I mean, it's a perfect happy ending.

Yektafar: Well, I'm always a little wary of using the word "revolution." I don't think we as a nation, and looking at our history, I don't think we deal -- we don't deal well with revolution. And I think an evolutionary process is what my hope is, that it can take it's course, given the events that are taking place, it's a little difficult to kind of gauge as to whether that's going to happen or whether a major clash is ahead of us. But, I'm always wary of using the word revolution when it comes to any kind of change in how the people are governed.

Boroumand: I think that revolution, meaning a structural revolution, meaning a complete change of laws, I would go with the revolution term. But, in terms of putting pressure, I think that unfortunately, generally the Iranian people and students do not have visibility. They do not have a forum. The reformist elite has a forum, they have their own newspapers, they have their own political parties, they are loved by the media in the West, but the Iranians don't have a forum and that's what they need. And if you give them a forum to express their demands, the ruling elite will feel pressured into bringing out changes and you know, ultimately maybe, organizing free elections under international observers. That's what we need, and then a referendum and then a decision about going in the streets.

Host: Well, Iran is not in a vacuum today. There are problems elsewhere. For instance, what effect will a U-S confrontation with Iraq have with the situation in Iran, Mr. Ledeen?

Ledeen: Well, nobody knows, but I can't imagine that if we liberate Iraq successfully that the Iranian people would tolerate free Iraqis on one side, free Afghans on the other side and themselves living under tyranny. It's inconceivable to me. I mean, it would drive them crazy. They're very proud people with a very ancient and rich culture. And why should these people to whom they consider themselves superior, have all the freedoms and benefits and so forth and they have none of them. So, it would encourage them. I just want to come back to the concept of revolution, you know, everybody has permitted both the French and Hollywood to define what revolution is all about, but revolution can be peaceful as far as anything else. But what is urgent in Iran right now, is a fundamental change in the political system and that is revolutionary. I'm not talking about methods. God knows, I'd just as soon have the mullahs step down peacefully and have elections peacefully and all of that. The old problem with trying to find a way to give a platform for the Iranian opposition, democratic opposition today, is if a person stood up and became the leader and was recognized as the leader of that he'd be killed. Simply because -- let's not forget that we're dealing with a really vicious repressive and you know better than anyone from your own family that these are murderers and they continue to murder. Just this week a member of parliament stood up and said, "Look, the murders continue, the chain murders go on." No one's ever been held accountable for them. No one's ever been tried and prosecuted for them and it continues today. So, let's not lose sight of the real context.

Host: Babak Yektafar, was that a good thing or a bad thing that President Bush identified Iran as one of the three countries in the axis of evil?

Yektafar: Well, the immediate aftermath of course was that it offended a lot of Iranians and the perception of course was that [for] a lot of them it strengthened the conservative call for this whole "great Satan" [concept] and what they want is not good for us. But in some ways it also did put a lot of pressure on the authorities. And I do want to separate the so-called elected government of Mr. Khatami and the authority which is led by the spiritual leader Ayatollah Khamene'i. And I think after the elections in Afghanistan it has put a good deal of pressure on them. There are reports behind the scenes of negotiations going on in case of a possible war against Iraq and such. But, I don't know. I mean, a first reaction would be that it wasn't such a great thing, but in some ways I think the pressure that it has exerted it has effected this movement that we've seen right now.

Host: Well, I'm afraid that that's all the time we have for today, but I'd like to thank my guests, Michael Ledeen of the American Enterprise Institute; Babak Yektafar of Washington Journal and Roya Boroumand of the Foundation for the Promotion of Human Rights and Democracy in Iran. Before we go, I'd like to invite our audience to send us your questions or comments. You can e-mail them to us at Ontheline@I-b-b-dot-g-o-v. For On the Line, I'm Dan Noble.

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