Iran remains the most influential religious and political laboratory in the Middle East. A coherent U.S. strategy toward Iran is increasingly necessary as dissent among the Iranian populace grows and evidence of both an aggressive nuclear weapons program and terrorist ties mounts. With international support, the Iranian opposition could bring about the end of the theocracy, but much of what we know about these opposition groups comes filtered through the media or intelligence analysts. Can the tyranny of the mullahs be ended, can the internal Iranian opposition take on the task, and should the United States assist opponents of the regime in any way?
On December 3, AEI hosted an unprecedented Iranian-American town hall meeting with leaders of the opposition inside Iran. A panel of experts and activists at AEI joined a panel of opposition leaders in Iran to discuss the future of Iranian leadership, possible paths of reform, and the potential American role in this process. Audience members at AEI will have the rare opportunity to ask opposition leaders direct questions. This meeting will be live and simultaneously broadcast via KRSI radio (Los Angeles) into Iran. This event was conducted almost entirely in Farsi, with simultaneous translation available for our Washington audience.
Although Washington decision makers frequently speak about the strategic threat posed by the Iranian regime to the rest of the world, it is easy to overlook the situation inside Iran, where human rights and the most basic freedoms are denied. The Iranian dissidents have accomplished an enormous amount, but the question remains: What can the United States do to aid their cause? This event will provide an unprecedented opportunity for the Iranians to explain for themselves what they want from the United States. It is intended as an opportunity for everyone involved in this debate to explain and discuss their differing viewpoints; there has been no attempt to exclude anyone.
The American Enterprise Institute and KRSI radio have put forward a list of very specific questions for the Iranian participants-both those in Iran and those at AEI. They are:
* What do Iranian oppositionists expect the United States to do, both for them and against the regime of the mullahs? * Should gradual or intermediate reform be pursued in Iran? If an intermediate path is chosen, how should it be implemented? * If theocracy is unacceptable, what form of government will best serve the future of Iran? * Regarding the notion of Islamic democracy: what is the relationship between Islam and democracy in Iran, and what does "Islamic democracy" mean to you? * Who presents the best potential for post-mullah leadership in Iran? * Will the Iran Diaspora play a role in the future of Iran or on the question of a transition from the mullahs?
VOICES FROM IRAN:
Ms. Hamidi described herself as a housewife living in Iran.
The present regime in Iran cannot be reformed. President Khatami has had more than six years, but the situation has not improved. Consequently, the democracy activists do not trust him anymore. The Iranian people want a government that is free of religion-a democracy in which the people have the opportunity to choose their future for themselves. For this reason, it is not productive to look for a new "leader," since this will only lead to another dictatorship; instead, the Iranian people must learn to lead themselves. Activists expect the United States not to support the Islamic government of Iran and pay greater consideration to human rights in formulating policy. Every time President Bush expresses his support for the Iranian activists, it energizes us.
Ms. Nargess addressed AEI from Iran.
The reform project in Iran has died. As Europe has learned, theocracy is incompatible with freedom or democracy. Religion is the connection between an individual and his or her God. If religion has a hand in the government, it will only damage both. It is especially important for Iranian women that the country adopts a secular government. The absence of leadership, however, has hurt the dissident movement. Reza Pahlavi can play an important role in this regard. The U.S. government can assist us by supporting opposition media, as well as coordinating groups working within the United States so that there is a single unified policy among them.
With regard to the question of Iran's nuclear program, there are more pressing priorities facing the activist movement. Before nuclear energy, the people of Iran need a safe, secure society without a government that is part of the axis of evil. It is possible to create such a government through civil resistance and without bloodshed.
"Professor in Tehran"
A professor at a university in Tehran addressed AEI.
The Iranian people have witnessed eight years of so-called "reforms." They could go on for eighty years, and it would not change the fundamental character of this regime, which has prevented freedom of expression for the past quarter-century. The form of the future Iranian government should be decided in a referendum. It does not matter, then, if it is ruled by a Pahlavi or Khomenei; what matters is that the people themselves will have control. The United States should spend some of its extraordinary wealth to help the activists in Iran. At present, the students do not even have cab fare to go back to their homes. The Iranian Diaspora should also lend financial support. In addition, the opposition radio should provide better programming-not just rants about "down with Iran," but rather, programs that are interesting and educational.
Shahrum RahnemaShahrum Rahnema fought in the Iran-Iraq war and was crippled during it.
It is by now clear that there is no more potential for reform in this regime. Religion is a personal affair that has nothing to do with politics. The opposition should synchronize its activities both inside and outside of Iran. Any attempt to choose a single leader will only fracture these groups, so it is better not to bother. The United States government should support Iranians emotionally and push the rest of the world to recognize and support us.
Mr. Mohammed described himself as a poet living in Iran.
Most people in Iran are still surprised by the death of the reform process, but the reality is that the ideological framework of the regime prevents reform. The only person who can lead is Reza Pahlavi. The United States should put pressure on the Iranian regime, including sanctions. After all, the people of Iran are already suffering under the "sanctions" on life imposed by the regime itself.
Mr. Koorosh described himself as an activist who had been in jail and only recently freed.
The biggest success of the activist movement so far has been to make people in Iran-regardless of background and class-realize that they can take part in the fight for a free society. Even a baker can participate in this movement.
PANELISTS AT AEI:
Iran Institute for Democracy
Iran is the center of a civilization and the middle of a region of vital importance in world affairs. The instability in Iran, however, affects not only the Middle East, but also Europe and the United States. Likewise, if Iran can be fixed, it will help improve the political climate in the rest of the region. Iran has been systematically ravaged for twenty-five years: its culture, its monuments, and its museums have been destroyed. Despite billions of dollars in oil and gas revenue, this regime has done nothing to help the Iranian people; instead, they have used that wealth to impose a theocracy.
There is no one better than the people living inside Iran to prove that the present regime cannot be reformed. The mullahs believe that whatever they say and do is the will of God; how, then, is it possible to "reform" God? The United States should recognize that the people of Iran are trapped inside a dictatorship, much like the people of the Soviet Union or Yugoslavia once were. The Yugoslavs were not capable of liberating themselves without the help of the United States. The Bush administration should apply a "Milosevic" policy toward Teheran.
Student Movement Coordination Committee for Democracy in Iran
There is no "dialogue of civilizations" inside Iran, but rather, a monologue against civilization. The voice of the Iranian people demonstrates that they are no longer afraid of the government. Having rightly branded the Iranian regime as part of the axis of evil, the U.S. government must now help the people in Iran achieve democracy and a secular state.
Throughout history, religion has proven incompatible with democracy. Religion cannot interfere with government, and ideological governments cannot be reformed. How can such a regime accept the rights of its own people, when some of those people are Christian and other faiths? The women of Iran, no matter how educated or intelligent, cannot become leaders under this regime.
Corruption is a problem among both hardliners and reformers in the Iranian government. While a prominent theocratic judge is caught selling girls to other Middle Eastern countries and then promoted, a prominent reformer is found creating shell companies on Mediterranean islands. In both cases, an oligarchic mafia plagues Iran.
With regard to the question of Iran's nuclear program, nuclear power is the right of every country, even if Iran has a great deal of oil and gas. Nuclear power provides an opportunity for Iran to join the modern world and engage with other countries in peaceful scientific exchange.
Marze Por Gohar Party
The overwhelming majority of people living in Iran do not want the government they have. Even the bodyguards of President Khatami go out into the street to protest. Mr. Khatami has repeatedly said that the Iranian regime must respect the rule of law, but the problem isn't respect for the law-it's the law itself. The problem is an Islamic constitution. Iran must find unity not in ideology or religion, but in its nationality. Nothing else can be representative of all the diverse peoples living in Iran.
International Alliance of Iranian Women
In Iran today, there are fifty million young people who, due to the Islamic republic, who do not have a future in front of them. The European countries, which have spoken constantly about the importance of human rights, have only followed their own financial interests in Iran. The regime in Tehran has signed agreements with the Europeans that would never be tolerated in a democracy. Consequently, European governments have done their best to keep the mullahs in power. The Iranian government is a dictatorship that has less to do with ideology than the pursuit of profit. The most effective course for the United States is to support the people of Iran and human rights there.