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Exiled Iranians hatch a plan of their own
By Safa Haeri

PARIS - With elections going ahead as scheduled on Friday, many eyes are on Iran, watching to see what will become of a nation embroiled in chaos following the Guardians Council's (GC) disqualification of more than 2,000 candidates, most of them reformists. But while many in Iran are still crying "foul" over the elections, another idea is emerging among dissidents - a national referendum - which has become the leitmotiv of the majority of Iranians opposed to the Islamic Republic.

According to Prince Reza Pahlavi - the son of the late Mohammad Reza Shah, the last monarch to rule over Iran before being toppled by the Islamic Revolution led by Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979 - under the rule of the ayatollahs, Iran has created a "brotherhood of terror which is the greatest threat to international peace and security".

"The strategic vacuum created by the Islamic Revolution in Iran drew the Soviets into Afghanistan the following year. To counter them, the West organized and trained the killers we now know as the Taliban. Similarly, the Iran-Iraq war brought the West to Saddam's support, fueling ambitions responsible for the current predicament. Iran itself became a convention center for the terrorist industry, a meeting place for those who fund, organize, lend logistics and scientific support, plan events and coordinate strategies against the free world. Add up all of the cost. This is a problem that must be solved," the 44-year-old exiled opposition leader told Asia Times Online during his recent visit to Paris.

Pahlavi, who lives in Washington DC where he leads his campaign, suggests "mass civil disobedience" as a solution to this problem, a method initiated by Mahatma Gandhi in India and copied by others in South Africa, former Soviet Union satellite states like Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, and in some Latin America countries. But he stated that he had "no other mission" than to help Iranians organize a national and free referendum on the future regime of Iran and called on all the personalities and organizations, groups and formations with any ideology to join the movement, assuring that he is not fighting to restore monarchy in Iran unless, after the referendum, Iranians chose this form of system.

"A constitutional monarchy where the king, or queen, reign, but not rule," he insists. "We are all in the same boat and we have to row in unison. In the past 25 years, we never had such a golden chance. It is up to all of us to take it and the international community will also help."

Other Iranian dissidents, such as Mohammad Mohsen Sazegara, a former Islamist revolutionary fighting the monarchy under the umbrella of Khomeini, and Bizhan Hekmat, a nationalist republican who also participated in the revolution as a leftist student - both "confessing" that they have been "wrong" in supporting the Islamic Revolution - also support the idea of civil disobedience, aimed at forcing the ruling ayatollahs to accept a national referendum on the constitution that, in their view, would allow Iran a peaceful change from the present theocracy to a parliamentary democracy where the state is separate from religion.

But Iran's Nationalist Republicans are more cautious, preferring changes in the present constitution, like limiting the unlimited powers of the Supreme Leader - Ayatollah Ali Khamenei - and his mandate to a complete change into full Western-type democracy, changes that are defended by the monarchists and the Iranians for Democracy, a party Sazegara and Dr Qasem Sholeh Sa'di, a former member of the majlis (parliament), are trying to launch officially.

"Iranian republicans are against the present system of Velayat-e Faqih [supreme religious jurisprudence] and instead, promote a secular, democratic regime based on the power of parliament. But at the same time, they rule out any covert or violent methods to achieve their aims," said Hekmat, who organized a recent meeting of the Iranian republicans in the German capital Berlin and brought up the suggestion of a referendum more than two years ago.

For 49-year-old Sazegara, the regime has been badly weakened, losing all its pillars in popular vote and support, religious legitimacy and revolutionary ideology, "exposing itself to a dangerous vacuum created and exacerbated by the absence of acceptable alternatives". It is this vacuum that Sazegara proposes to fill with colleagues supported by the bulk of students and teachers - the main opponents to the Islamic Republic - as well as some of the personalities belonging to the reformist movement of current lamed President Mohammad Khatami.

Looking back, it was Dr Sho'leh Sa'di, a comrade-in-arms with Sazegara who, more than a year ago, predicted the collapse of the "clan of official reformists" and a "sad end" for Khatami, now compared by some Iranians to sellout Judas, after he failed to support reformist lawmakers, including his younger brother Dr Mohammad Reza Khatami, disqualified by the GC, in their calls for postponement of the election, instead insisting that the polling must take place on February 20, thus weakening the ranks of the reformists.

"The bracket of reformism functioning as a buffer between the ruling despots and the people is closed and the president is doomed. Time for a referendum under international supervision is fast approaching and the most efficient, cheapest and democratic way to bring radical changes is peaceful civil disobedience, starting by boycotting the elections," Sazegara told Asia Times Online.

Calls for a boycott may not even be necessary, as the latest survey conducted by the Interior Ministry shows that at least 90 percent of the 46 million eligible voters, most of them aged between 16 and 25, would abstain from going to the polling stations.

"If the elections are held without vote rigging and frauds, it would become a referendum," said Hoseyn Loqmanian, an outspoken reformist deputy from the western city of Hamadan disqualified by the GC and the only lawmaker arrested briefly on charges of insulting the leader, an act that under the laws of the Islamic Republic is considered as a criminal offence.

Pahlavi's sentiments are similar, who said that "even perfect elections are meaningless for a parliament that does not have the right to make laws. This is a theocracy where daring to think free and decide your future is seen as the arrogance of the infidel. The obligation of the faithful is full obedience to those who reveal the law of god, those around the Faqih, or the Supreme Leader. This is not election, but a masquerade of selection." (Khatami, on the other hand, is urging Iranians to participate in the elections, warning a low voter turnout will only benefit the hardliners.)

Another common theme agreed on by the political opponents interviewed by Asia Times Online is that international pressures on the conservatives could bring closer the materialization of a referendum process, conceding, however, that the "approach" of the European Union, mostly Germany, France and Britain to the Iranian situation, only strengthens the position of the "monopolists".

"You have to choose between the 90 percent of the Iranians that reject this regime and the 10 percent that cling to power for their own personal interests. But don't forget that the day the Iranians free themselves from this regime, they will remember the governments that turned their back to them during the hard years they suffered," Pahlavi said. "If you are really for democracy, human rights and freedom in Iran, meeting and talking with the powerless President Khatami about the so-called dialogue of civilizations is not the best way," he observed, referring to the trip to Iran by Prince Charles of England and his meeting with Khatami.

Expressing his "confidence" that the Islamic Republic will "crumble" as did the Soviet Union, Pahlavi tells his fellow Iranians: "We also would be free. Later if the free world lends this regime credibility, sooner if it supports the people in establishing a new order based on the sovereignty of the people and fundamental human rights."

Meanwhile, Sazegara says that it is a fear of losing its power that motivates the GC: "Even the mild criticism voiced by some reformist lawmakers or reports and surveys carried by different commissions of the sixth majlis were too much [for the GC] to take, hence the disqualification of all the 'big mouths' of the incumbent parliament. While democracy, freedom and human rights have become a must for the Iranians, the ruling monopolists can not cope with these internationalized concepts."

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Feb 20, 2004

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Iran's lamed leader and powerless president (Feb 10, '04)


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