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Who to talk to
How should the US reach out to the Iranian people?


Aptil 6, 2006

Sa'di, the well-known 14th-century Persian poet and moralist, narrates the story of a benefactor who made a wish and vowed to donate 400 derhams to the ascetics if it came true. When his wish was fulfilled, he sent a servant to town with a pouch full of money and asked him to distribute them amongst the ascetics. In the evening, the servant returned with the money untouched. "Why didn't you give away the money?" the benefactor asked. "Sir, those who were ascetics refused the offer," the servant replied, "and those who were willing to accept the offer were not ascetics."

The news that the Bush administration is allocating a budget to help the "democratic" forces in Iran has created a stir amongst the Iranian opposition. Many regard any help form a great power, whose financial largess in the past has been used to either overthrow the democratic government of Dr. Mossaddeq in the fifties or make clandestine deals with the mullahs in the eighties, with great suspicions. In the eyes of many Iranians, accepting financial help from foreign powers, and in particular the United States, amounts to nothing less than treason. Iranian web sites are full of accusations and counter-accusations that this or that particular group/person is benefiting from the allocated budget. A group of well-known Iranian political activists and intellectuals have just issued a statement declaring "The independent Iranian opposition deems it indecent and politically immoral to accept any aid (financial or otherwise) from the United States or any other government and condemns such aid as a clear insult to the Iranian people" while calling the donors (USA) "the merchants of oil and blood". The message is clear: independent Iranian opposition would not touch such a fund, and those who do, are by definition not indpendent (they are stooges of the Unites States and unpatriotic/traitors).

The American government may be sincere in its desire to help genuine Iranian democratic forces in their struggle agaisnt the religious dictatorhsip in Iran, but may find it difficult to reach them. Those queing at the newly expanded Iran desk at the State Department could make all the right noises to impress the officials with their credentials, but they would hardly strike a cord with the Iranian people within Iran or without. Assuming the administration's good intentions, it will face the dilemma of the Sa'di's benefacor: independent democrats will shy away from applying for the fund, while those willing to receive it will have a hard time explaining themselves to the Iranian people. Indeed, if the whole purpose of the fund is to encourage the deeply divided Iranian democratic forces to come together and form a united front against the Iranian regime, it may have a reverse effect. 

The administration clearly intends to reach to the Iranian people, and doesn't recognise the current Iranian regime as their representative. So it looks to the political leaders amongst the opposition. But the opposition groups are fragmented, and most of them view the American support with suspicion. It is of course possible to coerce them into a coalition in the style of Iraqi assembly (before invasion of Iraq), but that won't be a true representation of the opposition, let alone of the Iranian people. 

So what's the solution? A proposal which is being discussed in some circles of the Iranian intellectuals may offer a way out of this dilemma: formation of a Parliament of the Iranians in Exile, directly elected by Iranians outside Iran.

This body, if formed, will be a representative institution rather than a leadership entity. It, like any other elected body, will have the authority and the mandate to speak on behalf of all Iranians abroad. It will certainly be dominated by opposition forces (knowing the demographic mix of Iranians abroad) but may also include individuals sympathetic to the Iranian regime (proportional to their influence outside Iran). All in all, it will be a representative body like any other with factions and groupings inside it, and which can make binding decisions arrived at democratically on a majority vote. And in the absence of the possibility of free election inside Iran, it can claim more authority than any other institution or body to represent the interests of the Iranian people as a whole.

However, creating such a body is a major task, both financially and operationally. The number of expatriate Iranians run into millions and they are scattered around the globe. Fund to organise this election, substantial both for the election and for its running costs, will be hard to source amongst Iranians themselves. Moreover, international de facto recognition of such a body is a prerequisite for its raison d'etre.  It is only with international support, both financially and morally, that such a body can be formed and for it to have an effective function. 

The benefits of such a body are substantial. It will be a first experience of a free election for Iranian diaspora, most of whom have left their homeland as a result of being denied such basic freedoms. The demographic mix of the electorate will make it a modern-liberal institution ˆ unlike elections held in Afghanistan, Iraq or Palestine. It would most certainly be a source of aspiration (mixed with envy) for Iranians back home and a boost for their desire for democracy. It will create a single authority to speak on behalf of all Iranians abroad and, by default, will unite the Iranian opposition and put an end to their never-ending feuds. It will also relieve the headaches of the international community about who to talk to when dealing with the Iranian opposition. And finally, it may be the right home for funds allocated for democratic forces when touching such funds by any (un-elected) political grouping would discredit the receiver. 

Use the money not to divide the opposition but to unite them through the ballot box!

Hossein Bagher Zadeh is a human rights activist and commentator on Iranian political and human rights issues. He is a spokesperson for Manshoor 81 (Charter 2003). His weekly column on Iranian affairs (in Persian) appears in Iran Emrooz and Iranian publications. He lives in England.

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