Iran's Secular Revolution
By Assad Homayoun
(Journal of the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs) Volume 5
Iran's first national experiment with modernity was the constitutional
revolution of 1906. The Iranian experimentations of the past one hundred
years symbolize the deep divide between the two paradigms of modernity
and the traditions of the distant past. In the intervening years, Iran
was the only nation in history that underwent a religious revolution as
yet another experiment with modernity. Above all, the Islamic Revolution
of 1979 was a costly experiment in embracing the distant past and in the
total denial of progress and modernity.
In this article, Dr. Assad Homayoun, a prominent opposition leader,
discusses the failure of the Islamic government and emergence of the secular
movement as the last chapter in a long experimentation toward institutionalizing
modernity in Iran and its regional consequences. Just as the Islamic revolution
started the domino effect of spreading fundamentalism throughout the region,
Iran's secular movement may be the beginning of a process toward the region's
inevitable historical destiny: modernity, and the respect for a free and
thinking human being.
The political forces in Iran are now divided into three distinct groups.
Two of these are established political camps within the framework of the
Islamic government, and one is an emerging political force outside of the
government but with enormous potential. All three have been facing off
and competing fiercely in the political arena in the past few years. The
first camp consists of the fundamentalist (mostly) clerical ruling clique,
which has shown every indication that it is intent on clinging to power
at any cost. The second camp consists of the religiously inclined reformists
who would like to bring about some limited reforms in order to moderate
the rule of the Islamic Republic and make it more acceptable to the people,
in the hope of prolonging its survival. The third is the emerging coalition
of secular, liberal nationalist forces that believe in the clear separation
of religion and state and that espouse democratic ideals.
Very soon after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, many Iranians came to
recognize the self-serving nature of the then emerging autocratic religious
clique and society and the dangers it posed to the well being of the people
and the prosperity even the survival of the country. From those very
early days, many individuals as well as groups have opposed, resisted and
struggled albeit thus far unsuccessfully against the regime. In the past
four years, passive opposition as well as active political struggle against
the clerical regime has intensified both within Iran, mostly spearheaded
by the youth and abroad by Iranians living overseas. The Iranian people
have made every effort to bring about change through the ballot box.
In general, they are still hopeful that they can effect change through
peaceful means. The bulk of the opposition that is not affiliated with
any political group call them the Third or Secular Force - has emerged
as the possible savior of the nation.
Lacking leadership, to shape it into an effective political movement,
the Third Force initially coalesced around the reformists. This resulted
in the election, against all odds, of Mr. Khatami to the presidency three
years ago. Mr. Khatami a political unknown who had pledged to respect the
limited freedoms guaranteed under the Islamic constitution, was thrust
perhaps unknowingly into the midst of the reformist movement. Mr. Khatami
had promised a return to the rule of law, and this enough for the third
Force and, indeed, the majority of the Iranian electorate to give him
their full support. Even though the people had no part in the nomination
process, they were wiling to take their chances with a seemingly moderate
candidate in order to win incremental steps toward the re-establishment
of a civil society.
During his three years in office, Mr. Khatami has not been able to deliver
on his promise. He has also failed to implement economic reforms and to
liberalize political participation. The exception for a while was the press.
For a few months, the print media's shackles were removed, and it flowered.
However, that too was short lived.
The highlights of Mr. Khatami's tenure in office can be summarized as
follows: a deepening of the economic crisis; a marked increase in political
assassinations; persecution and imprisonment of religious minorities; cruel
and bloody suppression of student demonstrators demanding freedom and democracy;
mass arrests of reporters and publishers; and the closing down of 25 opposition
newspapers. During this time, tension and competition between the "fundamentalist"
camp and the "reformist" camp reached a new high. In retrospect,
this was more a tactical power struggle than a strategic showdown. When
the peaceful student demonstrations, first at Tehran University and later
at Tabriz University, were brutally and. bloodily suppressed in the summer
of 1999, Aft Khatami sided with the rest of the reactionary fundamentalists
in denouncing and denigrating the student movement. It is important to
note that one of the main reasons for the demonstrations was to support
the ideals that Mr. Khatami had publicly espoused and had promised to deliver
on. The Third Forcedisheartened, leaderless, without direction, but resolute
in believing that it could affect change through peaceful means-chose to
support reformists and Mr. Khatami's allies. Thus, in the parliamentary
elections in February and April 2000, the Third Force again threw its support
to the religious reformists, resulting in their overwhelming victory for
the first time.
The reaction of the regime was expected. It tried in vain to get Mr.
Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former archconservative president, elected to head
the Parliament. The regime attempted to nullify the election results. A
leading "reformist" strategist was shot and incapacitated, and
many opposition newspapers were closed.
The Sixth Islamic Majles (Parliament) was inaugurated at the end of
May 2000, with the reformists holding a majority of the seats, but few
believe it can bring about any meaningful change. Absolute power rests
with Valie-Faquih, the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. He has been
anointed by God to interpret the religion. At his command are all the armed
forces and the security forces. At his disposal are vast financial and
economic resources, which are outside the control of the government. He
controls the judiciary as well as the legislature. Therefore, the impotence
of the Sixth Majles is obvious.
The first hurdle is the veto power of the omnipotent Guardian Council.
No legislation can be contrary to its interpretation of Islamic laws-that
is, contrary to the self-interest of the mullahs in power.
The second problem is one of implementation. Who in government would
have the power or the incentive to implement reform legislation? This is
the reality in Iran at present. Hope and despair dogs every move of the
opposition. In summary, there are now three forces facing off in Iran.
First, the ruling religious force headed by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. This
group is very intransigent. It will not accept or implement any reforms.
Nor will it compromise. It has actually developed into a cult or a sub-sect
within Shiite Islam. This group believes that the tenets of Islam are paramount.
Furthermore, it affirms that the Supreme Leader is chosen by God as the
guardian of the people and has the sole right to interpret the tenets of
Islam. They place the Supreme Leader, and thereby his political camp, above
the Islamic Constitution. Therefore, they contribute to and benefit from
arbitrary interpretation of the constitutional laws. In so doing, they
perpetuate the lawlessness of the present Iranian society.
The second group should be defined as the religious reformists headed
by President Khatami who would like to bring about the rule of Islamic
constitutional law as well as the implementation of some personal freedoms
within an Islamic society. They hope, to some extent, to liberalize the
system and humanize the society in order to ultimately preserve the Islamic
Republic and theocratic system. The religious reformists have come to accept
the fact that the Islamic regime has lost credibility both in Iran and
abroad. The religious reformists realize that unless Iran emerges from
its present political and economic isolation, it will not gain the legitimacy
to which the Iranian people rightfully aspire. Of course, there are those
among the religious reformists who believe in more than superficial reforms.
In all likelihood, there are also those who believe in secularism. However,
their members are few among the elected representatives to the Sixth Majles,
and they generally tend not to cross the line when they get to it, lest
they share the same fate as Mr. Hajarian, the reporter who joined the religious
reformist camp and later was shot. This is one of the reasons that the
regime has been much more lenient with the religious reformists so far.
The greater majority of those assassinated have been nationalists espousing
secular ideals who dared to cross the line.
The third political group in Iran-the Third or the Secular Force-has
been growing and is gaining momentum. The youth, women, students, and the
silent majority (which is showing signs of restiveness) constitute this
getup. This movement has no ideology. Their main binding factor ' is a
vision of an inclusive democratic society for all Iranians irrespective
of their religion or political belief within the tenets of a liberal national
patriotism. There is a deep awareness of the Iranian identity-that is,
Iranian history and culture-and an unswerving belief in the separation
of religion and government. Their motto is: "Iran for all Iranians."
They have resolved to send the mullahs back to the mosques so that a legitimate
system of government based on democratic ideals can be established.
The effects of this movement will be felt not in the distant future
but in the near future in Iran. It has already spread its roots within
the armed forces and the security forces, including even the Revolutionary
Guards and the Basiji, the trusted guards of the Ayatollah.
The Third Force has already unsettled the regime. All hopes are that
this Force will be successful in forcing-the regime from power The majority
of the Iranian people represented by the Third Force have come to believe
that as long as power is wielded by the clerics under Velayate Faquih,
the Supreme Islamic Leaded there will be no change in the domestic or the
foreign policy of Iran. This majority believes: that the only solution
is the establishment of a secular, democratic, and liberal nationalist
government; that the struggle must continue until this goal is achieved;
and that change should be brought about, preferably, through peaceful means
and without recourse to violence.
Indeed, the Iranian people are thoroughly dissatisfied with the clerical
regime. They wish to end the present reign of terror at any cost. Through
patience, perseverance, and the support of the free world, they still hope
to achieve this through non-violent means. If the ruling clerics do not
succumb to the will of the people, another revolution will be inevitable.
The supporters of the Third Force believe that by now the world should
have come to recognize the evil nature of this clerical regime. The U.S.
Congress, the. Clinton Administration, and the free press of the world
should open their eyes to the obvious facts and realize that the nature
of this regime will not change or moderate with time. It would be against
its own ideals if this regime disavowed its support for and policies related
to domestic and international terrorism. The fact is that the moderates
of this regime are the Rafsanjanis of the regime whose hands are drenched
in the blood of Iranians, Americans, Israelis, Arabs, and Argentineans.
There are of course those who believe gradual, incremental change is
not only possible but recommended for the Iranian malaise. By and large,
they are either supporters or members of the religious reformist camp.
These are the new age apologists for the Islamic Republic. They believe
they can make a better "Islamic Republic" than the present clerics.
These new age apologists may not wear turbans, but they wax philosophically
about the high ideals and the democratic and egalitarian nature of the
Islamic Republic. Alas, they fail to see the contradictions in thought
and word. They may have studied history, but have not acquired anything
from it. They have lived in the twentieth century but have been myopic
to the speed and scope of change among nations. They are to some degree
familiar with the new world that is changing with high speed due to new
technology but have not realized that the global concept of time has been
affected by these changes. Their concept of reform, change, and time is
very similar to that of the fundamentalists-and therein lies their dilemma.
Most Iranians believe that the continued existence of the Islamic regime
is a gradual death sentence for Iran as well as a real threat to the stability
of the region. The Iranian people are aware that the continuation of the
present state of affairs is not only harmful to the economy, culture, history,
and the well being of the people but is also a genuine threat to the territorial
integrity of Iran as well.
The greatest tragedy is that the biggest losers in Iran are the youth.
They see no future because there is little future for them in the Islamic
Republic. To them the regime is like a festering growth on the body politic
that, if not removed, will cause the demise of the nation.
Presently in Iran, the youth, particularly the students, are the spokespersons
of this secular movement and have the support of the people, including
most of the four million Iranians living abroad. What this movement needs
is organization, consolidation, and, most importantly, leadership. It needs
a leadership capable of handling the responsibilities and willing to take
the inherent risks. There are, without a doubt, Iranians-men and women-both
inside and outside Iran, capable enough to assume this leadership. It is
paramount to acknowledge that without leadership there can be no effective
organization or direction and, therefore, very little possibility of success.
The Third Force is becoming stronger every day, due to, among other
things, the technological revolution of this Age of Information. It is
demanding an end to the self-serving, corrupt, incompetent mullahs who
have managed to turn a once wealthy, prosperous Iran into a pauper state
within a very short period of time. The Third Force is demanding the establishment
of a government that will consider all Iranians equal, regardless of their
religion or political beliefs-a government in which they would have a voice
in determining their own future.
In the twenty-first century, the Middle East has continued to be the
political center of gravity and the powder keg of the world. Presently,
it stretches from the Paris in the East to the Mediterranean in the West
and from the Urals in the North to the Horn of Africa in the South. Its
strategic importance has not diminished: it is still and will be a major
source of the world's-energy resources, for both oil and gas; it is the
center of the largest arms race in the world at present; and it has some
of the world's most complex and seemingly intractable ethnic problems and
conflicts, even though it is the birthplace of three of the world's four
Predictably, the Middle East may be the arena for the next round of
Russo-Sino-American conflict. Iran is situated strategically in the Middle
East. It shares borders with 15 countries of the region. Because of Iran's
geographical position as the link between the Caspian Sea and the Persian
Gulf and because of its natural resources (which include its large, well
educated population as well as its strong cultural heritage), it can play
a very constructive or a very destructive role. In the past 50 years, it
has played both roles very well.
It is time for the world's free press to heed the call of the Iranian
people. The free press of the world should finally acknowledge the existence
of the Third Force, which it has refused to even cover in news stories,
much less support through editorials' Public recognition adds political
force. The same is true for the national governments of the world. The
Iranian people need not financial or covert assistance but rather the unconditional
moral and political support of the world democratic community-particularly
that of the American people and the United States government-to face down
the fundamentalist, terrorist-nurturing regime presently ruling Iran. What
the Secular Force needs is legitimization through recognition. Both the
press and the nations of the world now persist in ignoring the opposition
to the government put forth by the Secular Force and portray President
Khatami and religious reformists as the only source of change for Iran.
Indeed, even the German Minister of Foreign Affairs, Joschka Fischer, went
so far as to say that President Khatami is "the only hope" for
Iran. Much in contrast to Mr. Fischer's assertion, the only solution fox
Iran is the replacement of the present corrupt, reactionary, sectarian
system with a secular government that resolves to safeguard the rights
of all the Iranian Citizens and devoted to domestic development and international
cooperation. Iran needs stability and freedom to develop, and a stable
Iran is crucial to the stability of the Middle East and the Middle East
to the world.
The peace dividend for Iran will mean prosperity, and the economic benefits
for the West will be far greater than the present-day trade in armaments.
1. There is one exception. In 1999, after three to five thousand people
called the Los Angeles Times to complain about its not reporting on a massive
protest by Iranians at the federal building in downtown Los Angeles, the
newspaper regretted its lack of coverage in its leading paper editorial.
Only then did it begin to cover the activities of the Third Force in Iran.
The New York Times, on the other hand, is still silent on the issue of
the Third Force.
A Fellow at the International Strategic Studies Association in Washington,
D.C. Dr. Homayoun is the president of the Azadegan Foundation, a non-profit
organization dedicated to the cause of freedom in Iran