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Commentary

Disturbing opportunism
Change in Iran ought to flourish without external threats of violence and invasion

By Behrooz Ghamari
May 27, 2003
The Iranian

Recently, two statements on the necessity and urgency of fundamental political change in Iran have been distributed via the internet. The first is authored by a group called The International Committee for A Transition to Democracy in Iran (CITDI, the acronym for its French title). More than 200 Iranian scholars, political pundits, and activists signed a second statement called "For the Unity of Iranian Republicans".

CITDI's membership includes an impressive list of celebrated left-leaning intellectuals, scientists, and artists, such as Samir Amin, Noam Chomsky, Costa Gavras, Edward Said, Immanuel Wallerstein, Harold Pinter, etc.

The core agenda of both statements is a call for a general referendum in Iran with the intention of founding a "secular parliamentarian republic" based on respect for "the principles and values enunciated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights," and its other ensuing democratic proclivities.

In its statement, CITDI asserts that the bottomless appetite of Washington hawks for expanding their control over the vast resources of the region has made the need for change in Iran an urgent necessity. They argue that "in order to avoid a further extension of the disastrous conflicts in the region," all democratic forces in the world ought to be mobilized and lend their support to their Iranian counterparts to bring about a "preemptive peace."

This objective is realizable "through bringing pressure to bear on the clericrats in power in order to compel them to yield to the will of the people who demand a referendum for the establishment of a secular and democratic republic."

The Manifesto of Iranian Republicans also emphasizes the "dead-end of reform" in Iran. The Manifesto stresses that the Islamic Republic's continuing anti-democratic policies has undermined Iranian national interests in the world community and it warns, in an implicit reference to Washington hawks, that these policies have now endangered the sovereignty of the nation and its territorial integrity.

I have no objection to the basic premise of these statements; the Iranian political infrastructure should undergo a fundamental transformation. Also, as colleagues, friends, and contributors to social thought and defenders of the just and the good, I have tremendous respect for many of the signatories of both statements.

However, what compels me to write these lines is the disturbing opportunism which lies in between the lines of their statements. Warning the Iranian regime to submit to the will of the Iranian people or be subjected to the wrath of Washington hawks is inadvertently playing the good cop to the threats of American administration bullies.

Although democratic reform in Iran is a legitimate demand, coupling it with the threat of a war of invasion strikes me as a Left opportunistically riding the wave of American imperialism. Such a position would neither bring about genuine change in Iran, nor would it contain American expansionist ambitions. Worse than stalled reform in Iran would be change induced by the peril of foreign invasion.

The "reform movement" in Iran was the result of the simultaneous expansion of the institutions of civil society and the emergence of a new polity from within the Islamic Republic, inspired by and with the support of a new Muslim intelligentsia. This movement is indeed far from a homogeneous effort for political and social change in Iran.

However, all participants of this movement share a desire to resolve the inherent contradictions in the sources of legitimacy of the state both in the Iranian constitution and in the realpolitik of the regime. The significance of this multifaceted movement, mostly known for its remarkable and unprecedented intellectual production, is in its transformative rather than abolitionist impulse. Let me clarify what I mean.

The Manifesto of Iranian Republicans starts with this passage: "After a century of struggle for transition from autocracy to democracy and from tradition to modernity, our people are at the thresholds of a new movement for the realization of their lasting aspirations."

Iranian intellectuals have primarily been influenced by the French tradition of Jacobinist social change which tends to thrive more on rupture and abolishment than continuity and transformation. Anything old is suspect and ought to be dismantled, thus the bifurcation of "tradition and modernity."

This dichotomous way of thinking conceives modernity and all its foundational principles (i.e. secularism, democracy, human rights, individualism, etc.) in contradistinction with tradition (i.e. superstition, religion, despotism, patriarchy, etc.).

In the last one hundred years Iranian intellectuals have been vacillating between the defending modernity as an imported commodity and cherishing tradition as a vehicle to fend off the invasion of the modern.

For the first time in Iranian history, the reform movement in Iran has transformed the dichotomy of "tradition versus modernity" into the tradition of modernity. Rather than conceptualizing tradition and modernity in mutually exclusive categories, for the new reform movement in Iran the modern emerges from the re-articulation of the traditional.

This movement needs to pave a long and arduous path. A sustainable change in Iran requires a bottom-up development of civil society, a meaningful intellectual engagement with the defenders and interpreters of Iranian traditions, and an organized effort for political and legal reform to ensure unrestricted expansion of the first two elements of change.

The expectation that President Khatami or the current reform-minded parliament will change the political apparatus of the Islamic Republic in any fundamental way is misleading and unproductive. It is only based on this mistaken expectation that the authors of the Manifesto of Iranian Republicans and many others inside Iran stress the dead-end of Iranian political reform. The reform movement was neither the brainchild of the President and his fellow 2nd of Khordad companions, nor will it reach its end with their demise.

It is the responsibility of Iranian intellectuals and other supporters of democratic movements in Iran to allow these movements to flourish on their own terms. Using the threats of American messianic hawks as a leverage to force a referendum or any fundamental change in Iran is detrimental to democratic processes not only in Iran, but also in the United States and around the world.

I believe it is the responsibility of all those signatories of CITDI and the Manifesto to de-legitimize and expose the real intentions of Bush administration and bring democratic processes back to the U.S.

The CITDI press communiqué warned the Islamic Republic that if they fail to act now, "it would be very difficult to avoid the outbreak of a civil war in Iran, whose consequences would be as devastating as incalculable."

I find it offensive that in the face of flagrant American warmongering, members of CITDI put the responsibility of war or peace in the region squarely on the shoulders of the Iranian regime.

Change should and will happen in Iran, but this process ought to flourish without external threats of violence and invasion. Nobody should use the power of the American Empire to blackmail another country for social, political, and economic change, no matter how legitimate those changes might be.

Socially conscious intellectuals need to check the imperialist ambitions for U.S. expansionism from within the United States. Threats alluded to in the CITDI documents will not bring about lasting changes in Iran, their exploitation by the respected members of CITDI and Iranian Republicans can only be detrimental to the cause they are advocating.


The real threat to peace in the region and around the world is the Bush Administration. The threat of violence and war has never produced a lasting peace. As the experience of the last two years (since President Bush's infamous axis of evil speech at the State of the Union address) pointing American guns at the Iranian regime strengthens undemocratic tendencies in Iran and pushes the country defensively towards the erection of a national security apparatus.

In order to assist reform in Iran, every democratically-inclined person's responsibility is to deny the Iranian regime the opportunity to suspend civil and political liberties as a result of the American threat. Regime change starts at home, our home is here in America, let's get on with it.

Author

Behrooz Ghamari is Assistant Professor of Sociological Theory, Social Movements
and Conflict, Sociology of Religion, and Globalization at Georgia State University's Department of Sociology.

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