On May 25, 2009, something very rare in Iranian history occurred. A coalition composed of grassroots pro-democracy political forces in Iran was formed. There is little doubt that the fundamentalist regime ruling Iran has lost its legitimacy. There is also little doubt that no opposition organization could on its own establish democracy and human rights in Iran.
The desperate need for a broad-based coalition has animated Iranian political activists for some time. Outside Iran, there have been several attempts to bring together groups and individuals to form a powerful opposition organization with little success. However, actual coalitions of forces have been very rare in Iranian history.
There have been only a handful of coalitions in the past 100 years: the constitutional revolution of 1905, the Iran National Front 1949-1953, and the 1977-1979 revolution.
Between 1905 and 1911, a powerful informal coalition emerged which included liberal and modernist intellectuals, merchants, and a large number of Shia clerics. This coalition opposed the absolutist monarchy and succeeded in making a constitutional revolution, writing a constitution and defending it.
In 1949, many groups and individual created a formal coalition under the leadership of Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh. This coalition was called the Iran National Front. This coalition demanded free and democratic elections, wanted to nationalize Iranian oil from British control, and struggled to compel the king to abide by the 1906 Constitution. This coalition succeeded until it was overthrown by the CIA-engineered coup in August 1953.
In 1977-1979 period, an informal coalition emerged that opposed the Shah. This included communists on the far left, Islamic fundamentalists on the far reactionary right, as well as secular liberal democrats and moderate Islamist forces in the middle. After the overthrow of the Shah, Khomeini succeeded in eliminating all the others and monopolizing all power in the hands of the ultra right wing reactionary fundamentalists.
Various attempts to bring together various members of the opposition and civil society have failed so far.
The announcement of the formation of the “Solidarity for Democracy and Human Rights in Iran” is, therefore, a most welcomed development for those hoping for the establishment of freedom, democracy and human rights in Iran. For the first time, this coalition brings together many pro-democracy groups, labor union activists, human rights activists, women’s rights activists, university student activists, prominent moderate Muslim activists, intellectuals, and political prisoners. In the next month or two, it will become clear whether or not this effort will succeed.
The formation of the Solidarity for Democracy and Human Rights in Iran (SDHRI) is a major achievement. Merely forming such a coalition is a great step forward. Iranian political culture includes excessive individualism, self-centeredness, divisiveness, inability to cooperate with others in a political environment, and excessive suspiciousness of others.
Another major achievement of this coalition is that it includes diverse groups and individuals. The coalition includes the Iran National Front (INF), which has been the main pro-democracy organization in Iran since its founding by Dr. Mossadegh in 1949. The INF leadership has historically tended to be extremely cautious and has avoided adventurism and hasty action. With the collapse of the ideologies of communism and Islamic fundamentalism in Iran, democracy and freedom have emerged as the dominant ethos of large sectors of the population. Today, the INF, as the embodiment of Iranian liberal democracy, and Mossadegh, as the embodiment of Iranian nationalism, enjoy legitimacy unparalleled in Iranian society. The dominant criticism of the INF leadership has been its lack of willingness to take responsibility and chart a path out of the terribly perilous conditions endangering Iran today.
This coalition also includes Dr. Mohammad Maleki, who is one of the most respected moderate Islamic political leaders in Iran. He was the first president of the University of Tehran after the revolution, who spent many years in prison for his defense of freedom in the early days of the revolution.
This coalition also includes the Democratic Front of Iran (DFI). The DFI is led by Hashmatollah Tabarzadi. Mr. Tabarzadi was a prominent fundamentalist student in the immediate years after the revolution (1979-1996) and is an engineer by education. Tabarzadi became disillusioned with fundamentalism and became a democrat sometimes in the late 1990s. His group comprises many former fundamentalists whose age ranges between 20s and early 50s. They engage in direct action protests. Tabarzadi has spent many years in prison for his political activities. The DFI has had active student groups on many campuses.
For the first time in contemporary Iranian politics, we have labor union leaders join a political group. This development is highly significant for the success of the pro-democracy project in Iran. There are prominent labor union leaders from two of the most active labor syndicates in Iran: the “Haft Tapeh Sugar Workers Syndicate” and “Vahed Bus Drivers Syndicate.”
The coalition also includes the major secular university students groups: United Students Front; Association of Liberal and Nationalist University Students; student organization of the INF; and the student organization of the DFI.. Most university students in Iran are very secular and democratic, but they are not willing to get involved in politics because they would be expelled from the university and lose the possibility of getting many jobs. The extremely brave secular students represent the wishes of the vast majority. Many of these brave students have been put in prison and terribly tortured. Several have died in prison under mysterious circumstances. The most famous of this group is the late Akbar Mohammadi who died in prison due to sever torture, lack of medical treatment, and hunger strike.
This coalition also includes some of Iran’s prominent human rights attorneys, intellectuals, human rights activists, regional ethnic-based groups as well as smaller parties such as the Democratic Party of Iran, and United for Democracy.
This move at this juncture is significant because due to the election on June 12, the regime would not want to make mass arrests. A massive crack down on the most prominent pro-democracy and civil society activists at this time would greatly undermine Ahmadinejad and the hard-liners. The reduction of repression in the three weeks prior to the election provides the group a window to organize. Once the coalition has been around for a few weeks and not repressed, it would make it harder for the regime to all-of-the-sudden arrest them on June 13.
The groups and individuals in the SDHRI do not support the reformist members of the ruling fundamentalist oligarchy. A massive attack on the SDHRI might change the decision of SDHRI leaders and their supporters who may decide to vote against Ahmadinejad to punish him. There appears to be great apathy among the population for this election. Iranian electorate in known to suddenly change due to an emotional issue. The hard-liners fear that a massive repression at this particular juncture might cause a huge backlash against hard-liners that would cause the people to decide to participate in the election and vote for the reformist members of the fundamentalist oligarchy.
If Ahmadinejad wins the election, then many supporters of Ayatollah Mehdi Karrubi and Mir Hussein Moussavi (the two reformist candidates) may become very disappointed. Many will move away from the reformist members and groups within the ruling fundamentalist oligarchy. For example, the main student group affiliated with the regime is called Daftar Tahkim Vahdat, which has been moving away from the fundamentalist regime and getting closer and closer to the democratic opposition. A win for Ahmadinejad may push many of its members or even the entire group into the SDHRI.
There is also a huge grassroots women’s movement called One Million Signature Campaign. Many leaders and activists of the OMSC have been imprisoned and badly mistreated. In all likelihood, the second Ahmadinejad administration would witness a more violent repression of this movement. On May 1, 2009, OMSC activists joined the workers for the International Workers’ Day celebrations. This was the first time in recent memory that women’s rights activists joined the labor activists. The OMSC could join the SDHRI not only because they both share a solid commitment to gender equality but also to solidify support with other democratic civil society groups. Such a development would immeasurably increase the likelihood of the success for SDHRI. This alliance would also provide a real defense for OMSC in the expected repression during the second Ahmadinejad government.
The economic situation in Iran is extremely bad and deteriorating. The official inflation rate stands at 25% and the official unemployment rate at 12%. The real numbers are probably much higher. There have been increased political, social and cultural repression in the past few years. If the regime does not massively increase repression, the SDHRI would gain more and more support, a prospect that would end in the downfall of the fundamentalist regime. But if the regime immediately and massively increases repression, then that action might trigger mass riots.
One of the main reasons that the regime’s repression has worked in the past has been the lack of unity and coordination among various civil society groups (workers, women, students, human rights activists, pro-democracy groups). The SDHRI breaks that deadlock. The regime has been able to confront and easily repress workers. The regime also could easily represse women’s marches and activities. However, if there are simultaneous protests, then the regime would have great difficulties in repressing all of them at the same time.
The regime would probably not tolerate the SDHRI for more than a month or two. If the SDHRI collapsed due to internal bickering, then the regime will simply sit back and benefit. But if the coalition remained united, then the regime would attempt to infiltrate it and divide it. If that method did not work, then the regime would probably use massive repression against them. This might cause protests and riots by workers, students, women, and others. The more support the Iranian people give to SDHRI, the higher the likelihood of a peaceful transition to democracy in Iran.
The prospects of democracy in Iran depends in large parts to the wisdom of the leaders and activists in this wonderful pro-democracy coalition. It also depends on the willingness of the Iranian people to decide that freedom and democracy are worth sacrifice. The continuation of dictatorship and repression in Iran depends not only on the decisions of the fundamentalist dictators, but also on the decisions of the opposition leaders and the people of Iran. Lets hope that after over 100 years of the struggles for freedom and democracy, this time the Iranian people succeed.
Masoud Kazemzadeh is associate professor of political science at Sam Houston State University.