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The end of constructive engagement
... and the Challenges of the Iranian Democracy Movement

October 20, 2003
The Iranian

Keynote speech at conference in Washington DC organized by Action for Democracy in Iran and the American University on October 18. Details here.

In recent years the world has become focused sharply on Iran in three distinct yet related areas:

1- The regime's pursuit of weapons of mass destruction,

2- The regime's support for terrorism in general, and for Islamic fundamentalist groups in the Middle East, and

3- Human rights violations.

As events unfold in the continuing struggle of women and youth against tyranny and government-sanctioned acts of violence, the Iranian public has shown its disillusionment with the reformist camp of President Khatami by boycotting the last municipal elections. There is no reason to believe that the next elections, to be held in 4 months, will be any more welcome.

The hardliners are poised to ensure that only supporters of the spiritual leader Khamenei are elected. Meanwhile, the genuine democratic movement in the country is gathering momentum, despite the mass imprisonment and routine torture of the brightest and bravest of the youth movement. The political, cultural, and ethical failure of the revolution in Iran has drastically contributed to the already cynical masses' loss of faith in political leadership. This cynicism is further aggravated by two factors:

1- The regime's hold on power by means of naked aggression, and

2- The total control of the mass media facilitated by unaccounted petro-dollars.

The widespread use of terror and repression by the Islamic Republic has resulted in the death, imprisonment, and exile of many human rights activists, political advocates and civic leaders. The deprivation of individual liberties and social freedom continues.

Even though Iranians have only enjoyed brief periods of freedom and democracy between the 1906 Constitutional Revolution and the 1979 revolution, they have never before experienced such oppression and terror as they have faced since the fall of Monarchy. Claiming divine representation, the officials of the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) have abolished all personal and individual rights. While previous Iranian dictatorial regimes, at least in words, pretended to be nationalistic and pluralistic, the Islamic regime ruling Iran today rejects both sentiments in words and in practice.

Despite the professed disdain of various sections of the Iranian public for the regime, and despite the consensus on the need for a viable democratic alternative to the present theocracy, these have not yet triggered the formation of a democratic alternative.

In this atmosphere of unrest, on the one side, and repression, on the other, what is missing is a clear and genuine resolve on the part of the modern world to side with and unanimously support the peaceful and democratic aspirations of this movement -- the youth and the women who openly undermine the regime on a daily basis.

The United States and Europe have long gone their separate ways on Iran. Washington has rightly, in my view, advocated a combination of rigid containment and sanctions, while Europe favored "constructive engagement".

For Americans, maintaining the sanctions regime has proven all but impossible, because European companies defied Washington's efforts to prevent them from investing and operating in the country. It is entirely plausible that Congress should at some point initiate sanctions against Europe for its companies' violations of the 1996 Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, known as ILSA. Because while Congress renewed ILSA for another five years in July 2001, the EU adopted a statute making it illegal for European companies to comply with ILSA.

The events of September 2001 and the ensuing battle against terrorism have further complicated the political environment in the Middle East, causing more clashes of interests across the Atlantic, with terrorists and governments supporting terrorism such as the Islamic Republic of Iran taking full advantage of the cross-Atlantic rift.

But for Iranians who have endured 25 years of cruelty in the name of religion, domestic oppression is the other side of the coin of international terrorism. Perhaps this is why the Iranians are now looking to Washington for reassuring signs that their democratic aspirations will not become the sacrificial lamb at the European feast of "constructive engagement".

In the current fight against terrorism, Tehran's ruse in switching from fomenting international terrorism to escalating domestic violence and oppression must be highlighted, and cannot be allowed to go unsanctioned by the international community in general, but even more importantly, by Europe. In conclusion:

President Bush and his spokespersons have said time and again that they do not recognize a handful of un-elected officials of the Islamic Republic as the legitimate representatives of the Iranian people. The president has said, at least on one occasion, that he recognizes no Iranian officials or institutions unless they are the true representatives, elected and empowered by the Iranian nation. He has said it more than once that he supports the fight of the Iranian people, the youth and the women in particular, for a more open and democratic system of governance.

The era of "constructive engagement" is over by all accounts. This regime has been shown to be un-engage-able, and there is a reason for that: its founding principles are based on arrogant derision of anything western, including the concept of "constructive engagement".

The diplomatic and economic relations of many European governments, Japan, Russia and China with Iran reveal their indifference to the terrorist regime's atrocities. Their behind-the-scene economic deals to secure trade concessions currently constitute major international obstacles to the Iranian opposition.

We see an American -European united front on the nuclear weapons issue and political pressure to force the IRI to comply with the IAEA's protocol as a minimum requirement. It will have political consequences inside the country. Secondly, the united front must demand political and judiciary reforms and threaten the IRI with "smart sanctions". Thirdly, the united front must avoid a military engagement. It can be a disaster for the country and the democratic political transition that it's going through.

It is time for all democratic nations to rise up and support the Iranian liberal democratic opposition. It is also time for any and all cooperation with the current regime to cease. Together let us free the people of Iran, and of the world, of the tyranny of oppression, fear and terrorism.

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