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Iranian problem, Iranian solution
We should not depend on anybody but ourselves in our nonviolent fight for freedom

By Reza Pahlavi
November 20, 2002
The Iranian

Speech today at the conference on "The Study of Religion and Terrorism" at John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies, Harvard University. Source:

Let me begin by thanking this great academic institution and the organizers of this important gathering for inviting me to share with you my thoughts about the role of religion in contemporary Iranian politics, as well as my vision for the future of my homeland.

Being among you, I am reminded of the important role academic institutions such as Harvard University play in helping us understand and appreciate the forces that shape our world; the nature and possibilities of the role we may play in defining what the world ought to be; and, just as importantly, what we must do to achieve the vision of a world that reflects the best of our human nature.

The freedom you enjoy in pursuit of your academic endeavors -- something that is taken for granted by most present in this hall -- is the envy of many, including student bodies and faculty members of similar places of learning in my homeland.

I would like to briefly touch upon three topics: First, the relationship between religion and politics in Iran; Second, the connection between the Islamic regime and terrorism; and finally, the challenge posed by the new US National Security Doctrine for Iran as well as the international posture vis-à-vis my country.

This evening, I address you as an Iranian citizen committed to a progressive agenda for the future of my homeland, and to the freedoms that my compatriots demand and deserve. This commitment includes the recognition of the important role religion has played historically, and will continue to play in our lives.

However, in order to achieve secularism and democracy, I would argue that we must respect and uphold the right of any of our citizens who choose to do so to practice without fear of intimidation or persecution, not only our predominant religion of Shi'ite Islam, but other faiths or systems of belief as well. This must be guaranteed by the future constitution.

To respect religion is not the same as to submit to force, to abdicate one's judgment, or to yield to tyranny disguised as religious mandate. To respect religion in Iran today is to separate it from governance, to assign it the exalted place it deserves in the heart and mind of the individual.

Using Islam to usurp power is to abuse it and ultimately discredit it. This is precisely what the clerical regime has done since its inception. The ruling theocrats have today overwhelmingly lost the trust and support of the Iranian people. In simple terms, religion has been hijacked, by a few, in order to provide a false pretense of legitimacy for a theocratic order that denies the most basic human rights to its citizens.

The regime boasts of the number of presidential and parliamentary elections it has staged in the course of the past 23 years. But cleverly, it omits the glaring fact that elections under its so-called "religious democracy" are limited exclusively to those candidates bearing the seal of approval from the regime. Candidates are only allowed to run on proof of indisputable allegiance to the established leadership. And even when they are elected, their decisions are likely to be reversed by non-elected constitutional bodies.

Indeed, such organs as the Guardian Council, the judiciary and the office of the faqih (Supreme Leader) -- all with their overriding legal powers -- are embedded in the constitution precisely in order to override the people's will. The regime, of course, employs various means to induce as many people as it can to participate in its well-orchestrated elections in an attempt to claim legitimacy in the eyes of the Iranian people and the world at large.

It is now more than five years since the serious inadequacies of the current theocratic regime in Iran, evident to the majority of Iranians, have also come to the attention of the international community. This awareness has come about mostly as a result of the re-emergence of Iranian youth on the political scene.

This is to be expected. Nearly 50 million of Iran's 70 million citizens are under the age of 30. These young people desperately need and demand freedom, jobs, housing, education, healthcare, and economic opportunity. They hold the key to Iran's transition from religious totalitarianism to a secular representative government, complete with economic promise, a civil society and guarantees for liberty, gender equality and a better life.

The impetus for change in Iran's political environment is to a great extent a consequence of this resurgence. Our youth are the vanguard of the movement for change and have achieved considerable success in undermining the hardliners of the theocratic government. The student rebellion initially met brutal suppression in July 1999.

However, neither imprisonment and torture, nor various intimidation tactics perpetrated by their rulers, discouraged them from continuing the struggle for liberty. Today, this struggle is, in fact, spearheading a national crusade against theocratic rule and is redefining the very role of religion in our society.

What our youth demand is what has been historically sought by their counterparts in free societies the world over. They no longer accept the suffocating space and the sterile intellectual atmosphere ordained for them by their rulers, whom they consider abusers of religion in pursuit of unholy agendas.

Particularly noteworthy is the valiant role Iranian women have played in defying the clerical establishment. Constituting 51percent of the population, Iranian women were the first to bear the brunt of the regime's suppression. They were among the first to rise against the tyranny of a system that from its inception sought to force them into the confines of a second-class citizenry.

On this defining issue, it is clear that the regime's inherent failure lies in its dogmatic rejection of equal rights for women. Similarly, its denial of equality under the law for religious and ethnic minorities is yet another glaring violation of the fundamental principles of human rights.

The failure of the theocratic system to resolve Iran's serious socio-economic problems has caused a growing number of Islamic theologians, who themselves were founders and theoreticians of the Islamic Republic, to openly question the very doctrine of "velayat-e faqih," although many still promote the contradictory concept of "religious democracy."

More importantly, the people today attribute these shortcomings to the root cause: the clash between theocracy on the one hand, and modernity and democracy on the other. Iranians today clearly understand and openly debate this principle: that democracy presupposes the sovereignty and inalienable rights of the individual in the context, not of divine law, but of the law of the people.

Democracy is based on the free expression of thought and respect for human rights, including full recognition of equal rights for women and for ethnic and religious minorities. A system such as the Islamic Republic, in which the Sovereignty of God exercised through the faqih and his paraphernalia of governance is intricately woven into the constitution, can never become democratic.

Since the abrogation of its Constitution would amount to loss of raison d'être for the regime, and thus would never be volunteered by the ruling clergy, only a complete "regime change" could usher in real democratization. It is clear that other than promoting an illusion of democracy and thus prolonging the era of political repression and economic decay in Iran, these "reformed theologians" fail to provide effective solutions for rectifying popular grievance, reviving Iran's economy, and rebuilding the country's damaged relations with the outside world.

The rift between the regime and the people is widening daily. The regime is losing legitimacy in the eyes of the people; but it must persevere in its ways in order to maintain legitimacy in its own eyes. People have lost, and are increasingly losing, their cherished beliefs in Islam because religious institutions and practices are inextricably intertwined with the failed institutions of the government.

They are also confronted with a dilemma of colossal proportions in that they are faced with a judicial ruse. On the one hand, the judiciary claims independence, which is how a good judicial system ought to be; on the other hand, the judicial system is constitutionally and therefore practically biased against the fundamental rights of the people, which is precisely what a good judiciary ought not to be. As such, the real struggle today is between the theocracy, and the people who pursue modernity, secularism and democracy.

The clerical regime is both unwilling and unable to deliver the types of reforms that can begin to address peoples' fundamental needs. After 23 years of despotism and sharp socio-economic decline, most Iranians reject the current regime and more than ever wish to free themselves from the shackles of a medieval system, clearly out of tune with the needs of a modern society.

The regime's efforts to curb dissent and ignore the public's outcry has proven ineffective in preventing the Iranian people's march towards a secular and progressive society -- one in which state and religion are once and for all separated. In essence, the people of Iran have reached the conclusion that the system is inherently non-reformable, and that theocracy and democracy are incompatible.

Let me turn to the issue of terrorism and the Islamic regime in Iran. The clerical rulers of Tehran cannot become loyal partners in the global war against terror. In its 23 years of rule, the Iranian theocracy has in fact used terror as an instrument of policy. The prime victims of this practice have of course been the people of Iran. But the regime has also championed terrorism of global reach, and since 1983 persistently topped the lists of states sponsoring terrorism.

The record is unmistakable. Details are set forth in official reports of the United Nations, Amnesty International, the U.S. State Department and numerous other sources. More tangibly, they are reflected in terrorist indictments against the most senior Iranian officials, issued by courts in Germany and the United States.

Let there be no doubt, similar to the old soviet doctrine of "communism international," the clerical regime's raison d'être is the export of the "Islamic revolution," first regionally and then globally. This is embedded in the very same constitution that the present leaders have sworn to uphold at any cost.

No wonder the involvement of the Islamic regime in terrorist activities stretches well beyond the Persian Gulf, to Europe, Africa and Latin America. Furthermore, having lost legitimacy domestically, the regime is in dire need to score points beyond its borders in order to retain such legitimacy in the eyes of all extremists, from Bin-Laden to others. So long as the Islamic regime in Iran exists as a model and epicenter, it would provide solace to radical Islamists across the world, and as we have realized, such a role is far more dangerous and pernicious than weapons of mass destruction.

As a pivotal country in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf region, and with the largest population and one of the oldest civilizations, I am convinced that the institutionalization of democracy, secularism and the rule of law in Iran will have positive ramifications, not only for our country, but also for our neighbors. A secular and democratic Iran will be a force for stability and moderation in that volatile region and consequently a positive and constructive influence for the promotion of international peace and security.

Finally, let me address a few points regarding US Foreign Policy and the international reaction and posture vis-à-vis Iran. There are two categories of countries or governments: those who separate the people of Iran from their rulers, and those who still believe the conflict to be one between two camps, the so-called moderate and conservatives.

It appears that the current US administration has finally shifted to the first group. Subsequently, the symbolic gesture from Iranian citizens, holding a candle light vigil subsequent to September 11th, was acknowledged and responded to by the President and his administration. For the most part, these gestures and demarcations were positively interpreted and received by most Iranians, to the detriment of their disagreeing rulers.

The European Union, on the other hand, appears to still be stuck with the old cliché, and has succumbed to a carefully orchestrated good cop/bad cop game masterfully played by Tehran. What preoccupy most Iranians -- myself included -- are the ongoing negotiations between EU representatives and the clerical regime. It is imperative that any trade considerations should be preceded by major changes in the regime's domestic behavior in the overall context of human right violations.

The worst thing that could happen is for the world to condone these violations while pursuing short-term economic interests, and to be literally throwing a lifeline to a sinking regime. That will not bode well for people's moral, and will in fact alienate them vis-à-vis all those who chose to ignore their plight at this critical juncture. I therefore caution the world community in realizing the consequences of their actions and policies regarding Iran, particularly in the short term, and in light of recent dramatic upheavals.

Having said that, I have told my compatriots time and again, that we should not depend on anybody but ourselves in our nonviolent fight for freedom, democracy, and progress. We do not expect other nations to have our interest at heart more than their own. We expect them however to recognize that a civil and reliable government in a country like Iran, in a region like the Middle East, is to everyone's interest. And for advocates of freedom and human rights, we hope that they will continue to stay true to their stated principles, especially when they clearly witness the plight of our people under the rule of the Islamic Republic.

But let me emphasize this: There is no "single formula" for the Middle East. Iran need not be confronted with military action. Iran's problem will be resolved by Iranians alone. Naturally, in bringing momentum and direction to the process of change, we expect the world to give moral support to our people, thus further empowering acts of civil disobedience and the quest for liberty and secularism.

Unlike the 20th century when governments invested in regimes, the 21st century will prove that ultimately investment in people and democracy far outlasts investment in unpopular regimes.

Our world has witnessed the dawn of new democracies brought about by nonviolent civil disobedience movements, from Africa to Latin America and throughout Eastern Europe. Let there be no doubt that Iranians thirst for the same chance to restore their inalienable right to self-determination, thus restoring the civility, dignity, tolerance and sovereignty for which my homeland was known for so many centuries.

The world must care and make the right choice in favoring the winds of change that will usher in secularism, human rights, and democracy for Iran -- reversing the cycle of violence, and directly translating into regional peace and stability for the world.

Does this article have spelling or other mistakes? Tell me. I'll feex it.

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