|Iranian problem, Iranian solution
We should not depend on anybody but ourselves in our nonviolent fight for freedom
By Reza Pahlavi
November 20, 2002
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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