Iranian Reformers Reject U.S. Intervention
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JIM LEHRER: Now, the second of Elizabeth Farnsworth’s reports from Iran. This covers the reaction of democratic reformers to the U.S. Government’s pressures on the ruling regime.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Dr. Mohammed Reza Khatami is a man of many talents. He’s a physician, a kidney specialist, at a hospital in Tehran, and a key leader of what’s left of Iran’s reformist political movement. He founded the political party that brought his brother, also named Mohammed Khatami, to the presidency for two terms, promising reforms which would open Iran up to political debate and more democracy. Then, in 2000, Dr. Khatami received the most votes of anyone in parliamentary elections. With other reformists, he passed laws limiting key powers of the hard-line conservative clerics who oversee and often overrule elected officials here. But those clerics struck back. They vetoed the reformist laws and then, last year, banned Dr. Khatami and almost all the reformists from standing for election again.
DR. MOHAMMAD REZA KHATAMI, Vice Presidential Candidate: They thought that if we get the power we have this ability to push them away totally from the government.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: After days of sit-ins, Dr. Khatami and most of his colleagues resigned from office in protest. Conservatives took control of parliament, and networks of militia and various intelligence services launched a crackdown on journalists and democracy activists. Now the doctor/politician is trying again. At a rally last month he launched his campaign for the vice presidency alongside presidential candidate Mostafa Moin. If they win in June, which is a long shot, they believe they can succeed in making reforms beyond what President Khatami dared.
DR. MOHAMMAD REZA KHATAMI: The president’s power is much higher than the President Khatami. You know, the bureaucracy of the country is run by the president and his cabinet. The president has this right to protest all activities against the constitution. This is the right of presidents and President Khatami do not use that. And when he used one or times, it had — it had a very deep influence over the other parts of government. We will defend the right of people.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You will defend the right of people?
DR. MOHAMMAD REZA KHATAMI: The right of people. Of having the freedom of speech, the free election, and many other things.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: At a rally in Tehran earlier this month, President Khatami apologized for his failures and, specifically, for not “enhancing democracy.” He said: “At this moment, which is the last time I am addressing the nation as president on the anniversary of the revolution, I would like to first ask God and second ask you for your forgiveness for my failures.” In spite of the apparent enthusiasm at the rally, polls show that many people in Iran are deeply disillusioned with President Khatami and the reformists. Outside a cafe, the evening of the president’s speech, we spoke to some young people who had said they hadn’t even considered attending the rally. This woman said, “We believed in the revolution, but we don’t believe in it anymore because they promised things which did not happen.” “The president always apologizes,” she said, “but it doesn’t change anything for the youth, like unemployment and poverty.”
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How do you explain the fact that your brother didn’t push harder?
DR. MOHAMMAD REZA KHATAMI: I think President Khatami was worried about the situation in the country– some riots, some chaos, something like this.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: He was worried about chaos?
DR. MOHAMMAD REZA KHATAMI: Yes.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Uh-huh.
DR. MOHAMMAD REZA KHATAMI: I think we are not agree with him.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You didn’t agree?
DR. MOHAMMAD REZA KHATAMI: No. We thought that if President Khatami resist more, many things could be changed positively, not negatively, and when the conservatives saw that President Khatami is not so serious in his plan, they come forward and put more pressure on the reformists.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: They took advantage of that weakness.
DR. MOHAMMAD REZA KHATAMI: Yes.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: As parliament passed into the hands of conservatives, hard-liners launched an effort to “crush all dissent,” as a Human Rights Watch report put it. Independent newspapers were closed, and there were “systematic arrests of journalists, writers and intellectuals,” and “abuse and torture increased.” Attorney Shirin Ebadi, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize two years ago and Iran’s most high- profile human rights activist, represented some of those detained. At an unusual Tehran press conference last week, she brought together former political prisoners and human rights lawyers to publicize the fact that defendants in political cases are often denied an attorney. Ruzbeh Mir Ebrahimi is one of about 20 Internet journalists arrested and tortured for criticisms of the government. He was released last month.
RUZBEH MIR EBRAHIMI, Internet Journalist (Translated): I’m one of those people who was arrested in the blogger case, and one of the issues we faced was that we were denied our right to an attorney. I was told, “You’re facing a sentence of ten to fifteen years, but if you want to hire these two attorneys to represent you, your fifteen-year sentence will be increased to twenty-five years.”
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I asked Shirin Ebadi if it was dangerous for her to hold an event like this.
SHIRIN EBADI, Nobel Laureate (Translated): This was our second conference, and obviously the conservatives do not like conferences like this. It’s only for these reasons that I am constantly receiving death threats and being summoned to court.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And are you frightened?
SHIRIN EBADI (Translated): For many years, I have been terrorized and have received death threats. I was jailed once. I have to say that fear and being afraid is a human instinct just like hunger. So I would say, yes, I am frightened, but years of doing this kind of work has taught me not to allow fear to get in the way and disrupt my work.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Leaders of Dr. Khatami’s Reformist Party have also paid a high price for their work. Saaed Hajjarian was shot and badly wounded in 2000 for exposing political murders by agents of the intelligence ministry. In spite of the dangers, Dr. Khatami believes the time is ripe now in Iran for reform. For one thing, he said, U.S. policy in the region has changed in some ways helpful to his movement.
DR. MOHAMMAD REZA KHATAMI: After the 9/11 in the United States, I think that the United States Government and the western countries realized that the dictatorship governments, especially in the region, are the main enemy of the democracy in the world, are the main enemy of the free world. Before the 9/11, the main supporter of the dictatorship governments in the region and in the world were the United States Government and the western countries.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Also, he said, events in Iraq and especially the recent elections could help.
DR. MOHAMMAD REZA KHATAMI: There are some negative and positive signs in Iraq. Removing the Saddam regime is a very positive thing for Iranian people. Election is very positive, and again, if a really democratic government is established in Iraq, again it’s very interesting and a good sign for Iranian people.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How do comments from President Bush and Secretary of State Rice affect the reformist movement? Let me read you what President Bush said in his state of the union address. “To the Iranian people, I say tonight, as you stand for your own liberty, America stands with you.” What’s your response to that?
DR. MOHAMMAD REZA KHATAMI: One thing that is very clear – that the plan of the U.S. Government is change of regime in Iran. And I think people here in Iran also are against many activities of behavior of the government; they do not want a change of regime, because we have an example here that one revolution is enough for us.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: This was a theme we heard over and over: That Iranians had suffered enough in the past quarter century. They’ve been through a revolution and an eight-year war with Iraq that filled this country’s graveyards. Hundreds of thousands of Iranians were killed in that war. Many people at the historic Tehran Bazaar and elsewhere told us they don’t want more strife, but just to be left alone to work out their own problems. This man asked that we not give his name.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Maybe the level of freedom of elections maybe to some extent can be criticized, but I can.– I say they can be solved during the years. Iranians can solve these problems by themselves. They don’t need other powers, especially the United States.
DR. MOHAMMAD REZA KHATAMI: The only way for changing the situation is reform, not changing the regime. We have many experiences in democracy and reform. Changing the regime is another form of revolution. It means that we should start again from zero.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Attorney Shirin Ebadi has also been outspoken in opposing American intervention in Iran. In a Feb. 8 op-ed article, she and Hadi Ghaemi of Human Rights Watch insisted that what they call “civil society activists” are the best hope for change in Iran. They warned that: “The threat of foreign military intervention will provide a powerful excuse for authoritarian elements to uproot these groups and put an end to their growth.”
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Why would an invasion hurt human rights?
SHIRIN EBADI (Translated): It’s very natural for them to use the excuse of national security to crush all of those who are fighting for freedom.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And what about the comments of President Bush: “We stand with you as you stand for your own rights” — or the comments of Secretary of State Rice? Does this help your cause or hurt your cause?
SHIRIN EBADI (Translated): In matters of human rights, we care very much about public opinion in Iran and worldwide. What politicians say is not very important to us. We pay more attention to public opinion.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And meanwhile you’ve reported– we’ve seen the news reports– that you’ve had people trying to get in and people are threatening you. Is it worse right now than it has been in the past?
SHIRIN EBADI (Translated): For almost ten years, I’ve been constantly threatened and humiliated by individuals in Iran who oppose my views. It appears that the purpose of these activities is to terrify me so I will stop my human rights activities.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Have you heard from President Khatami? I know that he guaranteed your safety.
SHIRIN EBADI (Translated): Since Mr. Khatami told me he would guarantee my safety, I wrote him a letter. I said, “If a person like me, who won the Nobel Peace Prize and is in the international spotlight and who knows the law because she is an attorney, if this person cannot work with peace of mind, then what must be happening with ordinary people?”
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Meanwhile Dr. Khatami is working with other members of his party to draw up a platform, though there’s no assurance he’ll be allowed to finish the campaign.
DR. MOHAMMAD REZA KHATAMI: I think they may disqualify, but the chance for us is higher than last year.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Still, the doctor insists the Iranian opposition is viable and is making headway.
DR. MOHAMMAD REZA KHATAMI: We have a party. We sit down here, me as the legal opposition and you as an American journalist, to talk about the government and criticize the government.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Dr. Khatami, like Shirin Ebadi, insists change in Iran must come from within and not from abroad.
JIM LEHRER: High government and clerical officials in Tehran declined the NewsHour’s request for interviews. Elizabeth will have another report from Iran next week.