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photo of raisdanainterview Fariborz Raisdana

Iran is a wealthy country, ... [with] great oil resources, great human resources ... ancient culture. ... Why so many economic problems? Why such a high unemployment rate, high inflation?

The economy's problems do not stem from the wealthy people, [and] do not stem from the wealth of the country. It's because of social structure, because of the structure of power, in my opinion. The minority of people, they have resources in their hand, capital in their hand, and they do not release them to our production, to our employment, and the real economic development.

Now, the minority of people you talk about are largely people of God -- people whose lives are dedicated to their clergy?

Yes, the people that believe that they have a special relation with God and with religion. But remember that they come to power because of the people's revolution 24 years ago. ... The people have given religious power to them.

You were an active reformer under the shah. You were part of the revolution [in 1979]. How long before you became disappointed?

I'm not disappointed for real reformism and the changes in Iran. [I became] disappointed ... particularly during the last two years and particularly after [the] second election of Mr. Khatami, because he announced that he believes [in the] constitution. And in my opinion, this constitution cannot present real democracy in Iran. If you look to this constitution, you are inside a loop, a vicious circle. Democracy means that the power should come from people. ... But in this constitution, you are inside of a loop, and you can never give the real power to people. ... This was one reason.

And the second reason was that he's very conservative; he is not very happy of the real power of the people. ... He belongs to ... a particular kind of ideology, and somehow he's in favor of the status quo. ...

What does this say about the possibilities, the potential for reform then?

As I told you, I'm very pessimist about the reforms as far as the people are concerned. ... Many political activists and reformers, real reformers, independent reformers, are still active and are talking with people. They do research, they accept the danger. Many of them are in jail. But as far as the reformism inside of the government sector ... under the leadership of Mr. Khatami is concerned, I am pessimist. I think this kind of reformism is actually finished.

Fariborz Raisdana, an economist, was part of a reform group whose members tried to run in parliamentary elections two years ago. All of them were rejected by the Council of Guardians, the powerful group of clerics and conservative jurists that determines whether candidates are fit to run for office. He has spent time in jail for questioning the legitimacy of Iran's political process, yet despite the arrests, he continues to agitate for reforms. Here, Raisdana says that Iran's Constitution precludes the possibility for real democracy, and that the structure of the system has led to the economic and social ills that plague Iranian society. Nevertheless, he says that reformers like himself do not view American intervention in Iranian affairs kindly, and that U.S. President George W. Bush's decision to place Iran in the "axis of evil" may ultimately hurt the reform movement. Raisdana was interviewed by correspondent Linden MacIntyre in February 2002.

... If the reform process is finished, you're either going to have the status quo or you're going to have a revolution.

... This result is not [an] acceptable result, that you either should accept the status quo or go toward the revolution. ... I think the reformism leadership should go to ... some independent reformist groups. This time, it's the last chance for the reformism in Iran. ... The status quo cannot ... answer the ... social, political, economic problem[s] of Iran. Otherwise, some kind of ... a revolt, some kind of difficulties will arise. But because we have no party, we have no strategy about the future.

I cannot say, or I cannot anticipate what will happen in that case. But I think that the best way is to give the leadership of reformism to the hand of independent reformists coming from people, particularly educators, and political activists.

The clergy, the Supreme Leader, are answerable only to the divine, to God. How do you reform that aspect of the Iranian system?

... Many of them believe [in] God. But our difficulty is not because people believe [in] God. ... The problem[s] arise because some minority [group] that believes that they are real representatives of God and Islam are in power, and they do not accept the participation of people, democracy, social justice, and society. They do not accept it. ... Many of them do not accept it because they believe that they are not in favor of the future of the people. Many of them believe that the people are not adult enough. ... I don't want to say all are like that. But many of them in power think in this case and this manner. They don't allow for a democratic, policy-making participation of the people.

In my opinion, only through a democra[tic] society can we find the remedies ... the solution for our economy, political and social difficulties.

How much of the Iranian economic dilemma is caused by corruption, caused by the abuse of power by the political elite?

... We have enough resources -- gas fields, oil, and education. Now [1.7 million] university students are starting university. ... But the problem is that the structure of power does not allow these resources and possibilities to go toward production, economic development, and overall economic growth. I think many difficulties stem from the misuse of power in this country.

So where are the benefits from these great resources going? ... People who are in positions of power?

Yes, yes. ... Many of them.

They divert it into their own pocket?

They divert it into the underground economy or into some investment stuff [that] is not in favor of the economy's development. For example ... they invest in these big buildings and ... import of commodities. ... They get money for themselves, and they increase their power. ... They can influence the economy, and they lead the economy toward inflationary transactions, speculative transactions. These are the way that they manage.

But in many fields, we have competitive advantage -- for example, petrochemical industries, in textile, in spare parts -- and we need money, we need capital. ... But [this capital is] in the hand[s] of those people who do not allow [it to] come to the industry, because they think that industrialization means the power of the middle class, the power of the working class, the power of the educator.

So the money goes into their personal bank accounts? The money goes into their monument to themselves?

... Some part goes to Central Bank, and through Central Bank goes to ... importers or some industries that import technology or import raw materials and produce some commodities and sell it in higher prices. This is one way. ...

This internal currency goes through the banking system to ... [a privileged] minority. For example, if I want a credit [line from my bank] after 25 years ... and I have been a good customer for my bank, I cannot get any penny. But many people who have relationship[s] with influential people, they can get huge amount[s] of money and transfer it to the urban land and make big buildings. But these buildings [never] come to the market as houses then. Despite the fact that you have big buildings in the country, you face [a] big shortage of houses. Many young people cannot marry, because they cannot afford to pay for rent or buy a house.

So are you suggesting that a minority of powerful people are deliberately trying to keep the majority of the people backward and poor?

... Yes, you can find some people that still want to keep people backward, particularly in cultural aspects. ... [But] I don't want to say that the[y] directly have decided to keep people backward. ... What I want to say [is] that the economy and the structure of [this system] ... cause the unemployment; these cause the idleness of the resources, cause the inflation. ...

And when I talk to Iranians, the name of the former president, Mr. Rafsanjani, keeps coming up as kind of a symbol of the failure of the system and a symbol of the corruption of the system. How real is that situation?

... Yes, I believe that ... his government has been responsible for backwardness, because he has accepted the structural adjustment policy, and that structural adjustment policy was not proper for Iran. ... They [didn't] use it in a proper way in Iran, [and] it caused the bad income distribution. It caused, not privatization, but transferring of public or government-owed industries to the hand of a minority. It caused the chronic inflation, it caused unemployment and social pathologies and many difficulties. Yes, I believe that his policy was responsible for many difficulties.

Mr. Rafsanjani has done well for himself, corrupt or not. He's become very wealthy as a result of these.

I don't know about his wealth, but ... he announced, and many followers announced, that already he had that wealth.

If the United States [intervenes] in Iran directly, I think it is in favor of the conservatives. It causes the government to unite and to be more powerful, and it's against reformists. But I prefer to talk about the social system as a whole. During the last 12 years, the income distribution has worsened. Now [a] minority of people are very wealthy, but the masses are unemployed and living in poverty. Before Rafsanjani, only 35 percent or 40 percent of the families were below average. Now 70 percent of the urban families are below average. And even after Rafsanjani, [with] Khatami, he continued his economic policy. ...

If you look to the social balance sheet, you find that [the] majority [of] poor people become more poor. But the powerful people now are quite wealthy, and have political and economic power and many monies in their hand, many factories, urban land, and good relationship, import-export, like that. ...

The possibilities for change seem to me to be very narrow because of the fact that there is this powerful, repressive apparatus in Iranian society. How serious a problem is that? You have police, you have military, you have neighborhood committees, you have supervision. You have sort of a repressive influence everywhere.

Yes, we have many difficulties to change [in order to turn] this situation in favor of overall economic development and the better income distribution. ... We have three armies, not one -- big armies. [A] huge amount of [the] government budget goes to our particular foundations. We have ... sovereignty of the minority. ... We have many difficulties with our neighbors, with Iraq ... now with Afghanistan, with Pakistan potentially, with Turkey potentially. ...

But I'm not disappointed. We have to solve these difficulties, and we believe [in] economic development. If we believe [in] social justice and democracy, and if we believe that the country is capable ... and the people want it ... we should solve these problems. But I think these problems [are] better solved in a peaceful manner by the help of people, not through ... the bloody ways.

Mr. Bush and a lot of people on the right in the United States have recently been pointing fingers at Iran, rattling their sabers at Iran. What is the effect of that in this country?

The effect ... was some kind of [a] disturbance in [the] political scene. ... But I think that the general understanding of the government is now that [it] is not for Iran; it is for internal use.

["Internal" meaning inside] the United States?

Yes, in the United States. ...

In my opinion, we should consider American international policy as a danger, because now they are in a situation that they are in economic crisis. They are expanding their military influence and presence in the world, and they want to continue. ... They cannot solve the problem of Middle East by these ways. And they are going to stay in Afghanistan because of Russia, India, China. ... For this reason, in my opinion, the American international policy, particularly during the conservative government, is a danger.

But in this particular case, I don't think that they want to [take] action against Iran. ...

You suggest to me that there's this reform movement building, that change will come one way or the other. What is the effect on this process of an external factor, like the United States?

If [the] United States [intervenes] in Iran directly, I think it is in favor of [the] conservative[s]. It cause[s] the government [to] unite and to be more powerful, and it's against reformists, the official reformists. ... Independent reformers, they dislike this kind of intervention. It's obvious they have difficulties with the [Iranian] government themselves, but this does not cause them to be glad by intervention in our country.

So the one thing that would set reform back would be an intervention by the United States?

Yes, the intervention by United States [would] cause centrists and [the] right to unite. ... Some intellectuals and some political activists ... say that the democracy that the United States want[s] for less developed countries is not a real democracy, [it] is a democracy of elites. ... What I want to say is that the American intervention is not in favor of the freedom lovers, in favor of the people, in favor of the poor people, but in favor of the government, particularly [the] extremist right.

You mentioned the foundations. How significant are these charitable foundations in the economic life of Iran?

They are very important. They have grown. They were established after [the] revolution. ... The Revolutionary Council decided to establish some foundations in order to control and to manage ... the factories and the land of the people who left the country after revolution. But now they started to grow and grow and grow. They devote a lot of resources to themselves for themselves. ...

According to some [estimates], nearly 30 percent, 35 percent of Iran belongs to the foundations. ... They don't give any accounts to the people. They don't pay any penny of taxes. ...

And nobody knows where [the money] goes?

No, nobody knows. ... [No one is] allowed to go for auditing. ... They have their own laws; they have their own regulation. ... Even newspapers cannot go deeply inside of those foundations. ...

They are controlled by ayatollahs.

Yes, usually they are controlled by Great Ayatollah. ...

How dangerous is it for people like you to speak like this in Iran today? There's obviously a high risk.

It is little bit dangerous. Not [just a] little bit, more than [a] little bit dangerous, because you are walking on a sword. But anyway, some people have accepted the responsibility, and they are ready to accept the danger and the risk. ...

Why has it become more dangerous to speak out in the last couple of years? I'm told that it's worse now than it was since Ayatollah Khomeini died.

Well, I don't want to say it's worse than that. But during the last two years, the situation has changed. And now we have more difficulties for newspapers, for freedom of speech, freedom of expression, for organizing non-government institutions or parties . ... Just at the beginning of the year 2000, when they attempt[ed] or tried to kill ... one of the more important adviser[s] [to] Mr. Khatami, then many thing[s] changed. ... Mr. Khatami as a leader of the reformism. He didn't continue his job. He didn't continue. He didn't fight for freedom of expression for newspapers. ...

In democratic systems -- and Iran is half-democratic -- you have the democratic political system. The solution is for people like you to run and get elected and change things. So what happened when you tried to run for election? ...

Oh well, I was rejected. ... We had a coalition called National Religious Coalition. Many leaders are in jail now. ...

This is the reason that I say that according to this constitution ... we cannot be hopeful about democracy. And I think we have to continue to criticize the constitution. The criticism [of the] constitution does not mean that you are going to overthrow the government, or you're a revolutionary. You have the right to criticize the constitution. Inside of the Iranian constitution, we have one principle that says, "How you can change me?" This means that this constitution is not coming from the God, is not Koran; is something which is made by people. And we can criticize it and change it. I think this is the best way. ...

Real reformism, anyway, means economic distribution. If they want to consider it as a revolutionary action, OK -- up to them. ... But real reformism ... should be done by the help of people, not just by the government. ...

It's not going to change unless people are prepared to pick up weapons and go to the streets. And I just don't sense that they're anywhere near that yet. The level of unhappiness and anger doesn't seem to be so high now that there is a high risk that people will go to the streets. ... It is high risk?

Now, now it's very high risk. But remember that, many times, people came to [the] street. For example, recently, [there was] a teachers' demonstration ... in front of the Parliament. Or many times, workers strike. ... I'm sure that now it's very dangerous to ask people to come to [the] street. ...

In Iran, the situation is something like algebra. It's calculation. ... You have to be clever now, when to solve the problem. These are different aspects of a lot of equations. ... You have to find a way, and start one by one.

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