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Learning from History, Charting the Future

by SAM SASAN SHOAMANESH in The Hague

14 Oct 2009 20:575 Comments
1042-17-2420552146-17.jpgWhat are Iranians calling for? Expanded civil liberties, or a ground-up change?

[ comment ] Amidst the chaos of today's Iranian politics, many questions remain unanswered. The most relevant: what form of political reform are Iranians really calling for? And, what will they actually get?

The dispute over the June 2009 presidential election has served as a vehicle for the Iranian people to express their unequivocal discontent with Tehran's ruling elite and its palpable desire for change. The indefatigable chants of the demonstrators paint a clear picture -- an Iranian socio-political landscape in disarray with a marked division between a significant segment of the Iranian population and the government. As Iranians justifiably attempt to reclaim their nation from the clutches of oppressive rule, they should tread sagely and cautiously.

'Shooting first and asking questions later' has never formed the basis of a sound policy or approach. The then undefined popular Russian and Iranian revolutions of 1917 and 1979 respectively, and their ultimate outcomes in practice, are cases in point. The triumph of the Bolsheviks in Russia and subsequent birth of the Soviet Narodnykh Kommissarov ('Council of the People's Commissars'), as well as the creation of a Shi'a theocracy in Iran based on the doctrine of Velayet-e Fagih ('rule by Islamic jurists'), became the de facto political realities of these nations.

Both of these political systems were born on the back of unsuspecting popular movements -- comprising different factions -- demanding change to socio-political and economic deficits existing in Russian and Iranian societies at the time. And yet ironically, both revolutions began without any formal plan, clearly defined vision, tested ideology or leadership.

The leaders that would later become masters of these movements were the accidental creations of history who, due to the existing upheavals in their respective nations, were capable of exploiting the ripe political environments in which they found themselves to navigate the masses and eliminate contenders to advance their own agendas and political ideologies. And ultimately, what became the status quo in both situations was not entirely what was expected by the majority or what was understood to be, leaving many of the aspirations of the people unfulfilled.

Life is too transient and precious not to learn the lessons of history. Indiscretions of the past must be avoided. This time around, the Iranian people should possess a clear idea of what they are calling for ab initio, from the beginning. Equally important, they should ensure that it is they who are leading their own movement towards a clear direction that they desire.

As the world lays witness to the turmoil unfolding in Iran, it is unclear even to the vigilant observer what the courageous Green Movement, which has awaken Iranian consciousness and given light to the people's previously unheard cries in the dark, really stands for. Are Iranians merely calling for expanded civil liberties within the existing political system, or a ground-up change and real democracy? Is there a demand for separation of 'mosque and state' (beneath the surface) or simply a softer hybridized Islamic Republic? To date, apart from admirable slogans that we want a free Iran and expanded civil liberties, there is no hard indication of what the movement really stands for politically in any tangible form.

Equally elusive is whether this 'green' thrust is universal. Do all members of the Green Movement, in particular its leaders, want X and not Y, do they want X & Y, or do they want wholly different letters altogether yet to be revealed? At this juncture, objective and conclusive answers to these questions evade the Iranian masses as well as the most astute observers and analysts.

More troubling, there appears to be no serious Iranian debate on vital questions like, how a potential transition into a new era of Iranian politics would occur, issues related to the establishment of a national reconciliation process; the establishment of institutional and legal safeguards to protect and advance peoples' rights, and other fundamental questions inherent in 'nation-building' that need to be carefully considered when people demand significant change.

The central point of this commentary is simple: as the current struggle has increasingly grown from merely a contested election to an all-out challenge of the status quo by the people, it is time that Iranians give serious consideration to what it is that they are striving for and prepare for the moment when they are ultimately successful in affecting change. This is essential in order to avoid repeating the hard lessons of the past.

Yes, Iranians today are faced with a golden opportunity to reclaim their ancient and (full of potential) nation and place it on a constructive path. The struggle is genuine, homegrown and rooted in aspirations for a more prosperous and free Iran. It is based in a desire for a system of rule that understands that governments exist only to serve the people and that the people are sovereign over the state. A movement rooted in the firm belief that: "[t]he care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only object of good government." Hence, the struggle is wholly defensible. And yes, what is happening today is a first open and courageous step of this movement in a system where the slightest voice of dissent is confronted with brutality, seldom restrained. All this is fully appreciated. Nevertheless as this thrust moves forward, it must marry its reform spirit with sophisticated and methodical reflection on the questions posed above. Doing so will pay serious dividends in the future for the benefit of the country.

Why do Iranians need to pose these questions? Because they have demonstrated to the world that the overwhelming majority of Iranians aspire and hope for a stable and truly democratic Iran. An Iran freed from the yolk of authoritarianism, which fully respects the rule of law and the fundamental human rights of all of its citizens and acts as an unmistakably positive force in the Middle East, Central Asia and beyond. These virtues are the building blocks for realizing notable progress and prosperity for the Iranian nation.

Pausing to reflect and commence the much needed ruminations on the 'constitution' of what it is that Iranians really want and call for is key to bringing this dream to a tangible and durable reality.

Sam Sasan Shoamanesh is an international lawyer and a legal adviser with the International Criminal Court in The Hague. He is the co-founder and Associate Editor of Global Brief, Canada's first international affairs magazine. The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the ICC or Global Brief.

Copyright © 2009 Tehran Bureau

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5 Comments

"The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the ICC or Global Brief."

Well, do they express the views of Tehran Bureau? Doesn't say.

I wouldn't be so fast to jump to the conclusion that the majority of Iranians in Iran are keen on what could be considered political radicalism. The World Public Opinion Poll definitely suggests otherwise.

Also, for an anecdotal indicator, check out this photo on the Pedestrian blog:

http://www.sidewalklyrics.com/?p=1872

While I'm sympathetic to a centrist interpretation of the Green movement (I voted Green in the June election), I don't think its realistic to jump to the conclusions many in the exile community are making. I also don't think it's fair that views representative of the Iranian political establishment are excluded from what should be a more balanced take on the news.

Pirouz / October 15, 2009 8:46 AM

In most 'democracies', governments actually very rarely respect people's wishes unless their own personal political positions are at stake. 2m British people and the overwhelming public opinion was against the Iraq war. But the British PM at the time, Tony Blair, went ahead in defiance of it and only recently has the 'democratically' elected British government agreed to a limited enquiry. Many millions of Iranians voted for Ahmedinejad and pre-election polls by US groups did suggest he would win. So he obviously has a signigicant constituency which would need to be accomodated in a 'democratic' Iran. The best way is to press for constitutional reforms and adherence and to use the legal and other avenues available for engagement with the majority of the public to prepare for victory at the next election by a reformist candidate. This is what the Democrats did in the US, after the rigged election there which resulted in 4 more years of Bush instead of Al Gore.

rezvan / October 15, 2009 10:13 PM

Pirouz, I agree. I think a lot of expats are getting ahead of themselves.
Press TV had the results of the votes in major European and American cities and in a few cities in particular, I remember Mousavi/Karoubi had about 90% of the vote.

I think a lot of Iranians have come to believe the ACTUAL result of the election was something like that and Ahmadinejad stole it all for himself. This man still has supporters, and lots of them too!

Pedestrian / October 15, 2009 11:25 PM

After disappointed voters turn out of 2005 (some 21 million) many Iranians who decided to boycott the presidential election got to be blamed for Ahmadi's appearance in the office.
My question is, what was the primary reason or I could say motive for over 39 millions Iranians to show up at the ballot boxes and cast their vote in 2009?

I personally don't believe it was Mousavi or any other reformist being able to gear up such overwhelming #s of voters.

I believe Iranians wanted a serious housekeeping in presidential office but hawks in Interior Ministry (main conducting institution of elections and close peers of Ahmadi btw) didn't think that way.

Aryajet / October 16, 2009 11:42 PM

This article seems to me to be a rare summing up that's quite clear to me.

It's saying, what and who can actually plan a real alternative and how many are really going to follow.. what ?

It's a surrealist situation, as how can all folks in Iran actually know what is going on if they only watch or read state media ? They must be a certain great percentage, according to the world opinion poll.

The question of whether it's better to have another great change (revolution) or a gradual change, is on the net, yes, but is it all over Iran ? Are people asking these sorts of questions ?

I'm wondering if the majority of iranians are even aware that such things are being discussed worldwide ?

'sudden' vs 'gradual',for us discussing such things is an intellectual excercise for many, (like me) but for those in real situations, what is it really ? I can't distinguish between those abroad and those within.

For my simple opinion from what I can observe during three months, I would think that anything is possible but much less is certain. That there will be a sudden change seems to me to be unlikely. The system has dug in for too long, they have killed or imprisoned the best who could be alternatives and all that remains are those who are part of the system.

>And yes, what is happening today is a first open and courageous step of this movement in a system where the slightest voice of dissent is confronted with brutality, seldom restrained.

Of course ! This has been the system for ever ! Whenever has it been different ?

>as this thrust moves forward, it must marry its reform spirit with sophisticated and methodical reflection on the questions posed above.

And do those who are leaders of this movement really know how to use those 'sophisticated.....' methods and reflections ? Are they capable, do they have the support and expertise of people who could get beyond the ''brutality seldom restrained" ?

pessimist / October 18, 2009 2:47 AM