In early 1906, disgusted by the incompetent and corrupt behavior of their shah, Muzaffar ad-Din, Persian merchants and religious leaders began agitating for the drastic curtailment of his authority. Though unsurprisingly reluctant to legislate his own demise, within months the shah had been obliged by the sheer weight of protests and strikes to assent to what amounted to a constitutional revolution. An elected assembly was allowed to convene that fall, it drew up a mandate for an elected and representative parliament, and the shah signed the whole package into law on December 30. He died, marginalized by his own forced hand, just a few days afterwards.
A hundred years later, the Bush administration is aiming for a repeat performance, against a far more sophisticated oppressor. Even as it passes domestic legislation designed to isolate Iran, and tries to push the United Nations toward toughening sanctions, the US has also moved to allocate funds for a process of democratization there. Tens of millions of dollars are to be spent on improved satellite TV broadcasts into the country, student outreach initiatives, educational and cultural programs and the like. Although the aim of such spending is not specifically stated, it is entirely plain: to encourage the kind of internal dissent that put paid to Muzaffar ad-Din a century ago and that, ideally sooner rather than later, will lead today's opposition groups in Iran to overthrow the ayatollahs.
Some analysts, in the US and beyond, claim that dissident groups are poised to hit the streets, ready to put their lives on the line in the kinds of mass numbers that would overwhelm the regime, and that only the absence of a clearer green light from the United States is holding them back. There is talk of progress toward an unprecedented unifying of Iranian opposition groups - monarchists, communists et al, possibly around Reza Pahlavi, son of the late, last shah - ahead of a planned large-scale campaign of civil disobedience this summer.
Others, more skeptical, assert that opponents of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his Islamist government are weak, afraid and disunited, and that, 27 years after the revolution that brought it to power, the Iranian leadership is eminently capable of thwarting whatever protests can be mustered.
In Washington a few days ago, I met with a longtime Iranian-born opposition activist who, among other efforts, is a member of the National Union for Democracy in Iran, a three-year-old, US-based opposition group which seeks, it says, "to promote a strategy of nonviolent political defiance to the rule of the dictatorial theocracy in Iran, and set the conditions for a transparent national referendum," under which Iranians would "determine their future form of government in a free, fair and democratic manner." The group has good ideas but, he readily acknowledged, next to no resources, a common affliction among such organizations.
The activist, who asked that key parts of our conversation be presented anonymously and who therefore I will not name, left Iran shortly before the revolution to study and has been in the US ever since. He is thoroughly familiar with the variety of opposition groups seeking the ouster of the mullahs - including the oft-touted effort by Pahlavi to unite many such factions and galvanize the kind of concerted protests that disunity and infighting have hitherto prevented.
He painted a complex picture of an Iranian populace at once overwhelmingly resentful of the regime and deeply dispirited over the prospects of removing it. He argued that it could take as few as 10,000 protesters, holding firm for just a few hours, to open the floodgates and bring the masses out onto the streets, but he also detailed the relative ease with which the regime has quelled nascent such protests.
Where he was categorical and unequivocal was in expounding the depth of the Iranian government's anti-Western mind-set, the absurdity of the delusion that it contained any genuine reformist elements within its ranks and the scope of the danger it poses should it go unchecked. If the Western policymakers grappling with Iran, its aims and its nuclear drive are sleeping at night, he said simply, "then they are fools."
There are those who argue that the only way to tackle Ahmadinejad and the regime is from within - via regime change born of popular dissent. Is that your sense, and is there an opposition movement capable of doing this?
If you compare the cases of Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran, it gets ever more complex. Afghanistan was a simple military takeover. Iraq needs a mixture of military action and politics. Iran is mostly politics. We need to formulate a political solution for Iran that is mostly organized from the outside because it is impossible to organize inside Iran. You have cells inside Iran which can give information, but the message should be articulated from outside to inside - to create a revolution inside Iran.
But before we get too far into this, I need to give you some history.
In 1906, there was a constitutional revolution to modernize Iran. People wanted progress. Reza Pahlavi's grandfather, [the first shah,] created a solid central government, with enough authority to have one uniform nation. His father, Mohammad, the last shah, implemented economic reform. But the social and political reform, which was the most complicated, was not carried out. The 1979 Islamic revolution was a reaction against modernity, against the West, a retreat backwards hundreds of years. The Islamic regime is a way of thinking that opposes the West, modernity, individual liberty and freedom. It aims to defeat the West and make the entire world Muslim. This goal is contained in the Iranian constitution [which speaks of the army's "ideological mission of jihadâ€¦ to extend the sovereignty of God's law throughout the world"].
At first, the people of Iran supported the revolution because they were afraid of modernity; it created an identity crisis. Five minutes after the regime was in power, they realized their mistake, realized that religion is not an answer for politics. The people are now, for the most part, completely opposed to the regime. And the regime needs crisis after crisis - whether it is taking American diplomats hostage, war with Saddam, Salman Rushdie - to distract attention from its inability to deliver.
The Islamic regime is very sophisticated. They have a lot of money. And they are ruthless. You have a lot of political prisoners. They have rewritten history. They lie to people. They have turned the nuclear issue into a national right, but give no voice to the individual rights of the people of Iran.
But the people voted for Ahmadinejad last summer, no?
The people have totally lost faith in the regime. They don't participate in elections. They know it is meaningless.
They did not choose Ahmadinejad. The election was a total fraud. The turnout was far, far lower than claimed. Some of those from poor neighborhoods, south of Teheran, did vote for Ahmadinejad - but not in nearly as high numbers as the regime claimed. Ahmadinejad was also supported by the Revolutionary Guards. These are the same thugs who fought to keep the regime in power.
But you have to realize, in any case, that they're all the same - Ahmadinejad, Khatami [the president from 1997-2005], Rafsanjani [the defeated candidate and president from 1989-97], whoever. The regime should be viewed as one team. There may be individual rivalries, but they all unite against outside threats. The Karine A [Gaza-bound shipment of Iranian arms] sailed during the rule of the supposedly reformist Khatami. His time marked the worst killings of writers and intellectuals, the greatest number of prisoners. Khatami was Ahmadinejad with a smiling face, pursuing the same policies. He also called for the destruction of Israel.
Everybody who knows the regime knows that it is impossible for it to reform from within. Remember, the legislators cannot even write laws. They can only propose laws. Ultimately it is [supreme Iranian spiritual leader Ali] Khamenei, who is unelected, who can accept or reject moves proposed by the Iranian parliament.
How badly are the people faring, economically? How angry are they at Ahmadinejad over that?
They are financially pressured. But Iranians are like Easterners; they put up with hardship. And Ahmadinejad is helping to some extent; he is distributing oil revenues, among his supporters. He has been traveling ever since he was elected to every corner of the country. He asked for a discretionary budget, which is against the Iranian constitution. There was a fight for a few weeks in the Iranian parliament but then he got it. When he visits a town he immediately sits down with the elders of the revolutionary structure - not the government agencies - and allocates funds for various projects. The money does not go to the local government, but to the Revolutionary Guards, the mosques, the religious leaders.
Again, then, what is the potential for internal dissent?
It has to be cultivated. But the opposition leaders haven't really stepped up to the plate. Those who truly don't like this regime and really want the regime to go, they don't have a political message beyond that. Hating the regime is not sufficient. You need to have a plan for what happens next. They lack that. And they are so disunited.
The people have given up. If there is a good incentive, they could come into the street again. If they believe something can change. But they say "President Bush told us to come out, so did Reza Pahlavi, so did all the opposition leaders. We came to the streets and nothing happened. Our friends were beaten up. A lot of our friends are in jail. We kept our end of the bargain; nobody else kept theirs."
I'll give you a recent example. In the last few months, the bus drivers have [twice] gone on strike, seeking a legal right to protest and to boost salaries and working conditions. Others might have joined. But the regime suppressed the protests after a few days. It brought in poor people to drive the buses and it beat up the drivers and their families. [Hundreds were arrested.] The leader, Mansour Ossanlu, is still in jail. What did America do? Mr. John Sweeney, the president of the Teamsters Union, wrote two nasty letters to Ahmadinejad. That was it.
The [minor] soccer protests [that broke out whenever Iran played qualifying matches at home ahead of this summer's World Cup] are also an indicator that the people will use any opportunity to show their hatred of the regime, any opportunity for women to take off the veil, for boys and girls to kiss in the street.
In 1999, when the Khatami government shut down a pro-reform newspaper, there were much bigger protests [initiated on the campus of Teheran University]. The first students who came out were beaten up. More students joined them. It continued for seven or eight days until the regime had completely beaten everybody up. Some of them were condemned to death. They were tortured and are still in jail. The torture and suppression was so savage, and the support from outside and from within Iran was so small, that they all got discouraged. We need to keep the fire going.
The message from those outside, particularly America, has to be that they will be with the Iranian people to the end. They must send the right message into Iran. [US-sponsored] Radio Farda and Voice of America are a joke. They don't even have entertainment value. People in Iran need to feel in their bones that America is with them and behind them. The teachers, nurses, health care and students unions are all semi-organized. If the right message is sent, if there is some organization outside, they will regroup.
There also has to be moral and financial help for the opposition outside Iran. The regime has millions. The opposition doesn't have any kind of serious money. Here in Washington you have organizations that purport to be genuine American-Iranian student groups but are actually lobbying for the regime, with 10 or 15 staff. Effective. Well-financed. The opposition has no such resources.
How could you keep protest going?
It starts with small groups of students gathering at different strategic locations at the university and all starting to sing the national anthem at the same time. Other students join them. Some guards come and beat them, there's a small fight, and then other students come. If the number rises above 10,000 and the protest lasts more than four hours, then the regime cannot sustain itself.
As few as that?
Yes, because people would quickly join en masse. Everyone is waiting to join something.
After [former Chilean president] Pinochet got arrested in England, when it became certain that nobody could free him, the first Chilean women immediately came out and said they had been raped in Chilean prisons. Quickly, then, a massive wave of the women who were raped under Pinochet's regime came out and talked. People start to come out when they feel they can safely do so. Similarly, once the floodgates are open in Iran, you will see a massive explosion.
You also see the hatred of the regime in the number of people who have run away from the country. I know many, many people who have risked their lives to flee Iran. Some are living illegally in Turkey, Bulgaria. They drown in major rivers trying to cross to Europe. In the first Turkish cities across the Iranian border, there are huge populations of Iranian refugees, who are prepared to live in horrible conditions, just to flee Iran.
What kind of access do Iranians have to the West?
In the 1980s, there was a single opposition newspaper out of London. Then we had the first opposition radio station in Los Angeles, only for the US. Then, about 10 years ago, that radio station was able to broadcast into Teheran for two hours a day, and that created some hope among Iranians that now they were connected. Then the first TV station, broadcasting to the US and Europe, realized by accident that it was being picked up in Iran. Somebody called in to the station, and said he was watching from Iran. The broadcaster said "I don't believe you." He picked up an orange and said, "What am I holding?" The caller said "An orange."
Many more satellite TV stations have followed, 28 all told now, but they don't carry the same hope. At first, everyone was euphoric over the simple fact of communication. But now half the stations are full of sexy video clips and music, for the younger generation. Even the political ones are not really heavy in terms of content.
And the regime has also invested in TV, to muddy the water and create conflicting messages. Like I said, it is sophisticated. It used Khatami's "reformist" presidency, for instance, to create more confusion among already confused opposition forces. Half the opposition supported Khatami at first.
Now the regime is moving to block satellite broadcasts. It is centralizing the Internet in order to block it. Radio? Voice of Israel is actually among the most respectedâ€¦ I should add that many educated Iranians see Israel as the only hope. They know that Israel sold spare parts to the Islamic regime during the Iran-Iraq war. But they understand that the issue then was the territorial integrity of Iran. They respect Israel as having relentlessly and consistently opposed the Iranian regime.
As for the phone, well, people can phone in and out. The regime cannot check every telephone line. And even the well-known political figures can use phone cards from restaurants.
How worried should the West be by the nuclear drive and horrible rhetoric?
Extremely worried. They should not be sleeping at night. If they are sleeping at night they are fools. They should take Ahmadinejad at face value. This is no rhetoric for political consumption, or domestic consumption, or international consumption. He means what he says and says what he means. And when I say "he" I mean "they" - the regime.
If they had a nuclear capability would they use it?
I would say so, yes.
They would make good use of it, in their aim to defeat the West.
How does Hamas fit into this mind-set?
As an operational arm of the Islamist regime - financially, politically.
Where does this desire to take over the world come from? Retreating from modernity is one thing, but taking over the world? Why the effort to defeat the West? Is this a religious imperative?
Judaism is more conducive to modernity. It does not close the mind. It encourages debate. I am Muslim-born, but Islam is the most rigid faith. Islam paralyzes the brain.
And when the West looks for moderate Islamâ€¦?
There is a way. There is no single definition of Islam. Iran, potentially, could reformulate Islam, if the opposition can unite and bring together enough scholars. Iran could bring the entire Islamic world into the modern era.
As things stand, Ahmadinejad and Khamenei have one particular interpretation of Islam, and they find sufficient ideological justification in their interpretation of Islamic texts for their hatred of the West and their desire to destroy it.
This is a war between two opposing ideologies that only one can survive. There can be no coexistence. Therefore the West needs to defeat this ideology completely, and it should do this by supporting the people of Iran to overthrow the Islamic regime, create a democratic definition of Islam, institutionalize that, and then spread it through the other Islamic countries. Otherwise Western civilization is in grave danger.
We should take this regime seriously and try to end it as quickly as possible. We should not only focus on the nuclear program. What about biological weapons, a single bottle poured into a lake? It's a mindset. There are so many ways that they can harm the West.
And you're not advocating a military response?
Definitely not military. It is a conflict for hearts and minds. A war, yes, but an intellectual one. Here's one obvious way to wage it: Members of the regime have changed the face of Toronto. They buy big gigantic houses, cash, and they get Canadian residency permits, hoping that if things change they can come to Canada. Rafsanjani is rumored to own half of Toronto. Perhaps the Treasury should confiscate those assets.
Here's another: Stop the flow of oil into Iran. Iran is a net importer of refined oil products. The transportation system will collapse within a few months and the regime with it.
But Russia and China won't go along with that.
In a worst case scenario where Russia and China help the regime, the most important weapon is again the people. If we can trigger the people of Iran to revolt, Russia and China can't stop that. Everything comes back to triggering the revolt by the people of Iran.