What do Iranians really want?

The people want regime change but are not ready to say it as they lack the organization, leadership and support to make it happen.

Mousavi supporter 248.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Mousavi supporter 248.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
For the past six months, we have all witnessed the brave struggle of Iranian citizens against their regime. At first, they demanded to have their votes in the June 2009 presidential election counted. Many believed that there was vast fraud in the vote count and that the real winner of the election was former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi. Millions went into the streets asking: "Where is my vote?"
A coalition of former high-ranking officials, who felt their own interests and positions were threatened by a coup by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his former Revolutionary Guards colleagues and backed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, joined ranks in urging an investigation into the allegations of vote fraud. This coalition included Mohsen Rezaie, former head of the Revolutionary Guards and a presidential candidate, former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, former president Mohammad Khatami (who had endorsed Mousavi), former Majles speaker and presidential candidate Mehdi Karroubi and Moussavi himself.
However, what has now come to be known as Iran's Green Movement (after the color of Islam and the color of Mousavi's election material) showed quickly that its demands were way beyond that of these former regime officials who remain committed to the existence of the Islamic Republic and the position of the supreme leader. All of these figures were and are against the Ahmadinejad government, but all continue to support the Islamic regime in one form or another.
The chants of the protesters in the streets quickly changed from "Where is my vote?" to "Death to the dictator" (meaning Ahmadinejad) and finally after the endorsement of the Ahmadinejad election by the supreme leader to a red line that had never before been crossed: "Death to Khamenei!" And "Death to Israel, Death to America" were replaced by angry chants of "Death to Russia, Death to China" the two principal opponents of implementing tougher sanctions against the Islamic Republic and two of the earliest countries to recognize Ahmadinejad's reelection.
Rezaie was the first to back down and endorse the Ahmadinejad government. He was quickly followed by Rafsanjani, who after a failed attempt to remove Khamenei as the supreme leader and the arrest of his daughter realized that he could no longer play the role of kingmaker. Next up was Khatami, who grew quiet, stopped signing joint pronouncements with Karroubi and Mousavi and signed with a US-based speakers' bureau to be able to leave the country for a lecture tour should he find himself in harm's way.
MOUSAVI AND Karroubi, however, have remained strong and brave. They continue to join the demonstrators and through interviews and pronouncements have shown that they are willing to stand with the people as they attempt to exercise their freedom of speech and assembly. But they continue to remain loyal to the regime, the supreme leader, the constitution and are willing to live with a reformed Islamic Republic. This is not however, what the demonstrators want when they chant: "No shah, no mullah, an Iranian republic!" So what is it that they want? Who are the leaders? And can we or should we help them?
To attempt to find the answers to these questions, last week, I headed to the region to meet some of the more than 2,000 newly arrived political refugees who have left Iran since the June riots and some political activists who came to see me from Iran.
What follows is a summary of what I heard and observed: The political activists initially had hoped to elect a president (Mousavi) and then a parliament in a free and fair election within the confines of the current system. That new government, in their view, would then vote to remove the position of the supreme leader, and the regime, through an evolution, would become an Iranian republic.
After being robbed of their votes, however, they have come to realize that this very experiment in evolutionary change had failed once before. After all, Iranians voted overwhelmingly for Khatami in 1997, and for a reformist parliament and provincial and city councils in the Khatami era, only to have even minor reforms thwarted, the student uprising of 1999 crushed, leaving the Islamic Republic more dictatorial, militaristic and with less political freedom than before.
Now, after more than hundreds of reported deaths, 3000 arrests and disappearances, countless rapes, they have realized that the regime apparatus, the intelligence agencies, the multibillion dollar machine known as the Revolutionary Guards and hundreds of thousands of Basij militia members on government welfare who are happy with the status quo will not go quietly into the night.
In the utterances of Mousavi about reconciliation, they are having a déjà vu of Khatami again. The political activists and the political elite (not the average man in the streets) have come to realize that Mousavi is not the man who will lead them to democracy and freedom.
So do they want regime change? No, they insist. They have made that mistake before. They claim they don't want much. They just want the removal of the position of the supreme leader, the Guardian Council, the Assembly of Experts, the Expediency Council and abolishment of the Revolutionary Guards Corps and the Basij militia. In other words, they do want regime change. but they are not quite ready to say it. And why is that? They lack the organization, leadership and support to make it happen and do not want to get their hopes up.
With or without organization, with or without leadership, with or without funding, the loosely organized Iranian opposition inside and outside is now galvanized for its next showdown with the regime: the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in February.
As I was getting ready to leave a meeting on my last day in Istanbul, a young political science student well versed in the history of the American Revolution, naively told me that when I see President Barack Obama, I should remind him: Even Americans got a little help from the French before they succeeded in overthrowing their oppressors and becoming an independent republic.
Iran is in a pre-revolutionary phase. There are many unknowns. The Iranians shocked and awed the Washington beltway crowd that thought the idea of regime change and revolution was dead. Now, we must be careful to not overcompensate for past mistakes by considering the overthrow of the regime to be a fait accompli.
We must delicately help, support and cultivate the Greens without causing them harm or manipulating them. This is a movement that can change the face of the Middle East in the 21st century.
The writer, an Iranian affairs expert and a pro-democracy coordinator, was the former executive committee member and director of foreign affairs of the Iran Referendum Movement.