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Iran: Rights Leader Says Reformists Looking To Regain Strength

Voting in Iran's presidential elections in June 2005 (file photo) (epa) U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called in February for the U.S. Congress to allow Washington to increase spending on democracy programs for Iran from $10 million to $75 million this year. Fatemeh Aman of RFE/RL's Radio Farda interviewed Fatemeh Haghighatjoo, a leading defender of human rights and advocate of democracy in Iran, for her views on the wisdom of such overt support, --> on how the crisis over Iran's nuclear program is affecting the opposition, and on the current mood among two key groups, women and students. A former member of the Iranian parliament, Haghighatjoo resigned in 2004 following a crackdown on reformers. She is now a visiting scholar with the Center of International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, in the United States.

RFE/RL: As an active member of the Iranian reformists' camp, how do you think Rice's $75 million proposal will affect the democracy movement in Iran?

Fatemeh Haghighatjoo: I don't think this plan will help promote democracy in Iran. On the contrary, it will weaken the position of pro-democracy activists in Iran. Even before the United States announced this move, extreme right-wing figures such as Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi [a cleric whose followers include Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad], used to accuse Iranian reformists of receiving suitcases from the United States stuffed with dollars.

This rumor was the basis for the prosecution of many writers and journalists. Many newspapers were banned and journalists jailed. This monetary support will play into the hands of the totalitarian regime in Tehran to systematically crack down on the democracy movement. Having said that, I do agree with some of the points raised by Rice, such as proposals about cultural and scientific exchange. The U.S. government should ease restrictions on Iranians -- particularly academics -- for travel and for culture and scientific exchanges.

RFE/RL: But if the regime is looking for an excuse, couldn't it use even this kind of support against the democracy movement?

Haghighatjoo: This is a long-term issue. Currently, the biggest problem in Iran is the absence of an independent media. Supporting independent media and the free flow of information will have a significant impact on the promotion of democracy in Iran.

RFE/RL: Do you mean media within Iran, or outside the country?

Haghighatjoo: Radio and television are run by the government. Most newspapers and websites are also directly or indirectly run by state institutions. The few independent media outlets there are also under enormous pressure. So what we need are media outlets that are independent of the Islamic Republic. As you know, Iran's Supreme National Security Council has issued an order that bans media from reporting about the standoff [with the West over Iran's nuclear program]. Many people [in Iran] may not know that Iran has been referred to the Security Council. This is the type of news that [independent] media would be able to convey.

A U.S. Model For The Middle East?

Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani at prayer in Tehran University (epa)

RFE/RL: Do you think that the United States has a viable model for promoting democracy in the Middle East? How successful do you think this plan could be in the region?

Haghighatjoo: I personally believe that the drive to promote democracy in the Middle East stems primarily from U.S. national interests and the threat of terrorism. Efforts to fight terrorism can also help promote democracy, but once democracy and the principles of voting are accepted, you can't complain about the outcome. A lot of people in the United States are worried about this and are even raising the question whether democracy is appropriate for the Middle East. This is a short-sighted view.

Democracy cannot be imposed by war. What we should be working on is promoting the culture of democracy in the Middle East.

The second point is that democracy cannot be imposed by war. What we should be working on is promoting the culture of democracy in the Middle East. I think the United States needs to revise many of its policies. Promoting democracy has to be adjusted to suit the cultural specificities of these countries. The military option is by nature antidemocratic. Look at Iraq. There are certainly some positive trends there, such as free elections. But the negative aspects predominate, at least for now.

The Nuclear Crisis And The Reformers

RFE/RL: Before the Iranian presidential elections in June 2005, you predicted that if Ahmadinejad were elected, it would militarize Iranian politics and increase pressure on the democracy movement. Now it seems that the nuclear standoff is also helping the militarists. What can Iranian activists do to have an influence on this process, or prevent it from moving ahead?

Haghighatjoo: I think if the United Nations were to pressure Iran on the issue of human rights, rather than on the nuclear issue, it would have been much more effective. The regime would never have been able to manage to create such a united front against it. People would certainly not let the regime violate human rights and justify it as being in the national interest -- whereas they have been able to create some degree of unity among different factions of the regime and make a national-interest issue out of the nuclear standoff. Any military action or even indiscriminate sanctions against Iran will strengthen the position of the totalitarian elements within the Islamic Republic. I hope the Security Council is aware of this fact.

RFE/RL: Why are the reformers so quiet? Is it a temporary tactic, or is it out of fear of prosecution?

Without this [nuclear] crisis, the parliament and the executive would now be engaged in a bitter fight.

Haghighatjoo: I am not entirely uncritical of the policy of the reformers in Iran. But the fact is that they are under enormous pressure. Events such as the appearance of Akbar Atri and Ali Afshari [of the Office for Strengthening Unity, an umbrella student group] before the U.S. Congress in March also increase the pressure on the reformers. After the topic of the $75 million in aid came up, many Iranians were arrested who had in the past attended the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center [which documents human rights abuses in Iran, and receives U.S. funding] in Dubai. It's important to act in a way that doesn't raise the price of activism in Iran.

RFE/RL: Before the election, you predicted that an Ahmadinejad government could only survive in a crisis. Is the nuclear standoff the type of crisis that you believe he's been seeking?

Haghighatjoo: Yes, a crisis like this. And also possibly a military attack. A military attack, in particular, would help them to strengthen themselves enormously. The different factions have now found a common enemy. Without this [nuclear] crisis, the parliament and the executive would now be engaged in a bitter fight, and the rift between [and current chair of the Expediency Council, which has supervisory powers over all branches of government, and former President] Hashemi Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad or [Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei would have deepened.

Iran's Rebellious Women?

Female students watch a session of the Iranian parliament (epa)

RFE/RL: Let's turn to women's issues. The governments of Ahmadinejad and [former President Mohammad] Khatami's governments differ in this regard tremendously. You had said that Khordad 2nd -- the date, in the Islamic calendar, when Khatami won his first election, and the subsequent name of Iran's reformist movement -- would have not happened without women. Do you think the achievements of the women's movement during that time are being lost irreversibly?

Haghighatjoo: Well, as I said, the pressure is immense, and it has silenced even the most outspoken reformers. I don't think the current situation will put an end to the women's movement, but it will have a significant negative impact on it. Activities will diminish, but the demands will still be there, and they will be expressed again once the situation improves. We should also realize that these pressures may trigger a rebellious response. Previously, women always sought permission for their gatherings. However, many women's groups don't bother with that anymore. I think women's demands and the form of their protests will change.

The Importance Of Students

RFE/RL: Will the next major movement in Iran be a student movement?

The new generation is not interested in the model of the Islamic Republic.

Haghighatjoo: The generation of the Islamic Revolution is committed to the Islamic Republic and the concept of a religion-based governance. Both the reformists and the conservatives are from this generation. Many reformists still support the concept of "Vilayat-i Faqih," or supreme jurisprudence. But the new generation is not interested in the model of the Islamic Republic; it supports a secular model instead. Secularism -- not exactly as practiced in France or Turkey, but as a system based on the separation of the institution of religion from the institution of power. This generation cannot see their freedom being restricted in the name of religion.

The next leaders of the Iranian democracy movement will be those who fight for a secular constitution, and this potential exists in the student movement. I believe that no broad political movement can take root in Iran without the students. However, the student movement is not yet mature, and cannot lead to a widespread civic movement by itself. The student movement must ally itself with elites who follow the same principles. The religious elites cannot be allied with the student movement. We see now that the demarcation between the religious elites and the student movement is becoming increasingly clear. I don't think a widespread movement will take shape soon. However, if the students make the right moves and take advantage of political opportunities that may come up, they can pave the way for a broad civic movement.

RFE/RL Iran Report

RFE/RL Iran Report

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