February 7, 2003, 9:15 a.m.
Obstacles for Iran
Some Americans are part of the problem.

By Mohammad Parvin

On January 25, the Islamic Republic of Iran closed down Hamshahri, the nation's largest-circulation daily. In just the first three weeks of this year, the regime had already shuttered five other reformist dailies. Robert Ménard, secretary-general of Reporters Without Borders, commented, "At this rate, the non-conservative press will simply disappear in Iran." Over five years into President Khatami's reign, not only has he yet to implement a single reform, but Iranians are less free than they've ever been since the cultural revolution, purges, and prison massacres of the 1980s.

The Iranian people's struggle for freedom and democracy faces two primary obstacles. Inside Iran, the vast majority of students, workers, women, and, increasingly, even the clergy are confronting a brutal regime that has no respect for human rights and dignity. And outside the Republic, Iranians must face interest-driven governments, lobby groups with shady funding, and an American journalistic and academic community far more interested in access than in honest reporting and scholarship. Taken together, these groups help to legitimize the Iranians' oppressors.

The Iranian people have been experiencing the terror of the Islamic regime since its inception in 1979. Attempts to reform Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's dictatorial reign have been about as effective as attempts to reform Pol Pot or Saddam Hussein. Under Khomeini and Khamenei, Iranians have not been allowed to dress, speak, write, vote, pray, dance, love, laugh, or live as they want, and they've paid with their lives — hundreds and thousands of lives — for refusing to give up these basic rights.

Iranians have been imprisoned, tortured, executed, and stoned to death. Ironically, public executions have risen proportionately with European trade. Nevertheless, just as disenfranchised Polish shipyard workers once arose to challenge a brutal dictatorship, today we are seeing ever more frequent protests by tens of thousands of Iranians who are using every opportunity to show their hatred for the Islamic regime. Just as Hungarians, Czechs, and Poles were willing to stare down their dictators' guns for freedom, Iranians are coming out to say — with an almost unanimous voice — that they no longer have any faith in the Islamic regime's so-called reformist movement. They want a secular democratic system, not a watered-down theocracy.

For over two decades — including in recent weeks — Khatami himself has asserted that he will only accept "an Islamic democracy." Nice-sounding words to English-speakers, perhaps, but the Iranians themselves know better. In the pages of the official newspaper Keyhan, Khatami explained that in an Islamic democracy, only those with a seminary education should be allowed to participate fully. If only Vatican-approved priests with a long seminary education were allowed to run for the U.S. presidency, would anyone in their right mind call the United States a democracy?

The Gary Sicks, Robin Wrights, and Hooshang Amirahmadis of the world — proponents of engagement, dialogue, and the so-called "Track II" process — are actively undermining democracy. The Islamic regime uses the statement of lobby groups such as the American Iranian Council to convince democrats and political prisoners in Iran that even the Americans are against them. White House pronouncements promising to side with the Iranian people are few and far between. Zalmay Khalilzad, the president's National Security Council point man on Iran, hardly has time to address the Iranian situation, overburdened as he is with the Afghanistan and Iraq portfolios. Meanwhile, the Islamic regime's lobby seeks to fill the policy vacuum with calls to normalize relations.

Right now, the battle is moving to the U.S. Congress. The House is currently considering Resolution 505, a bill sponsored by Rep. Bob Ney, which urges the United States to support a Muslim society in Iran with "greater freedom and tolerance." The resolution does not acknowledge that the Iranian people deserve anything more than the Islamic Republic. The resolution mentions not one word about the horrific human-rights abuses perpetrated by the current regime.

Ney may have the well-financed American Iranian Council on his side — as well as oil companies like Exxon and Shell — but the vast majority of Iranians want democracy, without compromise on human rights and fundamental freedoms.

House Resolution 504, introduced by Rep. Tom Lantos, and Senate Resolution 306, introduced by Sen. Sam Brownback, are genuine efforts to support democracy and human rights in Iran. These resolutions recognize that legitimizing the Islamic regime stifles, rather than supports, democracy and human rights. They recognize that holding the Islamic regime accountable for its actions and those of its proxy groups will enhance American national security. Lantos and Brownback believe the U.S. should direct its positive gestures to the Iranian people — not to the politicians exploiting their offices for personal gain.

Freedom for Iran is not the sole responsibility of the U.S. government, however. Iranian-Americans themselves have heretofore failed to make their voice heard in Washington. They must show their brethren in Iran the power of real democracy to affect change. They need to form a strong, nonpartisan voting bloc to support those who take a firm stance for human rights, and to oust those seeking to appease dictators for short-term financial gain. With more than 500,000 Iranians in California alone — and more than double that in the rest of the United States — free Iranians have a lot to say.

— Mohammad Parvin is an adjunct professor at the California State University and director of the Mission for Establishing Human Rights in Iran.

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