Michael Rubin’s Speech

Speech delivered by Michael Rubin, visiting scholar, the American Enterprise Institute to MEHR Los Angeles, September 1, 2002

 Good afternoon and thank you for having me with you at this important commemoration. It seems like just this morning I was dodging rain in Washington, DC, so I am thrilled to be in Los Angeles, especially with you to mark this all too often forgotten anniversary.

 The only thing I am not happy about is having to follow Representative Loretta Sanchez and her call message of support and call for holding the entire leadership of the Islamic Republic accountable for their actions. It is not possible to top what she just said.

 Before I begin, I also want to acknowledge the work of the Mission for Establishment of Human Rights. MEHR is doing a fantastic job, and I have the utmost respect for your work in exposing the Islamic Republic’s massive violations of human rights.

 I was eight yeas old during the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and only made my first visit to Iran in 1996. I returned in 1999. Many in the West assume that Muhammad Khatami brought freedom to Iran. After all, reporters like Robin Wright in The Los Angeles Times reportedly refer to Khatami as “the leading reformist in Iran.” But I found that’s not what ordinary Iranians think. Outside the posh cafes of Tajrish Square, in the greasy mechanical shops and stalls in Shahr-i Rayy and in the bustle of shops and stalls along Khiaban-i Ferdowsi, Iranians were visibly more tense during my second trip than they were during my first.


Overwhelmingly, the Iranian people want freedom. That we know. But it’s the guys with the guns that count. And it is the Islamic Republic that controls the guys with the guns. The hardliners and vigilantes like Ansar-i Hizbullah have not gone away. Rather they have regrouped under the support of Ayatollah Khamene’i, Ayatollah Jannati, and President Muhammad Khatami. In 1996, I asked a teacher where she was during the Islamic Revolution. “I supported it initially,” she acknowledged. “Khomeini promised an Islamic democracy. I was a student. I wanted democracy.  

By the time I realized six months later that what we would get was a dictatorship under a shallow patina of Islam, it was too late. We have been suffering under a brutal dictatorship ever since. But now what can we do?”

 Indeed, it is sadly ironic that some American and European policymakers still insist that Iran has free elections and that Muhammad Khatami is a democrat. Is the Islamic Republic truly democratic when unelected guardians disqualify 234 out of 238 presidential candidates on the grounds that they are too reformist, too democratic, and too accurately reflect the desires of the Iranian people for freedom? Do they not know that in the Islamic Republic, elections are not about who Iranians want, but instead who is least offensive of the limited choice?

 Robin Wright is not the only correspondent to misrepresent human rights in Iran. We must never forget that Iranians deserve the same human rights in Tehran that Robin Wright enjoys in Los Angeles. The media must be held accountable. A few weeks ago, I decided to review newspapers from 1989, when Hashemi Rafsanjani became president. The New York Times and The Washington Post trumpeted Rafsanjani as a reformer and a moderate. Proof of his moderation? He appointed Mohammad Yazdi as head of the judiciary! How many innocent student, intellectuals, and dissidents were tortured and executed while Yazdi and Rafsanjani spat on human rights? Are purges and torture proof of moderation? It is the same with Khatami.

 Reporters and academic experts trumpeted Khatami as proof of reform in Iran. After all, when Khatami was Minister of Islamic Guidance, he allowed numerous books and films to be published and distributed. He did. But we must not forget that he also banned more than 600 books. We must judge the Islamic Republic’s leadership by its actions, not by the rose-scented perfume thrown upon them by fawning intellectuals or shallow reporters.

  It is the same thing with Abdul Karim Soroush. He is welcomed in American and European universities as a reformist. Why? Because he described himself as such. But this is the man that lead the cultural revolution in the Islamic Republic, eviscerated Iran’s once formidable universities, and lead to the flight of the cream of Iran’s intellectual crop. As an American, I say Iran’s loss is America’s gain, but it is nevertheless a tragedy for all Iranians. The American academic community has been little better. Many tenured professors of Middle Eastern and especially Iranian studies soft-pedal the abuses of the Islamic Republic. Nikki Keddie, for example, harshly criticizes the Shah for spending billions on arms instead of on schools and on workers. And perhaps many of his policies deserve criticism. But, where is the outrage when Muhammad Khatami travels to Moscow to sign a $7 billion arms and nuclear component purchase at the same time that teachers march for unpaid wages and Iranian girls prostitute themselves to put food on their families’ table?

 Unfortunately, American scholars of Iran do not have the courage to lead and some remain fundamentally inconsistent in their analytical criteria. They depend on the Islamic Republic to provide them with visas so they can do firsthand research. Research tainted with self-censorship is never honest and cannot be true scholarship. Khatami talks often of the dialogue of civilizations. A dialogue of civilizations is important, but it must be honest. Take a look at the actual exchange. The most recent official U.S. and Islamic Republic figures tell it all. The U.S. issued 22,000 visas for Iranians to visit America. That is wonderful news. But the Islamic Republic, issued just 800 visas for Americans to visit Iran. What’s the Islamic Republic afraid of? So much for dialogue.

 I used to teach Qajar history, but now I’m here as a policy analyst. Let’s talk about U.S. policy. Is it going in the right direction? I think it is. But we need your help. Human rights is not a partisan issue. It is an issue on which both Democrats and Republican agree. But Congressman, Senators, and policymakers must be educated.

 MEHR is doing a great job, but it is the job of all Iranian Americans and, indeed, all Americans. You may not be happy with all statements out of Washington. That’s fine. But tell policymakers what they are doing wrong. Be specific. Correct their misinterpretations. They will listen. I do believe U.S. policymakers are beginning to understand the issues on Iran.

 Of course, groups like the American Iranian Council have tried to muddy the waters and, unfortunately, have led some Senators and Congressman to de facto support an Islamic Republic which, ironically, the Iranian people don’t even support. But truth prevails, even over the big money donations of oil companies, and the naïve sponsorship of some university programs.

 And let’s get to the truth. Never before in history has an ideological dictatorship willingly given up power no matter what its people say. Civil society was all well and good in China up until June 3, 1989, but the next day the world saw the true nature of the Chinese dictatorship. And the dictatorship of Khamene’i and Khatami is little different. Now let me be clear. Despite the propaganda of Keyhan, Ettela’at, and IRNA, absolutely no one in Washington is talking about force against Iran. Almost 100 years after the start of the first Mashrutiyat, it is up to the Iranian people to lead a second Mashrutiyat. But we will not support the Muhammad ‘Ali Shah’s of the present day. We will not support Khamene’i, Khatami, or Shah Akbar Rafsanjani!

 Thanks to the words of Michael Ledeen, Azar Nafisi, and Patrick Clawson, American policymakers increasingly recognize that the dichotomy in Iran is not between hardliners and reformers, but rather between government and dissident. There can be no compromise on freedom. We will not make the same mistake twice. With your constant pressure and only because of your constant pressure will American policymakers not throw a repressive Islamic Republic a lifeline in the naïve belief that they are helping reform. Only with your vigilance will the State Department not be tempted to pursue the same mercantilist policies that the European Union regrettably pursues, pumping money into the wallets of the hardliners, and wounding those who seek freedom, liberty, and reform.

 Again, I repeat, the United States recognizes the wealth and greatness of Iranian civilization. Iran has a rich and deep culture, and Iranians are rightfully proud. But we also recognize that the Islamic Republic does not recognize true Iranian culture. It is not for the United States to ever impose a leader on Iran. No one wants a puppet in Iran. The future of Iran is for Iranians and Iranians only to decide. But they must be given a choice. And whatever they choose, they will have a friend in the United States. Iran is the key to stability in the Middle East, and has always been a regional leader. I expect that peace and stability will spread outward from a peaceful, democratic Iran.  

Now more about Iranian culture. I sometime get criticized as do all other non-Iranians who speak out against the massive human rights violations of the Islamic Republic. We are sometime told we are against Iran, and we portray the Iranian people in a negative light. Not so. I have dedicated my life to the study of Iranian history, I have been the recipient of wonderful hospitality in Iran, and I am one of the few who has gotten to see Iranian culture firsthand in Iran, even under the Islamic Republic. But make no mistake. The culture of the Islamic Republic and the culture of Iran are not the same. To say that Iranians don’t deserve freedom, don’t deserve liberty, and must live under a regime they hate--- that is the true disrespect and disservice to the Iranian people. Policymakers in Washington know the true wealth and meaning of Iranian culture. And again I repeat, the Iranian people have a strong friend in the United States. But guide us. Tell us how to improve our message. Don’t let us forget that more than 65 million Iranians who do not have freedom desire nothing less than true democracy and freedom. Educate us. Make sure the Islamic Republic is judged by its actions rather than its rhetoric.

 While France, England, and Senator Chuck Hagel agitate for increasing trade with Tehran, remind them that the death penalty has doubled under Muhammad Khatami’s administration. Remind them of the 3,000 who died in a massive purge of political prisoners in 1988. Read to them Grand Ayatollah Husayn ‘Ali Montazeri’s memoirs detailing the cruelty of officially-sanctioned purges carried out by the same men marching under the reformist banner. Public execution including death by stoning is not just a tale of 1988, but also rather one of 1998 and 2002. Do not just listen to lofty rhetoric of dialogue of civilizations if the rhetoric is empty.

 When Khatami spoke before the Italian parliament, he called for tolerance and respect. That is good. But where is it? And who is the true Khatami? What exactly did Khatami mean, then, when he told Iranian television on October 24, 2000, “if we abide by the Quran, we must mobilize to kill.” While Khatami talks about a Dialogue of Civilizations, many in the Islamic Republic talk about a clash of civilizations. They say the U.S. is against Iranians, and that anyone who wants democracy is an enemy or an agent of the C.I.A.

 They are wrong, and they are facile. There is no clash of civilizations between Iranians and Americans. Iranians historically are among the guardians of civilization. There is, however, a clash between those in favor of human rights, and those in favor of the Islamic Republic. MEHR and the Iranian community in the United States and Europe must be at the vanguard of the fight for human rights. Credibility is your ally. Don’t lose it.

 Your mission is hard, but important. I look forward to celebrating the success of your efforts in Tehran. Sooner rather than later. Thank you.


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