[Paris – June 21, 2007] – Iranian
opponents to the Islamic Republic of Iran have remained in exile these
past 28 years because they can’t agree on the basic principles for how
their country should be governed.
While diversity of opinion is normally a good thing, in this case
diversity has generated paralysis – a paralysis that has been
encouraged and secretly nourished by the intelligence services of the
Should Iran be a constitutional monarchy? A Republic? A federal
state, with regional governments allotted to major ethnic groups such
as Kurds, Balouchis, Azeris and Arabs?
Advocates of each side see their ideas as exclusive. It’s them or us,
they have been saying for 28 years. And that’s why they are still in
exile and the Islamic Republic is still in power, despite its
extraordinary lack of governing skills.
The conference I attended last weekend in Paris to announce the
creation of a new opposition movement, Solidarity Iran, ran head on
into these contradictions. Rather than announce a plan for action
against the Tehran regime, as the organizers had hoped they would be
able to do, the conference attendees decided that they had to resolve
these basic contradictions before they could move forward together to
confront the regime.
So is there any common ground among these three apparently opposing
visions of Iran’s national identity and future government? I think so
Why do we care how Iranian exiles conceive of their country? Because in
a matter of months, Iran’s apocalyptic regime – to borrow a term from
Dr. Assad Homayoun – will have nuclear weapons. Without a coherent,
well-financed, and broadly-supported opposition project, Iran’s
apocalyptic leaders soon will have the means to enact their chiliastic
vision of a final showdown with their opponents within the Muslim
world, the Dar al-Islam, and the non-Muslim West, the Dar al-Harb, or
House of War.
Here in a nutshell are the arguments that each makes.
Constitutional monarchists argue that only the institution of monarchy
can guarantee Iran’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and unite
the fractious opposition.
Dr. Ramin Parham, a Monarchist intellectual I encountered in Paris
shortly after the Solidarity Iran conference, compared the Iranian
opposition to the national Iranian soccer team.
“We’ve got terrific individuals, world-class players. And yet we
lose every time, even against second-ranked teams, such as Qatar or
Dubai, because those players don’t play together as a team. Why is
that? Because they have no good coach, and no team identity. That’s
what we need with the Iranian opposition. That’s what the institution
of the monarchy can bring.”
Republicans, such as former political prisoner and leader of the July
1999 student uprising, Roozbeh Farahanipour, argue that Iranians don’t
want to bring back the Pahlavi dynasty, whose mistakes directly led to
the 1979 revolution. They prefer a strict republican form of
government, similar to America, with popular sovereignty delegated by
the people to their elected representatives.
Proponents of a federal state come primarily from among Iran’s
non-Persian ethnic components, who by all estimates comprise over 60
percent of the population.
I met with Hassan Sharafi, the deputy secretary general of the Kurdish
Democratic Party of Iran, shortly after the Paris conference as well.
He argues that Iran’s minorities believe in a single, unified Iranian
nation, but want regional autonomy as a guarantee that their distinct
cultures will be respected within the confines of a single, united,
federal Iranian state.
Iran has been a nation for over two thousand years. “You don’t need to
do nation building in Iran,” Ramin Parham told me. “You need to do
state building, to build the institutions of a modern democratic state.”
I think Parham is right, and that the fear-mongerers among the
ultra-nationalists are wrong. They fear that any concessions made to
Iran’s ethnic components will be the first step toward the dissolution
of a united Iran.
The KDPI’s Hassan Sharifi was not speaking as an individual when he
told me solemnly that he considers himself an “Iranian nationalist.”
Iran is a mosaic compromised of many different nationalities, each with
their own cultural identity and language. “Together, we make up the
Iranian people,” Sharafi said.
Similarly, without the support and consent of the Kurds, the Azeris,
the Ahwazi Arabs and the Balouch, Iran can never be a nation at peace
with itself or with the world. Nor can it ever get rid of the Islamic
So what about the complaint of the republicans, who fear –not without justification – a return of an absolutist monarchy?
I think the answer to that question lies with the monarchists
themselves. Are they willing to impose strict restraints on the powers
of a future king through a constitutional framework? “We look for
example to Juan Carlos of Spain, a monarch who became the symbol of
national unity,” Parham said.
Parham noted that Iran’s monarch had rallied the country in moments of
crisis, such as the Soviet invasion of northwestern Iran right after
World War II. While there had been long periods where monarchs
did not behave as they should, he said he believed that a constitution
could create strict limits on a king’s authority.
Do these through groups share common grounds? I think so.
“We have never had any issues with regard to identity and are crystal
clear on and quite aware of our identity,” the nationalist Roozbeh
Farahanipour tells me.
“To form a union, to become unified, everyone involved must agree on a
common geographical area - country, and a common flag and a common
nation. The words "nationalities" or "sects" can be used, but we only
recognize the Iranian Nation. Our national unity is based on our being
Iranian not on a supermarket style union: 2 women, 1 student, 3
workers, 2 Lors, 4 Azeris, etc.”
When you listen to these leaders carefully, the outlines of a national
concessus clearly emerges. But they alone can work out the details.
How do you go about state-building? By hammering out the details of a
national constitution. The Constitutionalist Party of Iran, which did
not attend the Paris gathering because of differences over national
identity, argues that the 1906 constitution establishing limits on the
monarch is a unifying document.
But clearly, it is not. Iranians old enough to remember the final years
of the former shah know well how that earlier constitution was ripped
into shreds by the very monarch whose powers it was designed to limit.
Some opponents of the regime, such as former Hezbollahi Amir Farshad
Ebrahami, argue that Iranians should set their differences aside until
after they have gotten rid of the mullahs.
While from a distance, that sounds like a reasonable proposal, it falls
short when it comes down to motivating people such as the Kurds or
students or labor groups inside Iran to risk their lives to oppose the
Risk their lives for what? That’s a legitimate question, and they ask it all the time.
Khomeini came to power in 1979 with a clear (if deceitful) program. He
said he planned to abolish the monarchy and institute an Islamic
republic. He eventually put that question to the people of Iran in a
referendum that passed overwhelmingly – in part, because he was never
clear what his Islamic republic would look like until later.
There may be no better time than now for Iranian constitutional lawyers
to gather to write a new constitution, a document that resolves the
contradictions of the three positions I’ve outlined above.
Is it possible to achieve a historic consensus uniting a limited,
symbolic monarch to a federal republic that guarantees the rights of
Iran’s ethnic communities while protecting every Iranian as an
individual from the tyranny of the state?
Maybe yes, maybe no. That will be up to Iranians to decide.
But the time for them to work toward that historic compromise is now,
while they are in exile and the most powerful weapons the different
factions possess are words.
I have no doubt that a unity document would transform the Iranian
opposition and terrify the ruling clerics in Tehran. Nor do I doubt
that such a document would confer an immense legitimacy on the
opposition, who could travel the capitols of the world with a project,
a leader, and a pledge for the future.
Are the Iranians ready for this? Participants at the Paris conference
gave themselves three months to resolve most of these issues. We will
know soon enough whether they are up to the challenge, or whether they
will have to remain in exile another 28 years until this generation