The Fight for Iran

By Kenneth R. Timmerman | June 25, 2007
[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 Tehran regime.

 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 Republic.
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 regime.

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 dies off.