As necessary as sanctions may be in thwarting Iran’s nuclear program, they are a secondary issue. Challenging the moral and political legitimacy of violence by the Iranian state against its own citizens ought to be the urgent priority of the international community.
After enduring a year of extraordinary cruelty, solidarity with those struggling for democracy and human rights is every bit as critical as sanctions aimed at Iran’s rulers.
The Iranian presidential elections, which took place on June 12 2009, changed the destiny of the Islamic Republic. The unprecedented protests that followed the elections presented serious challenges not only to the political credibility of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the president of Iran, but also to the moral status of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his legitimacy as the supreme leader of the Revolution.
The public anger and the ensuing infighting among the founding architects of the Revolution, have presented the most serious challenge to Iran’s clerical regime since it replaced the Shah in 1979. Those among the reformists who believed that the system allowed scope for reform found themselves face-to-face with an authoritarian structure that used extreme violence to ensure its political survival. Others, who dared to speak out for their civic rights risked imprisonment, torture, rape, and execution. The intensified crackdowns on journalists, intellectuals, students, and women activists indicate just how determined the Iranian regime is to secure its political future.
Although it is true that the popular demonstrations did not bring an end to the Iranian regime, they have badly damaged its domestic and international legitimacy. Assuredly, the diminishing number of protestors in the streets of Tehran gives the impression that the protest movement is fading away and Mr. Mousavi and Mr. Karoubi are losing steam. These two opposition leaders will have to decide whether to keep going or to accept a humiliating deal with Ahmadinejad’s government that would greatly diminish their moral and political statures. As for the Iranian authorities, the question is still whether the continuous crackdowns have succeeded in putting an end to the popular quest for democracy or, on the contrary, provoked a wider challenge to their rule.
These emerging power dynamics leave Iranian Green Movement dissidents with tough choices. If they continue insisting on exercising their lawful rights through nonviolent demonstrations, they risk inviting further bloodshed by military and security forces seeking more power in the name of stability. If they put an end to their movement of civil disobedience because of the harsh repression over the past year, they might lose the attention and sympathy of the outside world.
What is certainly clear is that the Iranian political structure is facing a crisis of legitimacy. The current power holders have lost moral credibility by virtue of their cruelty and lies. By asserting the republican principle of popular sovereignty, the Green Movement has posed a counter-claim of legitimacy against the political theology of the absolute sovereignty of the Supreme Leader.
The issue now is whether the Iranian public will reject absolute sovereignty from above, even as the state seeks to enforce it by violence, while putting its faith in the popular, nonviolent challenge of civil society from below. In a violent political society like Iran, the choice of nonviolent action by the Iranian Green Movement is a proof of its political maturity and moral integrity. Assuming such an ethical stance, I believe, makes its political case stronger.
If the international community wishes to support this nonviolent quest for democracy in Iran, it must acknowledge and encourage dissident voices inside and outside Iran. The chances of democracy in Iran depend a great deal at this moment on whether human rights violations, and the accountability of those who commit them, are placed high on the global agenda.
To nonviolently challenge the violence of the political system without losing its hope is no easy task. Many analysts believe that this is not possible. They might be right.
Hope is the only pillar that holds up the Iranian civic movement. Hope is the future of Iranian democracy. Knowing the world cares is a critical part of keeping that hope alive.
Ramin Jahanbegloo, one of Iran’s best-known dissidents, headed the contemporary studies department of the Cultural Research Bureau in Tehran until his arrest in April 2006. He was released that August and now lives in exile in Canada, where he teaches at the University of Toronto.