Iran's Moment

Apr 04 2005

Roya Boroumand, April 4th, 2005, Open Democracy

"The call for a referendum on a new Iranian constitution signals that the opposition to the mullahs has at last reached maturity" - Roya Boroumand

For more than two decades, the Islamic Republic of Iran has been the source of political crisis on several fronts – human rights violations, involvement in acts of terror and support of terrorist organizations, nuclear ambitions – that have required urgent international attention. At the same time, the flawed and fading image of an Iranian nation in complete harmony with its leaders has long been replaced by that of a young rebellious citizenship at odds with its government and contemptuous of its ideology.

While this new citizenry’s discontent has received some international exposure, its demands have largely gone unnoticed. The international community has maintained its traditional, and unsuccessful, approach – one combining economic sanctions with engagement policies toward Iran.

Could the initiative for a referendum in Iran over a new constitution for the country be a step towards a peaceful solution to this decades-long political crisis?

Since the 1979 revolution, Iranians opposed to the theocratic government have tried in various ways to democratize the political system: peaceful dissent, an alliance with the reformist faction of the ruling elite, armed resistance. Each of these efforts has systematically failed, and as a result political participation remains the prerogative of a handful of groups and individuals faithful to the goals of the Islamic Republic’s leaders. In the face of a constitution that legalizes discrimination based on belief, religion and gender, a powerful and ruthless state that enjoys access to the country’s resources and the support of foreign states with commercial interests in Iran, the opposition’s efforts continue to lack cohesion, visibility, and adequate international support.

Now, after many setbacks, years of apathy, and bitter internal divisions, dissidents from all sides of the political spectrum have finally created a united front – a first in Iran’s contemporary history. They have joined forces to sign a petition that demands an internationally monitored referendum for the drafting of a new constitution founded on universal human rights.

The group launching the referendum was composed of student leaders, lawyers (some from their prison cells), human-rights advocates and former revolutionaries. Their petition points to the disastrous outcome of the 1979 revolution – which deprived Iran’s citizens of their rights, isolated the country internationally and led to a constitution that

“in stark contradiction with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights…fosters inequalities amongst Iranian citizens … [and] effectively deprives the Iranian people of their right to popular sovereignty.”

Within weeks, thousands of Iranians signed the petition, while reformist and hard-line authorities alike declared it irrelevant and the conspiratorial handiwork of foreigners. The event also generated a vital and ongoing debate among Iranians on issues of democracy, pluralism, tolerance and the necessity of separating religion and state.

The referendum initiative involves a loose coalition of diverse groups inside and outside Iran. It includes students, leftist republicans as well as conservative monarchists, “practicing secularist” Muslims as well as atheists. It is gathered around human rights principles rather than charismatic leaders. Its purpose is to bring to the world’s attention “the true voice and sentiments of the Iranian nation” and create the necessary conditions for the Iranian people (70% of whom were not born or were too young to participate in the referendum on the Islamic Republic’s constitution) to freely determine the form of their future political regime.

The Iranian pro-democracy opposition has finally come to realize that it must overcome dissension, suspicions and rivalries and find a non-violent and democratic way to bring about change. As such, the call for a referendum signals an unprecedented political maturity in Iran’s post-revolutionary history.

To be effective, however, the referendum initiative needs consistent international visibility that provides security for those who promote democracy and human rights inside Iran. So far the pro-democracy voices in Iran have remained largely unheard, and the Iranian people themselves have been excluded from discussions and negotiations with or about their country. The absence of a cohesive international approach can only partially explain the failure of measures (economic sanctions, engagement policies, and human-rights dialogues) intended to bring about a positive change in the Islamic Republic’s policies.

The Iranian people do not need tanks and bombs but allies. Western democracies need to appreciate and recognize that long-term stability and peace can only come about through the promotion of a representative Iranian government respectful of its citizens’ rights – a democratic

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