Time to Speak Out on Iran

"Engagement doesn’t preclude criticism," says Iranian historian Ali M. Ansari, so the West should be more forthright in speaking out against Iran’s human rights record.

January 14, 2010

Interview
To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

Iranian historian Ali M. Ansari says Western countries should be more forthright in criticizing Iran’s human rights failings. "What I think the West can do and should be doing is to say there are certain values and certain aspects of basic human dignity that should be upheld." He says President Obama would gain support in Iran if he says, "Look, there’re certain aspects of behavior that we are going to speak out on. It’s just not acceptable that protesters should be arrested, raped, and sodomized in prison." And he says any new sanctions should be geared so that the Iranian government, not the West, is blamed for any economic hardships.

The Iranian government accused the United States and Israel for the bomb explosion that recently killed a Tehran University physics professor, Masoud Ali Mohammadi. They have called him "a nuclear scientist," but there’s no evidence of this. Some think that he was actually in the protest movement. What are your thoughts on this?

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It’s clear that this was a strange murder. The device that was used was quite sophisticated; it was remote controlled from what we understand, and it was large, so whoever did it was determined to kill him. It’s quite true that he doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the nuclear program. He was a particle physicist, he taught at the University of Tehran, and was popular with the students. One thing that I think we know for certain is that he was a supporter of Mir-Hossein Mousavi [the leading opposition candidate]. He had actually signed up prior to the election as a supporter of Mousavi, but whether he was afterwards we don’t really know. There are some suggestions that he helped organize students, but we don’t know. So the motivation for killing him is not at all clear until perhaps more information comes out. But it could be of course, some elements within the regime may have thought that this is a good way to rattle that particular section of society--the universities, the students, and others--to get them anxious and to get a sense of anarchy and violence.

The protest movement has had ups and downs since the disputed election on June 12. But many experts think that this movement will peter out in the face of government power because it has no real leader. The critics keep referring to the difference between this movement and the revolution in 1978-79, when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was in charge. What is your feeling about this?

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We’re far too obsessed with 1978 as the only template for political change in Iran. When the question is asked, "Tehranians, do you want to see another revolution?" most people, horrified by the experience of 1978-79 and its aftermath, will say, "No." That’s very justifiable. There are many other experiences of revolutionary change in Iran. Actually, the Constitutional Revolution of 1906 offers a better template. The current protesters are more than a civil rights movement, as someone has called it. But it is operating within a frame of reference, and that frame of reference is the constitution of the Islamic Republic. And what they are saying stems from the republican elements of that constitution. They want to bring more accountability into government. And in this sense, it is far more similar to what happened in 1906.

It would be a big mistake for the Western powers to see Iran entirely in terms of their own security, or the security of Israel. I think it would send exactly the wrong signal to many in Iran.

The protesters then were not looking for the overthrow of the monarchy. What they were saying was that there needs to be a parliament, there needs to be accountability, there need to be limitations on the power of the autocrat. So there are similarities there, more than the more skeptical voices today, give credit for.

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And it’s helped by the fact that of course Iranian society is radically different from what it was in 1978. For a start, it’s far more literate. It’s also far also more educated. And then thirdly, of course you have things like mobile communications and the Internet, which give a sense of cohesiveness in society that previously we didn’t have. There’s a level of initiative and organization at the grassroots, which the protest leadership in some way is complementing. The leadership is a collective. It’s not necessarily a single leader. Khomeini himself wasn’t in complete charge in ’78-’79, and if he was in total charge, one of the great acts of initiative of the revolution may not have taken place: That was the seizure of the American embassy. That was not directed by the leadership, but a bunch of students who thought that it would be a good idea at the time, and subsequently, the leadership and Khamenei then endorsed it. But again, that shows that there was far more turmoil at the grassroots than in retrospect we like to think there was.

Can you briefly recount what happened in 1906?

What you had over a period of a decade or so was a lot of agitation, particularly among what would then have been a fairly small elite [group] of educated people, including merchant classes and the aristocracy, and other intellectuals who were agitating for reforms to the state, to the monarchy, which at that time had no accountability, and was, theoretically, absolute. And a lot of ideas were permeating through Iranian society, a lot of agitation, and in 1906 as a result really of an economic crisis, this catalyzed the movement for political change and constitutionalism. There was a belief, among the educated at least, that they needed to develop a constitutional monarchy with a parliament that was elected, which could then reform the country from the inside out. The process of the constitutional movement and its evolution took at least a year to come to fruition. And of course, even then there was little that was clear. People were learning as they went ahead. There were failures and there were successes, but at the end of the day it could be said that the constitutional revolution has been the ultimate template from which every successive political movement in Iran has been measured against.

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So a constitution was written.

Absolutely. It was borrowed from the Belgian constitution, which was mirrored on the unwritten British constitution. At the time it was seen as a great leap forward.

Is the current constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran radically different from the older constitution?

Crisis Guide: IranIt is, in that it eliminated the institution of the monarchy altogether and replaced it with the Guardianship of the Jurists.  It was seen at the time, and has continued to be seen by many people in Iran, as a clever way of marrying those modern republican elements of the constitution with more traditional Islamic norms. But as people have said, that marriage has been a very unhappy one, and as a result there have been these disputes, culminating in this one we have seen over the summer.

The five members of the Security Council, plus Germany, are discussing again the question of whether to bring new sanctions on Iran to try to persuade it to suspend its nuclear enrichment program. What should be the strategy for the Western countries given the internal dynamic in Iran?

It would be a big mistake for the Western powers to see Iran entirely in terms of their own security, or the security of Israel. I think it would send exactly the wrong signal to many in Iran. It would simply reinforce the image and the skepticism among many Iranians, that all the West is interested in are their own particular interests, that they aren’t interested in human rights, or democracy, or anything else. It’s very important that that broader political canvas is incorporated in any assessment. And I think if you’re going to go down the route of sanctions, which it looks as if we are, it shouldn’t be done in a way that brings more harm than good. It would be wrong if new sanctions allowed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his government for instance to say to the people, "Your economic hardships have nothing to do with us, they’re all to do with the West." I think sanctions in any case only really work where they reinforce the errors of the sitting government.

The American government has been fairly low key about the domestic protests in Iran. President Obama has been criticized for being too eager to engage the Iranians and too slow to protest. Is there a proper middle ground here?

What’s got to be made very clear to the Iranian government is that its behavior is really quite offensive and really quite unacceptable on a variety of different issues.

Engagement doesn’t preclude criticism. Engagement allows you to make very clear what your views are on a range of issues. What’s got to be made very clear to the Iranian government is that its behavior is really quite offensive and really quite unacceptable on a variety of different issues. What I think the West can do and should be doing is to say there are certain values and certain aspects of basic human dignity that should be upheld. And yes, the West has had difficulties in being able to justify this in the aftermath of Abu Ghraib, and so forth. But that should not stop the West, particularly with the Obama administration turning over a new leaf in some ways, being able to say, "Look, there’re certain aspects of behavior that we are going to speak out on. It’s just not acceptable that protestors should be arrested, raped, and sodomized in prison." This is something the Iranian parliament itself has been complaining about so it’s not something that people could say the West is raising. What I think people in Iran need to know is that there are people in the outside world who also take notice and that they are not simply turning a blind eye to all this.

On the nuclear issue, do you find it strange that in October the Iranians agreed to an arrangement where they would send their low enriched uranium to Russia and France and get back these isotopes, and then they pulled back on it, under attack from both progressives and conservatives.

I’ve been very skeptical about this. There is a theory that Mr. Ahmadinejad wanted to come to an agreement, but he was out-maneuvered by Revolutionary Guards and the supreme leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei]. And this theory holds that even the progressives and the reformists have also criticized the accord. I don’t think that criticism from the reformist side has actually been as influential as people think. All the reformists were basically saying was "Listen if we had made such an agreement, you would have hammered us, you wouldn’t have allowed us to do this, so you know, we just want to remind you of your hypocrisy, and that’s all."

On the other hand, my own view is that the Iranians were never serious about this agreement. I think the overwhelming motivation for all that’s happened since June is to go to as many meetings as possible, to talk to as many foreigners as possible. Ironically, and this came through in a number of articles published in Iran, what the government of Ahmadinejad wanted to do by being seen with as many international players as possible was to point out to their own critics at home: "The West accepts us." They don’t want a solution because a solution would mean no more meetings. They want to have more meetings, and people simply have to be aware of the reality of this.

Do you think Iran really wants to have the ability to have nuclear weapons?

I’ve always been of the view that they wanted the option. The policy of Iran on nuclear energy and nuclear power is fairly clear. It’s this notion that they have the right to have nuclear energy, which they clearly do, but they also want to take it to an extra level where they give themselves the option of nuclear weapons. They consider they live in a very dangerous neighborhood. Of course there are many people in Iran who accept that principle in this broad context but are quite uncomfortable with the fact that Mr. Ahmadinejad’s government would be the one in receipt of such a technological triumph.

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