One of the greatest successes of the Islamic Republic has been its ability to violently suppress the Iranian opposition. This triumph, however, would not have been possible without the assistance of the opposition itself, says Faraj Sarkohi
Almost 27 years after the Islamic Revolution, the dissatisfaction of the people is snowballing. This dissatisfaction finds its expression in the boycotting of elections, the organisation of student demonstrations and both blue-collar and white-collar strikes, and the outbreak of the occasional urban tumult. The Internet and satellite dishes are thwarting state censorship. The power of fear in the people's minds has been shattered.
Never before have democratisation efforts, an anti-Islamic attitude, disapproval of the government, and the enthusiasm for western culture and America been so great across great swathes of the population. Democratisation movements in Iran are supported at international level. More than 50 radio and television stations that have links to the Iranian opposition in exile broadcast programmes in Farsi. According to unofficial statistics, between 10 and 15 million people in Iran watch and listen to these programmes.
No alternative to the Mullah government so far
The influence of these broadcasting companies has been evident in the organisation of protest movements over the past few years. Despite all this and regardless of the existence of dozens of parties, associations, and amalgamations, as well as individual oppositionists both inside and outside Iran, no alternative to the Iranian government has appeared on the scene. With the exception of student and intellectual circles, large parts of the Iranian population and the Iranian exile community have lost faith in all political associations and amalgamations.
The imprisonment of well-known dissidents, the attacks on protesters perpetrated by thugs faithful to the government, and the debates that are currently being held in some publications and on Farsi websites are proof of the activities of oppositional groups and individuals within Iran. Nevertheless, their influence and notoriety is restricted to intellectual and student circles.
Meanwhile in exile, a deposed president (Abulhassan Banisadre in Paris), a self-appointed head of government and a self-appointed president (Massoud Rajavi and Maryam Asadanlou in Iraq), a king (Reza Pahlavi, the son of the last Shah, in America), two republican organisations, and dozens of larger and smaller parties and amalgamations are all dreaming about stepping into the shoes of the Islamic Republic.
Passionate communists and neo-liberal republicans
The broad spectrum of the Iranian opposition in exile ranges from passionate communists, who dream of an October Revolution in Iran, to neo-liberal republicans. There are also lay liberals and social democrats, supporters of President Khatami, royalists, and the People's Mujahidin.
With the exception of the latter, which has over 4,000 armed forces stationed in Iraq, the other associations are wasting their energy on endless, repetitive, abstract discussions and battles amongst themselves that are fought out in publications with small circulation figures, on Farsi websites, and at poorly attended rallies. Not only the people in Iran who are dissatisfied with the political situation, but also the majority of exile Iranians are paying no attention to the opposition.
After two terms of President Khatami and the people's disillusionment that the ruling system will change from within, not only religious reformers, but also liberal clerics like Nehsate Azadi (Freedom Movement) and similar associations have lost their standing.
Anticlerical atmosphere among the people
Ayatollah Mantazeri is very popular with some clerics that reject the current form of government. However, the anticlerical atmosphere among the people is stifling an increase in Montazeri's influence. Activities organised by the part of the inner-Iranian opposition that is working for a separation of Church and state, are being suppressed.
The notoriety and influence of liberal, left-wing, and nationalist groupings are limited to student and intellectual circles. The majority of people, who have nothing to do with any of the opposition associations, want a return to the affluence of the era of the last Shah, while parts of the older generation would like a return to the monarchy.
Monarchical despotism and representative monarchy
The royalists in exile can largely be divided into two groups. Some organisations are working towards a reinstatement of monarchical despotism in Iran; others would prefer a representative monarchy similar to the monarchies in Europe where the king would not get involved in politics. Both groups have large amounts of money at their disposal and an influential lobby in the United States.
Moreover, a significant part of the radio and television stations in exile is under their control. The royalists' hope that the monarchy will be brought back to life in Iran is nourished by two factors: firstly, the popularity of the last Shah among a part of the Iranian population that regret the revolution, and secondly, the possibility of America's military involvement.
Reza Pahlavi, the legitimate heir to the throne, has declared that he is working for democracy and a free referendum in which the people would be allowed to decide on the sort of system they would prefer. However, apart from giving interviews to the media and making announcements, he has taken no practical steps, proposed no concrete strategy, and has not invested a single cent of his family's massive fortune in politics.
The gulf between population and opposition
As the next generation grows up, the memories of the affluence of the era of the last despotic Shah fade. Iran's young generation has no interest in a restoration of the monarchy. A few months ago, Reza Pahlavi called on his supporters to support the holding of a referendum in Iran by taking part in an Internet survey. Many well-known personalities and the majority of the different opposition organisations in exile supported this plan.
In all, approximately 30,000 signatures – both real, forged, and pseudonyms – were collected. Compared with the seven million votes that the fundamentalists always get in Iran, the three million Internet users in the country, approximately two million exiled Iranians, and the thousands who take part in protest demonstrations in Iran, the result was clear evidence of the gulf that has developed between the population and the opposition.
The left-wing groupings, which were forced to flee the country as a result of persecution at the hands of the Iranian government, have over the past thirty years splintered into various smaller groupings while in exile. Grand-sounding designations like "party" or "front" remain even though most of them have no more than 50 to 100 members; very few have between 300 and 500 members.
Left wing co-operation with the Ayatollah government
Blinded by Khomeini's anti-American rhetoric, the largest left-wing grouping in Iran, the People's Fedaiyan, and the communist Tudeh party, defended Islamic fundamentalism against the social democrats and the liberals 27 years ago.
In some cases they even went as far as to co-operate with Khomeini's secret police. Even though another part of the left-wing groupings rejected the Islamic government because it was aiming for a Lenin-style October Revolution, and even though Khomeini exterminated both groups, the left wing's co-operation with the despotic government and their rejection of democracy is firmly engraved on the memory of the Iranian people.
The legacy of their past actions, repeated defeats, ideological conflict, inner divides, and the lack of a political agenda has destroyed the people's hope that the left wing will have any sort of significant influence. Several left-wing groups are still dreaming of a workers' revolution and a Leninist party. Others have moved closer to the social democrats and liberals and have merged to form two republican associations.
The political Left – Reduced to "talking shops"
However, the lack of a political philosophy and a concrete agenda have transformed both associations into talking shops that do not have the smallest grain of influence.
Most members of the larger of the two groupings, which has approximately 800 members, are former supporters of President Khatami who, despite Khatami's failure, still waver between working towards a peaceful change to the system and co-operating with part of the government.
The smaller of the two groupings, which has approximately 300 members, favours an overthrow of the Iranian government. Nevertheless, they waver between a peaceful transition to a parliamentary republic and the violent imposition of an anti-imperialistic, anti-capitalist populist government. The only people who pay attention to their endless debates are the members of their own circle. Moreover, they have lost all sense of the problems that are actually besetting Iran. In addition to these groups, countless other small liberal associations are crippled by internal conflicts.
Uniting large swathes of the population
All oppositional groups in exile are struggling to cope with similar problems. After almost 30 years in exile, their members are ageing. They have lost the majority of their members and are not able to replace them. New Iranian migrants of the younger generation are not interested in co-operating with them. Most hope for a peaceful change to the system in Iran. But the peaceful transition from despotism to democracy – a "velvet revolution" – requires both a political alternative that can unite large swathes of the population and a government that neither uses, nor wants to use, violence as a means of oppression.
But no such political alternative exists for Iran and the Iranian government has to date not shown any readiness for tolerance.
Occasionally, the notoriety of some influential personalities both in Iran and in exile fan the weak flames of hope. Having won the Nobel Peace Prize, Schirin Ebadi could have played an outstanding role among intellectuals and the educated classes. However, her support for President Khatami's faction, her belief in the compatibility of Islam and democracy, and her attacks on America have stifled this hope.
Only 1,500 people came to her reception in Teheran after she received the Nobel Peace Prize. Amir Entezam, who has been in prison for 25 years, is relatively well known among educated young people for his resistance. Some other independent intellectuals enjoy similar notoriety.
The rise and fall of the People's Mujahidin
In the early years following the Islamic Revolution, the People's Mujahidin – the largest religious association to oppose Khomeini – enjoyed the widespread support of the population. The People's Mujahidin, which is lead by a despotic leader and has at its disposal military forces that are lead with Prussian severity, began its armed resistance to Khomeini at the summit of his popularity.
The People's Mujahidin killed over 100 high-ranking members of government. In its next phase, the People's Mujahidin extended its terrorist activities to supporters of the regime among the population. Again, hundreds of people lost their lives. This caused revulsion among the people, who had grown tired of the violence. The government then stepped up its persecution of the People's Mujahidin. Several thousand of its young supporters were executed.
The leadership and the rest of the organisation fled abroad. By stationing the lion's share of its forces in Iraq and co-operating with the army of Saddam Hussein, which was at war with Iran at the time, they committed political suicide: the support for the People's Mujahidin dwindled when it decided to co-operate with the enemy. As the people learned more about its ideology, structure, and methods, the well of support for the People's Mujahidin dried up once and for all.
A direct link to God
The official ideology of the People's Mujahidin is a combination of a populist reading of the Koran, Stalinism, and the strategies of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. The reported aim of the organisation is to create a "Democratic Islamic Republic" in Iran. In this republic, Massoud Rajavi, the leader of the organisation for life, would step into the shoes of the Ayatollah as head of government and assume complete authority. Moreover, there would be a president who would execute all of the leader's commands.
In the Islamic Republic as it stands, the electorate selects the president from a list of candidates that is approved by the Guardian Council. Massoud Rajavi would like to take this decision away from the people and has already nominated his wife Maryam Azadanlou for the post.
He has officially declared himself to have a direct link to God and the imams. This means that the slightest criticism or the smallest sign of disobedience is considered a rebellion against God Himself. After years of effort, the UN and the Red Cross have finally gained access to the prisons of the Mujahidin in Iraq. Numerous supporters of the organisation were tortured in these prisons for criticising Massoud Rajavi or trying to leave the party.
Iran is a multilingual state. The Democratic Party of Kurdistan, which looks back on a long history and enjoys huge influence in the Kurdish population of western Iran, would like to see the establishment of democracy and a federal system. The most recent changes in Iran and American policy have further enhanced the prospects of this party in Iranian Kurdistan.
© Qantara.de 2005
Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan
In 1985, Faraj Sarkuhi founded the literary magazine "Adineh" (Friday), which he edited for 11 years. As one of the chief spokesmen for the initiative "The Declaration of 134 Writers", he was arrested in 1996. A year later, he was sentenced to death after being tried in secret; following international protests, his sentence was commuted. Two years after this, he was allowed to leave Iran for Frankfurt am Main in Germany, where he now lives. In 1998, Sarkuhi was awarded the Kurt Tucholsky Prize for writers subjected to political persecution. He is an honorary member of the German PEN Centre.