a former UN war crimes prosecutor, and co-founder of the Iran
Human Rights Documentation Centre in New Haven. His work has
been featured in the New York Times and, in recognition
of his contributions to promoting accountability for human rights
violations, he was selected by the World Economic Forum as a
Young Global Leader.
media frenzy that surrounded Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s
October visit to New York eclipsed the democratic struggle of
the long-suffering Iranian people. The incendiary polemics to
which he owes his infamy are the populist trickery of a failing
authoritarian theocracy that seeks legitimacy in hate-mongering
against contrived enemies rather than promoting the human rights
and economic prosperity of its citizens.
by his spectacular notoriety in the West, he has succeeded in
stealing the show from the millions of Iranians languishing
under his oppressive rule. He has also succeeded in giving more
ammunition to hawkish elements in the Bush administration contemplating
military action against Iran. In both cases, the losers are
the Iranian people.
is neither the most powerful political figure in Iran, nor does
he operate within a totalitarian state. Under the Iranian constitution,
the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, is far more powerful
than the president, and the radical faction that he leads is
but one among competing political forces within the Islamic
republic. While there are elections in Iran, candidates must
be approved by the Council of Guardians – under the supreme
leader’s authority – based on their “Islamic”
the reformer Mahamad Khatami was elected president in 1997 with
70% of the popular vote, Iranians envisaged the long-awaited
emergence of an open society. But conservative rulers created
parallel structures that stymied change and persecuted the reformers,
many of whom were murdered, tortured, imprisoned, exiled, or
not allowed to run for public office in subsequent elections.
the wake of the ensuing repression and disillusionment, Ahmadinejad,
a relatively unknown political figure, was “elected”
in 2005 on an anti-corruption platform that ousted the favourite
candidate, former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, perceived
by many Iranians as a corrupt leader who has amassed a vast
illicit fortune through control of the petroleum industry and
other business interests.
Ahmadinejad is seemingly beyond corruption, he has not been
able to deliver on any of his promises to end corruption or
improve the lot of the poor. Instead, he has focused on a policy
of confrontation with the West to rally Iranians behind him.
American cowboy diplomacy has strengthened Ahmadinejad’s
hand as he skillfully exploits Iranian nationalist sentiment.
only realistic long-term solution to Ahmadinejad and the nuclear
question is the democratization of Iran through a policy that
isolates the hard-liners while empowering progressive Iranian
movements. Seventy per cent of Iranians are under 30 years of
age. They are post-ideological, well-educated, Internet-savvy,
glued to satellite television, and desperate for hope; hope
of a better future in an open, cosmopolitan and prosperous Iran.
They care little about the Islamic revolution and have no memory
of the Shah’s rule.
do not wake up in the morning fantasizing about the nuclear
annihilation of Tel Aviv. As a matter of fact, more care little
about the Arab-Israeli conflict. Their primary concern is unemployment,
inflation, corruption, cultural and political repression, in
short, the decline of a nation that has the second largest oil/gas
reserves in the world, is heir to a rich 2,500 year-old civilization,
boasts a highly educated population with renowned filmmakers
and intellectuals, and one of the most successful diasporas.
is a modern and complex society that cannot be indefinitely
ruled by terror and propaganda. The hard-liners are well aware
that the biggest threat to their power is not U.S. imperialism,
but rather, a “velvet revolution” from within which
counts among its ranks thousands of students, labour unions,
and women’s organizations.
the imprisonment of Iranian-Canadian philosopher, Ramin Jahanbegloo,
or the recent imprisonment of 67-year old Iranian-American scholar
and grandmother, Haleh Esfandiari, or the scores of young bloggers,
journalists and human rights activists who have been thrown
in the torture chambers of Tehran, including Montreal photojournalist
Zahra Kazemi, who was murdered in 2003. A government with legitimacy
does not go to such desperate lengths to suppress dissent. And
it is in this context that Ahmedinajad’s bellicose rhetoric
has to be understood.
of democratic change, the Islamic republic constantly seeks
to stigmatize indigenous calls for reform as a U.S.-backed “foreign
conspiracy.” And a combination of hate-mongering and misinformation
by the government-controlled media is intended to persuade people
that they should remain loyal to their despotic rulers despite
the ruin that they have brought to the nation. At a time of
declining political fortunes, an apocalyptic confrontation with
the West is exactly what Ahmadinejad needs to fashion himself
as an Islamic saviour and thus perpetuate the rule of the hard-liners.
And a diabolical Islamic madman is what U.S. neo-conservatives
need most to agitate for yet another disastrous war.
a time when meaningful dialogue is an urgent antidote to looming
military conflict and further disintegration in the volatile
Middle East, giving Ahmadinjad a privileged platform at the
expense of the Iranian people only reinforces the myth of an
inevitable clash of civilizations, rather than showing us a
way to a better future.
article originally appeared in the op-ed page of the Montreal