Iran's Ex-President Banisadr: "People want Regime Change"
Abu I-Hasan Banisadr was the first President of Iran after the revolution in 1979. He was elected with 75 percent of the vote in the Iranian parliament. When he lived in Paris he joined the Iranian opposition in exile led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeni, who came in 1978 to Paris. In 1979 Abu I-Hasan Banisadr went back to Iran with Ayatollah Khomeni, part of the "inner circle". After the revolution in 1979 he was appointed President based upon the Parliament's vote. He was President from January 25th 1980, until June 21st 1980, after which he was removed from office following dubious criticism of his performance during the Iran-Iraq war. He fled from Iran to Paris where he has been living since. He is still a leading political figure among Iranians living outside Iran. The Global-Editor-in-Chief of the World Security Network Foundation BrigGen (ret) Dieter Farwick had the opportunity to interview the former Iranian President on the problematic development after the revolution, on the fragile present and on the foggy future of Iran.
Dieter Farwick: Let us look back at your time as the first elected President of Iran after the Revolution. At the start of your time in office, what were your and Ayatollah Khomeini's visions of Iran's future?
Abu I-Hasan Banisadr: The vision of the Iranian people was a new future that followed the aims of the revolution, as expressed in the popular chants and slogans of the time. The revolution was an expression of freedom. It was based on independence and self determination for Iran; liberty; development founded on social justice; and Islam as both a discourse of freedom and a spiritual link for the people. These were the publicly expressed aims of the revolution. However, once in Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini opted for power over the unambiguous goals of the revolution. He and I therefore stood at odds with one another. As a presidential candidate during the election, I articulated the Revolution's objectives as my platform and manifesto, including programmes to achieve them. The Iranian people voted, by a majority of 76%, in favour of my manifesto and to the extent that we were able to implement our agenda, it was successful. However, Ayatollah Khomeini and his people committed a coup against the elected president and the future turned into the dark dictatorship that we are facing today.
Dieter Farwick: Thirty years after the Revolution, Iran's government is in serious religious and political difficulties. Millions of protesters are questioning the legitimacy of the government. What went wrong in the past 30 years?
Abu I-Hasan Banisadr: The aims thirty-one years ago were to rebuild Iranian society free from the dictatorial system of the past. However, thus far it has not been possible to completely destroy the traditional dictatorial elements within Iranian society. Historical power structures in Iran have traditionally had several bases: the monarchy, the clergy, feudal land owners in villages, and the owners of the bazaar economy in the cities. In addition, there were relationships with dominant foreign powers. The Shah's regime destroyed the power of the economic base. It also clashed with the clergy. The revolution ended the monarchy, so the clergy is the remaining basis of dictatorship in Iran. You are aware that non-democratic regimes based on anything other than the sovereignty of the people have always been overthrown. The fall of the Soviet Union and the dictatorships of Latin America are clear examples of such regimes. The following changes have materialised over the last 31 years in Iran: first, at present a large body of clergy has dissociated itself from the current regime. Consequently, the regime has lost its religious authority. Hence, the clergy power base on which it stands is half-broken. This is the most important element of change that has transpired in the last 31 years. Second, as a result of the economy's dependence on oil revenue and imports the regime has created an employment vacuum. Third, in political terms the regime does not allow any room for manoeuvre. It goes so far as to stop the nation from voting freely in an election where the nominees were preapproved by the regime itself. Fourth, from a sociological point of view, there is no respect for the rights of women and the human rights of both men and women are nonexistent. Creation of any social groups, such as trade unions, is outlawed. Fifth, the regime has created a closed cultural environment that is not conducive to creativity and growth. Everything mentioned above has created a society with many young people and high unemployment. This society has risen up and is now a driving force for change. Its objective is to free itself by removing this regime. These transformations have taken place in Iranian society over the past 31 years.
Dieter Farwick: Observers find it difficult to picture the real Iran from the outside, but you have better information about current events. What is your assessment of the situation? Will the regime succeed in oppressing the opposition in such a way that protests lose their importance and dynamics? Or will the opposition remain powerful enough to bring about the necessary changes in the system? Will future developments be independent of the leadership of Mousavi and Karroubi, or will this protest movement emancipate itself with the help of modern technologies?
Abu I-Hasan Banisadr: The movement started two to three weeks before the June election and it has continued for over 8 months. Over that time the regime has unsuccessfully tried to put an end to the movement. For the anniversary of the revolution, the opposition (Messrs Karroubi, Khatami, and Mousavi) invited people to attend the demonstrations at Freedom square in Tehran. The regime, for their part, had planned to present the crowds as supporters of Mr. Khamenei and Velayat-e Faqih (supreme leader). However the wisdom of the Iranian people prevailed and most did not attend. Those who did, on noticing the armed police, left the venue, leaving the square almost empty for Mr. Ahmadinejad's speech. Evidence for this can be seen in aerial pictures taken by Google, estimating 50,000 people in the square. This is despite the large numbers who had been bussed in from other cities. Further evidence is the film taken showing people busy with their picnics and children playing football. Apparently, no one was paying much attention to the presidential speech. This informs us that the Iranian people do not want this regime and no one is prepared to listen to the president, including those in attendance. The regime is unable to stop this movement. However, it is within the power of the opposition leaders to bring an end to the movement. If the opposition continues the strategy of trying to progress within the structures of the regime they will bring the movement to a halt. On the other hand if they work outside the constraints of the regime looking to make real change, i.e. looking to establish a government chosen by the people, the movement will continue. My opinion regarding Mr. Karroubi and Mr. Mousavi is that if they stay within the system then people will continue the struggle and leave them behind. However, if they decide to move forward with the people, they will succeed.
Dieter Farwick: Should a peaceful transition within the system be impossible, do you think that a danger remains that the oppressed and disappointed population might attempt regime change by violent means, considering the dramatically deteriorating economic and social situation? How probable is this?
Abu I-Hasan Banisadr: So far, the people have not gone down the path of violence, despite the fact that the regime is pushing them in that direction by its actions. We are against violence. A strategy of violence can be adopted by an organized political group. However, not every citizen can participate in a movement that is violent. An aggressive movement by its very nature cannot be inclusive of all people. If several armed organizations take over the movement, there would be a real possibility of Iran following the path of Iraq and Afghanistan. The only certain means of success is the method chosen by the people: a nonviolent movement. It is vital for Iran's future and for establishing democracy that we (the Iranian people) learn to build political relationships with each other and express our differences through dialogue rather than guns.
Dieter Farwick: The vast majority of people in the 'Free World' desire a regime change in Iran and the departure of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a man who has alarmed the world and especially Israel with his aggressive diatribes on Israel and the Holocaust. How should the Western world behave in the current situation? Should it try to influence him, and in which direction? Are sharper sanctions the right way to accelerate the fall of this regime?
Abu I-Hasan Banisadr: We would also like the regime to be replaced by a democratic system. However, the position of the west with regards to the current regime is not clear. General Petraeus current commander, US Central Command, has stated that "President Ahmadinejad and the Irani (Iranian) leaders continue to be the best recruiters for Central Command as we embark on our partnership plans. They've caused enormous worry and concern by those on the western side of the Gulf ". Firstly, the west needs to clarify its position regarding the regime, so the Iranians are clear about the West's stance. From my point of view, the West wants the current regime in place. At best, the West is looking for minor changes to the system which best serve their interests in the region. However, we want a democratic change to establish national rights for Iranians. From my perspective the west needs to be unambiguous about its wants and wishes so that the Iranian people are reassured that it is not looking for an Iranian regime dominated by foreign powers. In addition I propose that the West takes an approach of Active Neutrality. This means that it should act in a manner that would harm the regime without harming the Iranian people without direct interference.
Dieter Farwick: Who are the persons or groups that you would trust to lead Iran out of its isolation and who would be able to re-establish the reputation of Iran as a great nation with strong historical tradition and culture? Do you think that successful Persians living abroad would agree to return to their homeland to take part in the reconstruction of their country? What part would you play in this process?
Abu I-Hasan Banisadr: This answer to this question is for the Iranian people and not for individual figures or groups. The Iranian people need to struggle towards freeing themselves from this regime and creating a democratic Iran. They need to create a culture of development. The political groups will only have meaning within the context of serving the wants and wishes of, and governing, the Iranian people. Established individual figures should not play a role above and beyond the desires of Iranian people. There is a big group outside of Iran who has struggled against the regime of the Shah and today resists the current regime. I have no doubt these people are ready to go back to Iran, and take part in a democratic society and an enlightened culture. As for me, during the period of transfer between the current regime and democratic regime I will be happy to serve the people in whatever capacity they ask of me. However after a democratic system is established and the new government is about to get elected, I am not looking for any position in office, elected or designated. I will continue to serve my people in my country by other means.
Dieter Farwick: Iran's nuclear programme is a special issue. There are many signs that this regime is trying to use the civilian nuclear energy programme to build nuclear weapons. What is your position on these allegations? How does the Iranian population regard the civilian nuclear programme and a possible military nuclear programme?
Abu I-Hasan Banisadr: Clearly the Iranian regime has a nuclear programme and I would be lying if I said that the regime has no intention to create nuclear weapons. From my perspective, the regime has this intention. If not, why would Mr. Ahmadinejad and the head of the Iranian Atomic Agency announce that they have the capacity to enrich uranium not only to 80% but also to 100%, adding that they have no interest in pursuing this. The technology is either being used for fuel, in which case it would not have the capacity to enrich uranium to weapons grade, or it is sophisticated enough for weapons grade enrichment. In this case one cannot pretend that it is not for that purpose. It is clear that at the very least they are interested in acquiring the technology. Therefore, from my point of view the world is correct to be suspicious of the regime's intentions.
Fourty percent of Iran's petrol supplies are imported. Yet there is 33% to 40% fuel leakage from old pipelines. This means that if the old pipe lines were repaired or replaced there would be no need for the imports. The people find the regime's proposals for nuclear energy comical. Iran has access to oil, gas, wind, sun, and water. The regime seems to have forgotten about all those other sources of energy, insisting on creating a nuclear power station. The people ask themselves therefore: what is the purpose of spending all this money on something that would be very expensive to use and would not be affordable by the poverty-stricken Iranian public? They would have to wonder whether the aim was energy supply or something else. It is possible that some Iranian people, on the basis of nationalistic pride, want nuclear weapons given that neighbouring Israel has access to them. However, in a free environment it would be clear to people that it is not desirable for Iran to have nuclear weapons. Nor is it advantageous to dismiss all Iran's available sources of energy and aim for nuclear technology.
Dieter Farwick: How would a different civil government in Teheran deal with the nuclear issue? Would it start negotiations with the 'Free World'? Would it accept complete, even ad hoc, inspection and monitoring of the civilian nuclear programme? Would it officially reject any nuclear programme?
Abu I-Hasan Banisadr: It is clear this regime is looking to create external turmoil, especially given the current internal movement. Why would it give up the nuclear turbulence? Are they crazy? They are relying on heavy external pressure to stop the pro-democracy movement of the Iranian people. They are depending on the patriotic character of the Iranians. They are assuming that the people would concentrate their efforts on defending Iran's national territory first given the external dangers, and opt to deal with internal issues at a later stage. It is not on an arbitrary whim that Mr. Ahmadinejad agreed with the American and Russian proposal presented by head of IAEA Mr. El Baradei in Vienna, and then on his arrival in Tehran opposed the proposals. Again, a few days before the anniversary of the revolution he suggested that they were prepared to negotiate. He went as far saying that they were not troubled by the prospect of not receiving 20% enriched uranium. Shortly after that however, on the day before the anniversary, the head of Iranian Atomic Agency, Mr. Salehi, announced that the enrichment of uranium to 20% should be started. At present, unlike Mr. Bush's time in power, the west does not have the inclination to create turmoil, and Mr. Ahmadinejad has to create one all on his own. So the answer to the question is that he will not give up on creating external turbulence. My hope is that the Iranian people will continue with the pro-democracy movement. We will then have a democracy and will resolve the nuclear issue like any other. If the movement does not succeed, the Americans have no short term intention to bomb the nuclear plants and have opted for placing missiles around Iran. They have chosen a posture of containment rather than one of attack. On the economic front, unemployment is high and poverty rife. The regime admits that 50 million Iranians are in need of state financial assistance. They have created a destitute nation. Economic sanctions will cripple the society completely. I propose that the West takes an approach of 'Active Neutrality'. This means that it should act in a manner that would harm the regime but without harming the Iranian people. As an example, western governments should stop their banks from dealing with a regime that is taking the country's money. They can stop western traders and arms companies from selling the weapons used against the Iranian people. All the arms sold are used on the Iranian people. They west should freeze the foreign assets of the top ranking officials. The assets should be claimed on behalf of the Iranian people. This should be done in conjunction with freezing the assets of the Shah's regime that were stolen from Iran and are still being used outside of Iran. All these assets will be the property of the Iranian people when a democratic system of governance is established. The West can put pressure on the regime on issues of human rights, and act decisively. Currently, the human rights issues are not taken seriously by the West. People are killed in the streets; in Kahrizak prison they have raped, burned and buried people. If this is not crime against humanity, what is? The West can ask the IPCC to try the top ranking officials in the international criminal courts. All of this will be much more effective than economic sanctions. The actions taken against the Sudanese regime can be taken against the Iranian regime. They can even go as far as banning the exports to Iran of luxury items, affordable only by the regime's elite, to make life difficult for them. This will create difficulties for the regime and will give the Iranian people the space to struggle for a free Iran.
Dieter Farwick: The student movement that took to the streets of Teheran is carried now by a generation that has only known the Islamic Republic. Who are their political icons? To whom do they relate politically? What advice would you give to them?
Abu I-Hasan Banisadr: The Iranian nation has a vision of liberty that it carries from the 1979 revolution. I explained this vision in your first question. The chants and slogans are clear and precise. They are saying "No" to the Velayat-e Faqih (supreme leader), "yes" to democracy, freedom and independence. They are also saying no to violence. However, in my opinion the movement is not yet completely nonviolent: the chants of "death to..." still remain. Clearly, chants of this nature encourage violence. One cannot pretend that "death to Khamenei" does not promote violence. However, given the strength of the suppression imposed by the regime, the youth of Iran has not reacted violently en masse. The instances of violence in the movement are isolated and not general. Therefore, the Iranian people are clear about the aims and objectives of the movement. They are also unambiguous about the methods they have adopted to take the movement forward. This is in particular true of the youth. However, there remains a dilemma: the people are trapped between what they think is possible and that which is desirable. They are assuming that it is possible to make changes within the current system which would result in some of their rights being respected. At least a section of the society assumes this possible. However, what they see as desirable is the replacement of this regime by a democratic government. A segment of the society does not see this wish as possible. Thus you see differences between the slogans chanted. Some say no to Velayat-e Faqih, yes to democracy, independence and liberty, and some chants are within the constraints of the regime. This shows that differences exist within the movement. However, as they progress the messages and aims will become more transparent, and the alternatives needed for the change to take place become more precise. Currently, there are many influential people in the minds of the Iranian people, some of whom are inside the regime, some outside. It was very much the same at the time of the 1979 revolution. Nevertheless, as the revolution advanced, the alternatives became clear for people. The detail of the competing visions crystallised and it became apparent how the positions of leaders and political groups related to these alternatives.