Iran 's future? Watch the streets

Posted in Iran | 05-Jan-06 | Author: Peter Ackerman and Ramin Ahmad| Source: International Herald Tribune

Iran's hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
For months Iranian activists and even moderate clerics have been concerned about the radical tendencies of Iran's new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In the past few weeks - after he said that the Holocaust was a myth, called for Israel to be wiped off the map and banned Western music from state-run radio and television, the concern spread around the world.

But there is another development in Iran - this one positive and with great potential - that the world should not miss: civic defiance against Ahmadinejad's authoritarianism is increasing.

From the outset of his term, the new president's policies exhibited a volatile mixture of nationalism and radical Islamic social engineering. While touting Iran's nuclear program, he has promised to redistribute wealth to the poor and curb capitalists (without yet delivering on either promise).

Ahmadinejad's language has been replete with contempt for religious and ethnic minorities, xenophobia, anti-intellectualism, rejection of compromise, and readiness for violence in dealing with the political opposition and minorities, including Kurds and Arabs. His performance is disturbingly reminiscent of those of European fascist leaders of the 1920s and 1930s.

While policy makers and pundits in the West are rightly chagrined by the language coming from Iran's new leader, less has been said and little has been done by the international community - now or in the past - to support ordinary citizens in Iran who have persistently been pressing for genuine democracy, the rule of law and economic opportunity. Iranians are risking imprisonment or worse by engaging in protests, not to satisfy American or European foreign policy, but because they are fed up living with fear, economic misery and arbitrary edicts from unelected clerics.

Against all odds, nonviolent tactics such as protests and strikes have gradually become common in Iran's domestic political scene. Medical professionals, teachers and workers have gone on strike. Last month, Tehran's bus drivers walked off the job, paralyzing the city. In the week of the presidential elections, more than 6,000 Iranian women took to the streets to protest discriminatory laws, especially the ban on women from running for the presidency.

Student activists have frequently resorted to strikes, sit-ins and demonstrations, and the violent response of the regime and repeated attacks of the paramilitaries have not succeeded in silencing them. From prison, a leading dissident and defector from the Revolutionary Guards, Akbar Ganji, is electrifying the country with hunger strikes, declaring the regime illegitimate.

Unfortunately these are uncoordinated actions, and their organizers have not known how to anticipate and counter the inevitable repressive countermeasures - beatings, detentions, torture and extrajudicial executions. While there is a grass-roots movement for equal rights and civil liberties waiting to be roused in Iran, its cadres so far lack a clear strategic vision and steady leadership.

Moreover, the failure of Iran's parliamentary reformists and the ensuing victory of Ahmadinejad have tumbled society into a mood of despair. But the new president's failure to deliver on any of his crowd-pleasing promises will surely create a new opportunity for Iranians who remain determined to resist repression and demand real economic reform.

That determination should also be reflected by the international community in what it does to support freedom and justice in Iran. Governments should increase pressure on Tehran to stop human rights abuses and release political prisoners. Nongovernmental organizations around the world should expand their efforts to assist Iranian civil society, women's groups, unions and journalists. And the global news media should finally begin to cover the steady stream of strikes, protests and other acts of opposition. A regime like the one in Tehran always wants to pretend that it is popular and legitimate, whether it is or not.

There is a historical legacy of such help being effective. Catholics in Europe and the United States aided the trade union Solidarity in Poland and the "people power" movement in the Philippines. African-American organizations gave crucial support to South African civic groups fighting apartheid. American labor unions backed the anti-Pinochet campaign in Chile. In each instance, the objective was assistance, not interference. That can also be the model in Iran.

The constituency for justice and equality in Iranian society is vast but inchoate. Yet it is those Iranians, and not the power-hoarding, self-enriching members of the repressive government, who will ultimately shape Iran's future. Their prospects will not be enhanced either by pleading with Iran's rulers for moderation or threatening external intervention.

As with a score of other peoples who transformed their countries from below - such as Poland, South Africa, the Philippines, Chile, Ukraine and Lebanon - Iranians themselves can summon the will and apply the nonviolent strategies that dissolve oppression.

(Peter Ackerman is founding chairman of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, and chairman of the board of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University. Ramin Ahmadi is co-founder of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, and an associate clinical professor at the Yale School of Medicine.)