Are we missing a vital ingredient in the debate about how to deal with Iran? The debate is stuck between supporters and opponents of bombing and those who argue over whether it is possible or not to contain a nuclear Iran. Yet we are consistently failing to understand the position and potential power of the people of Iran in this complex equation.
I recently met Mustafa Hijri, the general secretary of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan. He was elected as an MP into the Majlis after the overthrow of the Shah but was subsequently forced into exile into Iraqi Kurdistan.
Hijri maintains that reform of the regime is impossible. Past elections demonstrate this. The regime uses elections in order to claim popular legitimacy. However, since elections in Iran are neither free nor fair, it certainly is the case that the current regime does not enjoy the support it claims. If the Islamic regime had majority support, free and fair elections would be allowed.
The Green Movement, brave though its followers were, sought to put the Islamic Republic back on track rather than be a fundamental opposition to it. Mustafa Hijri believes that this accounts for its inability to mobilise more people and to sustain itself. His case is that the vast majority of Iranians abhor the regime and want it replaced lock, stock and barrel.
My guess is that we will find that, after a generation of incessant propaganda and repression, Iran’s people will turn out to be a proud and profoundly pro-western people anxious to make up for lost time by connecting with the outside world.
Hijri also thinks that the regime is hollow. It is a sectarian theocracy that does not represent a majority of the people. Hijri told me that his party is working with organisations representing Arabs, Balouchis, Azeris and Turkmens in Iran. In 2005, they established the Congress of Nationalities for a Federal Iran in order to speak with one voice on fundamental issues concerning a future democratic, secular and federal Iran. They are also increasing their effort to reach out to the Persians, and they have made important headway in the last two years.
The western focus on nuclear weapons is understandable. There are grave concerns that the rational imperatives of Mutually Assured Destruction would not be heeded by a theocratic regime and its threats to Israel cannot so easily be dismissed. In addition, a nuclear Iran risks triggering an arms race which could see Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt taking the nuclear road. Equally, if not more, worrying is the scenario that a nuclear-armed regime in Tehran would, in its quest for regional hegemony, be further emboldened and step up its support for international terrorism and cause greater instability in a volatile Middle East.
The emphasis on nuclear weapons without due attention to the crimes of the regime in human rights and women’s rights has, however, led to Iranians thinking that we don’t care about them.
Yet in the end the best way of transcending the vile regime in Iran is via people power. The question then is how to do this.
The Iranian Kurds urge our government and others to express resolute political support for the Iranian democratic movement. The hope is that this can tip an already-weak regime over the edge. But, to be clear, Hijiri doesn’t exclude the possible need to assist the opposition more directly. He argues that, in the event of a popular uprising, a safe haven and no-fly zone in Iranian Kurdistan at least could help them build up their forces to be ready to take over and build a new, federal and democratic Iran. He has in mind the model that successfully saved the Iraqi Kurds from genocide and enabled them to build a prosperous and pluralist regional entity in Iraq.
In the 1980s and 1990s the Kurds in Iran waged an armed struggle with a strong popular support but scant support from the international community. The Iranian regime brutally suppressed this popular insurgency, killing tens of thousands of civilians, ten thousand Kurdish fighters and the assassination of two of Mr Hijri’s predecessors on European soil.
We should listen very carefully to voices such as that of Mustafa Hijri. Ultimately a revolution from below is the better option. We should work with our friends now.
Gary Kent is director of Labour Friends of Iraq