Mr. Mohsen Sazegara was a leader of the Iranian student movement against the Shah in 1970s and political deputy in the prime minister's office in 1980s. In 1989 he became disillusioned with the revolutionary government and published several reformist newspapers which were closed by regime hardliners. When his candidacy for president was rejected by the Guardian Council in 2001, he initiated a campaign for a referendum on replacing the Iranian constitution. Mr. Sazegara was arrested by the Ministry of Intelligence in 2003. Mr. Sazegara has helped launch an internet petition for a referendum on the Iranian constitution that has so far garnered the support of more than 35,000 signatories as well as 300 political and cultural activists in Iran and abroad.
IA-Forum: What brings you to Washington, DC?
Mr. Sazegara: I’ve come to here by invitation from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. While I’m here for two months, I’m going to write some op-eds and an essay about Iran’s road to democracy and the international community’s assistance for attaining this.
IA-Forum: You’ve written about the need for reform in Iran. Could you elaborate?
Mr. Sazegara: Actually, the reform process was a good idea eight years ago. Everybody in Iran thought that quality leadership in positions of power and promoting the development of democratic institutions inside our society was the proper path towards democratization. This was supported by almost all of the intellectuals, both religious and non-religious. The majority of people were persuaded by this idea and that’s the reason they voted for President Khatami and supported him for six years.
But gradually we found out that in Iran’s present Constitution, all power is concentrated in the hands of one person. He has legislative, judicial, and executive power. Although the President is elected by the people, candidates must be tasked by the Council of the Guardians, who are under control of the leader. The leader also has the armed forces, all the state run radio and television, has to right to change the Constitution. That is one of the reasons that the people must change the Constitution. According to the present Constitution, any election in Iran is not free and is useless, too.
So the promise for change is being led by what I call the “reformation movement”, based on the principles of democracy, human rights, civil society and involvement in the international community. This is wider and deeper than the “reform process” of years past.
IA-Forum: So you’re advocating a referendum to change the Constitution….
Mr. Sazegara: About two and a half years ago I wrote an essay in Iran that explained why we need to have a referendum, under the supervision of international organizations, that would ask the people whether they want the present Constitution or not. If they say that the Constitution should be changed, then we need a provincial government with a free election of parliamentary members to write a new Constitution based on human rights and democracy.
IA-Forum: And this article led to your imprisonment?
Mr. Sazegara: Yes. After writing that article, I was arrested twice actually. First, by the Minister of Intelligence – I went on a hungry strike and was released after five days. I was arrested a second time, by the Ministry of Intelligence, an organization that everyone believes is controlled by the leader himself. They kept me that time for 114 days. I was on a hunger strike – the first time, 56 days; and because they said they would agree to my demands, I broke it and then found out they lied. Again, I went on a hunger strike for 23 days. So, a total of 79 days. I was on the strike to protest my arrest and to promote non-violent, democratic opposition.
IA-Forum: What will it take for a referendum to be successful?
Mr. Sazegara: The current regime will certainly approve it. If you say ‘please go away’ we’re going to have a referendum, of course that won’t happen. So we have to put pressure on them. The main pressure must come from the people. To have this pressure from the people; first of all, even before any non-violence and democratic actions, we need to give the people hope. The people of Iran are experiencing a kind of political depression now. They are disillusioned and have become apathetic. You have to give them hope to make sure any referendum is successful. We also need the support of the international community for democratization.
IA-Forum: What form of support should that be?
Mr. Sazegara: First of all, what we don’t want is money, especially for democratic actions. This only helps the regime, as they will claim that those who receive money from the outside sources, are spies. In fact, outside Iranian businessmen may supply money that may sway things.
There are several important issues that need to be addressed from an international perspective:
1. Democracy. Although President Bush has announced several times that he will support democratization, he needs to go further. There are very good opportunities in next election. A good start if the US and other countries state that the majority of Iranians want change, and unless there is a change in the Constitution, elections will not be recognized.
2. Human Rights. This is a very important issue in Iran. It’s important for the international community to put pressure on Iran to investigate actions made by the regime in this regard.
3. Terrorism. We are a peaceful nation with a great history. But the leaders of the country are involved in terrorism against citizens and other countries. Again, it would be helpful if there were an international investigation into acts of terrorism and violence. It will help the Iranian people by showing that most Iranians are not involved in terrorist actions. In fact, I think many politicians will be happy for the same reason. It can also help to give hope to the Iranians.
IA-Forum: From an American perspective, the nuclear issue looms over Iran.
Mr. Sazegara: Although it is an important issue, it is between governments, not nations. They can offer a new proposal, new conditions – much like in the last two years. I agree with a disarmed Middle East and world. It’s a better place without any arms in the Middle East including Pakistan and Israel. As I stated, I think our main problem is democracy, human rights, and terrorism. Nukes are out of the hands of the people. However, I’m sure the current regime will play this card as long as they can.
IA-Forum: Dr. Iman Foroutan, one of the leaders of the United Iranian ‘Coalition of Liberation’ has been critical of your plan. Specifically, he states that:
- the required pre-conditions for holding such a referendum in Iran do not exist
- there are no guarantees for holding an open and fair referendum
- there are no guarantees for implementing the results of the referendum and;
even if the referendum were a good faith proposal, which we sincerely doubt, it is extremely dangerous for the future of democracy in Iran. It has the potential of being hijacked by IRI and numerous occasions and resulting in the legitimization of the IRI for another decade.
Would you care to respond?
Mr. Sazegara: If people say ‘no’ to the constitution, then there will be no IRI. I don’t know how that will happen. That is why we want this under supervision of international organizations. From my experiences, the present regime will not agree to a referendum, so pressure must be put on them through non-violent actions to force change. If we succeed in mobilizing the people to exert pressure, then the easy part will be watching the vote boxes. International watchers would be at election centers, overseeing the voting process. We have experience from under the Shah for this process.
In some societies, there may be a call for something like a referendum that requires pressure from the people. But what actually happens, is that the people will overthrow the regime and then go for a referendum. You can’t go to other countries and tell them that – “we’re going to overthrow the country, support us” – this is against the law. But if you say that you want to change the Constitution, then that may work.
There are several ways to achieve the same result. I choose the referendum – although the result might be the same – it shows the people that we have a secular, democratic regime by hearing their voices, which is our right. A number of Iranian activists agree and have signed a document saying they want a change in the constitution. They haven’t been arrested but if you say you want to overthrow the regime – it’s jail. When you are in Iran, the best way to advocate change is to be transparent.
IA-Forum: How would Rafzanjani’s possible candidacy affect the election?
Under the present Constitution, any election is useless so it doesn’t really matter. We need a referendum under international supervision. As many people have said, if they don’t go for changing the Constitution – no one should vote.
It’s hard to foresee what will actually happen. Since Iran is not integrated with strong social institutions and economic classes, the behavior of society is difficult to be foreseen. The political trend of society now is that 70-80% of people don’t vote. Of the 20% who vote, many support the leader. He wants 60-65% of the people to vote to show off to the US. Unfortunately, if Iranians don’t vote, figures may be manipulated. So it’s crucial that the elections be supervised by international community.
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