London, Asharq Al-Awsat-The Secretary General of the Iran Freedom Movement Ibrahim Yazdi, whose movement is one of the parties forming the ‘reform trend’ in Iran, has warned that Iran is on its way to becoming like the former Soviet Union -“the strongest totalitarian regime with very efficient but corrupt secret police.”
He explained in an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat that 30 years after establishing the Islamic Republic and the fall of the Shah, his fears for the fate of the revolution are uppermost in his mind: “The Soviet Union collapsed because the leaders move to reform the system and respond to peoples’ demands came late, and I believe that Iran is going down the same road,” he said, adding: “The difference is that Iran is not an empire to disintegrate into republics, and the collapse of the Soviet Union marked the end of the Marxist ideology. But unlike Marxism, Islam will not disappear; it is part of our identity and culture and I am not worried about Islam. Islam has God to protect it; but I am worried about the republic and democracy in my country.”
He went on to say: “We have been fighting for democracy all our lives. In my case, I have been fighting for democracy for 60 years. I know that the road to democracy is not easy, and I know that we need the patience of Job, the longevity of Noah and diplomacy of the Prophet Muhammad.”
The Secretary General of Iran Freedom Movement, Ibrahim Yazdi, was Iran’s foreign minister in the government of Mehdi Bazargan, the first interim Iranian government after the revolution of 1979. He stressed that the current crisis in Iran is not just a matter of differences between the ruling elite, but a popular movement that was born on the streets, and with which the reform movement found itself in agreement. Consequently, he does not think that the situation In Iran could be decided by the reform leaders challenging the conservatives. Rather, it is the masses in the streets which, according to Yazdi, are undergoing major transformation.
According to Yazdi, the Iranian ruling elite has two choices: either they try to suppress the street, or go along with it and respond to its demands. Mousavi, Rafsanjani, Karrubi and Khatami are trying to do the latter, by virtue of their influence in the regime’s institutions, he said, adding that “the fanaticism of the conservatives indicates that a compromise solution would be difficult to avoid.”
The following is the text of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What do you think to Rafsanjani’s Friday speech?
[Yazdi] Everyone knows that as a result of the presidential elections the gap between the nation and the state has become wider. More importantly, the new generation in Iran and the reform movement are trying to remedy the situation from within the regime and the framework of the present constitution. Consequently, they take advantage of every opportunity to express their views peacefully. When the people heard that Rafsanjani was going to lead the Friday prayers and that Mousavi, Karrubi and Khatami would be there, hundreds of thousands of supporters went to join in the prayers and demonstrations. It was a civilized gathering, but unfortunately the plainclothes secret police attacked Karrubi and the demonstrators. That was painful and it increased the people’s mistrust in the ruling regime.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think Rafsanjani’s speech covered all the issues that the people wanted him to talk about, and do you think he is capable of pushing for a political solution to the crisis?
[Yazdi] Yes I do. Rafsanjani has expressed the demands of the Iranian street. As for whether he is capable of pushing for a peaceful solution to the crisis, I believe that if we take into consideration that in his speech he spoke of a political solution, and if we take into consideration that that the authorities cannot continue with the present situation, it becomes inevitable that a peaceful political solution for the present crisis has to be found. That is why I believe that Rafsanjani is capable and is working for a political solution from within the system.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What do you think is going to happen now? Are you going to continue with your pressure against the election of Ahmadinejad?
[Yazdi] Of course we will continue the political pressure. The first thing that everyone demands and should be done immediately, as Rafsanjani has said in his Friday speech, is the release of all political detainees in Iran, some of whom are prominent leaders in the reform movement. There are many detainees that no one knows of their whereabouts and we fear for them. Some of them had no contact with their families since they were detained. Secondly, the killing that took place during the demonstrations should be investigated: we should know who gave the orders and who fired the shots; the reform movement would like the judiciary to undertake the investigations.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] From your personal point of view, what is the best solution to the present crisis?
[Yazdi] The first and immediate step that should be taken is the unconditional release of the political detainees. Second, an investigation should be made to determine who was responsible for killing the people in the streets and campuses of Teheran universities. In the medium term the question is how to reach a political compromise solution for the present crisis.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What ideas do you have and what do you want?
[Yazdi] We hope to form a ‘shura council’ consisting of Muhammad Khatami, Mir Hussein Mousavi and Mehdi Karrubi to press for the peoples demands. If they form this council and make it their legal framework, it would enable Hashemi Rafsanjani to support them from within the regime’s institutions.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Why do you regard this crisis as the most serious since the revolution of 1979?
[Yazdi] Last April, I delivered a lecture at the Middle East Institute in Washington and I said that Iran is on its way to representing the Soviet Union paradigm.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What was that?
[Yazdi] The Soviet system was the most powerful totalitarian system with a very efficient but corrupt secret police. The Soviet system was under pressure from inside and outside, but no revolution took place. So why did the Soviet system collapse? One man called Mikhail Gorbachev came to the Central Committee of the Communist Party and said that the system, in its present form would not do and that change from within should take place. He convinced the Central Committee of the Communist Party, but it was too late. The change was too quick and led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Instead of change from within and through state institutions, the Soviet Union collapsed, because the leadership’s move to reform and respond to the peoples’ demands came too late.
Almost twenty years ago, Ayatollah Ali Montazeri called for reform of the government system from within – as did Gorbachev, but no one listened to him. I believe Iran is going down the same road as the Soviet Union, with two main differences. The first is that Iran is not an empire to disintegrate into republics. The Soviet Union was an empire that disintegrated into the republics of Central Asia and Eastern Europe; the second is that the collapse of the Soviet Union marked the end of the Marxist ideology.
Here in Iran we are not an empire, and if the regime collapses Islam will not collapse with it, because Islam is a part of our identity and culture. I am not worried about the disintegration of Iran and I am not worried about Islam. Not because I am not a pious Muslim, but because Allah said He will protect Islam. He is the Guardian. Nobody is a guardian of God’s religion, for He is the Guardian. But I feel it is my duty to protect the Islamic Republic.
The Islamic Republic is a young plant that is still growing; it is surrounded by enemies and it is my duty to protect it. What did Abdul-Muttalib [Prophet Muhammad’s grandfather] say when Abraha came to destroy the Holy Kabah in Mecca? He said “the House of God has God to protect it” I am not worried about Islam, for Islam has God to protect it. The Mullahs are not the protectors of Islam, even if they say so; it is God who is the protector of Islam. But I fear for the Iranian Republic and democracy in my country.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The reform movement has been subjected to a lot of pressure by the conservatives to make it accept the results of the elections and the government of Ahmadinejad. Is it because of that pressure that you -the reformists – are united? Do you have different points of view on the way forward in dealing with the present crisis?
[Yazdi] Unfortunately there are different points of view in the reform movement towards this crisis, and there have always been different points of view in the movement. But the differences are about the best way to exert more pressure and the form of the compromise solution. The reform movement is a real movement; it is a social and political movement and has a deep-rooted presence in Iran. Depending on their political circumstances, people may join or stay away from the movement, but in the present circumstances it is too early to assess the new arrangement of the political forces. We have to wait and see where exactly Khatami, Rafsanjani, or the other top leaders stand.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are there any meetings between the top reform leaders – Rafsanjani Khatami, Mousavi and Karrubi?
[Yazdi] Meetings and discussions are taking place all the time.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Three years ago, you said to Asharq Al-Awsat: “Gradual change – yes, but another revolution – impossible.” Do you still hold that view? Where does Iran stand at present?
[Yazdi] Yes. I still believe that another revolution is not the answer to Iran’s problems.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Many conservative leaders see the reform movement as operating outside the legal framework, so how would you effectuate a change from within the state institutions?
[Yazdi] The reform movement has its ups and downs; but it is a movement that sprang from the heart of society and the Iranians have no other alternative. Consequently, despite the election crisis, the differences and sharp polarization within the regime will be difficult to deal with, without agreement on a compromise solution. A compromise solution is the only thing acceptable to the parties. The fanaticism of the conservatives, which is increasing by the day, suggests that a compromise solution is the only way out. The only thing that would prevent further deterioration is a compromise solution that includes concessions to the reform movement.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Who can help in reaching a compromise solution between the reformists and the conservatives? Are they the close advisers of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, such as Hassan Ruhani and Ali Akbar Velayati, who have strong relations with both the conservatives and reformists?
[Yazdi] No, there is no one individual who can be the effective force. There are pressures that come from different quarters within the regime such as the Ayatollahs at Qum, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps [IRGC] and the Parliament. Each and all of these can play a role in reaching a compromise solution; but no person in particular can play that role.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Some people believe that the Revolutionary Guard Corps stood united behind Ahmadinejad in the present crisis and that there are no differences among them.
[Yazdi] Even though they said Ahmadinejad won the elections, the regime itself is in a critical situation. Some steps have to betaken, because the division is not just between the people and the state, but also within the regime itself.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How would we know that there are people in the Revolutionary Guard who would agree to a political or a compromise solution that includes concessions to the reform movement? The Revolutionary Guards did not talk softly about the reformists during the election crisis; on the contrary, they were very intransigent?
[Yazdi] Nevertheless, it is still too early to determine the Revolutionary Guard’s position in the crisis. We should put aside the first three weeks of events after the elections in order to arrive at an impartial view. That is why you now find many in Iran who would hesitate to make conclusions about the crisis. The situation is still fluid.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] This being so, are you in the reform movement ready for a protracted confrontation?
[Yazdi] In my particular case, it has been 60 years. I know that the road to democracy is not easy. I know that we need the patience of Job, the longevity of Noah and the diplomacy of the Prophet Muhammad. But we should be faithful to the ideal of democracy in order to walk to the end of the road. We have to be patient. I am optimistic because everything I see is urging me to be optimistic. More importantly, we have no other choice. I believe in Almighty God – praised be His name. His bounty may come from where we do not even care to guess.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You spoke of a legal battle in parliament and other government institutions. Do you think that the parliament might be a problem for Ahmadinejad?
[Yazdi] I do not know what the parliament is going to do; but I am not talking of any particular institution. The parliament, the judiciary, the institutions close to the supreme leader, the council of experts and the council for identifying the interests of the revolution – taken together, can make all the difference.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about the influence of the Ayatollahs of Qum?
[Yazdi] If we look at what Grand Ayatollah Saanei or Ayatollah Mousavi Ardabili and others have said, one gets the impression that either they have not been carefully listened to, or that the conservatives tend to ignore them, despite their strengths. I believe that sooner or later, there will come a time when the leaders at the heart of the regime will realize that they have to listen carefully to what the Ayatollahs of Qum had to say. Some of what they have said was harsh indeed. Now that Ahmadinejad is president, there are some who say that it is unlawful to deal with his government. This is a very harsh statement coming as it does from high-ranking religious authorities. It is difficult to ignore such an attitude. That is why I am saying one has to wait for sometime before assessing the results of the political stands of a number of the grand Ayatollahs of Qum.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think the Ayatollahs have enough clout to influence the crisis?
[Yazdi] If we look at the political position of the Ayatollahs of Qum you may be right; but they were not alone. The regime as a whole is divided, from the council of experts, which oversees the performance of the supreme leader and parliament, to the reformists such as Mousavi, who was prime minister during the war with Iraq who all are experiencing heavy pressure. It will not be easy for the conservatives to suppress this movement, because Mousavi has influential supporters in government institutions, in the armed forces and even in the revolutionary guards. All this plays in favor of the reformists in reaching a compromise solution; but this will not happen overnight.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Given the position of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in the regime, do you think he would agree to a comprise solution after the shouting of abuse against him from the rooftops?
[Yazdi] I cannot foretell. All I can say is that I wish he would, in the interest of Iran. The current crisis will not only harm one or two institutions such as the supreme leader; all the national interest is presently at stake.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think he would accept a compromise solution willy-nilly?
[Yazdi] If we may regard the issue as an exchange of views, we would be able to find a solution without talking about ‘willy-nilly’.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps [IRGC] have been involved in politics since the first term of the Khatami presidency, as a response to a reformist like him winning the elections. Do you think that the involvement of the IRCG in politics is one of Iran’s problems and that they want to govern Iran indirectly?
[Yazdi] In fact they have said this albeit indirectly. They said: as it was us who defended the country against the Iraqi invasion; we are the institution that is best suited to govern Iran. But they were wrong; you cannot find a country in the world governed by the military and making progress at the same time, apart from one exception – South Korea. The reason for their success is that the US wanted to give an opposite example to that of China and North Korea. Consequently, the military rule in South Korea succeeded in providing an example of a stable and prosperous state; but that example did not succeed in a country like Pakistan, for example. The Revolutionary Guards are wrong in saying they are the best suited to govern the country; because if they did govern the country and after paying a heavy price, they would realize that they had made a grave mistake and would retreat from that position.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is it true that recently the publications, ideology and propaganda of the IRGC have become politicized?
[Yazdi] Yes it is true and they claim to be the protectors of the Iranian revolution. But there is a slight difference between protecting the revolution and protecting the interests of a group claiming to protect the revolution. The two are not the same. The Revolutionary Guard attacks what they call the “velvet revolution”, but what in essence is the “velvet revolution”? This term appeared with the revolution in Ukraine. What was the problem in Ukraine? The reformist Ukrainian opposition did not demand a regime change. The Ukrainian authorities rigged the elections and refused to listen to the people’s demands or put up with lawful peaceful demonstrations by the political parties and the people. The Ukrainian opposition did not ask for a regime change, they asked for leeway where the lawfully elected people would take their position in government. But when the Revolutionary Guard in Iran say they are worried by the “velvet revolution”, they are effectively saying that that the Islamic Republic means the Revolutionary Guard and the conservatives, and that when they are in government the Islamic Republic is safe and well. But if the people wanted to change their rulers then that to them would mean a regime change – a change of the Islamic Republic.
When I was detained, I was interrogated 53 times and I was accused of attempting to lead a “velvet revolution”. I asked the interrogators what they meant by that. They said: you are trying to change the president.
According to the constitution all people are entitled to change the government, elect a new president, elect new members of parliament and government, and every eight years they have the legal and political right to change the council of experts which elects the supreme leader, which impliedly means they have the right even to change the supreme leader if the council of experts found that the supreme leader should be changed for whatever reason. Consequently, I said to the interrogators: It is not a crime to change the president. The situation in Iran at present is as follows: They see themselves as being “the Islamic Republic”, and if we wanted to change them, that would amount to changing the Islamic republic.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about the political address of the Revolutionary Guards? When you hear Ahmadinejad talking you find him saying something different from Muhsin Ridai, and when you hear Muhammad Ghalibaf the Mayor of Teheran talking, you hear something completely different from that of General Jaafari, Chief Commander of the Revolutionary Guards. Yet all those were at sometime or another, and some still are, leaders in the Revolutionary Guard. Does not the Revolutionary Guard have a unified political address? Do they not think as one institution? Or are there different points of view?
[Yazdi] Yes, surely there are different political views in the Revolutionary Guard. It would be a grave error to assume that the Revolutionary Guard, as a military establishment, is speaking with one voice; it is not. Muhsin Ridai has been with the revolution from the very beginning and he is a very experienced man. He was a member of the council for identifying the Interests of the revolution, during which he gained enough experience to make him keep his distance and independence. During the election campaign he admitted that when he was head of the Revolutionary Guard, they interfered with the government of Mehdi Bazargan and that probably they were wrong to do so. Ridai is different from Ahmadinejad because of that past experience. Ahmadinejad was unknown before his election as president; he was a university professor. We have at present thousands of university professors; does this mean that they all should become president?
When in 2005 Ahmadinejad stood as candidate for president, many of us objected to his candidacy, but the Council for the Protection of the Constitution approved it. We questioned his political experience and qualifications, on the basis of which the council approved his candidacy.
When Ahmadinejad won the presidential elections he was very obedient to the supreme leader. It has been said that Khamenei did not feel he was ruling Iran until Ahmadinejad became president. Nevertheless, I am going to repeat once again that I am very optimistic regarding everything that is taking place in Iran; it means that the revolution has changed the Iranian society in a way that was not clearly understood by the outside world or even by some inside Iran. The average age of the Iranian people is in the twenties, which means they are spontaneously politicized. This, in my view, is the most important change that the revolution has effectuated in Iran.
When the people are politicized, suppressive military and security measures cannot silence them, as more pressure would increase their will for liberation and change. All sections of the Iranian people took part in the revolution – from the most liberal to the most religious, especially the women, one of whom, regrettably, was the first victim of the Iranian revolution. Iranian women, regardless of their affiliations, and whether religious or liberal, feel offended, because the state, which the revolution has produced, cares less about the corrupt official and more about a tuft of hair hanging out on their heads. This does not reflect the cultural fabric of the Iranian society. In Iran we call the liar an enemy of God, but we do not call the woman with uncovered hair and face an enemy of God.
Government and official positions have always been a test and a trial from God. Some of the people in government today were part of the resistance movement against the Shah, and were imprisoned and tortured because of that. But when they became rulers and sat in the seat of government, they failed, because of the temptations of power. When Mousavi was prime minister, Khamenei was not happy to work with him and tried to unseat him, but Ayatollah Khomeini stood against that. When Ayatollah Ali Khamenei became supreme leader and Rafsanjani became president of the republic, he could not control Rafsanjani and probably did not feel that he had all the power in his hands. When Ahmadinejad became president he completely surrendered to Khamenei and did as he was told, but at a cost to Khamenei, as that gradually lost him the support of old friends and he became rather lonely and isolated.