Iranians are Yearning for Real Reform — They Deserve the West’s Support

By Alireza Nader | Chair of ADL's Iran Task Force
  • June 29, 2018

The arrest of prominent Iranian human rights advocate Nasrin Sotudeh last week was just another sign that the Islamic Republic of Iran will never respect human rights or individual dignity.

Mr Sotudeh has spent many years in jail fighting for human rights but was freed in September 2013 as part of President Hassan Rouhani’s “reform” efforts, only to be rearrested June 13, 2018 as the Iranian regime faces an existential crisis.

Her arrest confirms what is increasingly clear to most Iranians: for their country to have a future, Iranians must move beyond the very idea that it is possible to reform the current regime.

If Mr Sotudeh can’t advocate for the most fundamental individual rights under a “moderate” president, then there is no future for personal freedom and dignity under any leader of the Islamic Republic.

The regime in Iran is fundamentally based on an ideology of supremacy.

Velayat e faghih (rule of the supreme jurisprudent), the regime’s foundational ideology, espouses intolerance, state control of society, women’s oppression, and systemic human rights abuses targeting religious, ethnic, and sexual minorities.

It was originally a minor religious principle, but Iran’s leaders have turned it into a political-ideological doctrine to justify Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s claim to absolute power.

They seek to legitimise repressive rule using religion, but their regime is based on a belief system often found in fascist and totalitarian states.

Iranian reformists have argued the regime is capable of reform, but that is fundamentally inconsistent with the regime’s founding ideology which prevents any meaningful reforms from taking place.

Shia clergy in Iran traditionally believed in a separation of state and mosque: the Shah would rule and the clergy would serve as society’s religious guides and guardians in the absence of the Messiah-like Twelfth Imam, the last in line of the Shia religious leaders.

But Khomeini believed in an Islamic state directly ruled by clerics like him.

Velayat e faghih, enshrined in Iran’s post-revolutionary constitution, designated the Supreme Leader as Iran’s absolute religious leader.

In the absence of the Twelfth Imam, the Supreme Leader would serve as his viceroy and “God’s representative on Earth.”

The Islamic Republic’s constitution further defined the Supreme Leader as Iran’s head of state and commander in chief of the military.

Iran’s revolutionary theocracy had to navigate existing democratic norms and pressures from political factions to create an elected republic, rather than an authoritarian regime.

Iran’s elected institutions, including the presidency and parliament, were given only limited authority, allowing the Supreme Leader, the clergy, and eventually the Revolutionary Guards to wield incredible power.

President Hassan Rouhani’s failure to bring positive social change over the last five years is the greatest testament to Iran’s political realities, following a similar experience during Iran’s reformist Mohammad Khatami presidency from 1997 to 2005.

The Supreme Leaders have wielded the majority of power and they have both been reactionary and intolerant figures. Their views on religion, sexuality, political decision-making, and social norms have been highly fundamentalist and anti-democratic in nature.

Current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has justified the regime’s repression against women and other minorities by pointing to the “traditional” nature of Iran’s overwhelmingly Shia Muslim society.

Iranian culture and Islamic law are used as excuses for totalitarian control.

Language in Islamic law calling for “proper” dress for women has been exploited by the regime to create a system of gender oppression that discriminates against women in every possible way.

Despite a vast sea change in cultural attitudes toward women and their role in society, the regime insists on using unjust laws and brutal force to maintain control over half of the population.

The regime’s totalitarian laws, policies, and behaviour are not restricted to women alone.

Religious minorities — Sunnis, Bahais, Jews, and Christian converts — lead precarious lives marked by persistent harassment and discrimination.

Bahais are particularly vulnerable. Since the revolution, thousands have been executed, imprisoned, or forced to flee the country

Today, Iran’s remaining Bahais are unable to attend university, work in the government, or practice their faith freely.

Some 200,000 Jews have left Iran under duress since the 1979 revolution with far less than that remaining today. Sunnis have negligible governmental representation despite comprising 10 percent of the population, and Christian converts are regularly arrested, and some even executed.

The government’s repression of minorities has given it the power to rule over a population that has lost faith in velayat e faghih and the Islamic Republic as a whole.

The “revolutionary” regime which promised to save and serve the dispossessed has become the ultimate force of repression.

The regime’s injustice, avarice, and corruption were the leading causes of the popular uprising that began last December and continues today. Iran has been the scene of numerous demonstrations, strikes, and acts of civil disobedience for the past seven months.

Numerous reports from inside Iran indicate that the country may be in a pre-revolutionary state; Iran’s currency has declined rapidly, millions are unemployed or unpaid, and even the clergy show signs of dissent against Khamenei’s authoritarian rule.

The women’s rights anti-compulsory hejab movement has become one of the greatest challenges to the regime’s system of social control.

The Islamic Republic is, at heart, a fundamentalist and totalitarian state incapable of reform.

The only way for Iranians to save Iran is to reject the failed ideology of reform and seek an entirely new political system that respects individual and minority rights.

Iranians are fighting for freedom every day. They deserve the free world’s wholehearted support.