Unwitting accomplice to turbaned tyrants

It was a cold autumn day in 1978 in Los Angeles when I saw on the evening news that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had gone to the Paris suburb of Neauphle-le-Chateau from exile in Iraq. To a young student activist in the anti-shah movement, it seemed like the opportunity of a lifetime. Having studied theories of social change as a sociology student at UCLA, I really wanted to be part of the revolution that was about to sweep my country.

I took the next available flight to Paris, where I stayed for two months at Khomeini’s makeshift “headquarters,” helping out as an interpreter. I saw firsthand how the mullahs close to Khomeini continuously connived to monopolize power and how young people, especially the college-educated, were being marginalized. Any discussion of the most prominent opposition groups in Iran at that time also was banned.

The experience was enough for me to grow completely disillusioned about Khomeini and his retinue. My older brother Hossein, a prolific writer and an anti-shah activist in Los Angeles before he returned to Iran in January 1979, was executed two year later by his former U.S. colleagues, who by then had assumed key posts in the new theocratic state. He was 29.

The conventional wisdom of social change is that a generation cannot make two revolutions. If the past eight months are any indication, it seems my generation is going to be an exception – and a new opportunity for freedom looms on the horizon in Iran.

Three decades after the ayatollahs set up a theocracy under the guise of Islam, they seem to have reached the end of the line, as widespread demands for democratic change permeate the gamut of society.

Several indications are not in dispute:

c The regime clearly has grown weaker. Supreme Leader Ayatolla Ali Khamenei has failed to mend widening rifts within his regime because they are too deep and he is too weak to make concessions. This explains why President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, while boasting Thursday that Iran was now “a nuclear state,” ordered the resumption of uranium enrichment.

c The protesters’ demands no longer are about electoral fraud. As evidenced in the protests Thursday and on Dec. 27 (Ashura), the underlying demand of 31 years ago has resurfaced: insistence on a democratic and secular republic and the rejection of theocracy. The slogan “Down with the principle of the velayat-e faqih” (absolute clerical rule) captures that.

c Mr. Ahmadinejad’s rivals have lost crucial ground. On Jan. 1, Mir Hossein Mousavi offered a five-point reconciliation plan but was quickly rebuffed, demonstrating both Ayatollah Khamenei’s stubbornness as well as Mr. Mous avi’s diminishing political influence. Two days later, reformist Mehdi Karroubi announced that he recognized Mr. Ahmadinejad’s presidency.

c And Thursday, on the Revolution’s anniversary – despite the fact that the regime undertook extraordinary measures, mustered all of its repressive forces and resorted to widespread beatings and citizen arrests – fearless and resolute Iranians defied the brutal crackdown. The regime’s total illegitimacy as well as the opposition’s determination to continue – as leading Iranian opposition figure Maryam Rajavi put it – “will lead to the realization of freedom and democracy in Iran.”

The big question now is: Can the people finally overcome the what President Obama called the regime’s “iron fist of brutality”? A lot rides on the West’s attitude toward the organized opposition.

In 1997, as a “goodwill gesture” to Tehran’s tyrants, the Clinton administration blacklisted the main Iranian opposition group, People’s Mujahedin-e Khalq (PMOI). That decision only emboldened the mullahs in their repressive and terrorist ways. Even the offering of a package of enticements during President George W. Bush’s second term did nothing to bring around the turbaned tyrants of Iran.

President Obama’s remarks in his State of the Union address revealed that this administration’s approach is weighed down by unpromising rhetoric, discernible indecisiveness and inattention toward Iran’s growing opposition, ostensibly because anything to the contrary may appear to be interfering in Iran’s internal affairs.

Ironically, keeping the PMOI on the Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) list is a clear example of interference that serves the interests of the clerical regime, even if unwittingly. The mullahs consider the PMOI their archnemesis, which explains why they continue to point their sword toward it. The most senior regime officials now say, for example, that the PMOI “commanded the Ashura uprising” or “Slogans posted on the [PMOI] Web site were chanted by the protesters.”

On Jan. 18, during a kangaroo trial, a prosecutor in Tehran demanded the death penalty for five protesters charged with “colluding with the ‘terrorist’ [PMOI].” There is hardly any doubt that both the diverse opposition and unorganized masses rely on the PMOI’s capabilities and experience to thrust the movement to a higher phase. With the largest organized social network inside Iran, PMOI activists and supporters, who have lost 120,000 of their loved ones to the regime’s onslaught in years past, are instrumental in strengthening and steering the protests.

In their struggle “to exercise their universal rights,” as President Obama put it, Iranians have asked Washington for nothing but to stop any interference that has been working in favor of the mullahs and impairs the opposition. That obviously would serve the interests of the uprising and the opposition inside Iran, but it also can benefit America’s long-term goals for a more stable and democratic order in the Middle East.

Ali Safavi, a member of Iran’s parliament-in-exile, the National Council of Resistance.