In the 1990s we witnessed the peak of the reform movement and the election of President Khatami. How would you compare the reform movement now, with that of the 1990s? What would you outline as the main factors that have held the movement back?
Saeed Hajarian, one of my friends who unfortunately was left physically disabled in a assassination attack in winter of 2000. He is known as the theoretician of the Reform issues in Iran and has a famous phrase: ‘Reform died, long live Reform’. This phrase has been repeated constantly by many people in Iran. At the heart of such a phrase is the popular view that, the 8 years period of reform in the 1990s, associated with President Khatami and the 6th Parliament, represents the height of the reform movement but it was ended. However, the reform movement is still alive and effective.
This way of thinking reflects the views for solving Iran's problems and difficulties that in Iran neither the bloody revolutions nor anarchistic activities will be the answer. Instead there is a need to strengthen the reform movement through a long term and peaceful process. A process in which step by step, the organized forces of the civil society, including the workers trade unions and syndicates and professional associations of working people, can be strengthened. Historic experiences have shown that this is the only and the best way to end dictatorial rules which have come about through army and semi military coup de tats and to establish freedom, democracy, human rights, development and welfare.
This form of a reform movement in Iran, is a movement which Iranians as a nation, have been struggling for more than 100 years, to achieve democracy, justice and institutionalization of the rule of the people based on law and order. To achieve (for approaching to) this, people of Iran have been facing enormous challenges over a century, including two revolutions, two coup de tats and a reform movement. The aim of the constitutional revolution of 1905 was the establishment of parliamentary rule and the control of the Qajar Shah. In a more advanced phase, the 1979 revolution ended the regime of Pahlavi Shah and established a republic around the slogan of ‘Independence, Freedom and Islamic Republic’. Since the 1979 revolution, Iran has achieved a relative degree of independence. Since the 1979 revolution the essence of the other two slogans has changed. The aim of the reform movement is, therefore, the establishment and the institutionalization of the slogans of ‘Freedom and Republic’. Today, the reform movement is facing a dictatorial and anti freedom current which supports a form of ‘Islamic rule’ which in effect does not believe in ‘Republic’, ‘Democracy’, ‘Independent Parliamentary Rule’ and ‘People’s Electoral Rule’. Instead this current is after a form of ‘extra judicial individualistic rule’.
The reform movement in its first phase, in the context of a mass movement through elections – presidential elections, parliamentary elections and urban and rural shuras (councils) – succeeded to stop the ‘extra judicial individualistic rule’. Moreover, it tried to stop the return of a ‘monarchical’ regime under the cover of Islam. But for a number of reasons it failed. For example, in the midst of the reform a military – security trend, which had the support of the leadership, became active and began its programs of limiting the activities of political groups, parties and civil society organizations. The President’s power was limited and his position was weakened. Under these circumstances, as long as women and students activists, leaders of the workers syndicates were arrested and imprisoned. Independent and Reformists journalists captured and jailed, and more around 150 media were closed down and the independent work of reformist’ MPs in the 6th Parliament was limited.
In the present (current) period, the reform movement has learned from its past weaknesses and is seriously working towards taking power through their participation in the March 2008 Parliamentary election- if it be free and fair- followed by the Presidential election. Meanwhile, the civil society activists, although under enormous pressure, are continuing their peaceful activities to strengthen their position and to follow their demands. However, they are accused of participating in ‘Rouge (saffron) revolution’ and ‘quiet revolution’ similar to the forms of ‘revolutions’ which occurred in the Ex-Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. These accusations have allowed the regime to arrest and imprison – including solitary confinement – of many activists, to close down NGOs, TUs and independent workers syndicates, by ignoring the constitutional laws and the global human rights issues.
The debate around the nuclear issue and the challenges that Iran is facing in the various forms: ‘the imposition of economic sanctions, the creation of neither war nor peace situation and in the long run the danger of military intervention and war against Iran’ have all created a situation where the principles of freedom and human rights, the foundation of the reform movement, can be ignored. This is especially in a situation that many countries are ignoring the reality of Iran and continue with their political debate about Iran and the nuclear issue.
The ruling power in Iran, in order to continue its ruling, strengthens the military – security issues, as well as limiting personal space of the citizens such as what to wear and not to wear in public. They even restrict people’s entertainment as well as suppressing civil society organizations, the exclusion of candidates from participating in the coming elections and consequently limiting the choice of voters and candidates. Therefore, a semi police system is based on censorship, self censorship, limitation and suppression of freedom and independent activities of political and civil society activists. These are the challenges that the reform movement in Iran is facing at present period.
Following the US invasion of Iraq, there have been worrying signals of Iran becoming a target in the US War on Terror. These signals include the sanctions, the presence of a US naval fleet in the Persian Gulf and threats from Israel. Despite the US Intelligent Report issued on December 3, 2007, that admits Iran halted a secret nuclear weapons program in 2003, many in the West believe that George Bush and the Neo-Conservatives might extend the war to Iran. What's the view from Iran and how has the movement there reacted to the sanctions and threats of war?
The events in our neighboring counties, Iraq and Afghanistan and before them in Ex- Yugoslavia, have led the people of Iran to conclude that they cannot underestimate the threat of war and military intervention in Iran. They cannot trust the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, the consensus view of the 16 US intelligence agencies, issued on December 3, 2007. This is because the warmongers and the neo-conservatives, although their position has weakened, are still in power in the White House. As the result, people of Iran cannot treat these reports positively. In this context, we have a number of sayings in Iran. For example: ‘A wise person will not be sting twice’ or ‘there is no spring with the appearance of one flower’. Iranian people, therefore, are not taking these reports seriously and instead they look at historical evidence. They see that warmongers are only concerned with their economic and political expansionists policies and not with the interest of peoples and nations and are capable of acting against their own public opinion and even their own reports.
People of Iran, look at all the oppositions to the war on Iraq and Afghanistan: the UN reports, the public opinion, and even the objections made by the majority of the European governments, with the exception of the UK government. Despite all these oppositions, the American warmongers continued their wars in the interest of their expansionist policies in the region. In the name of Democracy and WMD they attacked Iraq, although no WMD was found in Iraq. Even after the expert advice of Turner-Hamilton suggesting American troops to leave Iraq, Mr. Bush, ignored them in the interest of his expansionist policies.
From the point of view of the Iranian people, war and military invasion is one side of the coin and economic sanction is the other side of the coin. We are suffering enormously as the result of the official sanctions imposed by the Security Council; the imposition of trade and banking limitations of Western Democracies and their supporters and the continuation of ‘neither peace, nor war’ imposed on the people of Iran by the American rulers.
These conditions have led to rising prices of crude oil and natural gas. The Iranian leaders may benefit from rising incomes achieved by the export of the crude oil but people of Iran have not benefited from this national income. On the contrary, economic sanctions and the situation of ‘neither peace, nor war’ have created inflation and unemployment which in turn have given rise to poverty, corruption, addiction and sex work. No doubt, with increasing US sanctions these conditions will be worsened and could lead to terrible conditions for the poorer sections of the society such as the workers.
For these reasons, the publication of such reports and the postponement of the UN Security Council meeting until January 2008 have not made any difference for the people of Iran. On Monday 17th December 2007, 333 political and civil society activists of the reform movement, including Journalists, NGO activists, trade unionists, students and women activists signed and published an open statement titled ‘New call for peace by the people of Iran’. In this statement, leaders of political parties, civil society activist, students and university academics and journalists and media workers demanded from the people of the world who seek peace, to break the silence and stand up against the continuing threat of war against Iran and the condition of ‘neither peace, no war’ by any means necessary. This statement emphasized that ‘If the UN Security Council Resolutions continue to act against Iran and lead to, God forbidden, war and military intervention against Iran, the Iranian people, in particular the young people who have had no part in planning or in decision making processes about the nuclear issues and have repeatedly announced their objections to any issues which may endanger peace and security, will face the disastrous consequences of war and destruction. We, the peace loving citizens of Iran, in this present crisis, are duty bound to raise our voices and demand peace from the people and governments around the world and the international community. We are asking from the peace movements not to be silent and do all they can against sanctions and the possibility of another war and bloodshed in the region, by helping the people of Iran’.
The reform movement activists in Iran have warned all sides to avoid war and have emphasized confidence building around the world. From the point of view of the Iranian people, there are two sides to warmongering which can lead to not only a war on Iran but war and chaos throughout the world. The people of Iran, on the one hand, are critical of their own ruling powers who, against the will of the people of Iran, may have increased the tension in the region and in the world, by war drumming. On the other hand, people of Iran, blame the neo-conservatives and in particular George Bush, for war drumming and creating tension in the region and the world.
In this statement, the activists have clearly stated that ‘the continuation of political tensions created by the ruling powers in Iran and outside of Iran, will only thicken the wall which has been built between Iran and the international community which is only to the benefit of the White House Programs of mobilizing the international community against our dear country and against the interest of our people’. The statement also ‘warns against any attempt to attack Iran and have raised deep concerns about US warmongering against Iran as a cover up for the US government’s economic and political failures both in the US and internationally’. The most important message of the peace loving reformists activists of Iran is that ‘According to our national and historical duties, we are against any policies which will increase the economic sanctions against Iran because this is a prelude for a war against Iran’. This message is also a warning to the leaders of our country ‘to do everything in their upmost to avoid war as tomorrow may be too late’.
There are many reports about the workers movement in Iran, most notably the bus workers strike in 2006. As a trade unionist, can you tell us your view about the labour/trade union movement in Iran?
The activities of workers syndicates and the bus workers strikes in Iran which led to the arrests and heavy judicial rulings against the leaders and members of the syndicates, should not be seen separate from the reform movement. During the first period of the reform movement of the 1990s, the reformist government and the 6th Parliament created a favorable space under the program of ‘political development’ and ‘culltural development’ which was very fruitful. In this period, freedom of press and expression led to publications of many independent and liberal newspapers and magazines, the expansion of political groups and parties' activities, establishment of a huge official independent civil society organizations such as NGOs, TUs and workers syndicates.
Naturally, professional societies such as teachers, nurses and bus workers syndicates in their aim and for their sectional interests, challenged the government. In this period, when the reformists were in power, these challenges took place in the form of strikes, assemblies in work places, sit ins in the roads and outside of the Parliament. Their demands were sometimes were met with government’s interventions or without government’s interventions.
However, change in the ruling order and with the strengthening of the police, army, and a security atmosphere, these challenges faced arrests, unconstitutional or extra judicial rulings, such as disappearance of a number of bus workers, imprisonment, solitary conferment, not allowing prisoners to access solicitors or to contact their families and facing heavy sentences. Other civil society activists have also been facing similar treatments. This situation is to do with the existing political situation when all activists are accused of ‘rouge (saffron) revolution, led by foreign interference’ and are severely punished.
We, therefore, feel that there is a need for change in the political atmosphere and the establishment of fully respected constitutional law. Moreover a situation under which the electoral institutions to be in control of the real representatives of the people including the TUs and the workers syndicates. Until then the movements in Iran will be facing very difficult circumstances.
For these reasons, workers and Parliamentary institutions side by side their TUs and syndicates’ activists are engaged in elections in order to send their representatives to the Parliament. This strategy has already been successful. For example, in the present 7th Parliament, which is dominated by the conservatives, there are at least two active MPs from the TUs and workers parties from Tehran. Workers have been lobbying and demanding from them and have succeeded to change laws and regulations in favour of the workers.
The reform period of the 1990s created a space for political debate within the TUs and workers syndicates. This created a situation where workers have been aware of their rights. As a result even under the present police – security atmosphere in work places and despite arrests and imprisonments, workers continue their demands. They are fully aware of the secret of their success – unity and solidarity. On this basis they try to do networking with each other through their independent unions and syndicates. Although the establishment of workers organizations have faced oppression, they have connected their movement with other movements such as students, women and as the result they have the support of large sections of the society.
It is very important to realize that, this has created a situation, that despite the present situation in Iran i.e. political, social and constitutional difficulties, including arrests and imprisonments of activists, it is not possible for the authorities to totally exclude or eliminate syndicates, TUs and their leaders and members. It is possible to limit their activities especially with pressures of war and sanctions from outside and socio-political and economic pressures from inside of the country. In any case, the authorities cannot exclude these organizations.
What are the upcoming challenges for the movement in Iran and what do you regard as most important?
I feel that I have already answered this question. However, to conclude I could emphasize that Iran’s history, especially the last 10 years demonstrates that movements and semi movements in Iran have flourished under positive and favorable internal and international political circumstances. On the contrary, they have been suppressed under difficult national and international circumstances. A comparison of the two different governments in Iran and their treatment of the women’s movement, student movement and workers movement as civil society organizations clearly show different outcomes.
From the student movements in the universities, to workers strikes and sit ins and the activities of journalists for the publication of independent media to women’s movement who are struggling to achieve their legal rights, all these movements and their activities demonstrate that they are changing the political situation throughout the society. These changes include change in electoral institutions such as the Parliament, government, urban and rural councils (shuras) through the active participation in free and fair elections. Of course this means and depends on a relative free elections, independent election based on free competition between different candidates and the imposition of their demands on the system. Some of Iranian have learned from their mistake in the previous elections, when a section of the reform movement boycotted the elections which had a negative impact on the movements and consequence of it was a semi military government.