RFE/RL: As an active member of the Iranian
reformists' camp, how do you think Rice's $75 million proposal will affect the
democracy movement in Iran?
Fatemeh Haghighatjoo: I don't think this plan
will help promote democracy in Iran. On the contrary, it will weaken the
position of pro-democracy activists in Iran. Even before the United States
announced this move, extreme right-wing figures such as Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi
Mesbah-Yazdi [a cleric whose followers include Iranian President Mahmud
Ahmadinejad], used to accuse Iranian reformists of receiving suitcases from the
United States stuffed with dollars.
This rumor was the basis for the prosecution of many writers and
journalists. Many newspapers were banned and journalists jailed. This monetary
support will play into the hands of the totalitarian regime in Tehran to
systematically crack down on the democracy movement. Having said that, I do
agree with some of the points raised by Rice, such as proposals about cultural
and scientific exchange. The U.S. government should ease restrictions on
Iranians -- particularly academics -- for travel and for culture and scientific
RFE/RL: But if the regime is looking for an
excuse, couldn't it use even this kind of support against the democracy
Haghighatjoo: This is a long-term issue.
Currently, the biggest problem in Iran is the absence of an independent media.
Supporting independent media and the free flow of information will have a
significant impact on the promotion of democracy in Iran.
RFE/RL: Do you mean media within Iran, or
outside the country?
Haghighatjoo: Radio and television are run by
the government. Most newspapers and websites are also directly or indirectly run
by state institutions. The few independent media outlets there are also under
enormous pressure. So what we need are media outlets that are independent of the
Islamic Republic. As you know, Iran's Supreme National Security Council has
issued an order that bans media from reporting about the standoff [with the West
over Iran's nuclear program]. Many people [in Iran] may not know that Iran has
been referred to the Security Council. This is the type of news that
[independent] media would be able to convey.
A U.S. Model For The Middle East?
Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani at
prayer in Tehran University (epa)RFE/RL: Do you think that the
United States has a viable model for promoting democracy in the Middle East? How
successful do you think this plan could be in the region?
Haghighatjoo: I personally believe that the
drive to promote democracy in the Middle East stems primarily from U.S. national
interests and the threat of terrorism. Efforts to fight terrorism can also help
promote democracy, but once democracy and the principles of voting are accepted,
you can't complain about the outcome. A lot of people in the United States are
worried about this and are even raising the question whether democracy is
appropriate for the Middle East. This is a short-sighted
The second point is that democracy cannot be imposed by war.
What we should be working on is promoting the culture of democracy in the Middle
East. I think the United States needs to revise many of its policies. Promoting
democracy has to be adjusted to suit the cultural specificities of these
countries. The military option is by nature antidemocratic. Look at Iraq. There
are certainly some positive trends there, such as free elections. But the
negative aspects predominate, at least for now.
The Nuclear Crisis And The Reformers
RFE/RL: Before the Iranian presidential
elections in June 2005, you predicted that if Ahmadinejad were elected, it would
militarize Iranian politics and increase pressure on the democracy movement. Now
it seems that the nuclear standoff is also helping the militarists. What can
Iranian activists do to have an influence on this process, or prevent it from
Haghighatjoo: I think if the United Nations
were to pressure Iran on the issue of human rights, rather than on the nuclear
issue, it would have been much more effective. The regime would never have been
able to manage to create such a united front against it. People would certainly
not let the regime violate human rights and justify it as being in the national
interest -- whereas they have been able to create some degree of unity among
different factions of the regime and make a national-interest issue out of the
nuclear standoff. Any military action or even indiscriminate sanctions against
Iran will strengthen the position of the totalitarian elements within the
Islamic Republic. I hope the Security Council is aware of this fact.
RFE/RL: Why are the reformers so quiet? Is it a
temporary tactic, or is it out of fear of prosecution?
Haghighatjoo: I am not entirely uncritical of
the policy of the reformers in Iran. But the fact is that they are under
enormous pressure. Events such as the appearance of Akbar Atri and Ali Afshari
[of the Office for Strengthening Unity, an umbrella student group] before the
U.S. Congress in March also increase the pressure on the reformers. After the
topic of the $75 million in aid came up, many Iranians were arrested who had in
the past attended the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center in New Haven [which
documents human rights abuses in Iran, and receives U.S. funding]. It's
important to act in a way that doesn't raise the price of activism in Iran.
RFE/RL: Before the election, you predicted that
an Ahmadinejad government could only survive in a crisis. Is the nuclear
standoff the type of crisis that you believe he's been seeking?
Haghighatjoo: Yes, a crisis like this. And also
possibly a military attack. A military attack, in particular, would help them to
strengthen themselves enormously. The different factions have now found a common
enemy. Without this [nuclear] crisis, the parliament and the executive would now
be engaged in a bitter fight, and the rift between [and current chair of the
Expediency Council, which has supervisory powers over all branches of
government, and former President] Hashemi Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad or [Supreme
Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei would have deepened.
Iran's Rebellious Women?
Let's turn to women's issues. The governments of Ahmadinejad and
[former President Mohammad] Khatami's governments differ in this regard
tremendously. You had said that Khordad 2nd -- the date, in the Islamic
calendar, when Khatami won his first election, and the subsequent name of Iran's
reformist movement -- would have not happened without women. Do you think the
achievements of the women's movement during that time are being lost
Haghighatjoo: Well, as I said, the pressure is
immense, and it has silenced even the most outspoken reformers. I don't think
the current situation will put an end to the women's movement, but it will have
a significant negative impact on it. Activities will diminish, but the demands
will still be there, and they will be expressed again once the situation
improves. We should also realize that these pressures may trigger a rebellious
response. Previously, women always sought permission for their gatherings.
However, many women's groups don't bother with that anymore. I think women's
demands and the form of their protests will change.
The Importance Of Students
RFE/RL: Will the next major movement in Iran be
a student movement?
Haghighatjoo: The generation of the Islamic
Revolution is committed to the Islamic Republic and the concept of a
religion-based governance. Both the reformists and the conservatives are from
this generation. Many reformists still support the concept of "Vilayat-i Faqih,"
or supreme jurisprudence. But the new generation is not interested in the model
of the Islamic Republic; it supports a secular model instead. Secularism -- not
exactly as practiced in France or Turkey, but as a system based on the
separation of the institution of religion from the institution of power. This
generation cannot see their freedom being restricted in the name of religion.
The next leaders of the Iranian democracy movement will be those
who fight for a secular constitution, and this potential exists in the student
movement. I believe that no broad political movement can take root in Iran
without the students. However, the student movement is not yet mature, and
cannot lead to a widespread civic movement by itself. The student movement must
ally itself with elites who follow the same principles. The religious elites
cannot be allied with the student movement. We see now that the demarcation
between the religious elites and the student movement is becoming increasingly
clear. I don't think a widespread movement will take shape soon. However, if the
students make the right moves and take advantage of political opportunities that
may come up, they can pave the way for a broad civic movement.