Millions of ordinary citizens in an “axis of evil” nation want the U.S. to bring about a regime change in their land, according to a Middle East expert.
The late Ayatollah Khomeini
While that sentiment may exist in Iraq and North Korea, only in Iran, dubbed the birthplace of the modern jihad movement, has the voice of the people been so carefully calculated.
More than 74 percent of Iranians in Tehran support the re-establishment of relations with the “Great Satan,” the U.S., according to a recent survey by Iran’s state-controlled National Institute of Opinion Polls, notes Fereydoun Hoveyda, who served as Iranian ambassador to the United Nations for eight years prior to the Islamic revolution of 1979.
Nearly half of the Iranians polled indicated at least partial acceptance of the U.S. stance toward Iran, meaning they agree with the inclusion of the theocratic regime in the “axis of evil,” maintained Hoveyda in an interview with WorldNetDaily.
While the survey result prompted hard-liners to shut down the polling institute in early October, it shows an increasingly bold populace.
“This theocratic regime is in shambles, coming to the end of its rope,” said Hoveyda, senior fellow at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy in New York City. “People are not afraid of it anymore.”
The coming demise of theocracy in Iran will substantially weaken all militant Islamic terrorist movements in the world, asserts Hoveyda, whose brother Amir Abbas Hoveyda – a former prime minister of Shah Reza Pahlavi – was executed by Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolutionary forces in April 1979.
But Hoveyda contends that Western nations have adopted a flawed policy that focuses on support of President Mohammad Khatami’s reform movement rather than on a secular, democratic movement led by students. He adds that while Arabs in many lands danced in the streets in praise of the Sept. 11 attackers, “ordinary Iranians were the only Muslims to openly condemn them and express sympathy to the American people.”
“The American press, as well as the [U.S.] government, misreads the events in Iran,” Hoveyda said. “They think that there is one reformist movement, represented by Khatami.”
Khatami, he points out, is against dismissing the Islamic regime, which came into power after the ruling shah was forced into exile amid seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran by militant students. The U.S. no longer has diplomatic relations with Iran.
Hoveyda has an extensive diplomatic background. He was born in 1924 in Damascus, Syria, where his father was the consul-general of Iran, and reared in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Iran. He holds a Ph.D. in international law and economics from the Sorbonne in Paris. In 1948, as a young diplomat, he participated in the final drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In 1966, he negotiated the final texts of the two Covenants on Human Rights. President Lyndon Johnson sent him on a secret mission to North Vietnam in 1967 to establish contacts and seek a peaceful resolution of the war.
Search for ‘moderate mullahs’
Hoveyda says the Iranian president, whose government is under the authority of ruling clerics led by Ayatollah Ali Hoseini-Khamenei, “thinks that because of the general discontent in the country, it is better to accomplish some reforms in order to appease the general population and save the regime.”
Another movement, representing many layers of the population, calls for removal of the Islamic regime altogether, he says. Its most vocal element is the students, including the thousands who clashed with police at Tehran University in July in a repeat of confrontations in 2000 and in 1999.
Hoveyda believes the U.S. and Europe are searching in vain for “moderate mullah” allies in Iran.
“They don’t exist,” he said. “The phrase ‘moderate mullah’ is oxymoronic. It is a contradiction. The mullahs around the regime cannot be moderate because the regime is not moderate.”
Iranians, according to Hoveyda, want U.S. officials to stop speaking of Khatami as a moderate and to stop giving the impression that they approve of the Iranian government.
Iranian President Mohammad Khatami
The people are waiting for the United States to act, Hoveyda believes.
“If you ask them, they want the U.S. to come and remove that government,” he said. “But they are not aware of the fact that the United States cannot do such a thing.”
Meanwhile, the theocratic regime is reacting to growing opposition with a wave of repression that includes closure of newspapers, banning of political parties and interrogation of intellectuals.
Evidence that Iran is ripe for revolution can be seen in the persistence of the opposition, Hoveyda says.
“If [the government] closes a newspaper, all of a sudden things appear on the Internet,” he said. “I received an e-mail from somebody in a province [in Iran] who had read one of my papers [on democratic reform] and said, ‘We are in complete agreement with you.'”
A State Department spokesman concurred that significant ferment is taking place in Iran.
“I couldn’t use the phrase ripe for revolution, because it smacks too much of prediction or prognosis, but I would agree that there is a powerful dynamic at work that is affecting every fiber of society,” Greg Sullivan, of the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, told WorldNetDaily. “That dynamic between hard-liners and reformers at some point will come to a head.”
One of the architects of the student revolt, Gholam-Reza Mohajeri-Nejad, said in an interview last year that 20 million Iranians voted for Khatami as a means to achieve an end beyond the president’s limited goals.
The aim of the students, Mohajeri-Nejad said, is “to achieve real freedom and a secular form of government, to hold a referendum and to create a constitution that embraces everyone in which the individual and social rights of the people are respected.”
That stands in contrast to Khatami’s idea of a religious democracy, Mohajeri-Nejad contends.
“Iran is not an Arab country,” he said. “We have a different heritage that is not Islamic or religious. We are not like Arab countries. Our culture and people are different. Such an Islamic democratic state might work in other Middle Eastern countries, but not in our country. There are those in the West that are proponents of these ideas. We are totally against such ideas.”
Mohajeri-Nejad concluded: “Our society is more than ever ready to enter the 21st century, and I believe that with individual freedom we will achieve the goals we have set forth.”
Reading the signs
Hoveyda maintains that the U.S. and Europe are not giving people like Mohajeri-Nejad the attention they deserve. Instead, he said, officials are discouraging the opposition by signaling support for the current regime.
“Americans should be aware that whatever words an American official says, whatever gesture an American official makes, will be analyzed by the people in Iran,” he said.
For example, he pointed out, a post-Sept. 11 encounter at an international meeting where Secretary of State Colin Powell shook hands with the foreign minister of Iran was significant to many Iranians.
“This was construed in Iran as an approval, a rapprochement with the Islamic Republic,” said Hoveyda.
Editorials in the New York Times and broadcasts by the Voice of America also are carefully scrutinized through a diplomatic lens, he said.
“I think that if the West develops a common stance and refuses to encourage the so-called moderate mullahs, we will see the collapse of this regime in a matter of years or even a matter of months,” Hoveyda declared.
Hoveyda said he was encouraged that President Bush for the first time “acknowledged the existence of the democratic movement outside the mullah regime.”
After student protests in July, Bush issued a statement saying, “As we have witnessed over the past few days, the people of Iran want the same freedoms, human rights and opportunities as people around the world. Their government should listen to their hopes.”
But CIA Director George Tenet said earlier this year in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee that the “hard-line regime appears secure for now because security forces have easily contained dissenters and arrested potential opposition leaders.”
Tenet said that “no one has emerged to rally reformers into a forceful movement for change, and the Iranian public appears to prefer gradual reform to another revolution.”
The State Department’s official background notes on Iran say the U.S. has “made clear that it does not seek to overthrow the Iranian government but will continue to pressure Iran to change its behavior,” noting attempts “to enter into dialogue with authorized representatives of the Iranian government without preconditions” that have been rebuffed.
The U.S. government defines five areas of objectionable Iranian behavior: “Efforts to acquire nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction; its involvement in international terrorism; its support for violent opposition to the Middle East peace process; its threats and subversive activities against its neighbors; and its dismal human-rights record.”
New democratic tradition?
Hoveyda believes the Islamic government has had one positive result: To show that tradition can change.
“The only political regime which was known to Iranians for 2,500 years was monarchy,” he noted. “Overnight monarchy was suppressed, and the Iranians accepted it. I think we should draw the lesson that we can change tradition, and we should not return to the past.”
Presently, the only government in the Muslim world bearing resemblance to a secular democracy is Turkey’s, but Hoveyda does not see the country as a model for Iran.
The problem with Turkey, Hoveyda says, is that its modern founder, Ataturk, used “the autocratic method in order to impose secularism” in the early 1920s.
“So now in Turkey we are facing a situation from time to time in which the army intervenes in order to keep secularism,” he said. “What sort of democracy is that where the army is becoming the guarantor of the democracy?”
A true secular democracy can thrive in Iran, Hoveyda believes, because its prevailing view of Islam contrasts with the rest of the Muslim world.
“The Iranian Islam is very different from the Arab Islam,” he says. Among ordinary people, “there has always been a great amount of laxity in the performance of Islam.”
Officially, according to the CIA factbook, about 89 percent of Iranians identify as Shi’a Muslims and about 10 percent as Sunnis, the stream of Islam with the majority of Muslims in the world. The remaining 1 percent are counted as Zoroastrian, Jewish, Christian and Baha’i.
Iran’s neighbors include Iraq, Turkey, Afghanistan and Pakistan
Iran has a population of 70 million with about half under 25 years of age.
Hoveyda said that most Iranians despise Arabs and that while there are true believers among Iranians, the people “don’t feel at ease with Islam in general,” noting the ancient Persian kingdom’s adherence to Zoroastrism.
“In Iran, we don’t [care] about spreading Islam around the world,” he said, in contrast to “super-fundamentalists” like Ayatollah Khomeini and Osama bin Laden’s Wahhabi sect and “mainstream” Muslims like the Grand Sheik of Al-Azhar, Egypt’s leading Islamic authority.
While Khomeini and bin Laden believe now is the time for the jihad to impose Islam on the world, the mainstream Muslims, says Hoveyda, “believe that one day Islam should reign all over the planet, but they don’t say that the time has come.”
“That’s the only difference,” he said.