"To have freedom or to die"

An Iranian dissident leader says a week of protests has set the stage for regime change. He welcomes President Bush's support, but warns against U.S. military action.

By Mark Follman
June 21, 2003 1:00AM (UTC)
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Since June 11, nightly student-led pro-democracy demonstrations in the streets of Tehran have turned up the pressure on the nation's hard-line regime. With the Bush administration now bearing down on Tehran's alleged nuclear weapons program and making explicit its desire to see regime change there, the world has been watching the uprising and trying to gauge its strength. Can the hard-line regime really be toppled from within by sporadic bursts of seemingly disorganized protests?

Aryo Pirouznia, a founder and spokesman for the U.S.-based Student Movement Coordination Committee for Democracy in Iran, says the momentum on the ground in his native country is growing, drawing not only university students who are thirsty for modern freedoms but disenchanted people from many other sectors of society as well. Pirouznia says that his group, whose members include students, scholars and working professionals in the U.S., helps strategize and coordinate peaceful political actions inside Iran through daily communications with its affiliates there. The organization was officially launched in July 1999, following the six days of historic protest at the University of Tehran which ended in bloody government-backed repression.


Pirouznia thinks the Bush administration's vocal support for the student-led demonstrations is changing the situation dramatically, and helping to undermine the Islamic regime. "Nobody can deny the impact of the moral support of the person representing the great superpower of the world," he says. "I can tell you honestly that the message of the Bush administration has gone straight to the heart of many, many Iranians." Nonetheless, Pirouznia maintains that Iranians are foremost nationalists, and that any U.S. military interference would be a mistake.

Now 39, Pirouznia was once a high school student activist himself in Tehran, but with the country embroiled in the Iran-Iraq war, he fled in November 1982. He landed in Nice, France, where he studied law for six years, and came to the U.S. in 1993. He currently resides in Dallas, Texas, where he works as a corporate finance manager. Pirouznia says he last traveled to Iran to meet with fellow activists in May 2002, entering the country covertly and staying close to the border for fear that he'd be recognized in the city. Today, the majority of his organization's efforts to mobilize and spread democratic principles have to be carried out through the revolutionary tools of the digital age -- satellite television and the Internet.

He may be overly optimistic about the latest showings of revolutionary fervor. Far removed from Tehran, Pirouznia could be underestimating the repressive power of the ruling mullahs -- past crackdowns have been swift and severe, and there's little reason to believe the regime will respond any differently now, or in the future, if it feels seriously threatened. Moreover, some dissidents fear that Bush's remarks could backfire among nationalistic Iranians, many of whom still regard the United States as a malign force for its past meddling, including the CIA-backed coup in 1953 that resulted in the repressive rule of the Shah of Iran. Indeed, during the last two nights of unrest, the major news services have reported much more muted demonstrations, with heavy government security blanketing the city. No visible pro-democracy leadership has yet emerged.


But, as has been much reported by the Western media in recent days, Pirouznia's view is supported by compelling demographics; dissatisfaction in a disproportionately young, chronically unemployed population can only fester for so long before it turns explosive. And strong support for the movement communicated from overseas -- which the regime could hardly hope to prevent from reaching the nation's millions of satellite TV viewers -- could accelerate that process.

Salon spoke with Pirouznia by phone from Dallas on Thursday, where he was busy helping plan more demonstrations focused on regime change. With more and more people in the streets, he says, it's only a matter of time.

The media have repeatedly said the student-led protest movement in Tehran is disorganized and "leaderless." Is that true? Who or what is getting thousands of people out into the streets?


It's true that this movement seems disorganized, because it's a grass-roots movement. The current uprising indeed started with the students in Tehran, and now there are other layers of the population in various cities around Iran joining in. But we have been noticing and have confirmed with sources that groups of students and others are now acting in a more organized manner. That's why we see, on Wednesday evening for example, that security forces are waiting for unrest to take place in one location and suddenly thousands come out in another part of town.

Who are all these other people you mention, who are now participating in the protests?


It's practically all layers of the population, except, of course, those who have radical beliefs or an interest in the regime, but that is a very small minority. There are teachers, government employees who are unhappy with the conditions, and those from the huge proportion of Iranian people who are jobless. Many of the people who do have jobs have to have two or three of them in order to survive.

So we are reaching a stage that I will call "pre-revolution" in Iran. This doesn't necessarily mean the beginning of a bloody revolution like in past decades. The population is indeed tired of 24 years of dictatorship and is looking for, I think, a smooth way of change.

How big is the movement?


There are thousands and thousands across Iran. Thursday night was the ninth consecutive night of protests -- you know, once the wall of fear is broken, you get more and more people rallying. Since Monday it has spread to cities like Yazd, which was a very calm and provincial city before. So the momentum is growing in all directions.

What are the student-led movement's objectives? Who, specifically, do the protesters want to lead the country?

Well, at this point and level of intensity we are not where we were seven years ago, when the students simply wanted reforms from within. Now we are talking, properly, about a regime change. The protesters are now calling for overthrow of the regime with slogans such as "Referendum, referendum," and "To have freedom or to die." It's no longer talking about social or economic slogans; we are seeing much more radical ideas for regime change, with the conjunction of all these repressed people.


Where is it leading? I don't think we're at the stage yet of knowing about the prospects for a [democratic] republic or a monarchy. Iranians now are commonly agreeing about referendum, which means to put the fate of the future political frame of Iran with an election. The student movement itself does not have the goal of governing the country; it wants to create the circumstances for a referendum. You have students with different political beliefs and biases, but the cement that is holding them all together is the thirst for democracy. I think we'll be seeing in the very near future people who will come forward as leaders.

You know, when you get to this point when you have so many more people in the streets, and with the morale of the [government] troops down, it's just a matter of time.

How do the street protesters feel about President Bush's strong vocal support? Do they feel it helps their cause or hurts it?

Nobody wants any foreign country to bring freedom for Iran. It's Iranian business and it should be done in Iran, by Iranian hands. But nobody can deny the impact of the moral support of the person representing the great superpower of the world.


So they want Bush's support?

Yes, of course. That's why there are all these slogans given in English, they are for people [in the West] to hear them. The Bush administration has caught this signal and has responded favorably. I can tell you honestly that the message of the Bush administration has gone straight to the heart of many, many Iranians.

Do any of the protesters believe America should ultimately use military action in Iran if that's what it takes to end the tyrannical, ultraconservative Khamenei regime?

Oh no, that would be a mistake. Iran is no Iraq, nor Afghanistan. Iranians have shown that no matter their differences, they are nationalists first.


The best thing the Bush administration can do is put relentless pressure on the political body of the Islamic Republic, and also the international institutions ... Iran is disregarding its U.N. agreements. Back in 1948 it signed the universal declaration on human rights. Indeed you have this regime sitting there on the council that is one of the most barbaric in the world: torturing, stoning, hanging. Killing thousands of its people.

There seems to be some confusion in the West about these protests -- some are saying this is a groundswell unseen before, others say it's nothing new and won't change much. What is the Western media missing about the situation on the ground in Tehran right now?

Well, from the beginning the impression has been given to the American public that reforms can happen within the theocratic regime, that it can be done gradually. But this is ignoring a theosophy there which states, "Whomever turns from these beliefs [is the one] who needs to be put to death."

So are you saying there is a greater urgency in the streets now, that people are now demanding immediate, dramatic change?


Well, when we have come to a point of seeing people using Molotov cocktails, which happened in several areas on Wednesday evening, this should show to anybody on the planet the urgency there. We are no longer just talking about protesters or strikes; there are these Molotov cocktails and incendiary grenades that are beginning to be used.

So if the European countries are really scared about their future interests in Iran, it's time for them to shift their position and put their investment into the people. Otherwise they may have to confront a very bloody revolution in Iran, which of course will have very bad consequences for years and years to come, for the Iranian people and for European economic partners.

How do the protesters feel about President Mohammad Khatami, who was believed to be a liberal, pro-reform leader when he was elected in 1997? Does he have any real will, or power, to effect change? Or is he now seen as a total failure, no less reviled than the ultraconservative mullahs?

Yes, I think he is very much seen as an incompetent leader. Last year on the official occasion of "Student Day," for the first time ever hundreds of students who had been pre-screened and who were then presented to Khatami started to shout during that meeting, "Referendum, referendum! You failed in your promises!" And now, a year later in the street demonstrations, there are insults against Khatami and people calling for his resignation. This should make the situation clear to anybody watching from abroad who is still believing in Khatami and his so-called reform from within.

Khatami has claimed in the last few days that Iranians, conservative and liberal alike, would unite against any U.S. interference. Is he right to say that about the student-led reform movement?

No, no. Khatami and the others, I think, are like the information ministry was in Iraq. They don't know what they are talking about anymore.

But you did say that the pro-democracy movement would not want the U.S. to interfere, or to get involved militarily.

We are talking about the difference between moral interference and military interference. When it comes to military interference, the people believe that will be the wrong move. Frankly speaking, for the mullahs in power, a U.S. attack will serve their purposes. Many people there, I think, see the world's superpower creating unrest in Afghanistan, in Iraq, and in the Israeli-Palestinian region. So with a U.S. attack the clerics would hope to say: "Didn't we tell you, these are your enemies."

But when we are talking about moral interference, this is what is destroying the power of the Islamic Republic. All this pressure the U.S. is exerting through different political channels. This is why we are seeing the mullahs backing off now -- for example, backing off from opening fire on all these protesters.

The media has attributed the latest violence to the so-called vigilante squads, suspected by many as serving the regime. What are the protesters really risking out in the streets right now?

Well, some are getting attacked with long sabers -- exactly like in Haiti with the Tonton Macoutes [the paramilitary squads] of Papa and Baby Doc [Duvalier]. Others are getting brutalized with clubs and chains, and getting arrested. Some are even getting shot.

It's not simply vigilantes. The structure of the Islamic Republic is like the Mafia. For example, the current Iranian ambassador to Kuwait was involved in the bloody repression two years ago during the soccer riots. There was a scandal afterward and his name came out, so they took him and made him ambassador in another country. This is how the Islamic regime works, and all these vigilantes are part of the regime -- they have roles in its administrations, in its official security forces. So when the need arises, the regime plays a good cop-bad cop game: They can talk about the turmoil and say, "Well, we have tried to stop them as well."

You've said you're in daily contact with student activists in Tehran. How do you communicate with them? Do they look to your organization for help with strategizing and planning their political actions?

The committee has had a big part in creating what we call a secular political debate in Iran. We published various writings on the Internet and through our mailing lists, and in the last two years alone we had over 100 hours of direct satellite broadcast, and several hundred hours of radio broadcast. In the beginning it was really hard to explain to the people ... the true principles of the committee and our comrades abroad.

So you've provided a lot of information, but are you also directly involved in planning specific actions over there? Do you provide financial and logistical support?

Sure, of course. We help them design plans by saying, "We think that tonight we should be going in this area, but not that one ... " We absolutely want to avoid responding to bloodshed with bloodshed; we try to maintain only civil disobedience. We do have our people on the inside there who we communicate with -- we are in a digital age. We also provide financial help for our friends and members inside.

How many members do you have on the ground there?

A decent number -- the group has been active for several years. We have constant contact with the population, and a lot of people have contacted us through the student corps in Iran after we appeared in a long debate on an L.A.-based satellite TV station. Remember, we are not a political party, but we do now have dozens of committee members in several main Iranian cities, and several hundred in Tehran.

What is most important though, and this has been confirmed through a lot of our communications with people there, is that the calls for demonstration we have issued in the past have been followed by a popular reaction there. We have a good name, and people trust what we say because we have never tried to use them for a republican or monarchy front.

A number of U.S. policy makers, including hawks like Richard Perle, say there's a "good chance" the latest uprisings could succeed in peacefully toppling the Khamenei regime -- but these kinds of protests have been going on periodically for years. Is this a more powerful movement now than during the last major uprising of July '99?

We've never seen protests before like the ones now. For five days in July 1999 the streets were in the hands of the students, but at that time what was missing was the popular support. Now we are witnessing the ninth consecutive night of demonstrations, not only in many neighborhoods of the capital, but also in various other cities. I'm not saying the revolution is going to happen this evening in Tehran -- we are not yet at that point. There needs to be an alternative ready for the future government of Iran, and we don't have that yet.

How has the swift U.S. victory in Iraq affected the pro-democracy movement? Has it emboldened the mood and grown its support?

Of course. When people see that Iran has become neighbors with America on its borders, and how two regimes like the Islamic Republic have fallen ... the people know that this time the Americans are truthful in what they're saying -- that they are talking about regime change in these places and indeed they are sending their sons and daughters to do it. So now when they are saying that they're ready to help regime change in Iran, it gives people a lot of courage to come out.

So there is a lot optimism, I think. For Iranians it is no longer a question of whether the Islamic regime will stay or go, it's a question of when it will go.

Are the student protesters prepared to use violence if necessary, to change the regime?

As I've said, we ask them to avoid using violence. That has been mostly respected so far. But we cannot ask them indefinitely to get beaten, to get cut with knives, and not to respond. And remember, it's no longer just the students. A lot of people who are jobless arrive at the protests now, and as we have seen in recent nights, the use of Molotov cocktails. The repression is starting to be answered with violent reaction. Unfortunately, the violence is going to happen when there is no longer an alternative.

Does anyone you talk with there believe that reform is still possible with the current regime?

No. Reform was born dead, and now this is well-known to everybody. That's why we are seeing all these people in the streets. The Iranian people have realized that there will be no reform with the Islamic Republic. We need to go much further, and the regime must be left behind.

Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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