“The key challenge for Canada is to connect with Iranian civic actors”

Dr. Ramin Jahanbegloo at the “Canada and the New Middle East” conference

On Wednesday March 28th, an international conference on “Canada and the New Middle East” organized by “The Atlantic Council of Canada” and “Advocates for Civil Liberties” was held in down town Toronto. Among theparticipants were three Iranian-Canadian scholar and human rights activists who took part in different panel discussions. All three panellists were invited by “Advocates for Civil Liberties.”

Dr. Ramin Jahanbegloo  - Photo by Salam Toronto

Dr. Ramin Jahanbegloo - Photo by Salam Toronto

One of the panellists, Dr. Ramin Jahanbegloo, professor of political science at the University of Toronto spoke on “Canada, Iran and the Arab Spring.”  The following is the full transcript of his remarks:

“I am very happy to be here tonight. I am grateful for the invitation. As an Iranian-Canadian, I always try not to be politically correct (laughs from the crowd), but I try to be morally correct as a non-violent activist. I do believe politics is not only a process of leading but also a process of listening and learning. So I’m here not only to share my ideas with you, but also to listen and learn.

I do believe this is a very challenging times, and also times for thought and pragmatism. I do believe 2011 has been one of most significant years in the history of the modern Middle East since World War I. What we know is that leaders have been dethroned in three Arab countries. But in that focus, on domestic upheavals in the Arab world, we might be missing the other big story of the Middle East. And that is Iran’s 2009 uprising.  It’s easy to forget that the demonstrations against the elections of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad preceded – and inspired, actually – the movements in Egypt, Syria and elsewhere. However, there was little international outcry over the Iranian government’s crackdown of this movement.  And there is little outcry over the repression that continues today and has continued over the past few years.

Well, in its latest report from Iran, Amnesty International actually highlights the continued house-arrest of the two presidential candidates, and the rise of public executions. And I think it’s my role to talk about that. I do believe that what the Iranian leadership is afraid of is certainly not Israel, or the West, but the narrative of 2009 and the possibility of a new “Iranian Spring.” Tehran is scrambling to respond to the shifting of the regional geo-politics; because Tehran and the Iranian leadership saw the Arab uprising as unseating Western and Arab allies.

But we have to add that Iranian authorities did not anticipate that the upheavals in the Middle East could spread to Syria. Because as you know Assad is a friend of the Iranian regime and it means that Iran would virtually be friendless in the region if he were to be ousted.

In any case, the religious authorities in Iran have shown that they prize their survival above anything else. Many analysts in Iran believe that Iranian leadership deliberately provokes international armed action. Their hope is that in the case of a military strike against Iran people would gravitate behind the government.

In other words, what I’m trying to say is the Iran’s nuclear issue has more to do with Iran’s domestic affairs rather than its foreign policy. Why? Because a nationalistic sentiment would presumably follow a strike against Iran, and provide the Iranian regime with the security it needs and with more repressive measures against dissidents and the democratic opposition. For those who know a little Iranian contemporary history, this has already been done in the 1980s during the war with Saddam Hussein.

One big factor that may help contain the Iranian regime is the Iranian economy. Other than oil the economy is in a very bad shape. The country has suffered an inflation of at least 50% in the last 2-3 years and the currency has depreciated by 40%. So this is a big challenge for the Iranian regime. Meanwhile the Iranian parliament is largely dominated by ultra-conservatives close to the Supreme Leader.

Nazanin Afshin-Jam (left) and Marina Nemat were also among the panelists  - Photo by Salam Toronto

Nazanin Afshin-Jam (left) and Marina Nemat were also among the panelists - Photo by Salam Toronto

The second aspect has to do with the militarization of Iranian politics. I am referring here to the rise of the IRGC in Iran, not only the ideological rise, but also the socio-political and economic rise. More broadly what I’m saying is that the political rise of the Revolutionary Guards goes hand in hand with the economic control of the system. But it also includes the country’s growing range missile program. Islamic Republic is increasingly becoming a military oligarchy with a clerical face and the Iranian regime seems to be deliberately courting disaster by its confrontational rhetoric, such as the assault on the British embassy few months ago.

I believe, and I might be wrong, normalization of relations with United States, might mean, for the Revolutionary Guards and the more conservative factions, the end of the Islamic Republic as an ideological entity. As such, the persistence, as we see, by some of Iran’s leaders, in the face of rising of the US and the EU sanctions actually legitimizes their claim to be the leaders of the Muslim world.

Moreover, the nuclear program in Iran is not going to end with the war. Today there is a more crucial question for Iranians inside and outside the country. For them the vital issue is how to turn Iran into a democratic country. But unfortunately, the Iranian question is too often at risk of an alternative between war and complete indifference.

On the one hand, there is a hawkish attitude that depicts Iran as a country of fanatics, moving towards apocalyptic ends. On the other hand, we have the ones that have a very simplistic view of the Iranian regime and completely ignore the violations of human rights in Iran. In both cases we are missing a vital ingredient of the debate about the position of the Iranian people in this complex situation.

However, there is no doubt that the EU and the US, through their financial sanctions against Iran are hurting the regime more than any previous measures. And it is also true that the Iranian leaders have blocked sanctions in their own strategy. Tehran has used sanctions as an excuse to phase out costly subsidies on gasoline and show itself as a victim. However, if the sanctions continue and grow harsher they could turn into an existential danger to the Iranian regime, but the Iranian people will also continue to suffer terribly.

If the economy collapses, nothing will stand and the regime will be in huge difficulty to save itself. The Revolutionary Guards might knock on the Supreme Leader’s door and try a coup de force.
We have to see how different international actors will act at this level. The Obama administration has two options: 1) either Washington pursues crippling sanctions which also have terrible consequences for the Iranian people; or 2) it can pursue a somewhat smarter and milder sanction with a stronger international coalition including Russia and China. We should not forget that both Russia and China argue that dialogue is the only way to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue. And if there is eventually a war with Iran, both Russia and China will again become very popular among Muslims in the region.

There are three sets of objectives to start a war with Iran: 1) either war with Iran aims to simply delay the Iranian nuclear program; or 2) the war with Iran aims to end the Iranian nuclear program by inflicting enough damage on the military and nuclear sites; and 3) last but not least, the war with Iran aims to topple the regime.

In any case, I believe the real fear behind the Iranian nuclear program is not only that it represents an imminent existential threat to Israel, but rather that it would create a proliferation of nuclear states in the Middle East. If tomorrow Iran turns nuclear then Saudi Arabia and Turkey want to be nuclear.

We have to avoid military action from becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Any attack on Iran would be catastrophic, not just because of the world’s economy or trade or oil, but more important, any attack on Iran is going to postpone the democratic movement in Iran. It’s going to bring back the moral and political legitimacy to a regime that has become the skunk of the nations.

I would like to conclude with a word about Canada and Canadians. From my point of view, the only rational solution to Iran’s nuclear issue is the empowerment of the Iranian civil society. The key challenge for Canada is to connect with Iranian civic actors. This has not been done until now. Let’s not forget the model used in Eastern Europe in the 1970s and 1980s. Iranian civic actors need help. They deserve to be the true beneficiaries of Canadian assistance. Canada must recognize that the only thing standing between an Islamic regime and the consequences of war on Iran is the Iranian civil society. Canada needs to help those who are struggling for the respect of human rights in Iran. This is the only way for Canada to be at the level of its principles and ideals.

We should not necessarily go to war with the Iranian regime, but we must take a firm stance to condemn human rights violations in Iran and to put pressure on the Iranian regime to comply with its international rights obligations. This is our responsibility today as Canadians.

Thank you.”

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