"The Islamic Republic of Gangster Capitalism": Payam Akhavan on Iran

Payam Akhavan, professor of international law at McGill University, today addressed the Foreign Affairs Sub-Committee on International Human Rights. Here are his remarks:


I am honoured to appear once again before this Sub-Committee to testify on the current human rights situation in Iran.  I do so at a time when circumstances are particularly difficult for the people of Iran. 

In the run-up to the June 14 elections in the Islamic Republic, the prospects for a gradual reform of a manifestly unjust and untenable authoritarian regime appear increasingly remote.  Some had hoped that following the brutal repression of the Green movement in 2009, and in view of Iran’s unprecedented economic decline and international isolation, its leaders would somehow compromise with Islamic reformists.  The assumption was that they would do so in the name of reconciliation with those reformist elements still committed to the constitution, in the name of salvaging some legitimacy for the leadership, in the name of regime survival.  Such hopes quickly evaporated as it became apparent that the hardliners would not surrender an inch.  They have even turned against themselves in the increasingly public and bitter power struggle among differing hardline factions.

From the 686 candidates that registered for the June 14 elections, the unelected, unaccountable Council of Guardians only qualified 8.  Among these 8, it appears that at least 4 have direct family ties to the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei.  It is revealing that not even Ayatollah Rafsanjani, once a pillar of the Islamic Republic, was allowed to run.  The disqualification of Esfandiar Mashai, a family relation and close political ally of President Ahmadinejad, is yet another sign of the unprecedented divisions within what was once the inner-circle of the regime.  If we add to this equation the significant number of prominent political prisoners and exiles that are excluded from the political process, the idea that the forthcoming elections are either free or fair belongs to an Orwellian novel rather than reality.

The struggle in these circles is less for ideology and more for personal gain.  It is best understood in the context of what can be described as a dual theocratic-kleptocratic state where religious hatred and violence is used as a cover for the pillage of the country’s resources.  Consider that several prominent Ayatollahs languish in Iran’s prisons because their conceptions of Islam differ from that of the political leadership.  A case in point is the on-going imprisonment of Ayatollah Kazemeini Boroujerdi who has called for the separation of State and religion, remarking that the Iranian people are “tired of the religion of politics and political slogans”.  It was said that the Holy Roman Empire was neither Holy nor Roman.  Today it can be said that the Islamic Republic is neither Islamic nor a Republic.  The Iran of today has become the Islamic Republic of Gangster Capitalism where an unholy alliance of the clerical establishment and the Revolutionary Guard Corps rules through economic patronage for the inner-circle, together with torture at home, and terrorism abroad.  The central role of the Revolutionary Guard Corps acting in concert with Hezbollah in the shocking atrocities against civilians in Syria is further testament to the leadership’s violent conception of power. 

It is this dynamic of militarization that vividly demonstrates the inextricable tie between the nuclear issue and democratization.  For far too long, the world community has allowed the nuclear issue to eclipse human rights.  On the one hand, the Iranian people suffer from the threat of war and crippling sanctions that have made life unbearable for many.  On the other hand, there is also the fear of a “grand bargain” in which the Iranian leadership will make compromises on the nuclear issue in exchange for appeasement and disregard of its brutality against its own citizens.  In both scenarios, the Iranian people are the losers.  The only viable option is the historical struggle of Iran’s youthful population and tireless civil society for non-violent protest in furtherance of a democratic future in which power is a responsibility rather than license for abuse.  It is remarkable in the context of threats of war, that a comprehensive World Values Survey by a highly qualified Israeli team of researchers found that in comparison to 47 countries, Iranian society’s potential for liberal democracy was higher than that of 23 others, including Arab countries such as Egypt, Morocco and Jordan, and Asian countries such as South Korea, India and Thailand. In comparison to 29 countries surveyed In the European Social Survey, Iran was found to have higher tendencies toward liberal democracy than Russia, Ukraine, Slovakia and Romania.  As I have testified before this Sub-Committee for the past several years, the challenge remains the empowerment of the Iranian people and the isolation of a ruthless leadership that is intent to cling on to power at all costs.

In this light, the recent Global Dialogue on the Future of Iran, held in partnership between the Munk Centre at the University of Toronto and the Department of Foreign Affairs, is a welcome first step in moving away from talk of either war or appeasement, towards solidarity with civil society on a sustained and substantial basis.  With a sizeable, diverse, and influential Canadian-Iranian diaspora committed to a better future for their country of origin, Canada should continue to explore every avenue of assistance to civil society with a view to facilitating non-violent change.  It is of course ultimately for the Iranian people to bring about this change, through the sacrifice and heroism that we have witnessed over the past years.  There should be no illusion that building a culture of human rights, strengthening civil society, creating a free press, establishing an independent judiciary, promoting dialogue and compromise among different political, religious, and ethnic groups, will come overnight.  It is a long and painful process, but all the vital ingredients are present in Iran.  The question is how to achieve a transition that will be the least destructive and violent for the Iranian people, and in this regard, the regime’s failure to compromise is both discouraging and encouraging.

It is discouraging because the regime has demonstrated the brutality with which it is willing to hold on the power at all costs.  The nightmare scenario playing out in Syria today is a life and death struggle for a regime that is besieged both internationally and at home.  Perhaps it is a signal as to how far it is willing to go in murdering innocent civilians in order to maintain its rule.  The failure to compromise even among the inner-circle of the regime however, is an encouraging sign insofar as a system that is built on corruption, deceit and violence, will invariably turn on itself.  The regime’s worst enemy is itself; its refusal to understand that in today’s world of openness and interdependence, in today’s Iran with its highly talented and politically aware youthful population, it is simply not possible to rule indefinitely through violence and terror.  The Iran of tomorrow belongs to those that yearn from freedom and prosperity.  It does not belong either to the Ayatollahs’ backward ideology or to the Revolutionary Guard’s violence.

I will end by reflecting on the organic nature of change from below, the seismic shift in Iranian culture, civil society and grassroots disillusionment with the political abuse, and the irreversible demand for human rights and the rule of law as the illusion of revolutionary ideology disintegrates in the face of corruption and injustice.  In particular, I would like to speak to the conception of power that the Islamic Republic holds on to, and why it is doomed to fail.  The story is that of Barmaan, who was just one month old when his mother began serving a 23 month prison sentence in July 2012.  Her “crime” was that she was a Baha’i; her “crime” was that the regime did not approve her religious beliefs.  Alas, it is not only Baha’is that languish in prison for such “crimes” because as I mentioned, even prominent Shi’a Ayatollahs such as Boroujerdi, let alone secular democrats, socialists, labour union leaders, women’s rights activists, student leaders, and all others that are deemed to be a threat, are somehow harassed and repressed by the Iranian regime.  The story of Barmaan is important because of the conception of power that it demonstrates.  Barmaan was born two months prematurely because her mother went into early delivery after the emotional trauma of a raid in her home in the city of Semnan.  Barmaan will be two years old when his mother is released, if she is released after serving her sentence.  His father was already imprisoned, also for being a Baha’i, when his mother went into premature labour.  Like many other infants, Barmaan will be a prison child, whose conception of life will be shaped by the harsh conditions of prisons in Iran.  Like many other children, when he plays, he may imagine that his dolls should beat each other, because that is what he has seen.  Like many other children, his drawings will be that of his mother and father behind prison bars.  Why do I mention the story of Barmaan?  Because it demonstrates the desperation of a regime that pursues deliberate cruelty to maintain its grip on power.

If a man beat his pregnant wife and children, we would not see him as powerful.  To the contrary, we would see him as so desperate and impotent that he must define himself through violence against the defenceless.  The denial of an innocent childhood to Barmaan, and countless other Iranian children like him, shows just how low the Islamic Republic has sunk, just how powerless it has become against its own people.  Let us hope that some enlightened elements within the regime understand that history is not on the side of those that persist in such brutality.  Let us hope that Iran will go the way of post-apartheid South Africa, with a negotiated and non-violent democratic transition, rather than suffering the horrors that unfold daily in places such as Syria.  It is to this future, inevitable yet indeterminate in its modality, that we need to focus our attention, as we ponder the current human rights situation in Iran.

I thank you for your kind attention and for the opportunity to share these thoughts with the distinguished members of the Sub-Committee.


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