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The Iranian Regime: Cracks in the Citadel?

Submitted by: Francesca Rheannon

Posted: Sep 20, 2011 – 10:27 PM EST

Tags: democracy, the new iran, leadership, sustainability, politics

 
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By Francesca Rheannon

The regime in Iran is airing its dirty laundry in public and may be losing its popular legitimacy. What possibilities and challenges does this bode for the birth of a new, democratic Iran?

On September 19, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived in New York to attend the 66th UN General Assembly session. He plans to address the Assembly on Thursday.

His arrival was beset with a number of controversies, both international and domestic. On the international front, Ahmadinejad is butting heads with the US and Israel over the expected attempt by the Palestinians to get the UN Security Council to approve statehood (unlikely, with the assured US veto) or the Assembly to approve expanded UN status (possible). The Iranian President is rounding up support for Palestine in the General Assembly.

The nuclear issue is also in play, with the bellicose interchange between Ahmadinejad and French president Nicholas Sarkozy providing the most recent act in the drama over Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Domestically, the power struggle between Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is heating up in public. Last week, Ahmadinejad announced plans to release Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal, two American hikers who have been languishing in an Iranian prison for two years on espionage charges. The next day, the plans were nixed by Iran’s judiciary, which is under the clerical authority of Khamenei.

And Ahmadinejad’s chief of staff Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei was implicated in recent weeks in a multi-billion dollar bank fraud scandal – the biggest in Iran’s history. The President brought Mashaei along with him to New York – to protect him from likely arrest at home, according to opponents. Nineteen arrests have been made in the scandal; some Iran watchers assert the arrests are, at least in part, political sallies against Ahmadinejad.

It is nearly 33 years since the Iranian state was hijacked by a group of radical fundamentalists. Americans above a certain age may remember the 1979 Iranian revolution against the US-backed Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. When it began, I had some hopes a new democratic era in that country was about to begin. Several of my closest friends at that time were young Iranians who had fled the Shah’s brutal regime, one of whom got out when he received a tip he was about to be arrested the next day by the Shah’s security police, the dreaded SAVAK. I wondered if my friends would be able to return to their homeland.

But it was not to be. Iran became an authoritarian theocratic state, rounding up progressive, democratically-minded revolutionaries and sending them to prison or death. My friends remained in exile. They are middle-aged now, but their political progeny electrified the world two years ago during the Green Movement’s protests against the election of Ahmadinejad. Hundreds of thousands of young, pro-democracy advocates put their lives on the line to show their nation and the world the fight for Iran’s democracy was not over.

The regime has reacted with an ever-escalating campaign of repression, torture and execution. The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran claims, “As of December 2010, Iran has been engaged in an execution binge. In December 2010, authorities executed 48 people. In January 2011, official media reported 85 executions, averaging one execution every nine hours. If rates continue, Iran will execute over 900 persons by the end the year.” 

Some of the executed are political opponents. But some are women accused of infidelity. Others are children – the age of criminal liability is nine for girls and 15 for boys. Iran is one of the few countries in the world that carries out executions for crimes committed before the age of 18. (The US is another.)

Torture and forced confessions are rampant, including of journalists. Just this week, six filmmakers were thrown in jail, accused of working for the BBC.

But the regime’s savage repression of its opponents does not necessarily signify strength. “There is a crisis of legitimacy in the government,” says Iran expert Mehrzad Boroujerdi. Founder and director of the Middle Eastern Studies Program at Syracuse University, where he teaches political science, Boroujerdi acknowledges the opposition has been hurt – activists have fled the country or been arrested – but says it’s not down for the count. 

“There’s a more defensive mood right now,” he told CSRwire, “but this doesn’t mean the ruling regime has taken over hearts and minds of the people by any stretch of imagination.” Boroujerdi says the elections radicalized a part of population who were sitting on sidelines before and have now decided to oppose the state. “It even goes so far as when a couple approaches their families for permission to marry, the very first thing the family asks the suitor is, ‘did you vote for Ahmadinejad?’ If the answer is ‘yes,’ the family refuses permission to marry.”

Boroujerdi says Iran has proven itself to be a country “pregnant with new possibilities,” from the 1979 Revolution to the reformist election of Mohammed Khatemi to today’s Green Movement. Half of the population is under 30 – a largely urban and educated demographic that wants to connect to the rest of the world. They are Internet-savvy and pro-democracy.

The Internet in Iran is under the control of the regime, but there are those in the opposition outside the country who are working to sidestep that control in a bid to break the Iranian people out of their isolation. A coalition of activists have been coming together under the rubric “The New Iran.” They are developing a social media platform to help create a new democratic constitution and build electoral muscle within the country to defeat the regime. You can find more information on Twitter: @TheNewIran and Facebook: The New Iran.

My next post will spotlight this new movement, featuring one of its founders, social media entrepreneur, Dr. Iman Foroutan. Stay tuned. [Editor's Note: View Part II here.]

About Francesca Rheannon

Francesca is CSRwire's Talkback Managing Editor. An award-winning journalist, Francesca is co-founder of Sea Change Media. She produces the Sea Change Radio’s series, Back to The Future, and co-produces the Interfaith Center of Corporate Responsibility’s podcast, The Arc of Change. Francesca’s work has appeared at SocialFunds.com, The CRO and E Magazine, and she is a contributing writer for CSRwire. Francesca hosts the nationally syndicated radio show, Writers Voice with Francesca Rheannon.

This commentary is written by a valued member of the CSRwire contributing writers' community and expresses this author's views alone.

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