A time for change? Dr Behrooz Behbudi, founder of the Council for a Democratic Iran, talked to Pat Lancaster about his recently published book and his aspirations for the land of his birth.In your book you paint an idyllic picture of your childhood in Iran, where your father was a trusted member of the Court of the Shah, what is your current status with regard to the Islamic Republic?
During the presidency of Mr Khatami, I travelled to Iran on a charity mission following the Khorasan earthquake, after being away from my country for many years. After that trip I wanted to create more links between the Iranian and American people. I did extensive work but eventually realised that Iran needs fundamental, not cosmetic, change and with the current regime it is impossible to achieve any substantial and lasting links between the people. Therefore, I decided to change my approach from a humanitarian and cultural one to a political one.
Since becoming involved in politics opposing the ruling regime in Iran, the regime looks upon me as an exiled political dissident.
Where, in your opinion, did things begin to go wrong for Iran, beth domestically and within the international community?
We must go back to the time of the rule of Reza Shah and then follow it to the time of Mohammad Reza Shah. The clerics did not appear on the stage overnight. They thought long and hard about their plans to gain power in Iran. The problems of contemporary Iran began the moment the clerical establishment looked upon itself as the new rulers of the nation. The clerics came to power on the basis of the nation's sincere religious beliefs, although without any real understanding of politics, economics, sociology, international law, diplomatic relations or any other aspect of running complicated affairs of state. The consequences of their ignorance are right in front of our eyes.
What makes matters worse is the way world powers have been lenient towards a regime whose reactionary and destructive nature is very well known to them, putting their own financial interests before the interests of the Iranian people whose basic human rights have been trampled upon by one of the most tyrannical regimes in the history of mankind.
Do you believe the majority of Iranians are in accord with the current ruling regime?
To answer this question one needs to have access to information gathered through independent surveys and polls taken in a free society. None of these are currently possible in today's Iran because the regime controls every aspect of the nation's public life through repressive measures.
However, there are plenty of indicators that prove the majority of the Iranian people oppose the present regime and its policies. Such objections can be measured, for example, by the protest march of as many as three million people through the streets of Tehran, who gathered without any prior organisation or call from opposition leaders.
Compare this number with the regime's paltry rent-a-crowd supporters, bussed in to take part in pro-government rallies, and one can only conclude that the opponents of the regime far outnumber its supporters. This popular opposition does not surface frequently because of harsh and bloody crackdowns on any shows of opposition, perpetrated by the regime's organised, repressive gangs.
Add this ever-present threat to the harsh economic conditions--poverty and deprivation--the regime's interference in the private lives of its citizens, the lack of freedom of speech and public assembly, censorship of the media, the problems of women, youth and the discrimination faced by religious and ethnic minorities, then the obvious conclusion must be that this regime does not have any mandate from the Iranian people.
The threat of Iran developing a nuclear weapons programme has dominated global news and caused international consternation, How can this issue be best addressed diplomatically?
Iran will not make a U-turn on the nuclear issue. It cannot do so because it has spent a great deal of political capital on this venture. Consequently, the West cannot rely on reaching a deal with Iran through negotiations, as the two parties share no common ground or goodwill. The world has, so far, relied on international sanctions in this respect, which mainly target the people of Iran causing them considerable hardship, while the regime has used Chinese and Russian trade routes to bypass the sanctions. The only party that can enter a meaningful negotiation with the international community to end this crisis peacefully is the people of Iran, as the rightful owners of the country.
For a country whose government has been so controlling for so long, how would you expect a shift to democracy might impact upon Iranian society?
While it is true that this despotic regime has entered every aspect of the Iranian people's social, political and cultural life, it does not mean they have given up on their dream of achieving democracy and human rights. Iran is a unique country in terms of its composition, with several ethnic and religious minorities and groups with a wide range of political and social backgrounds. To achieve a democracy within this rainbow of opinions and ideologies we must first create the ground for bringing them together for a common cause. It is only then, with the support of the international community that they must put forward their united objectives can be pursued and progressed.
You describe the Iranian regime's ongoing 'war on women'. Is this so very different from the general gender inequality that persists around the Middle East region?
It is possible that Iranian women face a different set of limitations from those experienced by women in the Arab world. However, all such discrimination, irrespective of whether it occurs in Iran or in its neighbouring countries, is caused by misunderstanding religious decrees and absurd prejudices. In my view, divine revelations regard human freedom as being precious irrespective of gender. They view an individual as a human being. Now, if someone were to enslave another human being and ridicule his humanity in the name of religion, then he only succeeds in showing how distant he is from true religion.
Some analysts believe the West has come to regard the Iranian people as a hostile, amorphous mass. Is this a belief you share and how can it be addressed?
Iranian people have no problem with the West. It is the rulers of the Islamic republic who hold unfavourable views of the West. I actually believe that Iranian youth have a view of the West that is opposite to that of the rulers. I do not deny that a segment of Iranian society shares the views of the rulers, but I firmly believe most Iranian do not.
Can you tell us more about your personal campaign to redress the balance of power in your homeland?
What is essential for the future of Iran is that it make use of all its expertise, professional manpower and the human resources of those who wish to contribute to the building of a new democratic nation by offering their ideas and skills for this objective. One of the main aims of the Council for a Democratic Iran (CDI) has been to gather together these professionals from across the world under one umbrella organisation.
If we were to summarise the objectives of the CDI then they would be: to mobilise, educate and unite the active social and political forces of the Iranian communities from across the world and inside Iran, in order to draw up sensible and realistic plans for the progress of a democratic Iran where people can live happily in freedom and prosperity, at peace with the rest of the world as responsible members of the family of nations.
Given your international status, there is always the possibility you will be accused of being a political pawn of the West, How would you respond to that charge?
I am a person of independent means with a happy and comfortable life and no personal ambition for further wealth or power. I consider myself an Iranian first and foremost. However, I have lived in the West for many years and, I believe, gained a fair amount of experience that can be used to advance the cause of democracy in Iran.
Iranians are not a nation that will accept the yoke of humiliation this regime wants to impose on them for long, and the long history of the country bears witness to this salient fact. At the same time, after having gone through so much hardship over the last three decades, they are mature enough to distinguish between those who wish to serve the country and its people and those who wish to exploit and oppress. The struggle for democracy in Iran is not an exclusive club for any individual or group and, at the end of the day, it will be up to the Iranian people to choose for themselves, in free and fair elections, as to who they want as their leaders.