Four years ago this week, authorities in Iran shut down a reformist newspaper and university students took to the streets demanding change in what was the country’s worst civil unrest since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. VOA’s Victor Morales leads a roundtable discussion examining the prospects for regime change in Iran.
MR. MORALES: July 1999 . . . Islamic vigilantes attack a rally of Tehran University students protesting the closure of Iran’s leading moderate newspaper. Riot police storm student dormitories. Hundreds are arrested, but the demonstrations quickly spread throughout the country. After six days, the regime crushed the uprising, but not the demand for reform.
In recent weeks, students have again taken to the streets seeking democracy in Iran. Is it time for regime change in Tehran?
Joining me to examine the situation in Iran are: Siamack Shojai, Dean of the School of Business and Economics at Plattsburgh State University in New York; and Mansour Farhang, a diplomatic historian at Bennington College in Vermont.
Professor Farhang, let me begin with you. Looking back four years ago at the student uprising, are there still the same frustrations on the part of Iranian students as there were then?
MR. FARHANG: They have the same frustrations and desires, but they are much intensified. Six years ago, a significant number of students and Iranian people voted for President [Mohammad] Khatami with the expectation of seeing him institute some fundamental reforms in terms of civil liberties, political freedom, the right of association and so forth. And he projected an image of himself and his program that encouraged such hopes on the part of the population. Six years later, the people have completely lost faith in his willingness or ability to be a reformer. And today, the frustration is much more intense than it was six years ago. And what people want today is a change in the totality of the regime, not just reform.
MR. MORALES: Siamack Shojai, let me put that same question to you.
MR. SHOJAI: I absolutely agree with with Dr. Farhang. I think that Mr. Khatami created the illusion of being a reformist and many students and other groups in Iran had high hopes about reforms actually working. But now, they are frustrated. They realize that Mr. Khatami is part of a regime, which cannot change, and the only hope is to have a regime change. Of course, we have to remember that the international situation has also changed since four years ago. And the Iranian people are well aware that they have a lot of support outside the country, particularly in the United States, even though they truly rely on themselves and they are not really hoping for any major outside support.
MR. MORALES: Let me ask you, Professor Farhang, about other segments of Iranian society. Do they hold the same views as the students?
MR. FARHANG: Official unemployment is more than 20%. Per capita income has been reduced to half of what it was 35 years ago. There is a greater concentration of wealth and income [in the hands of a few] today than ever before. And more than anything else, the young people in Iran, who constitute the majority of the population, feel very hopeless about the future. So the dissatisfaction really is very pervasive and it includes all sectors of the society. But only the students, because of their ability to assemble and rally, have the opportunity to express their discontent through demonstrations. The rest of the society -- those in factories, in the bazaar and in various bureaucratic administrations of the government -- have exhibited their dissatisfaction, but they are not really able to engage in large-scale demonstrations without suffering retaliation. So there is evidence that the dissatisfaction is not limited to the students, and yet only the students seem to be able to express it on the street.
MR. SHOJAI: Again, I agree with Dr. Farhang. Economic hardship has penetrated everywhere in Iranian society. For the last three or four years, they [the regime] have been increasing the liquidity, the money supply, by an average of 30% per year. And that basically means that the government is printing money, using its credit and oil revenues to provide contracts and resources to those who are tied to the government. And the majority of the people are being deprived of the basic necessities of life. The economic situation is so harsh that thousands of workers have not received their wages for many years. And we have seen demonstrations in almost every sector of the Iranian economy -- from teachers to workers in small cities and big cities. But the regime has been extremely repressive. And in almost every factory or shop, there are intelligence agents of the regime. And there are some clerics who are basically controlling the movements of workers. There are no independent [trade] unions for workers in Iran. They control everything very tightly. I can imagine that if they had the freedom to demonstrate and to go on strike, you would see mass demonstrations and strikes all over Iran -- in factories and by government workers.
MR. MORALES: We have about a minute left, and I would like to ask each of you beginning with Mansour Farhang: Give me your view of the prospects for peaceful, democratic change in Tehran, and what can or should the United States do to facilitate that.
MR. FARHANG: There is a promising democracy movement in Iran. It is still in its early stages of development in terms of its organization and leadership. What the United States, as well as other democratic societies, can do is support this democracy movement politically and diplomatically and expose the gross human rights violations in Iran and the regime’s attempts to contain demonstrations and expressions of discontent. The democracy movement in Iran has to mature on its own, without intervention from outside or subversion from within so that it can be authentic so that it not only removes a dictatorial, theocratic regime, but also replaces it with a democratic administration.
MR. MORALES: And Siamack Shojai, the last word to you.
MR. SHOJAI: Let me just add that what the U.S. should not do, in my opinion. The United States should not be seen as trying to return the Pahlavi family to power in Iran or supporting the Khatami government because both of these groups have been discredited by their actions. And it would be a major mistake for the United States to try though some popular media to convey a message to the Iranian people, either intentionally or unintentionally, that this is nothing but a return of the Pahlavi regime or family to Iran. There are millions of Iranians -- inside and outside of Iran -- and I think the U.S. should reach out to those who genuinely believe in a progressive, democratic, secular republic in Iran. And that is the only hope for the United States to be on the right side of history when it comes to Iran.
MR. MORALES: Gentlemen, we’ll have to leave it there. I would like to thank my guests: Siamack Shojai, Dean of the School of Business and Economics at Plattsburgh State University; and diplomatic historian Mansour Farhang of Bennington College.