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Why 'Active Neutrality' Can Hasten Iran's Revolution

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The democratic revolutionary uprising in Iran has not surprised most experts. Since the late nineteenth century, almost every generation of Iranians has seen at least one major upheaval or revolution. The first revolution for democracy in the Middle East took place in Iran in 1905, most European countries were run by non-democratic regimes. No country has experienced such constant turmoil and political unrest in the past century as Iran. China comes closest, but until Tienanmen Square democracy itself was never a central demand; since then, and so far, the desire for democracy has been buried under a phase of astronomical economic development.

Alongside the demand for democracy in Iran, however, has always been the demand for independence. Iranians have an ingrained sensitivity about the independence of their country, traceable far back even in the epic mythical tales of ancient Iran. In Shahnameh (or Book of the Kings), for example, the legendary warrior hero Rustam is the defender of Iran's independence. We should not presume that these are just stories created to pass spare time in tea houses. There is rather a principle which, a thousand years ago, transformed the unknown philosopher-poet Ferdusii into a national love affair and turned a warrior into a legendary hero. It still affects the Iranian psyche today.

This longing for independence appeared more recently during the Iran-Iraq war, when Saddam Hussein's army invaded Iran in September 1980. Saddam, aware of the desperate state of Iran's armed forces, invited around 1000 reporters to celebrate his quick victory. But hours before the fall of a major airbase, hence capturing most of Iran's oil fields, Iran's president and commander in chief, Abolhassan Banisadr, gathered the disheartened Iranian pilots, most of whom had just been released from prison, and told them the tales of Ferdusi. He asked them to become Iran's 'Rustams' -- defenders of a desperate situation -- and this is what they did.

Many were killed or injured, but they pushed the Iraqi tanks back far enough for long enough, so that ground forces could organize to confront the Iraqi army. With a history like this, it is no surprise that contemporary arguments about the benefits of globalization, the weakening of nation states, and the semi-irrelevance of national governments whose role is merely to balance the demands of multinational corporations with public demands, have hit a wall of steel within Iran's. The country's independence cannot be negotiated on these grounds.

Of course there are numerous Iranians scholars and intellectuals who have bought into these arguments and advocate them, but the West should be aware of the gap between these and the national public consciousness of the Iranian people. The Western think tanks that are courting Iranian intellectuals who consider themselves to be the think tanks of the Green movement could thus be utterly misled. The real think tank of this revolution is not staffed by these self-appointed intellectuals and political activists, but is to be found amongst the people themselves. And because it is horizontally organized and networked, it has been impossible for the regime to decapitate it.

All the chants and slogans teach us how this collective movement is increasingly clarifying its democratic demands through self-assessment and critical dialogue, internally and in response to the changing reality. The initial response to the vote-rigging, for example, was expressed in the simple question, 'Where is my vote?' Gradually, people realized that voting was only a through which to exercise their authority over the state, and that as long as this was impossible demanding the right to vote was irrelevant.

This small awakening, combined with the brutal repression of their peaceful demonstrations, shifted the movement's core demand from ending political corruption to demanding, as the slogan went, 'Independence, Freedom [and an] Iranian Republic'. This slogan prefigures the republican nature of the future regime as one based on principles of both 'independence' and 'freedom'. This is a secularized version of a slogan popular in the 1979 revolution, 'Independence, freedom, Islamic Republic'. In both cases, independence and freedom are the main demands. These were imagined to have been possible in the form of an 'Islamic republic' in the previous revolution, but as the state has since proved that it is neither Islamic nor a republic, the public has learned to express its original demands within a new discourse.

The concept of 'independence' is understood by the majority in Iran as a condition of 'negative equilibrium'. This concept was originally championed in the early 1950s by Mussadiq, the democratic prime minister who was overthrown in a CIA-engineered coup in 1953. Mussadiq argued that Iran could not secure its fragile existence through 'balancing out' interfering dominant powers by pitting against each other, as had been government policy in the preceding decades (whether this be setting Russia against Britain or the USA against the Soviet Union). Instead, he suggested that no foreign power should be allowed to violate or compromise Iran's independence in the first place. Thus, while the demand for 'freedom' may be understood at an individual level, the desire for independence is seen as an exercise of freedom in collective or national form.

Any foreign interference in favor of either the opposition movement or the regime, therefore, violates this sense of independence and weakens the process of revolution. Recently, Banisadr has thus recommended that foreign governments adopt a policy of 'active neutrality' towards the regime and the country's evolving political situation. This means taking two different kinds of actions: negative, or withdrawing actions, and positive, or active ones.

The first negative move should be to remove the threat of military attack and economic sanction as a way of forcing the regime to make concessions about the nuclear issue. Both are lifelines for the sinking regime, which needs some sort of international crisis to keep itself afloat. A democratic Iran does not need the atomic bomb; it needs not to have it.

Second, foreign governments should not give their financial or political support to the opposition. They should withdraw as potential actors from this stage. In addition to these withdrawals, there are certain ways that foreign governments can act positively to hasten the revolution. One is to actively and publicly oppose the violation of human rights in Iran, in accordance with the demands of global public opinion. The second is to prevent foreign companies from selling equipment or services which enable the regime to spy on, censor and control the opposition. Third, they can identify and publicise the names of those members of the regime who have stored money in foreign banks, and expose the amount of these deposits and investments. Finally, foreign governments can support efforts to bring Iran's leaders to the international courts of law so that they can be tried for committing crimes against humanity.

Such actions, as part of a wider policy of 'active neutrality', can both weaken the Iranian regime's capacity to use violence against the people of Iran and send a message to Iranians that no country will interfere in Iran's domestic affairs after this regime is gone. When the people are certain that they will not be exploited in this way, they can mobilize their resources in full to end the life of a corrupt and criminal regime and vanguard the democratization of Islamic countries.