In the past couple of weeks, two important events considerably captured much of the attentions of Iranians, both inside and outside of the country. The first was the controversial letter that thirty exiled Iranian dissidents wrote to President-elect, Donald Trump urging him to review what they referred to as “disastrous deal” with Iran. More importantly, they asked him to expand the existing sanctions, as well as to impose fresh sanctions on different entities of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The other news was the hasthag #SaveArash topping Twitter trending by thousands of Iranians to show solidarity with Arash Sadeghi, an Iranian civil activist who was on hunger strike for more than 70 days in protest at the detention of his writer wife, as well as his 15-year sentence for charges including “gathering and colluding with intent to harm national security.”
Withstanding the differences in their objectives, what is clear is that there are dissidents in both cases. However, their approaches to express their oppositions to the government are entirely different. On the one hand, there are exiled Iranian dissidents who chose to turn to a foreign nation to reach their objective, which is to first bankrupt the Islamic Republic through economic sanctions and then replace it with what they call a “pro-democratic government.” On the other hand, there is Arash Sadeghi who has chosen the hard way of nonviolent disobedience to achieve his objective, which is to challenge the unjust allegations and later, receive a just review for his and his wife sentences from the judicial branch.
All the controversies aside, what should be underlined is the reactions of Iranian people, particularly the youth to both events, which indeed unveiled an interesting reality about the political maturity of the young generation in Iran. Young Iranians enormously came in support of Arash’s non-violent approach and despite the state censorship on Twitter, half of million people managed to use proxies to tweet #SaveArash - making it the world’s highest trending topic on December 30th. Moreover, hundreds of young people organized a silent protest in front of the famous Evin prison to show their support for him. Meanwhile, the very same people slammed the exiled dissidents over the letter to Trump, calling them traitors and comparing them with domestic hardliner figures such as Hossein Shariatmadari, managing editor of conservative Keyhan newspaper who also call the nuclear agreement a “disastrous deal”. These reactions should send a clear message to all those people who still argue that the violent act of regime change is the only possible solution to democratization in Iran.
Today’s young generation understand that revolutionary and interventionist approach is detrimental and destructive to the country’s political future. Regime change not only exacerbates the existing culture of violence in Iran, but also seriously setbacks the notion of democratic Iran into an uncertain future. In fact, it is quite simplistic to reach out to Americans to help bring democracy in Iran while disregarding their undeniable failure in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Last but not least, Iranians see the the catastrophic experience that Syrian, Yemeni, and Libyan people have been through as a result of an attempt to violently bring regime change in their countries. Therefore, they rightly recognize that democracy does not come into existence through revolutions nor foreign military interventions but it only emerges when it comes gradually from within.
As a young son of the revolution, I find the culture of violence to be the main obstacle to the democratization process in Iran. The violence has a long history in Iranian political culture from the Constitutional Revolution (1905-1911) and Mohammad Ali Shah’s bombardment of the Majles (Persian parliament) all the way to the Islamic Revolution (1979) and elimination of opposition groups. Unfortunately, violence has become so entrenched in the Iranian political culture that it even exiled liberal minded dissidents now advocate the violent act of regime change in Iran.
Nonetheless, the Iranian youth has proved time and again that non-violence is at the core of their strategy to oppose the non-democratic elements of the Islamic Republic. For instance, regardless of the arbitrary disqualification of reformist candidates by the Guardian Council, young Iranians always appeared united to support the pro-democratic reformist figures both for the Presidency and the Majlis. A more recent example is the judicial banning of media from publishing the name or images of Mohammad Khatami, as a way to downgrade the country’s reformist former President’s popular influence among the youth. Nevertheless, Khatami’s call to back the moderate candidates for Parliamentary and Assembly of Experts’ elections (2016) again pulled the young population to the voting ballets and played a key role in victory of moderates against the hardliners.
Since the victory of the Islamic Revolution, Iranian politics has been characterized with the Iranian people continuously challenging the established power of conservatives through their popular power and nonviolent movements. However, the complete alienation of Basij, Revolutionary Guards, and clergy have seriously hindered the alliance-building of a successful nonviolent movement in Iran. Like the Constitutional Revolution, young population need to connect and engage in constructive dialogue with different voices of the society, which includes women, bazaris, intellectuals and even Islamists. It is through such dialogues that reconciliation and compromise will supersede the violence and exclusion, opening the window of opportunity for democracy to gradually inhabit in Iran’s political culture.
With more than 60 percent of the population under the age of 30, the nonviolent mindset should be valued as a great moral capital, which is the only possible tool to overcome the historically rooted culture of violence in Iran. Certainly, this is a huge potential that can set the ground for a gradual transition to a more democratic Iran in the near future.