Iranian Elections and a Persian Spring – Commentary

Dr. Ivan Sascha Sheehan Discussing U.S.-Iran Policy at the Rayburn House Office Building

SHEEHAN: Iranian Elections and a Persian Spring – Commentary

Dr. Ivan Sascha Sheehan from Paris on the deteriorating situation in Iran and the prospects for an Iranian spring.

Those gathering in Paris urged the international community to reset Iran policy by acknowledging that the strategy of appeasement failed and that sham elections are not a substitute for authentic democracy. They also asked world leaders to pay as much attention to the people of Iran as they do the regime’s authoritarian rulers by supporting democratic change from within.

Dr. Ivan Sascha Sheehan

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Iranian Elections and a Persian Spring

This week the world heard fresh ideas on Iran’s future. But they didn’t come from Tehran. They were issued in Paris.

On June 22, Iranians from around the world converged in Villepinte in what was one of the largest demonstrations for a free and democratic Iran in history.

Last June, dignitaries from around the world greeted enthusiastic crowds of more than one hundred thousand. This year even more resolute support was anticipated. The opposition didn’t disappoint with massive crowds and political glitterati from around the world.

A deteriorating situation in Iran and the removal of the main Iranian opposition movement, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK), from the U.S. terror list after a 15-year legal and political battle excited those frustrated with the Iranian regime’s increasing belligerence, tightly controlled elections, and nuclear pursuits and gave hope that the future can be brighter than the past.

Those gathering in Paris urged the international community to reset Iran policy by acknowledging that the strategy of appeasement failed and that sham elections are not a substitute for authentic democracy. They also asked world leaders to pay as much attention to the people of Iran as they do the regime’s authoritarian rulers by supporting democratic change from within.

The assembly convened at a critical moment when Iranians are angry and restless with their political future. Internal divisions are indicative of a regime that is collapsing from within and the economic future is bleak.

A recent presidential election controlled by the regime’s clerical rulers denied ordinary Iranians the right to self-determination. Elections after all are meaningless when all power resides with a theocrat that is accountable to no one and when candidates must declare their unyielding allegiance to a supreme leader just to participate.

But the dramatic disqualification of former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei was the mullah’s last act of influence. The move fractured the regime’s power base and aggravated internal tensions. Although the purge was deemed necessary to consolidate the Ayatollah’s hold on power, the prospect of unrest ultimately led him to settle for Hassan Rowhani – a so-called “reformist” approved by the Guardian Council who represents no threat to the existing power structure but was not the cleric’s top choice.

Now the regime is shifting attention from domestic troubles and a sham election by suppressing dissent, silencing minority voices, and closing ranks with the world’s tyrants. Last week’s attack on dissidents at Camp Liberty was the third such act of violence by the regime in 2013.

Participants gathered in Paris this week did what those in Iran wish they could: Reject the regime’s election masquerade and call for democratic change via the organized opposition.

Hundreds of prominent dignitaries and parliamentarians from more than forty countries convened to express solidarity with the Iranian resistance and embrace their calls for grassroots change in Tehran.

Speakers at the gathering, organized by the democratic coalition of the Iranian opposition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), called on government officials the world over to embrace the aspirations of the Iranian people for a free and peaceful Iran reflected in NCRI president-elect, Ms. Maryam Rajavi’s, ten-point plan. The plan outlines the parliament in exile’s commitment to building a secular, democratic, and non-nuclear republic that respects human rights, gender equality, and is at peace with regional and global powers.

Speakers also denounced recent attacks on Iranian dissidents and called for additional guarantees on the safety and security of thousands of Iranian exiles detained in Iraq at Camps Ashraf and Liberty.

As the world ponders what to do next and confronts realities in Tehran, leaders will need to decide how best to manage the Iran threat in the wake of the election. Acknowledging that the Iranian regime is not a permanent fixture of the Middle East landscape is a sensible place to start.

The regime’s intensifying efforts to acquire nuclear weapons, their willingness to support a prolonged massacre in Syria resulting in tens of thousands of civilian casualties, and their repeated violence against unarmed Iranian dissidents adds urgency to the cause and provides incentive and justification to act swiftly.

Recently imposed sanctions targeting trade on Iranian currency will have useful but marginal impact on Tehran’s calculus. World leaders must realize that there are no sustainable solutions that involve a continuation of the current government in Tehran.

Now is the time to embrace the internal discord facing Iran’s clerics and harness the discontent on the Iranian street by signaling the Iranian people that world powers will stand squarely with them if they seek freedom, democracy, and human rights.

Last week’s elections were held in Iran, but this week the future gathered in Paris. The message they shared is the best hope for an authentic Persian Spring.

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Dr. Ivan Sascha Sheehan is the Director of the graduate programs in Negotiation and Conflict Management and Global Affairs and Human Security in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Baltimore. The opinions expressed are his own.

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