We were all instilled with pride when witnessing the courage of our compatriots in the summer of 2009. They braved snipers on rooftops and hooligans on the streets to challenge the Iranian Government’s latest gambit to subvert the will of the electorate. The Iranian Government thumbed it nose at the most elemental principles of human rights as the world stood witness. The heroism in Iran inspired countless individuals beyond the country’s borders to act as a constabulary for voiceless Iranians. Apart from commanding the attention of the international media and emboldening youth throughout the Middle East region, the cataclysmic events of the summer of 2009 prompted the disparate likes of Joan Baez, Bon Jovi and U2 to echo the heartfelt yearnings of numerous Iranians. Moreover, members of the Iranian émigré community representing the widest range of political persuasions marched shoulder to shoulder in cities throughout the world to condemn the sadistic behaviour of the Iranian Government.
The sheer brutality of the Iranian regime ultimately prevailed. After resorting to vigilantes and ordering sweeping arrests, the Iranian Government instituted elaborate show trials to instil collective fear. Apart from the evident savagery of the theocratic state, what compelled our compatriots to desist further was the hard earned experience of our recent past. Seared in their minds was the lesson that the best collective intentions are no guarantee against disastrous consequences. After all, what had once beckoned as a step forward in 1978 ended with a leap into an unknown abyss. Who could forget that the high-minded social upheavals that swept the monarchy metamorphosed in to the degeneration of the Islamic Republic. Wary of setting in motion another national thanatos, in 2009 Iranians refused to plunge their country into another spiral of uncertainty when no prudent alternative appeared on the horizon.
The events of the summer of 2009 shook the very foundations of the Islamic Republic by permanently scaring its façade and producing a regime that has been reeling in paranoia since. While the demonstrations produced iconic figures such as Neda Agha Soltan and Sohrab Arabi, the torch of defiance has now passed to others. While the likes of Simin Behbahani, Parvin Fahimi, Mohammad Maleki, Mohammad Nourizad, Mansoor Osanloo and Hila Sadighi fail to be silenced, scores of individuals such as the fearless student leader Majid Tavakoli, labour activist Ebrahim Madadi, and legal advocates such as Nasrin Sotoadeh languish behind bars. Surely, we can ill afford to remain indifferent and their tragic plights must embolden us all.
One would have hoped that the events of 2009 would stiffen backbones among Iranian thinkers abroad to spur an intellectual renaissance, instilled a new sense of urgency among Iranian activists in exile, and created lasting bonhomie among the Iranian émigré community. Regrettably, nothing could be farther from the truth. Instead, what we have seen since 2009 is a cottage industry of Iranian commentators acting as spectators rather than leading in forging a new consensus. A majority of these talking heads merely issue platitudes, attend one conference after another, and affix their signatures to an endless stream of petitions.
Who could credibly argue that Iranians abroad have proven adept at echoing the demands of civil society silenced in Iran, or proven sufficiently zealous in maintaining the international spotlight on egregious human rights violations occurring systematically in that country.
We now face a new moment of reckoning. The historic demonstrations of 2009 have given way to the detonation of another crisis. The clamour of the drum beats of war are deafening. While the failure of Iranians abroad to adopt a more robust position in the aftermath of the disputed presidential elections was indeed regrettable, a failure to act collectively as the clouds of war appear on the horizon would be downright shameful. With talk of attacking Iran becoming eerily common place, no Iranian can afford to remain silent or sidelined. The prospect of war represents a clarion call for collective action by all Iranian thinkers and activists. The time for acting as voyeurs from afar has passed, and all should put their shoulders to pulling Iran out of the ditch by devising solutions.
The high time for convening a gathering of prominent Iranians has arrived. Iranians abroad must band together to shape a new narrative distinct from the one blaring from Tehran or emanating from foreign chancelleries in London, Ottawa, Paris, Tel Aviv or Washington. Prominent Iranians should shed their ambiguity and weigh in on such contentious issues as the pros and cons of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, on the efficacy of the current sanctions placed on the Islamic Republic, of proposing smart sanctions that punish cleptocrats in the Iranian military and high ranking Iranian government officials rather than Iranians in general, and of offering considered alternatives to war.
May the kaleidoscope of participants include princes and paupers, former ministers of His Imperial Majesty and the first President of the Islamic Republic, constitutionalists and republicans, noble laureates, human rights advocates, former hunger strike activists, student leaders and academics, eminent journalists and writers, analysts at think tanks and the heads of any and all Iranian civic organizations abroad, religious reformists and leaders of the Green Movement that have recently fled Iran.
All must summon the resolve to inaugurate a new chapter of national reconciliation among those opposed to the ogre of the Iranian theocracy. Self styled civic activists, eminent thinkers or political leaders who refuse to close ranks with others are unworthy of our continued forbearance. Impish souls eschewing collaboration with others will surely forfeit what modest following they currently enjoy. A display of irreverence for others by anyone should be treated as a license for ostracizing by all.
While all political leaders in exile dutifully flap their gums to suggest that they aspire to democratic ideals, few have demonstrated a willingness to hold discussions with activists of different ideological stripes. Every prominent Iranian should recognize that the time for political theatre has passed and that all will be judged by their actions and not their words. Leadership must be earned from the many rather than be conferred by a few. The very essence of leadership is to refuse to leave the fate of one’s nation to happenstance. Self proclaimed leaders would do well to heed John Kenneth Galbraith’s advice that “Politics is not the art of the possible. It consists in choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable” and realize full well that courage is the ability to master their fears not its absence.
While we have all hungered for the emergence of resonant personalities with firm convictions in exile who aspire to lock arms with others, what we have witnessed is a parade of solitary personalities with feet of clay. Little wonder that many dismiss the notion that Iranians abroad may assume a meaningful role, while other naysayers conclude in despair that Iranians are incapable of working in a collective fashion. Jarred as we are by the current line up of pygmies who masquerade as leaders despite remaining impervious to the heroism emanating from Iran, perhaps we can take comfort in the pages of our modern history. If the crie de coeur of our compatriots back in Iran in 2009, or the spectre of the carnage of war, has not swayed prominent Iranians abroad, perhaps the footprints of figures from the past may prove more persuasive.
While challenges have never been in short supply for Iran in modern times, giants leap out from the pages of our history books. Surely the mould that created countless Iranian leaders with backbones and foresight in the past cannot have shattered for all times. Our history confirms that Iranians abroad need not despair and can effectively champion change in exile, that concerns that secular and religious personalities will be incapable of cooperation are misplaced, and that Iranians at home and abroad have previously joined forces to defeat ill intentioned international schemes.
Those Iranians leaders suffering from folie de grandeur who consider themselves peerless avatars at the pinnacle who need not reach out to others would do well to consider the example of Hassan Taghizadeh (1878-1969) who proved a tireless activist in the second decade of the twentieth century while enduring exile. After emerging as one of the leaders of the constitutional revolution of 1906 while still in his twenties, Hassan Taghizadeh was forced to flee Iran in 1910. While a lesser man would have wallowed in self pity given the twist of fate he had been handed, Taghizadeh never despaired. During his lengthy absence from Iran, Taghizadeh remained a gad fly for the betterment of his country. Every challenge simply intensified his perseverance and fortified his patriotic convictions.
While in Turkey in 1911, Taghizadeh arranged a meeting with Morgan Shuster, an American en route to Iran to assume the responsibilities of financial advisor. Taghizadeh inoculated Shuster with the sentiment that the Majles was the sole force committed to genuine reform in Iran. Subsequently, when Taghizadeh moved to England for his next bout of exile, he assisted the renowned Professor E.G. Browne in organizing protests against the Anglo-Russian Agreement of 1907 which callously trammelled Iranian sovereignty. To champion the abrogation of the Anglo-Russian Agreement, Browne and Taghizadeh formed a Persia Committee in London compromised of no less than forty four British Members of Parliament committed to abrogating the Anglo-Iranian Agreement. As E.G. Browne would recall, Taghizadeh was “one of those whose genius is capable of inspiring great enthusiasm, great sacrifices, and whose influence leaves a lasting impression on the history of nations.”
Several years later, after arriving in Berlin following the outbreak of the First World War in early 1915, Hassan Taghizadeh received a commitment from the German Government to provide financial assistance for the publication of a semi-monthly Persian language periodical. When Taghizadeh sent out an invitation to Iranian expatriates strewn across Europe to assist with the publication of Kaveh, many literary lights heeded his call and converged on Germany to produce the periodical. Kazemzadeh Iranshahr left Cambridge, Mohammad Ghazvini and Ebrahim Pourdavoud departed Paris, and Mohammad Ali Jamalzadeh bid Dijon adieu to join Taghizadeh and Mohammad Ali Tarbiat in Berlin to produce Kaveh. For years the group that coalesced around Taghizadeh published a magazine bursting with reformist fervour that buoyed spirits in war ravaged Iran.
A review of our history also confirms it would be folly to pretend that secular and religious thinkers opposed to the regime in Tehran have any reason to fear that they will be unable to bridge their divide. After all, the first constitutional revolution only succeeded after members of Iran’s intelligentsia joined with several ranking members of the clergy. Although it is now fashionable to suggest that the constitutional revolution produced an unbridgeable fissure that has bedevilled a national consensus ever since, a closer examination of the political life of Ayatollah Hassan Modaress (1870-1938) confirms that enlightened members of the ecclesiastical establishment rallied to the cause of nationalism.
Although in 1909 Hassan Modaress was not elected as deputy in his own right, and represented a seat among the five allotted to the Learned Council of the Ulama, he beat an independent path throughout the successive terms he served in the Second to Fifth sessions of the Majles. While not one to shirk from a challenge, Modaress proved an astute pragmatist and earned a well deserved reputation as a master political craftsman. As a member of the second Majles, Modaress collaborated closely with a liberal Hassan Pirnia to push through the Majles secular judicial regulations concerning the conduct of trials. In the Fourth Majles Modaress joined forces with another arch secular personality, Abdolhossein Teymourtash, to lead the most impressive faction in the Majles. In short, throughout his lengthy political life, Modaress repeatedly shunned any attempt to fortify his base of popular support by aligning with the ecclesiastical establishment or by rounding up religious rabble rousers. He often intimated to other Members of Parliament that he could not bring himself to throw his lot in with the retrograde and reactionary Ulama.
Finally, it is well to remember that Iranians based outside and those within have previously forged a seamless whole to overturn schemes challenging the country’s sovereignty. When the British Government prevailed on a triumvirate of the leading members of the Iranian Government to negotiate the Anglo-Iranian Agreement of 1919 they ignited a torrent of opposition that ultimately left the Agreement in taters. Every shade of nationalist opinion congealed into demanding the abrogation of an Agreement demanding that Iran acquiesce to the status of a protectorate in all but name. As with conditions prevailing in Iran today, a combination of mismanagement, official corruption, and foreign demands created a potent cocktail that provided a catalyst for change. The Anglo-Iranian Agreement of 1919 prompted countless Iranian personalities with a backbone both outside and within Iran to find their political footing.
The debonair Moshaver ol Molk Ansari and sophisticated Hossein Ala, who were in Paris as diplomatic envoys to gain Iran a seat at the League of Nations ignored instructions from Tehran and railed against the Anglo-Iranian Agreement before the international media. Ansari and Ala paid the price by being recalled to Tehran and shipped off to third tier diplomatic outposts. The eminent Keikhosro Shahrokh, on the other hand, rallied American support against the Anglo-Iranian Agreement while visiting the United States. A young Ali Akbar Davar took to gathering a group of jurists around himself in Switzerland to clamour against the agreement by writing European statesmen.
Back in Iran, Modaress raised a public ruckus by challenging the 1919 Anglo-Persian Agreement based on secular rather than religious language. Mohammad Taqi Bahar proved resourceful by alternating between sermonizing against the agreement at mosques and visiting the American legation in Tehran to enlist the help of the American Minister to appeal to President Woodrow Wilson. A young Ali Dashti, first established a name for himself as a gifted writer by penning a number of scathing Shabnameh’s opposed to the Agreement. The initiative was also attacked in the Iranian feminine press on the pages of Zaban Zanan (“Womens Tongue”) published under the inspired leadership of an unflappable Sedigheh Dowlatabadi (1882-1961). As a consequence, Zaban Zanan was shuttered by the Government. Perhaps most daring was Colonel Fazlollah Aqevli, a foreign educated Gendarmerie officer who committed suicide rather than endorse the findings of a military commission recommending that British officers assume full command of the Iranian military.
Much of the credit for ensuring that the Anglo-Iranian Agreement was never implemented was due to the principled Prime Minister Hassan Pirnia who assumed the reigns of office once his predecessor who had collaborated with the British was jettisoned. Prime Minister Pirnia made known to the British in no uncertain terms that he would hold the Agreement in abeyance. The final death knell of the Agreement owed to a bold Abdolhossein Teymourtash who authored a diatribe referred to as Statement of Truth which forcefully denounced British policy and saw to it that approximately 40 Members of Parliament endorsed the definite withdrawal of the Agreement. A furious British Minister in Tehran reported to London that the Statement of Truth represented a “remarkable achievement, for Persians are always chary of committing themselves to anything in writing.” Subsequently, the British Ambassador aired his further dismay by reporting to Whitehall that the Statement of Truth “has been widely circulated here and is, I hear to be translated into various languages and presented to all civilized Governments and to [the] League of Nations.”
If prominent Iranian personalities abroad are not shamed into summoning the same courage displayed by Iranians at home, surely they can be inspired by the example of Iranian statesmen of yesteryear. Now is the time to separate genuine patriots from two bit timid souls. As a poignant Robert Frost remarked once, “when was it less than treason for a man to go with the drift of things.”
If threats of war and devastation do not focus the minds of Iranian denizens and doyens abroad, nothing will. Indeed, it is high time for us all to awake from our stupor. We should all commit to demand of any prominent Iranian we know to convene with others to lock arms in a show of national reconciliation and attempt to steer our country towards peace and a more promising tomorrow.
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