June 16, 2005

Clear and Present Danger The stakes in Iran. By Kenneth R. Timmerman

Iran's people face yet another faked election this Friday, with eight candidates for president, all handpicked by the regime, facing off in a tragic parody of democracThe parody is obvious. Hundreds of other candidates were disqualified well before the vote by the Council of Guardians, including every single woman who sought to run. The Council of 12 radical clerics, desperate to maintain the absolute rule of the clergy, was careful to allow only candidates they could count on to tow the line if elected.

Whoever wins on Friday, the regime wins. At least, that's the way the mullahs have it figured.

The tragic side of this Friday's elections can be felt in the thirst of the Iranian people for freedom, and their mounting frustration with the indifference of the international community, including the United States, to their appeals for help.

Two weeks ago outside of Paris, I spoke with Abolhassan Banisadr, the Islamic republic's first (and only) freely elected president. He was deposed in a coup in 1981 and has been a target of assassination by regime hit teams ever since. Banisadr told me that internal tracking polls conducted by the regime, leaked to his supporters, showed that the regime's own interior ministry expected voter turnout to be around 27 percent. Banisadr is calling on his supporters inside Iran to boycott the elections.

In Tehran, where anti-regime protests have erupted all week, turnout is expected to reach a scant five percent.

As Iranians realize that the mullahs have no intention of allowing elections to infringe on their absolute power, calls for a massive boycott have come from virtually all factions of the Iranian opposition.

Groups that normally oppose each other, from monarchists to the center-left National Front, have joined together in their calls for a boycott.

Mohsen Sazegara, a founder of Iran's Revolutionary Guards who became disenchanted with the regime and has been jailed twice for speaking out against clerical rule, has called on Western governments not to recognize any government issued from these elections. If the elections themselves are illegitimate, he told me in Washington last month, anyone who comes to power through them will also be illegitimate.

But the mullahs have a scheme. This past Sunday, bombs killed ten persons in Ahwaz and Tehran. The regime has blamed opposition groups, but pro-democracy advocate Sardar Haddad tells me the regime has a track record of staging violence to further its own ends.

"They want an excuse to get the army out on the street to put down anti-regime demonstrations as the elections approach," he said. "The last thing they want, with all the international media now in Iran, is for thousands of demonstrators to be photographed protesting the regime."

Iranians are united in their thirst for freedom, says Roozbeh Farahanipour, a leader of the July 1999 student uprising now living in the United States. Speaking to a pro-democracy rally on the National Mall last weekend that was sponsored by Citizens United, Farahanipour applauded the Bush administration for "speaking out against the lack of freedom and human rights in occupied Iran."

But he and other pro-democracy fighters want us to do more. "We need real help, tangible support from the world's sole super power," Farahanipour said.

How can the United States help?

First, by recognizing the struggle of Iranians for freedom. The administration should denounce the murderers of dissidents, and applaud the freedom fighters, and we should call both heroes and villains by name. In facing tyranny, we must demonstrate clarity of purpose and identify evil where we see it.

Second, the U.S. should encourage other democratic nations to join in refusing to recognize a new government in Iran issued from undemocratic elections.

Third, as Farahanipour and others have suggested, we should massively fund the pro-democracy movement inside Iran.

As the clock of Iran's nuclear-weapons program ticks steadily closer to midnight, we have very little time to accelerate the pro-democracy clock.

And yet, failure to invest heavily in freedom — say, by spending $100 million this year — could cost us far more down the line, both in treasure and in lost American lives.

With its new nuclear capabilities, the clerical regime has become a clear and present danger for the United States. We have very little time to get this right.

Kenneth R. Timmerman is author of Countdown to Crisis: the Coming Nuclear Showdown with Iran



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