As pressure in – and on — Iran builds, the government is quietly panicking, the hardliners are plotting and posturing, and the reformists – whose moment has finally arrived – are squabbling among themselves.
One group, made up in part by Iranians living overseas, has called for immediate face-to-face talks with President Trump a la North Korea. (Good luck with that.)
Another group, which includes the courageous lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, (who defended the anti-mandatory-hijab activists), has called for a referendum on disbanding the regime.
The third group, represented by the veteran politician Mostafa Tajzadeh, is calling for an overhaul of both the reform movement and its mandate.
This third approach could lead the way to radical evolution as a way of avoiding violent chaos, but it has to be more than flabby rhetoric. The clock is ticking.
A chorus of frustrated voices at home and abroad is clamoring for immediate regime change. The problem is that none of them — the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK), the monarchists, the Marxists or the educated liberal elite – have a realistic strategy to deal with upheaval following the collapse of our incompetent and despotic regime.
If they imagine that a posse of eager ex-pats, lawyers and ideologues could take over they are delusional.
After all, the mess we are in took 40 years to create. Tens of thousands of corrupt and badly-trained officials have every interest in preserving the status quo. There is no way to replace these people with – or transform them into - clean efficient public servants. At least not quickly.
Think of post-Saddam Iraq. Even the well-intentioned, highly educated Iraqis who came back to help re-build their country did not have the experience, local know-how or sheer influence to make it happen.
Inside Iran, the leading reformists have spent more time arguing than acting. And this after decades of failing to take a tough stand. In fact, they have been appeasers – calling Iran’s elections “democratic” and encouraging people to cast votes, thereby legitimizing the whole sorry charade.
Iranians are angry with the institutions they deal with every day: the ad hoc justice system, the criminally incompetent water authorities, feckless environmental agencies, inefficient and self-serving banks, and backward government. It is impossible to remake any of them without replacing the political leadership that has allowed them to develop and flourish.
It’s time for a clear reformist plan of action.
Of course it’s risky. To quote the British diplomat Michael Axworthy, “Destabilizing Iran would be like shaking up a kaleidoscope and hoping to get a Titian. It is far from clear that the outcome would be better than what we have now”.
If the reformists are worried about preserving stability, they should find ways of pressuring key figures in the theocracy to join the movement for genuine change, and to recognize the direction of travel — toward modern secular good governance.
Two of the most high-profile reformist leaders are Mostafa Tajzadeh and Mohsen Sazegara. Before 1979 both of them interrupted their studies abroad to return to Iran and join the opposition to the shah. Now is their chance to make good on many of the original goals of that opposition, namely social justice, an end to corruption, and basic human rights.
They need to show leadership even if means a risk of arrest. I endorse a two-track strategy. They should encourage Iranians from all walks of life who are angry and disillusioned to take to the streets. At the same time they have to hammer home to the regime that there is no alternative to fundamental changes. To quote the motto of Saeed Hajarian, the brave reformist journalist, “we must exert pressure from the bottom to force bargaining at the top.”
Reformists who care about Iran’s future must acknowledge that the incumbent regime has to go. They must be as brave as Nasrin Sotoudeh and Narges Mohammadi in speaking their minds and clearly backing blueprints for change that include a new constituent assembly and a new non-Islamic constitution .
Too many mainstream so-called reformists are wasting their – and our – precious time with infighting and waffling. They whine about the unpredictable consequences of upsetting the system.
It’s just not cowardly, it’s dangerous.
Nothing will do now but bold conviction.