“The way the regime dealt with the protesters in November and the unbelievable killing rampage against them has wounded me so badly that I could not justify taking part in the elections.” These remarks are a part of a recent commentary by Sadegh Zibakalam, a professor of political science at the University of Tehran, following the widespread and brutal suppression of demonstrations across Iran. Speaking to IranWire in May 2018, Zibakalam said he was ready to take up arms and fight to prevent the fall of the regime. In a recent conversation, IranWire asked him about this paradox and the two conflicting stances he has held with regard to Iran’s political and ideological system.
In early December, you wrote a commentary explaining that even though you always believed that the path to democracy was through the ballot box, because of the bloodshed following the recent protests you have now changed your mind and will not take part in the upcoming elections. This contradicts the position you expressed to us in a previous interview. At that time you said you would protect the regime with your life, and if you saw the system falling, you would take up arms to defend it. What has changed for you?
I first have to explain that sentence. The fact is, I used a sentence that was wrong. I didn't mean to say that I, Sadegh Zibakalam, would take up arms and kill people in order to defend the system. but I meant to say that if this system collapses, we will go backward and as a result will suffer so badly that if we can defend the system with a gun, we should, so that less blood is shed.
What I meant was that if the system collapsed we would not make progress as we should in this current situation and everything would go backward. You may disagree with me and say no, if this system falls everything will be perfect, but I do not think that. I believe that if the system is really threatened, civil war and ethnic issues will arise and in no circumstances will we be able to move forward. What I meant by defending this system was to say that we should avoid dragging ourselves out of the pit only to fall into the well. But the phrases I used to express this notion were not the right ones, and I should have better elaborated on my position, intention and objection. Unfortunately, I said it very badly, and for two years since then, these words have followed me like wandering spirits, and my critics and opponents have used these comments and slapped me with them.
The question remains: are you defending the system that took up arms and shot its citizens who protested?
Again, another misunderstanding is taking place here. I have abandoned one of my most fundamental beliefs, which is the power of the ballot box, and have said that after this massacre, I am not going to vote and participate in the election that will happen in the next two months. All I want to say is that the collapse of this system will not lead us forward.
So do you still believe that this system with all its issues should continue governing?
I still believe this, but that does not mean that killing a few hundred people who are protesting is the right thing to do. The foreign policy of the Islamic Republic is right, the decision to triple the price of gasoline is right, keeping political prisoners is right, their approbation supervision [the powerful governing body the Guardian Council] is right, but complete denial is not acceptable. If you bring up 20 fundamental problems with the conduct of the Islamic Republic, I can suggest 25. Because I am sitting and living in the heart of Iran. But now the discussions are not about the performance of the Islamic Republic, and whether it is right or wrong. The debate is something else, and the key question is what to do in order to move forward, to change. Basically, why would I insist so much on change and reform if I were to accept the performance of the system and its politics; why would I constantly suggest ways in which we can change the essential and structural problems in this country? So don't tell me repeatedly that this system has killed many and has many shortcomings, I accept it all. But the main question is how to get out of this situation and get to the desired conditions. This is my point, and I believe that we have no alternatives but to work with the mechanisms that exist within the framework of this system. Any alternatives would take us back 50 years instead of pushing us forward. I do not mean that the system is functioning well and that we should praise the Islamic Republic of Iran for killing 200 to 300 people. As a matter of fact, if the regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran had confronted its protesters in the same manner that was applied against the yellow vest protesters or even the Lebanese demonstrators, I would not have talked about what we should do to reform this system.
How should that change happen?
This is the fundamental debate. Will there be reform if we march on the streets and overthrow this system? I believe not.
Suppose the people had succeeded in overthrowing this system during the recent protests. What would have happened? What do we want to replace this regime with? A republic? A national republic? A democratic republic? Is Reza Pahlavi supposed to become the leader? What do we want to do? It is because of this sort of chaos and such situations that I believe serious steps should be taken, but if the system was functioning well and had a satisfactory political structure or had succeeded in economic affairs and foreign policy, the question of how to change would not have even been brought up.
Reform within the framework of the current system has been an issue that you and other reformists have raised for years, but your critics say reformists have not taken any steps in recent years and continue to pursue their own interests. Actually, the slogan “conservative reformer, your story is over” points to the same issue.
I believe that the reformers have not been able to exploit their enormous social capacity, not only since the year 2013, or since the year 2009 – but since May 23, 1997. That is to say, I believe that for 22 years the reformists as a huge social force seeking reform have not been able to bring about change and improvements, and here I completely agree with you. But the question is that since Mr Khatami, as the head of the reform movement, alongside others, has failed to bring about those changes, should we abandon the idea of peaceful change and go about destroying the system? Does it mean that since the reformists have failed to do so, therefore this system is irreversible and must be overthrown? I agree with you on the fact that the reformists failed to take the right steps toward change, but when you conclude by saying that none of the instigators of development – Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the reformist party, Hassan Rouhani – did not do so, and therefore one should accept that this system cannot change, I say that the reformists have failed, but let’s analyze this to see why the reformists did not bring about change. Was this due to problems of the structure of the Islamic Republic or was it because of the weaknesses, confusions, and the lack of diplomacy that existed within the reformist leadership?
Your opponents say both. They also blame the structure of the Islamic Republic. The Guardian Council and its approbation supervision on the one hand, and the judicial ruling on the other, block the way for change; at the same time, the reformists take positions that are more closely aligned with the official policies of the system rather than standing with the people, similar to the stance they took after the recent protests.
I totally accept all of this. In the last election, there were no ifs or buts. In May 2017, 24 million people voted for Mr Rouhani and 17 million for Mr Raeesi, and about 15 or 16 million people did not participate at all. If we sum up these numbers, we get about 50-several million in total. We do not know much about the 24 million people who voted for Mr Rouhani, which means we do not know where they stand with this regime, but you must agree with me that the 17 million who voted for Mr Raeesi are pro-regime. My question to all those who say there is no other way than subversion is, what are you going to do with these 17 million who support Mr Raeesi? Do you want to fight with these people and get rid of them through civil war, or what? I even assume 15 out of these 17 million have little faith in the system. Accept the fact that there are one million, two million, three million in this country who have a fundamental belief in this system, and there are just as many who believe in overthrowing it. If these six or seven million people are armed to confront each other, where would that lead us to and what happens to Iran then?
Reza Pahlavi's monarchists, caretakers, the Mojahedin [Mojahedin-e Khalq, an anti-Iranian regime organization headquartered in France], Mr Trump and Pompeo claim it is easy to say that the system has now reached a dead end and is irreformable. I accept all of this, but my question is, what is your alternative? Well, okay, don't vote. What happens then and how should we make a difference? I still haven't heard a word about it from Reza Pahlavi, neither from the revivalists, nor from Mr Trump and Mike Pompeo. ...That is, I have not heard a single word from any of the system’s opposition. No one has said “we will abandon the system in its entirety and replace it with another”, or that they want to replace the whole system with this one person or persons.
A fight must have an ending, but it is not clear what the result of overthrowing this regime will be. Let’s not forget that we were all united in 1979. Ninety-nine percent of the people were united with the Fada’i People's Guerrilla organization, the Mojahedin, the National Front, and so on. The Islamic Revolution ended and after 40 years we reached a dead end. In our current situation, if you gather 10 people to come up with a solution, you end up with 11 answers, which is what scares me.
You say that because there are no alternatives, a system that is increasingly swamped in all kinds of corruption must stay in place. But opponents of the system say the system is so contaminated that any other system would be better. In addition, many refer to the 1979 revolution and say that at that time people came to power who had no leadership experience.
I admit that they did not have the experience of managing the country during the 1979 revolution, but my point is something else. Instead of us looking at overthrowing the regime, we must look back and say that since the constitutional revolution, which is to say that since 114 years ago, we have been trying to bring about the rule of law. The demands of the constitutional revolutionists of 114 years ago were that the government should not be able to do whatever it wants to, but must rule by law, something that we do not have in the Islamic Republic. Our government now does whatever it wants, similarly to the time of Naser al-Din Shah. Why, in these 114 years, despite the efforts that have been made, from the Constitutional Revolution to the Islamic Revolution and reforms and etcetera, have we still failed to have a political structure in Iran that is ruled by law and is accountable for its actions? All I am trying to do is look a little deeper at these matters and not say that if we overthrow them, all problems will be solved. I believe the only solution is to strengthen the institutionalized democracy in Iran.
My biggest objection to the reformists is not about the small matters, but my criticism of Mr Khatami and the reformists is about why they did not make the slogan of democratization as their main strategic reformist slogan. We must strive to strengthen democracy within the system, based on what already exists within the framework of the system – meaning that the Guardian Council will not be able to disqualify anyone they want as they please. In other words, the government cannot do whatever it wants and must act within the fabric of the system.
Opponents of the system probably say this is nice, but it sounds like a dream because, as you say, this has been a concern that has been sought after for 114 years. How is it possible to create democracy within a dictatorship that kills protesters in the streets and engages in corruption?
I agree with you, but talking about overthrowing the system and launching a new plan sounds like a dream too. I believe we have to look and see why the Constitutional Revolution, the Islamic Revolution, and the nationalization of oil did not bring stability and rule of law to our country. We must act to make sure the next one or two generations can live in a lawful society rather than overthrowing regimes and systems one after another. This is my opinion, and maybe it’s wrong.
Mr Zibakalam, you raise questions about why the movements and revolutions of the last hundred years, which have all been aimed at instilling the rule of law, have failed. But you don’t provide any answers. In your view, is there a solution to make the rule of law a principle that governs in Iran, given the current situation and the corruption rooted in the system?
Yes. The answer is because we didn’t work at it. I would like you to ask Mr Khatami, the leader of the reforms, “how much you have tried to bring freedom and democracy, Mr Khatami? How much did you try to avoid being a political prisoner?” These are issues that need to be discussed and pursued. The Islamic Republic of Iran has been divided into two major divisions, one as an attributive and one as an elective. The attributive sector of the government can do whatever it wants, its powers are unlimited, it does not comply with the law, and it is not accountable to anyone. The constituency is limited in its power, its responsibilities are clear, it must act in accordance with the law and is held accountable. We, as those who want change, must strike this balance. We must strive to enhance the power and authority of the constituency, which is feasible and is not just a dream.
You are now talking about elections and the ballot box, while you have said that you are not ready to run because of the actions of this regime.
The ballot box is one of the main tools for practicing democracy, but there are other ways. For example, instead of sitting down and discussing whether we are going to meet the Interior Minister or to meet with the Guardian Council and bargain, the reformists should promote the idea that approbation supervision contradicts with the soul and the philosophy of democracy. I should not say this, Khatami as the leader of reformist should say this. I have to say that democracy, no matter how you define it, does not align with approbation supervision in its most basic definition. But they don’t say it, they don’t talk about such things.
You are talking about reformists, who are silent or in favor of the regime killing the people. Now if these people talk too, they will not be taken seriously by the public. Many now consider reforms as the safety valve of the system. The government heats up discussions about the elections through polarizing the two political systems and by promoting reforms. Incidentally, they also refer to the 2013 elections, when people voted for Mr Rouhani out of fear of the possibility of Mr Raeesi becoming the president. So it doesn’t seem as if talking can bring about a solution.
I agree. You can tell me talking is not a solution. I can also say overthrowing the government is not the answer. The only solution is to strengthen democracy within the system. If the next question is whether it is possible or not, my answer is yes. You have to make this possible. Because now if you say there should be no approbation supervision, well, of course, the Guardian Council says that based on our law, there should be. We need to work toward solving this concern, but I have not seen any critics asking for the eradication of the approbation supervision, or that the judiciary should not be allowed to arrest and imprison people for committing petty political crimes and accuse them of acting against national security.
Therefore, we have not taken the effort to achieve democracy seriously.
You said you would not participate in the upcoming elections, but based on recent events, what would you predict about the upcoming parliamentary elections?
I believe in Amnesty International’s statistics and know that it will not enter into political games and tarnish its reputation. The number of victims is stuck in my throat like a bone, and I said I would not run. Let me just say that this whole upheaval was for the benefit of the extremists and to the detriment of the reformists. They have tried hard to say that all of this misery can be blamed on Rouhani, from expensive gasoline to the killing of the people. Thus, those 24 million people who were going to vote for the reformist candidates will change their minds.
In smaller constituencies, tribal rivalry impacts on the elections. They do not deal with bigger issues that face the country. I have called this phenomenon the phenomenon of “Izeh, the Garden of Malik,” two cities that have one MP. The Izzites vote for their candidate, while the gardeners vote for their candidate. We have about 140 or 150 constituencies like that, but in big constituencies like Tehran, Mashhad, Kerman, Isfahan, Tabriz, I guess only the hardline supporters of the Supreme Leader will go to the polls.