“Freedom is not a Western commodity”: Iranian reformers’ battle for change

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For more than two decades, political activist Hossein Yazdi (Hossein Yazdi) has been campaigning in Iran’s presidential elections, determined to bring change to this conservative theocracy.

But now, 42-year-old Yazdi was born a few months before the revolution that created the Islamic Republic in 1979 and almost gave up. This time, he will not post posters or knock on doors to explain the merits of the candidates he likes. He won’t even vote.

Like many young activists, he no longer has illusions about politics, and the candidate lineup for the June 18 election will only exacerbate this sense of despair.Leading moderate candidate banned These two reform candidates have yet to gain momentum. Analysts say that because the centrist President Hassan Rouhani will step down after two terms, if the turnout is low, the hardline front-runner and Attorney General Ebrahim Raisi should be easy. Win.

Yazdi said in a video call in Isfahan: “The reform movement has come to an end. Since the last riot, we have realized that this system cannot be reformed.” Widespread protests in 2019 Hundreds of demonstrators were killed in opposition to rising fuel prices.

After the then President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the nuclear agreement signed between Iran and the world powers in 2018 and imposed severe sanctions, a sense of deflation began to emerge. A year ago, more than 70% of registered voters had already voted due to the hope that Rouhani would reconnect with the West. But Trump’s move weakened the strength of the reformists and strengthened the courage of the hardliners. They believe this is evidence that Iran can never trust Western powers.

Hossein Yazdi (Hossein Yazdi) has been engaged in political activities for more than two decades. He did not vote in this year’s election © Hossein Yazdi

As the social media movement urges people not to vote, many analysts predict that this election will be the lowest voter turnout in the history of the Islamic Republic—a blow to a regime with high turnout rates and legitimacy. For many people, refusing to vote is an important act of contempt.

“For example, we must put civil resistance on our agenda by boycotting this election, to show off our power and tell the regime,’When you don’t meet, we don’t give you the legitimacy to talk to the world on our behalf. We The minimum requirements, such as free and fair elections’,” Yazidi said.

This election was a moment of liquidation for the reformists, who made progress for the first time since the deadly war with Iraq in the 1980s. In the ten years after the 1979 revolution, the suppression of dissidents has become more and more serious, disillusioning many people, eager to promote reforms to ensure the survival of theocratic state.

The high point of the reformers was the 1997 presidential election Mohamed Qatami. Achievements of the reformists include relaxing the requirements for women to wear Hundred Nations in public places, and occasional protests by workers and pensioners to improve their rights. But since Khatami came to power, hardliners have repeatedly blocked reform attempts, and young politicians doubted whether the elite Revolutionary Guard and conservatives in the judicial system would allow further reforms.

Analysts said that as Khatami warned of threats to democracy, the authorities’ willingness to tolerate low turnout indicates that their focus is on expanding Iran’s regional influence and ballistic missile program, rather than winning public trust.

Mehdi Mahmoudian said that although previous generations of reformers helped establish theocratic state and had a lot of commercial interests, this generation is different. The 44-year-old political activist has been in jail for more than 10 years on suspicion of anti-government activities. He was recently sentenced to five years in prison for organizing a protest against Iran’s shooting down of a Ukrainian jet last year.

“The second and third generations seek more structural changes and are less dependent on the ideology of the Islamic Republic,” Mahmoudian said.

Mehdi Mahmoudian

Mehdi Mahmoudian has been in jail for over 10 years for alleged anti-government activities © Mehdi Mahmoudian

Young activists say that there is no way to change the republic from within, but they want to promote the establishment of a democratic system peacefully.

“We have to use social movements,” Mahmoudian said. “We should find a way to convince people that freedom is not a luxury commodity in the West, but their urgent need for better living conditions, better housing and more bread,” he said.

Eftekhar Barzegarian, a 39-year-old reformist from the conservative city of Mashhad, said that in the face of a “crisis of legitimacy”, the rulers of the Republic will “have no choice but to carry out internal reforms of internal and foreign policies.”

“The transformation of the reform movement may not happen in this election, but it will be based on the search for democracy and the future focus on social justice and freedom,” he said.

Eftekhar Barzegarian

Eftekhar Barzegarian says Iran’s rulers are facing a “crisis of legitimacy” © Eftekhar Barzegarian

For many reformers, the only nominee who truly represents them is Mustafa Tajizad. As a reformist former Deputy Minister of the Interior and a seven-year political prisoner, Tajzadeh called for “normalization of relations” with the United States. However, Iran’s tough Guardianship Council (constitutional monitoring agency) disqualified Tezzad.

The young reformists have paid a painful price for their resistance. Many of them lost their jobs and served sentences in prison. “However, the problem lies in our financial situation, because most of us are struggling to make ends meet and rely on our families to survive. Many activists remain anonymous to keep their jobs and prevent the regime from abducting their families,” Mahmoudian said.

Mostafa Tajzadeh and his wife register for the Iranian presidential election on May 14, 2021

Mostafa Tajzadeh and his wife registered for the Iranian presidential election on May 14. He was disqualified by the tough guardianship board © Abedin Taherkenareh/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

For some people, in the long run, it is helpful to view their struggle in the context of the Iranian struggle, including the struggle to overthrow the Shah dynasty that ruled the country until the revolution.

“Iranians have been fighting for democracy for 100 years. I learned democracy from my father, and my 17-year-old daughter learned democracy from me,” Yazdi said.

“We realize this is a long and difficult battle, but we have no choice but to break the current dead end. The system must choose between swallowing democracy or collapsing from within.”

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