To effect meaningful change, what Iran desperately needs is a charismatic political leader at the helm of an organized opposition. While such an effective opposition may be difficult to establish under Iran's clerical regime and constitution, it is at least conceivable for the first time in thirty years with the support of concerned governments, Iranian expatriates and NGOs.
The world observed the recent Iranian election through a Western prism and came away with a distorted view of the opposition movement in Iran. We all heard the chants for freedom from the rooftops in Tehran rooting for the "opposition" candidate, Mir Hussein Moussavi, but sadly for Iran, Mr. Moussavi is not, in any sense of the word, "in opposition to the regime." Mr. Moussavi is in fact a child of the system. He served as prime minister for eight years following the Iranian Revolution at a time when tens of thousands of innocent Iranians were summarily executed "in the name of God." Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani is another regime insider, having served as president in the current system. In addition, Rafsanjani was the supreme manipulator who ironically catapulted Ayatollah Khamenei into his job as supreme leader. Rafsanjani's corruption is legendary in Iran and he has no solid backing as evidenced by his abysmal performance in the elections of 2005. Mohammad Khatami, the other former president, showed no courage in office. He should have opposed the system to uphold laws passed by parliament, but instead is famous in Iran for his smile and absence of backbone.
The stark reality is that there is no organized political opposition with a widely respected leader in Iran.
Yes, there are millions of brave Iranians who are opposed to the regime and who are risking their lives in demonstrations and other antiregime activities. Yes, there are noble and widely admired human-rights activists, such as Akbar Ganji and Shirin Ebadi, who stand up to the regime and pay a heavy price for their humanity and bravery. Yes, there are principled clerics, such as Ayatollah Montazeri, who have admonished the regime for perverting Islam. Yes, there is the People's Mujahedin of Iran (PMOI), who fought the mullahs after they took over the reins of power after the Shah. The PMOI has no backing in Iran and is instead hated for the brutality it demonstrated while fighting alongside Saddam Hussein's forces during the Iran-Iraq War, when group members killed their fellow Iranians.
There is no single leader and statesman in command of a formal popular movement opposed to the regime. This is no accident. The absence of an effective and organized opposition has been carefully planned and orchestrated by the regime for at least twenty years, if not more.
Average Iranians have little voice in their government and in the selection of their leaders under the clerical system. The roadblock is embedded in Iran's constitution as originally adopted and later amended, and the closed clerical system is ironclad. Yes, there are all sorts of elections in Iran, much like the recent one for president, but to be a candidate a person has to be approved by the Guardian Council. Half of the Guardian Council's twelve clerical members are appointed by the supreme leader and the other half are nominated by the judiciary, which is, in turn, appointed by the supreme leader. The judiciary's nominees are then subject to a vote by parliament. To run for parliament, a candidate has to be approved by the Guardian Council. The Guardian Council must approve all bills passed by parliament and can veto them if it considers them inconsistent with the constitution and with Islamic law.
The other important institution in Iran is the directly elected Assembly of Experts. This group is composed of eighty-six clerics, but here again the list of candidates has to be approved by the Guardian Council. The Assembly of Experts elects the supreme leader. Thus the supreme leader directly or indirectly, through his control of the Guardian Council, determines the candidates for every important office in the land, cleric and noncleric alike. He even determines who can run for the body that elects him and that can, in theory, fire him. This is how the regime keeps all opposition from organizing and from running for office.
As long as the constitution is not amended and as long as the supreme leader continues to be a corrupt individual, no effective opposition can be established. If any individual who posed a true threat to the clerics were to emerge, that person would be accused of being funded by foreign powers, tried and executed. It's as simple as that. The mullahs have learned from the Shah's mistakes. Never show mercy. Don't keep those who oppose you in prison lest they become heroes. Don't let opposition leaders go abroad where they can organize against you and where they have access to the media. That's how Ayatollah Khomeini managed to oust the Shah. Kill opposition leaders instead. Frighten the general citizenry so they dare not follow a charismatic challenger to the regime.
Although it may be difficult to imagine the emergence of an effective opposition leader in Iran, it is even more difficult for an opposition leader to emerge outside of Iran. Iranian expatriates have not stood up to today's regime, and could thus never gain widespread credibility or support. They have generally looked after their own interests: recouping assets abandoned and confiscated in Iran during the revolution, making lucrative investments in the country for personal gain, visiting family and friends, and having a good time. They have not sacrificed their own interests or life for the cause of an Iranian opposition. They have not actively lobbied for human rights in Iran. And they have not organized themselves to combat the regime.
In the end, for real freedom and reform to come to Iran, Iranians must be allowed to debate the future of their republic. Iran needs a constitutional referendum so that the people of Iran can adopt a system of their choice. If they decide to stay with the current theocratic system, they should at least have a direct say in the selection of their supreme leader.
This will only be possible if key governments around the world do not accept the regime's behavior, if the United States and Israel stop their threats of military and covert operations, which endanger Iran's national security, and if Iranian expatriates support the cause of the opposition to the mullahs. Iranian expatriates must coalesce, work with NGOs and form effective organizations in a number of key countries in order to lobby their governments and push for the rights of Iranian citizens-human rights such as the right to organize and form political parties, free elections, and a chance for constitutional reform. Expatriates must also take steps to support the activities of emerging Iranian opposition leaders and organizations in Iran and to afford Iranian opposition leaders a platform outside of Iran to express their views.
Hossein Askari is the Iran Professor of Business and International Affairs at the George Washington University.