If doubts remained as to the extent that last month's rigged Iranian elections were boycotted by Iranian citizens, they were put to rest Tuesday, March 16. That evening, on a walk through Tehran's residential neighborhoods, one could see just how loathed Iran's ruling theocracy is among the Iranian people.
The occasion was Iran's ancient Festival of Fire celebration, a celebration of fire and lights that originated from the pre-Islamic Zoroastrian religion. Iranians in Tehran and other major cities took to the streets and turned this celebration into a spontaneous anti-regime act of protest. The state-run Iranian Student News Agency reported that explosions could be heard throughout Tehran. According to eyewitness accounts, homemade firebombs and firecrackers, supposedly prepared for the festival, were actually used to be thrown at the security forces at the scene. As a show of their disgust with the mullahs, people used pictures of Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, and his successor Ali Khamenei, to start the bonfires and keep them inflamed. In some quarters of Tehran, the official flag of the Islamic Republic was set on fire.
As evidenced by the Festival of Fire protests, EU observers who called the low voter turnout in last month's Iranian elections a "setback for democracy," and others who described it as a blow to Iran's young democracy movement, missed out on the true meaning of the elections: the choice to not choose.
In Iran, there is a centuries-long tradition of resisting despotism and struggling for democracy and popular governance. This movement has had many ups and downs but has never given up its quest, especially after the establishment of a theocracy following the 1979 anti-monarchic revolution. One could say this quest reached its pinnacle with last month's election boycott.
The majority of Iranians who ended up boycotting the elections silently cast their ballot with the only possible alternative remaining: Iran's democratic movement for regime change.
In the last two decades, the paramount issue facing Iran-the world's most active sponsor of terrorism-has been how to achieve fundamental change and realize unfulfilled promises of freedom, popular governance and economic prosperity.
Traditionally, advocates of diplomacy with Tehran have pinned their hopes on a supposed "Ayatollah Gorbachev" (Iranian "reformist" President Mohammed Khatami is the latest candidate for this title) and on the mullah-controlled sham elections as an instrument for change. Meanwhile, on the ground in Iran, the situation has further deteriorated.
The much trumpeted agreement Tehran reached with the IAEA last November is collapsing as more evidence of the mullahs' nuclear deception surfaces. Iran's persistent stifling of all political dissent, dismal human rights record, continued development of weapons of mass destruction, export of fundamentalism to neighboring countries and meddling in the internal affairs of Iraq have made one thing abundantly clear: a metamorphosis of the ruling Iranian theocracy from within is just a delusion.
In a recent interview with Newsweek, one of the leaders of Iran's now seemingly defunct reformist faction, the President's brother, Mohammad Reza Khatami, suggested the post-Franco Spain model as the way to achieve change in Iran. However, Iran's conservative faction has been presenting to its sympathetic audience abroad the "China model" as the elixir for the countless social, political and economic problems Iran is facing. This solution, which consists of a dose of superficial social changes mixed with an iron fisted response to any political dissent tempered by some supposed economic growth, is supposed to contain the boiling dissatisfaction in the country.
Notwithstanding the vast political, social, and economic differences between Iran, Spain and China, these assertions amount to the deliriums of a regime out of steam and out of ideas.
But there is a more realistic solution: the "Iranian Model" for regime change that is emerging from the university campuses and streets of Tehran and other cities. The 1999 student uprisings gave the world a glimpse of the explosive nature of Iran's young people. Just a week before last month's elections, nearly 1,000 students at the University of Tehran chanted in protest, "Referendum, referendum, is the slogan of the people." And since the elections, Iranian cities of Boukan, Marivan, and Feraydoun Kenar have witnessed anti government protests, all of which turned violent.
The call for a boycott was first made by Iran's democratic opposition forces long before last month's elections. The Interior Ministry declared a 28 percent turnout in Tehran, including 16 percent of votes voided since they were blank protest ballots. Even taking the Ministry's number at face value, some quick math shows that 77 percent of Tehranis did not vote. Indeed, for weeks prior to the elections, the slogans of "No to Sham Elections" and "Referendum on Regime Change" adorned the walls, billboards and lampposts in Tehran and other major Iranian cities. The call to have a United Nations-supervised regime change referendum was also beamed into Iran via satellite televisions based abroad.
The February 20 Iranian elections represented the Iranian citizenry's call for a real change in the structures that have failed Iran for over two decades. In this sense, the election provided a potential strategic boost for democracy in Iran. However, if the U.S. does not seize the moment and encourage Iran's democratic opposition, it may indeed end up being a "setback for democracy."
A few days after the Iranian elections, on February 24, President Bush condemned the Iranian regime's efforts to stifle freedom of speech saying that "the United States supports the Iranian people's aspirations to live in freedom, enjoy their God-given rights and determine their own destiny." This pledge should be turned into a solid and consistent policy of helping Iranians change the current regime. We should support, rather than ignore or hinder, the campaign by Iran's democratic opposition.
Nir Boms is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and at the Council for Democracy and Tolerance. Reza Bulorchi is the Executive Director of the US Alliance for Democratic Iran.