An Iranian dissident says he wants President Bush to clearly state that America "respects and would welcome" a new elected leadership of Iran if a movement to change the regime through nonviolent action succeeds.
In an interview yesterday with The New York Sun, Ghassem Sholeh Sadi said the movement inside Iran pushing for a constitutional referendum was debating the best strategy for the months leading up to June 17, when presidential elections are scheduled. Mr. Sholeh Sadi spoke to the Sun from Paris after arriving there from Tehran in February.
Until now, the plan laid out by most of the student groups calls for a passive boycott of the election, with supporters avoiding the polls. This tack was tried last February after most of the reformist legislators inside the Majlis were barred from running for office.
But Mr. Sholeh Sadi said the opposition is considering a more daring tactic: street protests in major cities in the hopes of bringing the government to a halt. "There are two major ideas being debated," he said. "Some groups support the idea of boycotting the elections. But after the events in Kyrgyzstan, there is an idea to try to turn the election into a referendum and uprising. This could snowball. In Bishkek, it started with 1,000 people, then the number got much bigger. In Iran, the number is much higher. We could start with a few but then get millions."
The Bush administration so far has been cool on the referendum movement in Iran, which the Sun first reported in December. To start, the online petition for the referendum, at the Web site www.60000000.com, has only garnered a little more than 35,000 signatures to date. At the same time, the State Department recently granted a visa to one of its leaders, Mohsen Sazegara, a founder of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard who arrived here this week to begin a three-month residency with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Like many of the leaders of the referendum movement in Iran, Mr. Sholeh Sadi was an early supporter of Ayatollah Khomeini. He even served in the parliament between 1989 and 1997, before the election of President Khatami, who promised but failed to deliver more political freedoms. We were supporting freedom and democracy in 1979," Mr. Sholeh Sadi said. "This has been diverted, the cause has been diverted. Our security forces are supposed to bring security and peace to the country, not a force of oppression and not for killing the people."
While a member of parliament, Mr. Sholeh Sadi was critical of policies of unofficial prisons and gave speeches blasting the justice ministry for their arbitrary detentions. In 1999, then a professor of political science at the University of Tehran, he wrote an article for Khordad newspaper broaching the government's policy of disappearing dissidents in what are called "unofficial prisons."
Mr. Sholeh Sadi crossed a line in 2002 when he wrote an open letter to Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini publicly refusing to recognize his religious authority. Its opening lines pointedly left out the honorific "Ayatollah." "If you really possess the conditions of religious authority, among which are the conditions of religious scholarship and justice seeking, then I will choose you," Mr. Sholeh Sadi wrote. "But I have my doubts concerning you."
The letter compelled the Islamic Republic to begin pressing a variety of charges against Mr. Sholeh Sadi, who briefly left Iran for Europe after publication of the letter. When he returned to Iran, he was arrested and spent time in the infamous Evin prison, where he said yesterday he was beaten and suffered broken bones near his neck. "Most of my friends told me to pipe down. I am charged with taking actions against the internal security of the country, administering propaganda. Too many charges to name."
Nonetheless, he said he plans to return to Tehran next month. In the interview yesterday, he said President Bush's recent statements of support for the opposition inside his country. But he was also critical. "On two occasions in his inaugural and State of the Union address, Mr. Bush gave Iran a high place of importance. But myself, as one of the leading figures in the opposition, I have seen no deed. I have heard words but no deeds from the administration."
He also criticized what he said was an inconsistency of rhetoric between the State Department and the White House. "There needs to be a unified message to support us." He recommended the State Department issue more visas for opposition leaders to visit America, but did not say that he wanted any money from the administration.
One reason for the inconsistencies in America's Iran policy is its support for European-led negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. Mr. Sholeh Sadi said yesterday that it was wrong to assume most Iranians supported the Mullah's quest for nuclear weapons.
"The reason is that if the leaders get the nuclear weapon, then no domestic development would be possible," he said. "If they have nuclear weapon, they will close the doors to all freedoms of the people. The fact is, if the regime is in possession of nuclear weapon, our possibilities for changes become almost impossible."
Mr. Sholeh Sadi said he sees two possibilities for his country now. "I see the situation in the region to be pregnant for two kinds of developments, a velvet revolution like Ukraine or Georgia - or now in Kyrgyzstan - even what happened in Poland or many other places could happen," he said. "But I also see a possible military intervention by America."