The rights of Iran’s non-Persian nationalities were one of the central themes of a recent mass rally organized by the Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK), marking a departure from the usual annual program of the Iranian opposition group.
The three-day event in Paris, entitled “FREE IRAN”, attracted tens of thousands enthusiastic followers. Also attending were over 40 parliamentary delegates as well as representatives of governments, liberation movements and the media from around the world.
There appeared to be a drive to reach out to others in the Iranian opposition as well as Arab governments, in an effort to forge wider solidarity. Invited to attend for the first time, I headed a moderate Ahwazi Arab delegation as we sought to respond to the MEK’s offer to give our cause a fair hearing.
I am not unfamiliar with the MEK as I have known many of its leaders while a political prisoner in various jails in Iran during the Shah’s rule. I spent nearly two years of my 5 years term sentence in Tehran Evin prison where the MEK’s ideological father and leader, Aallatoah Taleghani, was also imprisoned.
MEK: emerging from introspection
I always thought that the MEK could have done a better job in uniting the opposition abroad and confront the regime from within more aggressively. I felt they were somewhat inward looking and have been unreceptive toward other members of the opposition groups, especially non-Persian nationalities movements, parties and organizations. This has not been helped by the existential threats it has faced due to the actions of the Clinton and Bush administrations as they sought to pacify the Iranian government.
The Clinton administration’s decision to list it as a foreign terrorist group on October 1997 as part of a diplomatic effort to open dialogue with moderates in Tehran and appease the mullahs. With Iran proven to be an untrustworthy partner due to its sponsorship of international terrorism and the controversies over the nuclear program, the MEK was delisted in September 2012. After the US invasion of Iraq, the MEK’s Camp Ashraf was attacked and now Camp Liberty, which hosts some 3,000 MEK members, is encircled and subjected to rocket attack by Iran’s puppet government. This along with the terrorist designation absorbed around 90 per cent of its activity, according to the organization’s leadership.
In the 1980s, Ahwazi activists and some of our Kurdish partners were part of National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), whose largest member is the MEK – they left 4 years later.
One of the significant qualitative changes during this year’s event was the realization that the regime change needed to involve the entire spectrum of Iranian opposition groups. This is historically significant and there is precedent. The same argument was hotly debated during the early 1970s: whether or not the Shah regime needed be overthrown or could it be reformed. Some on the left, under pressure from USSR believed that the Shah was reformable and it was moving a way from “US imperialism”. However, by the mid-1970s, regime change became the dominant theme and the struggle focused toward this end.
Non-Persian nationalities: seeking empowerment
However, in early 2000, the leaders of Arabs, Kurds, Azeri, Baloch and Turkmen reached a conclusion that we, the non-dominant and doubly oppressed non-Persian nationalities, needed to start an independent opposition coalition. There was a realization that we had much in common and did not have sufficient support from Persian-led opposition groups.
On February 19 2005 in London, the leaders of organizations representing major nationalities and ethnic groups in Iran gathered in a historic summit to form the Congress of Iranian Nationalities for a Federal Iran (CNFI). It issued a manifesto that states: Iran belongs to all its peoples and nationalities, a right that they have been denied or taken away from them; Iranian non-Persian nationalities have been subjected to double oppression, and; the legitimacy of any government is derived from its peoples and, in Iran’s case, the full cultural, national, ethnic and religious spectrum.
CNFI charted a roadmap for future of Iran stipulating that without the participation of all its nationalities to have the opportunity to rule the country and the regions that they live in, achievement of freedom, development and peace is impossible in Iran; that the establishment of a federalist system of government on the basis of ethnicity-nationality and geography is the only political mechanism that is enduring, and it (Federalism) allows all Iranian nationalities to realize their aspirations and the exercise of self rule in a framework of a free, united and a democratic Iran.
It also set the following principles as the basis for future activities and cooperation. This included the acceptance that the Islamic Republic of Iran is a totalitarian, anti-democratic state that violates the rights of the Iranian peoples. Furthermore, the state needed to be replaced with a plural, federal democratic government in Iran with the separation of religion and state. It would seek peaceful relations with all countries on the basis of mutual respect and respect for international norms and accords, and work to resolve conflicts employing peaceful means and international law.
MEK opens up to co-operation
The MEK’s “Free Iran” initiative promises to act as the same basis for a common platform. For this to happen, the two categories of opposition, the Persian-led opposition groups and non-Persian groups, such as CNFI, need to come to some understanding and form a unified Iranian opposition. They can then go forward to seek regional and international support. The MEK’s ability to run an effective mass rally with no glitches and providing accommodation, transport and security for tens of thousands people, without a hitch, indicates it has considerable capability, experience, and organizational strength. MEK and NCRI are certainly in a position to lead the Persian opposition initially in negotiations with CNFI for a unity platform.
However, there remain differences between the Persian-led groups and CNFI. While CNFI sets it platform as a decentralized and federal system as a minimum, the MEK believes in autonomy and autonomous regions only for Kurdistan. In a positive move, Dr. Mohammad Mihadesian, the head of MEK’s foreign relations, stated in recent interviews with Al-Arabiya and Alkhabriah that MEK seeks the same autonomy for the Kurdish, Arab, Baloch, Azeri, Turkmen and Lur regions as well.
However, in the 10-point “platform for Future Iran” which was handed out during the gathering it still states “We are committed to the equality of all nationalities. We underscore the plan for the autonomy of Iranian Kurdistan, adopted by the National Council of Resistance of Iran. The language and culture of our compatriots from whatever nationality are among our nation’s human resources and must spread and be promulgated in tomorrow’s Iran.”
CNFI believes a federal state would provide the political apparatus to address the cultural, social and economic inequalities that have arisen in Iran as a result of centralized control in Iran. It wants a constitutional guarantee that the rights of self-determination is clearly and expressly stipulated where should regions become under pressure from the central government, secession can be an option, if in fact that be decided in an internationally guaranteed and observed referendum. However, a maximalist demand can postpone this coalition and prolong this regime. I think the gap can be overcome with negotiations.
Karim Abdian is a Washington DC based political commentator and a human rights activist. He provides commentaries on Iran and the Middle East in Arabic, Farsi and English. He is the executive director of Ahwaz Studies Canter and the head of International Relations Committee of the Congress of Nationalities for a Federal Iran (CNFI).
* Karim Abdian is a human rights advocate and the director of Ahwaz Human Rights Organisation (AHRO)