Last month I made a trip out to Washington, D.C. for the opportunity to meet a number of activists and Iranian figures who have for years worked tirelessly to keep the voices of the Iranian people alive. On my second day in D.C. I met with a few friends, including human rights activist and former political prisoner Ahmad Batebi for lunch. Somewhere between eating, drinking tea, and telling jokes, we got serious and I was able to interview Ahmad on politics, human rights, and the future of the opposition movement in Iran.
Ahmad was tired from a long day at work, but that was not evident in our interview. When he began to talk, his energy, passion, and love for the movement instantly took over. At the end, I was left with one question that is not meant to be answered by Ahmad or anyone else, but rather the answer will gradually surface as we move along the opposition path: ”What’s in a name?”
The interview was conducted in Persian and then translated to English. Since the interview is detailed and in-depth, it has been divided into segments. The questions selected for the interview are part of a collective effort by the P2E team.
PART 1 | PEOPLE’S MOVEMENT WILL STAY ALIVE WITH KNOWLEDGE & INFORMATION
By MARYAM NY
Persian2English: To what extent has the Freedom movement in Iran been successful in attracting the Iranian population that supports the government and/or the regime?
Ahmad Batebi: In Iran, there are two groups of people with connections to the government: those who ideologically believe in the system and those who receive benefits and monetary compensation. The former group, who is either brainwashed or is a supporter through family ties, would not join the Green Movement even if they were dissatisfied with the government. They would rather opt for political apathy and inaction. The latter group, however, will join the movement, if their funding is cut. Albeit, they join only as a number. Their effect is minimal.
P2E: Leading to the 1979 Revolution, Iranians living in remote areas were informed of Ayatollah Khomeini’s speeches and revolutionary ideas, even though Internet and satellite did not exist back then. Clerics visited rural areas and preached similarly to the way we receive information via technology. However, today, a lack of independent media creates a gap that is controlled by the Iranian regime. What are the challenges associated with information-spreading and how do we overcome state censorship?
Batebi: The recent political history of other countries demonstrate that a social network is the most effective way to inform and educate. For example, four students can gather in a cafe and share news with each other who will share with the people around them (and then it is passed on to others). The clerics during the 1979 Revolution used these mechanisms of social networking. And yes, now, even though the media is much more abundant, it is censored. We have to consider the censorship of the Iranian government as ineffective. Censorship exists through satellite (based mainly abroad) and domestic media and on the Internet. Inside Iran, not much can be done about censorship. It is impossible to run a newspaper without it being subject to state censorship. However, the Iranian expatriates can put pressure on foreign governments to facilitate the Iranian people’s access to the mediums of information (Ie. Internet). It does not mean each one of us has to set up a media and have people listen to or read it. We should provide people with proxies, anti-filtering software, and VPN so they can choose to access whatever they wish.
P2E: It appears that in the wake of the brutal and widespread crackdown of the June 2009 election protests, a wave of disappointment, pessimism, and lethargy has prevailed over the Iranian society. Persistence of this wave can result in missing a historical opportunity to be on the path to democracy. What approaches do you suggest for revitalizing the hope of society in addition to their drive and enthusiasm? What role can the Iranian Diaspora play in this regard?
Batebi: If any social movement does not achieve its goals in a limited period of time, then its government will become immune to the effects. Consider the student uprising in the summer of 1999. The city was in the hands of protesters for nearly a week. Then, [the regime] cracked down and the uprising cooled off. A few years passed and no action was possible, even on the anniversary of the uprising. This is the case for the Green Movement too: the protests did not blossom because the regime is immune.
Now, what can be done?
We have to consider three issues:
First, we should analyze the environment of the movement. What feeds it? What does its survival depend on? [The answer is] information and knowledge. For example, if the citizens of Tehran don’t realize that people in Tabriz protested the day before, or if Iranians don’t receive messages by leaders like Karroubi or Moussavi, or if they are not informed of the protests that occur outside the UN buildings against Ahmadinejad, then they will continue to go on with their daily lives. This is how the regime stifles the flow of information.
On the other hand, we should remember that the Iranian people are dealing with economic difficulties. They have to fight against the regime and put food on the table at the same time. That is a lot of pressure. Outside Iran, we go to work in the morning and come back in the afternoon to devote our time to the Iranian freedom movement. That is our main concern. However, in Iran, people need to fight against the regime and struggle to make ends meet. they are under much more pressure.
Second, we should create a ground so that the flow of information and knowledge remains constant in society. Second, we have to raise the price the government has to pay for committing human rights violations. In other words, the Islamic Republic should not dare to throw people into prison so easily. We have to establish a strong information network to spread the news of our compatriots from inside to the world.
Third, we have to take new measures such as boycotting any interests the coup d’état government has abroad, similar to the FAO conference in Italy where Ahmadinejad and Mugabe were not invited to the official dinner ceremony. We also need to stop Khatam-ol Anbia (I.e. GHORB), an (engineering) firm controlled by the IRGC, from gaining their interests. This action needs to be taken by Iranians inside Iran.
We should have news regarding Iran in foreign media everyday, and thereby influence foreign governments. We have to keep the people of our host countries updated on Iran’s main issues. When people are informed, they urge the media and politicians (to spread the news) and then governments are forced to react. That is how we can achieve a global consensus [in support of the movement].
P2E: In the wake of the election, many people became active in the process of information-spreading. What are your thoughts on this? Are activists doing enough work or should more be done?
Batebi: Spreading the news and informing is different from engaging in serious activities. Sometimes, you write a news piece or you translate it or you upload it on a website. On a scale of 1 to 100, these effort combined are worth 40. We have to achieve 100.
Batebi: We should have someone in the media who we keep informed [about Iran's news] and who is invited to Iranian events and discussions. We have to force this person to listen. We need to provide this person with the most accurate news for publication. Informing and spreading the news is only part of the job. It is more complicated to oblige the media to cover the news and to take a stance.
P2E: The Iranian people’s opposition to the Islamic Republic is not new. However, after the 2009 election, more people got involved inside and outside Iran. Will you comment on the Green Movement? What is this movement after all? Do you agree with the term “green”? If so, what does Green mean to you?
Batebi: Traditionally, we have always had opposition outside Iran. This opposition was either monarchist, or leftist and socialist, Mujahedin (MKO), or it had ties with the National Front. This is the traditional composition of Iran’s opposition movement, and the nature of their operations is clear-cut. However, from a logical point of view, our work is useful when it is effective. It is true that there has always been opposition to the regime, but how successful has it been? Has the (traditional) opposition been able to do anything in Iran? They have not. Their work and conduct has not been right. Their efforts are acknowledged, because they have worked hard, but it has been ineffective. People see and understand this. Moreover, people who are in Iran have a different way of expressing their demands because they are limited, thus their ways of expression are different than the traditional opposition.
During the 1997 Iranian presidential election, many people voted for Khatami. This vote did not mean that we accepted Khatami and his mode of thought and we believed in his clerical attire. I voted for Khatami. This does not mean I defended his thoughts or even the reformist movement. The vote was to send a message to the ruling establishment that we want something different than them.
The people’s demands for a civil society that embodies freedom of expression, equality between genders, the rights of children, labour unions, and students was not realized. And with the arrival of Ahmadinejad, the situation deteriorated. Then came the 2009 election where Mousavi (who has a revolutionary background and has worked closely with Ayatollah Khomeini) and Karroubi (who is in the same boat) were candidates. People voted for them. Again, this did not mean that they accepted Mousavi’s statements and beliefs. People are saying that we do not want what the regime wants, we will go and vote for somebody who is saying something different.
Now, an opposition has formed that has a different structure than the traditional opposition. They are all opposition but they have different forms. And now the Green Movement opposition…let me talk about ”green” first.
During the electoral campaign, each candidate camp chose a colour. Yellow was for Ahmadinejad, red was for Karroubi, and green was for Mousavi. Since the supporters of Mousavi were greater in number, green became the colour of the opposition movement. We do not necessarily agree with everything, but the Green movement possesses distinct characteristics that is also supported by Khatami, Karroubi, and Mousavi; such as encompassing all people under its umbrella.
You look and see people in the Green Movement who are secular and some who are religious. They all say, “We don’t want this regime, we want human rights, we want equality between men and women.” It is the first time such a thing has happened. All social movements gradually reach this point. Now, there are distinguished personalities in the movement like Karroubi and Mousavi who have the ability to mobilize people. Some consider them the leaders, others don’t. I believe they are leaders but just as much as the people. For example, when Karroubi announces that people should take part in the anniversary of the June 12th election, he is displaying leadership. However, people are taking the lead too. For example, on Ashura (December 27th), nobody called out for the people to come out, but they took to the streets and protested. Thus, everyone is a leader, because everyone is carrying out his or her duties.
P2E: If the Green Movement is defined through Mousavi and Karroubi, then does the Green movement want the Islamic Republic? Some activists oppose green for this reason and opt for the term “people’s movement” instead. Noticeably, the difference in name for the opposition has resulted in a divide within the opposition, even though the main goals seem to be similar. What can we do to eliminate this (divide)?
Batebi: People think that the “Green movement” and the “People’s movement” are different, but they are the same. You have a democratic movement when a “Green” supporter and a “People’s movement” supporter are classified in the same group. The vitality of the movement depends on these people communicating and finding common ground.
I think if the Islamic Republic is removed, it will be disastrous because we have nothing to offer. Not Mousavi and Karroubi, nor the opposition outside Iran can form a government. They can argue and fight and try to find common ground.
We only have one movement and that is the People’s Movement. Some say they are green, some say they are leftists, and some are monarchists or Mujaheds. We cannot have a successful government without participation from all fractions. For example, the Greens should understand that they are not the only “Greens” since all people are included.
By the way, the Green debate mostly occurs outside Iran. When security forces shoot at crowds in Iran and everybody is running away, no one is thinking, “You’re Mujahedin, therefore I will not run away with you.” When someone is shot by a bullet and falls to the ground, people don’t say, “You’re a communist so we won’t help you.” These are the preoccupations of Iranians living outside the country.
We have to think like people inside Iran. For people there, it is not important what our fights are about. People who say we are Green and the movement belongs to “us” just want to distinguish themselves from the traditional opposition. This is wrong. In tomorrow`s Iran, everybody, including Hizbollah members, have the right to form political parties and run for election. If people vote for them, they will be elected. This is democracy!
In order to have a successful movement, it is important to remember that the colour green does not just belong to (the opposition leaders). Mousavi states that we are successful and the movement is alive only when all opposition (parties) are included in the movement.