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'Supressing dissent never works in the long run'

June 18, 2009 17:33 IST
An Indian American professor of Iranian Studies at Indiana University says that he fears Teheran quite likely will cut off the country as much as possible from the rest of the world before cracking down very harshly on the opposition to suppress dissent.

Jamsheed K Choksy, a specialist on Iranian history and religions who has travelled throughout that country, said opposition to the theocratic governance of Iran has been building steadily, especially among an ever-burgeoning urban middle class, whose members seek personal and religious liberties, enhanced civic and civil rights, free trade and other interactions with the West. Choksy said Iranians also wish religion to be one part of their lives rather than the determinant of all actions.

"I think the situation is very grave for the Iranian people and for their aspirations for an open and free society," Choksy told rediff.com.

"Irrespective of whether Mahmoud Ahmedinejad or Mir Hossein Mousavi won the election, there was no need for the Iranian government to have reacted as violently as it has. A country's citizens have a right to question the results of a ballot. Suppressing dissent never works in the long run and always generates more adversity," Choksy said.

He said that Ahmadinejad's presidency has witnessed a major deterioration in Iran's economy, increasing unemployment and underemployment, rising inflation and concomitant degradation of Iran's currency, and diminishing foreign currency reserves.

"The Taliban and Al-Qaeda activity to the east in Afghanistan and Pakistan–both sharing borders with Iran–and al-Qaeda activity to Iran's south across the Persian Gulf in Saudi Arabia also pose a potential threat to Iran's stability, a threat recognized by Iran's theocratic leaders and by its general population," Choksy said.

Choksy noted that public protests in Iran led to the Constitutional Revolution against the Qajar monarchy in 1905-06 and resulted in the overthrow of the Pahlavi monarchy in 1979. Opposition to fundamentalists, he added, led to the election of Mohammed Khatami as Iran's president from 1997-2001 and 2001-2005.

Choksy, who is an affiliated faculty member of India Studies and of Medieval Studies at Indiana University and served as chairman of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures and director of the Middle Eastern Studies Program at Indiana University, said that Iranians are politically active, generally well-informed, constantly articulate, and passionately involved in their nation's past and present.

He said that while Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has ordered the Guardian Council to examine Mousavi's allegations, it is possible that this process will help President Ahmadinejad to be seen as credible.

Choksy said those individuals who are extremely fundamentalist or xenophobic among the Shiite clerics in addition to portions of Iran's population from among the poor in cities and rural areas will continue to regard Ahmadinejad election as credible.

He said it is quite possible, as well, that the Guardian Council will validate the results for even some clerics who have opposed Ahmadinejad in the past.

"The Guardian Council is headed by Ayatollah Ahmed Jannati who is a mentor of Ahmedinejad's and publically supported the latter's re-election bid. Unless the public protests create enough pressure on the most fundamentalist clerics, like Jannati, to require a run-off election, it is likely that the Guardian Council will ratify the results in some form," Mumbai-born Choksy said in response to a question as to whether the Guardian Council will validate the election results.

Choksy said the mullahs and Shiite Islam are basic components of Iranian society, something that is unlikely to change in the near future, adding that more contested among Iranians, however, is whether religion should dictate social and political norms and what role, if any, should be played by religious leaders in that nation's politics.

He said that while a coalition government in which Mousavi becomes prime minister is possible, whether moderates like Mousavi, former President Mohammad Khatami, and others will be granted real political authority remains unclear and perhaps unlikely unless they and their very numerous supporters are able to wrest some degree of real political participation in day-to-day decisions away from Ahmadinejad and the fundamentalists who support him.

"The spread of Islamic fundamentalism has produced social problems in both Iran and Pakistan. Both countries would benefit from stable, secular, democratically-elected governance like India which a majority of citizens support and accept," he said in response to another question as to whether he sees any similarity in the situation between Iran and Pakistan in terms of popular protest against fundamentalism and inefficient governance.

When asked if the West, particularly the US had any role to play in the aggravating situation,  Choksy said he believed that this was an internal matter for the Iranians, not one in which the US should or could get involved, it would be good to leave to the Iranian people to decide their own future.

He said involvement by Western governments may only strengthen the hand of fundamentalist xenophobes in Iran at this time. But he said that it does not mean that the world should not praise those in Iran who seek to ensure justice, fairness, transparency, civil rights and democracy in their society. "The US like all other countries should work publically and privately toward freedom and self-governance of Iran by Iranians," Choksy told this correspondent.

Choksy taught in the Department of History and the International Relations Program at Stanford University as a visiting assistant professor. He was a member and a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow at the School of Historical Studies in the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton.

Suman Guha Mozumder in New York