Ali Safavi is the U.S. spokesperson for the National Council of the Resistance of Iran, which describes itself as “a broad-based coalition of Iranian opposition personalities and groups committed to a democratic, secular and non-nuclear republic in Iran.”
The following is Clarion Project National Security Analyst Ryan Mauro’s interview with Ali Safavi:
Ryan Mauro: As a practicing Muslim, why do you feel compelled to fight against the Iranian regime?
Ali Safavi: First, our struggle is to end the religious dictatorship and establish freedom and democracy in Iran. The current regime in Iran is the brainchild of a diehard clique of fundamentalists who hijacked the popular anti-monarchic revolution in 1979.
The Iranian people overthrew the Shah's monarchy, but due to lack of genuine leadership, the mullahs managed to install their own monarchy, which they call velayat-e faqih (absolute clerical rule). During the 2009 uprisings, millions of young people chanted, "death to the velayat-e faqih principle."
The regime's pedigree of terror, suppression and gender discrimination is based solely on its shameless exploitation of Islam. This is a theocracy that justifies unspeakable crimes by claiming to follow Islamic tenets.
Its suppressive forces have committed appalling crimes against female political prisoners, including systematic rape, on the basis of this ideology. It exploits Islam to stone women to death and tortures young dissidents in the name of Islam. The majority of genuine Muslims in Iran reject the power-hungry mullahs' ideology as inhumane and anti-Islamic.
This is why the main resistance movement, the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), which believes in Islam, but a tolerant and democratic Islam, is the most potent opponent of the regime. The regime considers the MEK its archenemy and has so far executed over 120,000 MEK members and supporters.
The MEK rejects velayat-e faqih and calls for a secular, democratic and non-nuclear republic in Iran. It argues that Islam defends individual choice and freedom, democracy, women's rights and peace.
Mrs. Maryam Rajavi, the president-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (of which the MEK is the main component), is a Muslim woman. The MEK has been described as the cultural and historical antithesis to the theocracy in Iran. Some argue that Islamic fundamentalism, which has spread its tentacles from the Middle East now to Europe and beyond, can be overpowered by foreign wars and intervention.
The experience of the MEK, however, has shown that Islamic fundamentalism can only be defeated by its true antidote, which is indigenous forces that espouse a democratic and moderate interpretation of Islam.
Mauro: The U.S. and E.U. have taken the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK) off the list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. How has this affected the Iranian opposition?
Safavi: The Iranian people are closer to democratic change today than they have been in the past three decades of clerical rule. The MEK was unjustly placed on the U.S. and EU terrorist lists to placate the mullahs. This was the mullahs' top demand from its foreign interlocutors. The West kowtowed to the turbaned tyrants, hoping that this will induce reform and encourage the mullahs to mend their policies. Of course, the mullahs did the complete opposite because they were emboldened.
The West's policy of engagement towards the regime forced it to participate in the suppression of the Iranian people and their organized opposition by labeling it "terrorist." It took nearly several court rulings in the U.S. and EU, as well support from over 4,000 parliamentarians and scores of political dignitaries, to end this injustice and have the MEK's terror label dropped.
The world now has attested to the fact that the MEK is a legitimate resistance movement representing the Iranian people's aspirations for democratic change. This has galvanized young people in Iran, especially young women who look up to MEK's female leadership, to strengthen their resolve in the fight against the clerical rulers.
The terror label acted as the main obstacle to democratic change in Iran. The West now needs to recognize the MEK as the alternative to the mullahs' rule. If the West seeks deliverance from having to intervene militarily in Iran or continue the same failed policy, it needs to recognize the option of democratic change from within Iran.
Mauro: It seems that one of the main problems facing the Iranian opposition is division. Why can't these divisions be overcome for the common goal of overthrowing the regime?
Safavi: It is the Iranian regime that is divided and weak, not the opposition. In 1981, the MEK formed an alliance with personalities and organizations calling for the regime's overthrow. That alliance, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), has been the longest-lasting coalition in Iranian history. It has grown and blossomed as the regime's democratic alternative, attracting prominent artists, singers, writers, politicians, athletes, minorities and youth.
The Iranian regime, however, suffers from chronic divisions that have split it into dozens of blocs. Most recently, in the run-up to the presidential elections, Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, created an unprecedented schism at the helm of the regime by rejecting the candidacy of Rafsanjani, a two-time former president who brought Khamenei himself to power. These divisions at the helm will permeate the lower ranks of the regime in the coming months, shrinking its power base even more and making it more vulnerable to popular uprisings.
At the same time, the Iranian opposition is gaining momentum and strength. By boycotting the regime's sham presidential elections, the Iranian people have once again showed their unity in demanding the overthrow of the entire regime.
Indeed, on June 22, in the largest-ever gathering of Iranians abroad (see video below), tens of thousands of Iranian expatriates joined together to call for regime change in Iran. This was a sign of the strength and unity of the opposition, which has three basic demands: Rejection of absolute theocracy, separation of religion and state, and a republic, which would be based on the Iranian people’s vote.
Mauro: The "Green Revolution" in Iran was stamped out by the regime, but the "Arab Spring" led to the overthrow of governments and civil war in Syria. Why has the Iranian regime fared better than Ben Ali, Mubarak, Qaddafi, Saleh and Assad?
Safavi: There are fundamental differences. The dictators in Iran have formed a theocracy committing its crimes under the banner of religion. This is a regime that has killed 120,000 dissidents. In the summer of 1988 alone, in one of the most horrific instances of genocide in contemporary times, the mullahs executed 30,000 political prisoners.
Today, public hangings and stoning are commonplace in Iran. Hundreds have been executed in the first six months of this year alone. The scale of the regime's suppression is not comparable to other dictatorships in the region. Fearful of the brewing disenchantment and rapidly growing opposition within the society, this barbaric suppression has been one of the regime's lifelines.
The other lifeline has been provided by the West's policy of appeasement. The West's lackluster response to the 2009 uprisings is symptomatic of this 30-year old policy of appeasement. If the West were to adopt a firm policy geared towards supporting democratic change by the Iranian people and their organized movement, the mullahs, surrounded by mountains of popular opposition stretching from the shores of the Caspian Sea to the Persian Gulf, would be overthrown with lightning speed.
The Iranian people do not want weapons or military intervention; they simply want the West to stop appeasing the regime.
Mauro: What is your reaction to the result of the Iranian presidential election?
Safavi: First of all, the concept of elections in a theocracy serves as a smokescreen for robbing the Iranian people of their sovereignty. The regime claims high voter turnout every time, but the Iranian people clearly boycott the regime’s sham elections. A few days before the June 14 vote, Khamenei practically begged for a high turnout, saying that even if you dislike the regime, participate in the election “for your country.”
That being said, we would be remiss if we do not recognize the political meaning and implications of Hassan Rowhani’s selection. First, his win gave yet another unambiguous sign that Khamenei is at a disadvantage and increasingly isolated within the regime.
Although he tried to determine the outcome of the election and even rejected Rafsanjani’s candidacy at considerable political cost to the regime, he did not have the wherewithal to finish the job by installing, for instance, Jalili.
During the campaign, his faction failed to unite behind a single candidate. This is despite the fact that his mouthpiece Kayhan daily repeatedly implored candidates like Jalili, Velayati and Qalibaf to “sit down with each other without delay and select one person as their candidate.” That consensus never materialized, further displaying the strain on Khamenei’s authority and the incurable disarray in his faction and in the regime in general.
The regime is extremely frightened of a repeat of popular uprisings similar to 2009. According to reports, the regime marshaled one million security, intelligence and military personnel to oversee the election. Even so, Khamenei undoubtedly opted for speed rather than result, giving Rowhani just above 50% of the votes and barely avoiding a run-off which would have prolonged the process and increased the risk of protests. Khamenei’s red line, therefore, was a repeat of the 2009 protests because he knows his regime lacks the capacity to deal with it.
That being said, Rowhani’s background as an ardent supporter of Khamenei and an architect of the regime’s terrorism and nuclear policies should not be forgotten. He is currently Khamenei's representative in the Supreme National Security Council.
During the campaign, he gleefully boasted that he deceived the West for years regarding the nuclear dossier. So, repackaging himself as a “moderate” will not fool anyone. In describing Rowhani as a “moderate,” the West would be repeating the same mistakes it made with Khatami in 1997, but this time with much more catastrophic consequences.
Khamenei knows that a moderation of policies would induce the regime’s downfall.
The situation will not change as long as the Iranian people’s freedoms are trampled upon and so long as the regime continues its destructive nuclear and regional policies.
The West should come to the sober realization that seeking deliverance from within the regime is at best naive. The key to bring about real change lies in the hands of the Iranian people and their organized opposition. That is the least costly and most beneficial solution that should be championed by Western capitals.
Ryan Mauro is the ClarionProject.org’s National Security Analyst, a fellow with the Clarion Project and is frequently interviewed on Fox News.