McGill University law professor Payam Akhavan says Iran holds key to democracy in the Middle East

Akhavan claims that the Islamic regime is in its “death pangs”, which raises his hopes for more democracy in the region.

A McGill University law professor says that Iran and Saudi Arabia are engaged in a “proxy war” for control over large parts of the Middle East. And the impact is being felt in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria. Bahrain, and Afghanistan, where Shiite and Sunni Muslims are often engaged in violent confrontations.

“These are often power struggles between Iran and Saudi Arabia,” Payam Akhavan, an Iranian-born expert on international human-rights and criminal law, told the Georgia Straight during a recent visit to Vancouver. “The Saudis are more than happy to eliminate Iran as a rival, but I think the biggest threat to Saudi Arabia will be when Iran becomes a secular democracy.”

During a wide-ranging interview in a downtown restaurant, Akhavan suggested that Iran’s future will have a profound impact on the region’s transition from tradition to modernity, and from authoritarianism to democracy. He declared that the Iranian regime is in its “death pangs” because the vast majority of citizens are thoroughly sick of “political Islam” after more than three decades of Shiite rule. Akhavan, who recently spoke in Tahrir Square in Cairo, contrasted that with the situations in Egypt, Syria, Libya, Bahrain, and other Arab countries that have never suffered under a religious dictatorship in the modern era.

“Egypt reminded me not of where Iran was in the 2009 uprising but where Iran was in 1979, when political Islam was still a romantic, utopian ideology,” he said. “The one place in the Middle East nobody wants political Islam is Iran, because people have lived for 30 years under this incredibly violent, brutal, corrupt rule and they see the reality. So why is Iran the epicentre of this wider transformation in the Middle East? Because Iranian civil society is 30 years ahead of Egypt’s. It’s 30 years ahead of Syria.”

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini seized power in Iran after the 1979 revolution and, according to Akhavan, hijacked a secular, leftist national revolution against the Shah of Iran. The professor added that Khomeini’s successor as supreme leader, Ayatollah Seyed Ali Hoseyni Khamenei, continues exercising ruthless control over the corruption-riddled country. Akhavan claimed that the “green revolution”, which was brutally repressed following the 2009 election, reflected a widespread desire for change among average Iranians.

“So civil society in Iran has turned against political Islam,” he stated. “It is thoroughly secular, including among Islamic reformists, who may be devout Muslims but who want a separation of state and religion. So Iran’s civil society is by far the most mature: its women’s movement, its students’ movement, its labour movement, its environmental movement. In a sense, they have become mature thanks to the excesses of totalitarianism.”

Here’s where Akhavan’s views differ from those of many analysts of Iran, who liken the mullahs’ rule to a throwback to ancient times. The professor, on the other hand, characterized the Islamic regime as a thoroughly 20th-century aberration, similar to the rise of National Socialism in Germany or Stalinism in the former Soviet Union. He claimed that these “modern romantic ideologies” emerge to fill a vacuum, in effect becoming substitutes for traditional religion.

“When the ayatollahs say that the union of state and religion is consistent with our true Islamic identity before western corruption, it’s absolute nonsense,” Akhavan said, “because the tradition of 500 years of Shia Islam in Iran from 1501, when it became the official religion, was separation of state and religion—because the orthodox clerics believe that until the advent of the messianic 12th imam, all temporal authority was illegitimate.”

Under the Iranian constitution, however, Khamenei is the supreme temporal leader, and he decides who may run for president or be appointed to the judiciary. Akhavan noted that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s followers have complicated the picture by “circulating rumours that he has direct lines of communication with the 12th imam, which would obviate the need for the supreme leader”.

“So they’re setting the stage for a significant conflict,” he stated.

Meanwhile, Akhavan added, young people, who are the vast majority of Iran’s population, are highly literate and have middle-class expectations. And he claimed that they despise totalitarian Islamic rule. “They are Internet-savvy,” he said. “They are glued to satellite television. There is a huge diaspora abroad, highly successful, and a flow of information, so it’s not a country that you can indefinitely rule through terrorization.”

It remains an open question if revolutions in Arab countries will bring about religious dictatorships. Akhavan noted that Saudi Arabia is trying to promote Sunni fundamentalist rule in Egypt, Syria, and other countries by supporting Salafist political parties. He added that the Muslim Brotherhood, which is emerging as a powerful force in Egypt, is more moderate than the Salafists and more likely to work closely with the Egyptian army.

“Radical Islam is more like a modern totalitarian ideology, even though it speaks the language of tradition,” he stated.

However, he pointed out that if democratic rule emerges in Iran, it could create a powerful beacon for supporters of greater freedom and secular rule in Arab countries. “You have this revolution from below and the most mature and secular and democratic social movement in the Middle East,” Akhavan said. “So Iran could very quickly transform from night to day and become a force for stability in the region.”

According to Akhavan, any political transformation would be blocked if Iran were to be attacked, because this would strengthen the hands of fanatics ruling the country. “We jokingly say that Ahmadinejad prays every Friday at the mosque for Israeli air strikes because it’s the only thing that would prop up his regime: creating a common enemy, exciting people’s nationalist sentiment,” he said. “An Israeli air strike would set back the democratic movement by a decade, and it would give a pretext for mass execution of the regime’s opponents under the cover of war. And, at best, it would delay Iran’s acquisition of nuclear capability by a few years, so I think, for the most part, the Americans and the Israelis understand this.”


Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.

Comments (21) Add New Comment
Halabi
He has no clue as to what he is talking about.
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fereydoun barkeshli
By imposing sanction on Iran's crude oil exports and the Central Bank,the United States and western countries virtually block any chance of a reconcilliation with the Islamic government in Iran.The current admistration considers such a sanction a prelude to an all out military confrontation.As such Iran now believes that such a confrontation is better to happen sooner than a later date when the country's economy is too weakened to stand a confrontation.Dr.Akhavan is right in that Iran is key to a true democracy in the region,a capacity that no Middle Eastern country may have.
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asdf
Islam itself is in it's death pangs. It got a shot at revival solely due to petro dollars, otherwise it is a lost cause. Islam will not survive criticism hence it's furious attempts to shut down criticism as a survival mechanism. Internet is now full of websites by ex-muslims detailing the true history of islam and life of muhammed constructed from islamic sources - quran and the hadiths.
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Etienne
The man either does not know what he is talking about or is catering to gross anti-muslim prejudice among his readers: the brutal *fact* is that it is *after* the 1979 revolution that the westernisation of Iran (basically, spread of mass literacy + collapse of birth rates) took place. Thus, the notion that the present-day regime is an obstacle to westernisation is, to put it mildly, preposterous.

He is correct that an outside threat gives anti-democratic forces a boost: Cuba and North Korea are both countries whose regimes remain in power because of the (quite grounded) fear of outside attack. Hence I am disappointed that he does not push his analysis to its logical conclusion: people who wish Iran to become a democracy should hope/wish that it obtain a credible nuclear deterrent. This is because fear of an outside attack will definitely give local authoritarians a boost: but if a nuclear deterrent means that an attack on Iran is not a realistic scenario...now that would embolden a lot of local Iranian activists and would-be politicians, and ultimately make the democratisation of Iran a much faster process than it otherwise might be.

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Janie Jones
Say where does the CIA sponsored 1953 coup against a democratically elected government that saw the installation of the brutal regime of the Shah fit into this brilliant analysis?



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Lawson1945
Of course he would say that he is one of them, how did he get into Canada by they way, did you bother to check this out Georgia Strait
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RickW
http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/politics/article/1110651--peter-macka...
"One of the most eligible bachelors in the country is officially off the market after he married an Iranian-born human-rights activist and former beauty queen."

Does this mean now that Ahmadinejad is going to become Harper's friend, and Iran Canada's ally?
RickW
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Jaded in Vancouver
In 1979, during the Iranian Revolution, I met many students from Persia who were fleeing the conflict. I was still a student at university, and I remember one of my professor's comment : " What are these people doing ? Trading in one dictator for another ! "
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Abdali
Most so called modernized iranians are basically atheists or non-islamic in their stance. While I dont know how true the western-iranian claims are - but it is true that,

- CIA and its UK allies tried its best in recent elections to create a TURMOIL.

- US sanctions through its IMMORAL LOBBY IN UN against Iran are neither democratic, nor moral.

Ahmedinijad is there despite ALL sanctions possible, while 2 of the US presidents passed him - with scandals surrounding them.

Jews who hate Iran/president are living as a minority for centuries - note they are NOT MASSACRED despite what they like to do against the Iranian nation from israel. They live freely like any minority in other democratic nation - rather fairly better than muslims (and even people of color/spanish) live in USA!

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Ghazanfar
Payam Akhavan has a genuine interest in not seeing an Islamic system anywhere in the world. This is the crux of the matter and the root of his anti-Islam analysis. This is an agenda driven analysis.

He may also need to talk about his U.S founded human rights organization.

In fact, he has never visited Iran during Islamic Republic era that means at least 33 years. How on earth somebody like him can be a reference for anything regarding Iran? his contacts are mostly upper-middle class Iranians living out of Iran. It's no coincident that he finds it acceptable to claim that Iranian people as a whole want a "secular democracy" and despise an Islamic system of governance.

In the past, he claimed that nearly 700 people were killed in Tehran only during post-election turmoil while the numbers for the whole country stand bellow 40. while every loss of life is important, it's time for open minded people to ask Dr.Akhavan to give the names of those 700 people he passionately buried in. it seems, people like him have no shame for telling "lie".

here is the link of his article:

http://www.david-kilgour.com/2009/Jul_24_2009_02.php
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KiDDAA Magazine
The war in Iraq killed possible a million Iraqis and left 5,000 young US soldiers dead and every day violence is the norm. In Afghanistan and Pakistan US wars are still raging and the Taleban seems to be increasing.
Iran unlike Israel who has 300 nukes has no nukes and is 2-5 years away from a crude nuke and thats only if the UN inspectors pull out.
Im not sure why but the USA and its buddy Israel always want to start a war. This Iran war will make gasoline at 1.50 a litre minimum and sink any chance of the world economy. But hey thats what old white guys do start unnecessary wars.
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evie
Okay okay okay okay, how exactly is Iran suppose to become secular??????

I hear a lot of people talk about how Iran is on the verge of a revolution, but I don't see how it would happen. The state is too powerful.


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69amir
I agree with this analysis, except for the part of 'leftist nationalist revolution in 1979....'
the shah was NOT perfect by any means, but the nonsense that he was a brutal dictator is old, rotten propaganda- the people of iran now long for the days of the pahlavi rule.....
if he was such a brutal figure, he would have unleashed hell on khomeini and his backers in palestine, france, britain, and carter....the figures of 30000 political prisoners, yada yada yada was nonsense used to excite the masses...
history will judge him and reza shah very kindly
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KiDDAA Magazine
The bottom line is Iran has the largest Jewish population in the Middle East outside of Israel and even a Jewish MP. Israel who has 300 working nukes and a full blown apartheid against the Palestinians, is trying to deflect attention from its own human rights genocides.
Iran's goverment is not the best but far better than US allies Saudi Arabia, Yemen etc. Iran has no nukes the US and its allies are only try to deflect attention from Afghanistan and the terrible economy at home.
Iran will change not through war but by its own young population. KiDDAA has commented on the stupidity of any war as had the Guardian, Link most intelligent experts. www.kiddaa.com
Any Iranian war would kill hundreds of thousands and would not even set back their nuclear program which is not weaponized. But hey they lied about Iraq and they are lying again.
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enigma
i think if dr mossadk govt stayed that time iran probably a real democracy if that process continued not disrupt by shah and his sister plus americans.the vacumme created in iran is filled by mullah forces .
one question for all i am not iranian who will replace if this mulah goes away i dont think iran has any political party ,its better for iranian stick with system and find ways to keep reforming it that only way farward rest is not good for anybody look at iraq or lybia ,eygpt cheers
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Mr Mustard
Ghazanfar must be a devout student of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the fictional narration of Jewish global takeover, favored by all Middle Eastern dictators. People in Iran want Islamic government?????? Are you nuts dude?????? They showed through a poll that they had enough of the Islamic Government and the pollster was thrown in jail. You dont have to go to Iran to know they are a ruthless government of corrupt individuals that have put into practice policies that have taken that country from an emerging economic force to one of the least livable countries in the world. Oh and lastly what happened to Zahra Kazemi, the Canadian journalist and those that killed her?????? I suppose the same Islamic leaders shown mercy and promoted the murderers.
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Jen
Mr Mustard

I think Ghazanfar raised some very interesting points. why are you so aggressive toward her? what is this labeling about? if she is right that Akhavan has not visited Iran since 70s, how can people trust any of his analysis? It is as if somebody left Canada during Trudeau's first time in office and now talking somewhere in Asia about the public opinion in Canada. I personally won't take that person even as a joke. Hasn't Iran gone through a major revolution, a prolonged war with Iraq, since Mr.Akhavan left the country?

It's also shocking to see Payam Akhavan falsely claiming 700 people were killed in Teheran. Shouldn't he, as university professor, be questioned regarding the validity of his claims?

Apparently, we Canadians should leave Iran's system of governance to Iranians inside Iran to decide and instead pay attention to our own growing problems. We have no moral authority whatsoever to interfere, as "liberal interventionists" such as Akhavan would like to, in other country's affairs.

Last time I checked Iran was a majority Muslim country. So, as an outsider it would be quite natural for me to see a government advocating Islam. probably the same as we are gonna witness in Egypt, Tunisia, Iraq....
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Bijan
Jen you would be right except for the fact free elections are not allowed in Iran, if it was then Akhavan would be wrong. Ghazanfar makes an accusation about Akhavan's agenda? What is it? I was there during the elections and more than any knows died. Akhavan gets his info from many inside and outside of Iran. You dont have to be there to know itis in trouble. Ghazanfar is a Islamic apologist. Akhavan also said Iran should not be bombed. So what is wrong with that analysis? It was in the governments best interest to not allow publication of the correct amount of deaths. You saw the likes of Neda on TV.There were quite a few that you did not see, but we in Iran did.
Finally your last comment does not make sense at all, I suppose Afghanistan is not an Islamic country? Would you let the Taliban be elected? I think the answer is quite obvious. Talk to Iranians, by phone email or just a poll and you will see the greater majority agree with Akhavan
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Jen
Bijan

Visiting a country is critical to get public opinion. wasn't Ignatieff's failure in the last election merely due to his lack of understanding of Canadians? We think Canada is a pretty open society and the information is easily accessible. His experience did not approve this metaphor fully.

If there is no free election, as you say so, how could Mr.Akhavan with metaphysical certainty say Iranians hate Islamic government?

Your last sentence is contradictory. You say Iranians are free in expressing their ideas even to the point of hatred toward their government. Sounds like Canada again. We are not happy with the Harper government, are you? nearly all my friends hate his government. Based on this limited conversation, it seems to me Iran is a very divers society and Iranians enjoy expressing their ideas, probably not to the degree as we do here. Again, none of this is our business. Let them decide their own destiny.
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Ghazanfar
@Jen

The fact of the matter is an absolute majority of Iranians are Muslim (more than 98%). Mr. Akhavan is not part of this picture. His anti-Islamic government rhetoric is not new.

Iran held 30 elections over the past 3 decades and so. It's not a perfect place but still the picture is not as grim as people like Akhavan like to portray. Elections were not fully free (if at all free election exists anywhere), but still far better than middle eastern standard. Indeed, people like Dr. Akhavan think any chaos in the country is in their benefit. Just look at the 700 people that he claimed. for your information, the opposition was so active during the 2009 protests that sometimes even car accidents were claimed by them to be intentionally killing by the security forces. even by this mass disinformation, the number hardly exceeded 40. There was no shortage of information as the opposition was even running live blogs. I personally feel sympathy for every loss of life, but again can't credit somebody like Akhavan who is spreading false narratives. There are also radical oppositions like Mujahedin E Khalgh (MEK) that don't mind making chaos through selective killing for propaganda purposes, i.e. the case of Neda Aghasoltan.

for Mr.Akhavan, I pointed out 3 bold issues.

1-he has not even visited Iran during the whole tenure of the Islamic Republic. at least since 1979, and may be more. So, his analysis should be looked at with suspicion. As I said, it's an agenda-driven analysis.

2-Showing the negative aspects of Iran and in general an anti-Islamic government agenda that he has is in his genuine interest. He runs a human rights office that gets founding from the U.S government. and we are all know what are the purposes of those offices.

3-at least we have a clear misinformation case from him. He apparently lied when he said 700 people were killed in Tehran only. Sounds like he would have been more happy to see a bigger number. It's a shame for a university professor to do such a thing.

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