I’m very happy to be here today and I express my gratitude to the Washington Institute for hosting this discussion. Organizations like the Washington Institute continue to play a critical role in advancing scholarship and understanding regarding the modern Middle East. Their contributions to the formulation of foreign policy can be particularly meaningful, especially during the more sensitive or turbulent periods in our region’s history.
I would like to begin by invoking a popular protest slogan that is heard often these days in universities, factories, mosques and streets across Iran. I quote my compatriots: “Our enemy is right here; they lie when they say it’s America.” Perhaps no other rallying cry communicates more effectively Iran’s wholesale rejection of the Islamic Republic.
From its inception in 1979, the Islamic Republic sought to subvert Iran in order to advance its own ideological, economic and security interests. It changed our centuries-old flag and suppressed our ancient traditions. It purged our universities and persecuted or killed our artists. It institutionalized inequality and discrimination based on religion and gender. It destroyed the very soil, air and water that comprises Iran in the physical sense. And it plundered, voraciously, stealing our people’s private property, appropriating major Iranian businesses and siphoning off revenue from trade in our natural resources.
With wealth taken from the Iranian people, the regime worked to spread its brand of hate and destruction throughout our region and to cause instability and conflict worldwide. It established paramilitary organizations and other non-state actors to serve as proxies for the destabilization and subversion of our neighbors. It threatened the world with weapons of mass destruction. It fomented and prolonged sinister wars that have left hundreds of thousands of Muslims dead and made millions of others refugees. And it both sponsored and conducted terrorism, killing countless innocents in the Middle East, Europe, South America and the United States. Thankfully, its two most recent known foreign terror attempts were uncovered and prevented in Europe.
The Islamic Republic took our land and our nation hostage. At least until now, it has survived, but only through fear, repression and violence. But Iran and Iranians have had enough. In the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles and untold risks, the Iranian people have opened a new era of opposition to the regime. In towns and cities across Iran every day, they are confronting it tirelessly and courageously. Through public protests, labor strikes and innumerable acts of civil disobedience, they are expressing their rejection of its every principle, element and faction. They want their freedom, their dignity and their country back.
To the international community, the promise of my compatriots’ movement represents a historic opportunity to achieve an enduring solution to the numerous threats emanating from the Islamic Republic. In fact, this is an opportunity to transform the Middle East, because a democratic Iran will be representative of its people, and a representative Iran will be a very different force outside its borders. Consider whether a democratic Iran would promote Shiite revolutionary politics, prop up terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, Hamas or the Houthis, facilitate the shameful mass murdering of innocent Syrians or Yemenis, or threaten Israel with destruction. Of course not!
A representative Iranian government will reflect the culture of Iran and the feelings and aspirations of its people. Envision an Iran that works closely with its Arab neighbors to stamp out terrorism and extremism in the region; that welcomes Israeli scientists to help with its water crisis; that embraces American and European investment in the boundless potential of its economy; that shares its most brilliant minds with the great centers of learning and development in the West; that exports its dazzling art and beautiful music; and that honors its country’s spirit of love and tradition of friendship toward foreign nations.
Again, I point to the actions and words of my compatriots. In universities in Iran, students sidestep or leap over American and Israeli flags painted on the ground – this is both a remarkable rebuke toward the regime and a moving illustration of Iranian goodwill. In their protests, my compatriots chant: “Syria and Palestine are the reason for our misery”; “Leave Syria alone; think instead of conditions at home”; “Neither for Gaza, nor for Lebanon; I’ll die only for Iran”; and “We may die, we may die, but we will reclaim Iran”.
For almost 40 years, I have worked toward a single objective: a secular democratic Iran built upon the pillars of human rights and rule of law. I have insisted that the Islamic Republic poses an existential threat to Iran and its people, and that the Islamic Republic cannot be reformed. I have been steadfast in my belief that a secular democratic Iran may be achieved only through non-violent means. And I have been unwavering in my faith that the Iranian people can and will be the principal agents of change. But international attention and support remain critical.
Dr. Martin Luther King is one of my personal heroes. As I work to build international support for the Iranian people’s struggle, I often recall his famous covenant that “we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” In that vein, I want to make clear that the Iranian struggle should not be viewed through the prism of domestic partisan politics in this or any other democratic nation. This is a struggle about human dignity and liberation and it deserves equal and unqualified support across the democratic political spectrum.
At no time in its almost 40-year history has the Islamic Republic been as unpopular and vulnerable as it is today. Foreign policy toward Iran should be mindful of the reality that my compatriots are presently in the throes of a national struggle to reclaim Iran from the Islamic Republic. My focus is on guiding this process of change so that its outcome is secular, democratic and lasting.