Michael Rubin’s Speech
delivered by Michael Rubin, visiting scholar, the American Enterprise
Institute to MEHR Los Angeles, September 1, 2002
afternoon and thank you for having me with you at this important
commemoration. It seems like just this morning I was dodging rain in
Washington, DC, so I am thrilled to be in Los Angeles, especially with
you to mark this all too often forgotten anniversary.
only thing I am not happy about is having to follow Representative
Loretta Sanchez and her call message of support and call for holding the
entire leadership of the Islamic Republic accountable for their actions.
It is not possible to top what she just said.
I begin, I also want to acknowledge the work of the Mission for
Establishment of Human Rights. MEHR is doing a fantastic job, and I have
the utmost respect for your work in exposing the Islamic Republic’s
massive violations of human rights.
was eight yeas old during the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and only made
my first visit to Iran in 1996. I returned in 1999. Many in the West
assume that Muhammad Khatami brought freedom to Iran. After all,
reporters like Robin Wright in The Los Angeles Times reportedly refer to
Khatami as “the leading reformist in Iran.” But I found that’s not
what ordinary Iranians think. Outside the posh cafes of Tajrish Square,
in the greasy mechanical shops and stalls in Shahr-i Rayy and in the
bustle of shops and stalls along Khiaban-i Ferdowsi, Iranians were
visibly more tense during my second trip than they were during my first.
the Iranian people want freedom. That we know. But it’s the guys with
the guns that count. And it is the Islamic Republic that controls the
guys with the guns. The hardliners and vigilantes like Ansar-i Hizbullah
have not gone away. Rather they have regrouped under the support of
Ayatollah Khamene’i, Ayatollah Jannati, and President Muhammad Khatami.
In 1996, I asked a teacher where she was during the Islamic Revolution.
“I supported it initially,” she acknowledged. “Khomeini promised
an Islamic democracy. I was a student. I wanted democracy.
the time I realized six months later that what we would get was a
dictatorship under a shallow patina of Islam, it was too late. We have
been suffering under a brutal dictatorship ever since. But now what can
Indeed, it is sadly ironic that some American and European policymakers still insist that Iran has free elections and that Muhammad Khatami is a democrat. Is the Islamic Republic truly democratic when unelected guardians disqualify 234 out of 238 presidential candidates on the grounds that they are too reformist, too democratic, and too accurately reflect the desires of the Iranian people for freedom? Do they not know that in the Islamic Republic, elections are not about who Iranians want, but instead who is least offensive of the limited choice?
Wright is not the only correspondent to misrepresent human rights in
Iran. We must never forget that Iranians deserve the same human rights
in Tehran that Robin Wright enjoys in Los Angeles. The media must be
held accountable. A few weeks ago, I decided to review newspapers from
1989, when Hashemi Rafsanjani became president. The New York Times and
The Washington Post trumpeted Rafsanjani as a reformer and a moderate.
Proof of his moderation? He appointed Mohammad Yazdi as head of the
judiciary! How many innocent student, intellectuals, and dissidents were
tortured and executed while Yazdi and Rafsanjani spat on human rights?
Are purges and torture proof of moderation? It is the same with Khatami.
and academic experts trumpeted Khatami as proof of reform in Iran. After
all, when Khatami was Minister of Islamic Guidance, he allowed numerous
books and films to be published and distributed. He did. But we must not
forget that he also banned more than 600 books. We must judge the
Islamic Republic’s leadership by its actions, not by the rose-scented
perfume thrown upon them by fawning intellectuals or shallow reporters.
is the same thing with Abdul Karim Soroush. He is welcomed in American
and European universities as a reformist. Why? Because he described
himself as such. But this is the man that lead the cultural revolution
in the Islamic Republic, eviscerated Iran’s once formidable
universities, and lead to the flight of the cream of Iran’s
intellectual crop. As an American, I say Iran’s loss is America’s
gain, but it is nevertheless a tragedy for all Iranians. The American
academic community has been little better. Many tenured professors of
Middle Eastern and especially Iranian studies soft-pedal the abuses of
the Islamic Republic. Nikki Keddie, for example, harshly criticizes the
Shah for spending billions on arms instead of on schools and on workers.
And perhaps many of his policies deserve criticism. But, where is the
outrage when Muhammad Khatami travels to Moscow to sign a $7 billion
arms and nuclear component purchase at the same time that teachers march
for unpaid wages and Iranian girls prostitute themselves to put food on
their families’ table?
American scholars of Iran do not have the courage to lead and some
remain fundamentally inconsistent in their analytical criteria. They
depend on the Islamic Republic to provide them with visas so they can do
firsthand research. Research tainted with self-censorship is never
honest and cannot be true scholarship. Khatami talks often of the
dialogue of civilizations. A dialogue of civilizations is important, but
it must be honest. Take a look at the actual exchange. The most recent
official U.S. and Islamic Republic figures tell it all. The U.S. issued
22,000 visas for Iranians to visit America. That is wonderful news. But
the Islamic Republic, issued just 800 visas for Americans to visit Iran.
What’s the Islamic Republic afraid of? So much for dialogue.
used to teach Qajar history, but now I’m here as a policy analyst.
Let’s talk about U.S. policy. Is it going in the right direction? I
think it is. But we need your help. Human rights is not a partisan
issue. It is an issue on which both Democrats and Republican agree. But
Congressman, Senators, and policymakers must be educated.
is doing a great job, but it is the job of all Iranian Americans and,
indeed, all Americans. You may not be happy with all statements out of
Washington. That’s fine. But tell policymakers what they are doing
wrong. Be specific. Correct their misinterpretations. They will listen.
I do believe U.S. policymakers are beginning to understand the issues on
Of course, groups like the American Iranian Council have tried to muddy the waters and, unfortunately, have led some Senators and Congressman to de facto support an Islamic Republic which, ironically, the Iranian people don’t even support. But truth prevails, even over the big money donations of oil companies, and the naïve sponsorship of some university programs.
let’s get to the truth. Never before in history has an ideological
dictatorship willingly given up power no matter what its people say.
Civil society was all well and good in China up until June 3, 1989, but
the next day the world saw the true nature of the Chinese dictatorship.
And the dictatorship of Khamene’i and Khatami is little different. Now
let me be clear. Despite the propaganda of Keyhan, Ettela’at, and IRNA,
absolutely no one in Washington is talking about force against Iran.
Almost 100 years after the start of the first Mashrutiyat, it is up to
the Iranian people to lead a second Mashrutiyat. But we will not support
the Muhammad ‘Ali Shah’s of the present day. We will not support
Khamene’i, Khatami, or Shah Akbar Rafsanjani!
to the words of Michael Ledeen, Azar Nafisi, and Patrick Clawson,
American policymakers increasingly recognize that the dichotomy in Iran
is not between hardliners and reformers, but rather between government
and dissident. There can be no compromise on freedom. We will not make
the same mistake twice. With your constant pressure and only because of
your constant pressure will American policymakers not throw a repressive
Islamic Republic a lifeline in the naïve belief that they are helping
reform. Only with your vigilance will the State Department not be
tempted to pursue the same mercantilist policies that the European Union
regrettably pursues, pumping money into the wallets of the hardliners,
and wounding those who seek freedom, liberty, and reform.
I repeat, the United States recognizes the wealth and greatness of
Iranian civilization. Iran has a rich and deep culture, and Iranians are
rightfully proud. But we also recognize that the Islamic Republic does
not recognize true Iranian culture. It is not for the United States to
ever impose a leader on Iran. No one wants a puppet in Iran. The future
of Iran is for Iranians and Iranians only to decide. But they must be
given a choice. And whatever they choose, they will have a friend in the
United States. Iran is the key to stability in the Middle East, and has
always been a regional leader. I expect that peace and stability will
spread outward from a peaceful, democratic Iran.
more about Iranian culture. I sometime get criticized as do all other
non-Iranians who speak out against the massive human rights violations
of the Islamic Republic. We are sometime told we are against Iran, and
we portray the Iranian people in a negative light. Not so. I have
dedicated my life to the study of Iranian history, I have been the
recipient of wonderful hospitality in Iran, and I am one of the few who
has gotten to see Iranian culture firsthand in Iran, even under the
Islamic Republic. But make no mistake. The culture of the Islamic
Republic and the culture of Iran are not the same. To say that Iranians
don’t deserve freedom, don’t deserve liberty, and must live under a
regime they hate--- that is the true disrespect and disservice to the
Iranian people. Policymakers in Washington know the true wealth and
meaning of Iranian culture. And again I repeat, the Iranian people have
a strong friend in the United States. But guide us. Tell us how to
improve our message. Don’t let us forget that more than 65 million
Iranians who do not have freedom desire nothing less than true democracy
and freedom. Educate us. Make sure the Islamic Republic is judged by its
actions rather than its rhetoric.
France, England, and Senator Chuck Hagel agitate for increasing trade
with Tehran, remind them that the death penalty has doubled under
Muhammad Khatami’s administration. Remind them of the 3,000 who died
in a massive purge of political prisoners in 1988. Read to them Grand
Ayatollah Husayn ‘Ali Montazeri’s memoirs detailing the cruelty of
officially-sanctioned purges carried out by the same men marching under
the reformist banner. Public execution including death by stoning is not
just a tale of 1988, but also rather one of 1998 and 2002. Do not just
listen to lofty rhetoric of dialogue of civilizations if the rhetoric is
Khatami spoke before the Italian parliament, he called for tolerance and
respect. That is good. But where is it? And who is the true Khatami?
What exactly did Khatami mean, then, when he told Iranian television on
October 24, 2000, “if we abide by the Quran, we must mobilize to
kill.” While Khatami talks about a Dialogue of Civilizations, many in
the Islamic Republic talk about a clash of civilizations. They say the
U.S. is against Iranians, and that anyone who wants democracy is an
enemy or an agent of the C.I.A.
are wrong, and they are facile. There is no clash of civilizations
between Iranians and Americans. Iranians historically are among the
guardians of civilization. There is, however, a clash between those in
favor of human rights, and those in favor of the Islamic Republic. MEHR
and the Iranian community in the United States and Europe must be at the
vanguard of the fight for human rights. Credibility is your ally.
Don’t lose it.
Your mission is hard, but important. I look forward to celebrating the success of your efforts in Tehran. Sooner rather than later. Thank you.
P.O. Box 2037
P.V.P., CA 90274
Tel: 310 - 377 - 4590
Fax: 310 - 377 -3103
BACK TO HOME PAGE