By Mahrokh Gholamhosseinpour
November 21, 2020
For the last 16 years an Iranian-born doctor, Hassan Nayeb-Hashem, has been working on a remarkable project. The general practitioner and long-time human rights defender has produced a roadmap which, he says, can pave the way for a transition from the present bitter situation in Iran to a brighter, democratic future for Iran.
Dr. Nayeb-Hashem now lives in Vienna, Austria and represents the Südwind Association, an Austrian international development NGO, on the United Nations Human Rights Council. Over the course of a decade and a half, he has painstakingly compared the content of Iran’s constitution with those of 50 other countries, and produced a series of recommended modifications.
A human rights activist since the 1980s, Dr. Nayeb-Hashem believes the first step for Iran will be to hold a free and fair, ideally electronic election, based on best practice in successful democracies. From here, he says, a peaceful transition to a truly representative government can be achieved. He has also produced a plan for the transition period to reduce the risk of chaos and confusion as the country finds its feet. From there, elected parliamentarians, a citizens’ assembly and experts will be positioned to govern the country.
In an interview with IranWire, Dr. Nayeb Hashem explained how he envisions the transition to true democracy in Iran.
Why does an election have such a pivotal role in your project?
Elections are the key to change. The right to choose and to be chosen is a basic human right. Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as article 25 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, clearly state this. We are working to make this political right accessible to everyone in Iranian society.
You have researched the accepted standards of election practice in many countries. How is Iran doing in comparison?
The very first vote held in Iran after the 1979 revolution, which was the referendum on the proposed Islamic Republic, was not free or fair. There are some fundamental criteria that were not met. For one thing, the electorate had to vote in mosques. They were given two cards – a green one to vote “Yes”, and a red one to vote “No” – and had to cast their vote in front of the supervisors. Given the political atmosphere, this made casting a “No” vote difficult.
In the first presidential election [in January 1980], Massoud Rajavi was removed from the list of candidates. One hundred and twenty people registered as candidates but only eight were permitted to run. Later, in the elections for the Assembly of Experts [in December 1982], many candidates were also eliminated. Take, for example, [Iranian politician and Kurdish party leader, Abdol Rahman] Ghassemlou. He was very popular in West Azerbaijan province. He even got elected, but after a threatening speech by Khomeini, he was not allowed to engage.
Conditions have sometimes been slightly better, for instance in the elections for the sixth Iranian Parliament and the second Guardian Council. But in the end, even these are not truly open. People have always had to choose between members of a group pre-selected by the state.
Where did you get the idea for your project?
Sixteen years ago, it occurred to me that neither of the two options people have in Iran – boycotting elections or having to choose between bad and worse – are desirable. Those who boycott and don’t choose a side don’t benefit either. People boycotted the last parliamentary election [in February 2020], and what was the outcome? Groups aligned to the Revolutionary Guards swept up all the votes and took control of the parliament.
Are you saying people should vote despite their doubts in the legitimacy of the regime?
Not at all. What my friends and I are suggesting is an active boycott – and something beyond choosing between these two options. The current process is going nowhere. I am thinking about a mechanism that if implemented, would turn these staged elections into open and real ones.
But the problem is implementing it.
Yes. Implementing it is very hard. I first proposed the idea 16 years ago. It was Khatami’s second term as president, and he was not able to do much. Many people who heard my ideas suggested putting Mr. [Abbas] Amir-Entezam forward as a [presidential] candidate, but he didn’t accept. These days many propose Mrs. Nasrin Sotoudeh as an alternative. We need to elect someone who can take the power away from Khamenei. We don’t need another Khatami or Rouhani, who were powerless and impotent.
With regard to the parliament, we should elect representatives who are able to change the constitution. Our current parliament is a “yes-man” that accepts anything the Supreme Leader says. The majority of representatives in the sixth parliament pulled back from their campaign promises to reform electoral law and media law once the Supreme Leader had intervened.
After making modifications to the constitution 12 years ago, I presented myself as a potential candidate. More than 100 people supported the idea. But this coincided with the candidacy of Mousavi and Karroubi, and it was buried in all the noise. At the moment, there are three potential candidates: Mrs. Shahla Entesari, Mr. Mohammad Mahdavifar and Mr. Heshmatollah Tabarzadi. All three signed or supported the “Statement of 14” [an open letter signed by 14 prominent activists calling on Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to resign].
Can you explain your proposed electoral model?
In the suggested model, there won’t be a Guardian Council to approve or disapprove candidates on behalf of the people. Not everybody can be a candidate, of course – in most countries, a potential candidate should be supported by around a thousandth of eligible voters before they are approved.
In Austria, where I live, a person needs the support of 6000 people before their candidacy is formally approved. I have gone to the local municipality many times to register my support for the candidacy of a specific person.
People decide if a candidate is qualified to run, not anyone else. It would be similar to what’s going on in most other parts of the civilized world. There would be an independent electoral commission as well.
Who would run the electoral commission?
It is common in most parts of the world to have an independent electoral commission during an election. The commission is like a board of trustees for the people. Its goal is to protect people’s votes, and the members should be independent.
The commission’s actions could be monitored by observers from inside or outside the country. The commission will send its own observers to the voting and counts as well. All of this should be separate from the government.
There is presently no such separation in Iran. All candidates are approved by the Guardian Council, and election observers are affiliated with the Ministry of Interior. Supervising committees are affiliated with the Guardian Council and execution committees are affiliated with the government.
The independent election commission could include human rights activists and election rights activists. People with different beliefs should be able to serve. The commission should not be allied to any party and act in an unbiased way. However, political parties can also send their representative to watch over the commission.
But all this is only possible if society can clear the existing gridlock.
That’s absolutely right. Based on what has happened in other countries, there are a few options like extensive street protests, boycotts or social disobedience. It could be a boycott by the employees of the National Iranian Oil Company. It could be widespread social disobedience – for instance, not paying electricity and utility bills – which could paralyze the government. There are peaceful protests in Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and Belarus, and we can observe different models within them.
Haven’t all these been tried before, without results?
People’s minds change slowly and gradually. This is not something a single person can do. It requires a collective will. At the moment we are trying to lay the foundations for running a democracy based on elections. How we get there is another discussion.
Why do you say your project is only for short-term use?
Because the modified constitution is short-term. It is designed to serve a few months, a couple of years at most, in the transition period, until a constituent assembly is formed. It is not designed for the long term.
But the transition period could last longer than a few months.
Yes, it could. In Sudan, for example, they are having trouble completing the transition. It has been a few years. But I don’t expect we would have such a long transition period in Iran.
People sometimes rage when they hear the word “reform”. Are you worried about being called a “reformist” as your idea is about reforming the constitution?
Anyone who reads the text will understand that this project is not related to the Islamic Republic or to reforming the current structure. People who approved this project are publicly against Khamenei and are in prison because of that.
I am not asking anyone to recognize the current constitution, not to participate in the current electoral process, given the state of the current constitution. But of course, anyone who recognizes the current constitution or is pro-Islamic Republic would not be prevented from participating in our election. We want to go beyond boycotting the current, staged situations.
It seems you think the political structure of Iran could be altered at a low cost. Is that possible?
Yes. The Velvet Revolution in former Czechoslovakia took place 31 years ago, not that long ago, and it is said that not even the lawn was damaged in Prague during the popular protests and the subsequent, peaceful transfer of power. Any human society has such a capacity. Why not us?
If the protests are non-violent, if they are peaceful, even the violent party on the other side will become considerate in turn. A few days ago I saw a video from Belarus: a police officer, who had permission to shoot, pointed their gun toward a protester. The protester put their chest in front of the gun. The officer became ashamed and stopped pointing the gun at the protester. It is possible in Belarus. It was possible in Czechoslovakia. It is potentially possible in Iran as well.
The problem is that protesters are peaceful, but those who have power are not willing to give it up.
The Islamic Republic is aware of its past, violent reactions. They try to blame others for the people they killed last November. They are denying the figures. This means they are both aware and calculating about the violence. And so is the world. The United Nations Human Rights Council won’t tolerate it if thousands are killed. They were poised to hold a special session and launch a committee to investigate the November protests. The world will not tolerate the killings of too many peaceful protesters in the streets.
In 1977, if so much as a car accident took place in Iran, it was quite likely that the two drivers would get into a fight. Even though it was not that big a deal: two cars had collided, most people had insurance, and the issue would be resolved once the police had arrived and written up a report.
A few months before the 1979 revolution, if a car accident happened, people would get out of their cars, kiss each other and leave the scene. And in May 2009, certainly, opposing political groups were treating each other with kindness and tolerance. They had a common goal.
This shows that our society has the capacity to avoid violence. This mode of peaceful resolution needs to be reinforced, and taught within popular culture.