TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Letter to Khamenei

To His Excellency Ayatollah Said Ali Khamenei,

A year before the Iranian Revolution, a member of my family had the great privilege of praying beside you. Later, during the revolution, this anecdote became a source of great pride within our family. This relative of mine had prayed with you, and yet he, like me, was forced to go into hiding soon after the revolution.

Excellency, we had not committed any crime. We merely disagreed with the repressive measures instituted by Imam Khomeini, and that had become a punishable offense.

I was not even eighteen years old when I was forced to flee my own country. Against all the hopes of those of us who participated in the Islamic revolution, the revolution enacted a system of political violence that created an unprecedented flood of political refugees and led to the murder of thousands by a regime that claimed to liberate them from tyranny. In the 1980s, thousands of Iranians who fought with you against the Shah were executed, convicted by revolutionary tribunals, without legal representation, with no official charge. Among those killed were two members of my own family. One is buried in a mass grave. In 1988, in the space of a few weeks, thousands of political prisoners were given a summary hearing, slain and thrown into anonymous graves on the orders of Imam Khomeini.

The prisoners were asked three questions: Are you a Muslim? Did you pray this morning? And have you told us everything about your friends, so that we can assume that you will now adhere to our sharia laws? Thousands of them gave the wrong answer to these questions, and as a result they now lie buried together in a huge mass grave at Khavaran in the desert outside Tehran.

Recently, your president ordered this mass grave to be destroyed. Why did he do that? I suspect it was from fear. Because every day weeping mothers lay flowers on that inglorious pile of earth. Imam Khomeini promised the people Islamic justice. Those mass graves testify to what that means. They are the hallmark of the theocratic regime that you have led for the past twenty years.

Thirty years ago, millions of Iranians, young people mainly, took to the streets to demonstrate for three fundamental rights. First and foremost, the basic freedoms of Azadi-e Baian, Azadi-e Qalam, Azadi-e Andish-e: freedom of speech, freedom to write, and freedom of thought. Second, the right of independence. And third, they demanded the (Islamic) republic.

Against our hopes we helped put a monstrous constitution in place. In the end, Imam Khomeini’s doctrine of vilayat-i faqih, rule by a single ayatollah, created an unparalleled crisis for Iran and Islam itself.

Excellency, every response you gave toward non-violent protest has been one of more oppression and more violence. Even in constitutional questions: the appointment of the supreme religious political leader, under the vilayat-i faqih system, has led to insoluble conflict. The periodic presidential elections have had no influence at all on the organization of the judicial system, on foreign policy, or on the government’s security policy, and they have thus undermined every form of public credibility and legitimacy. Former president Khatami was eventually forced to concede in public that, despite the high expectations of his supporters, he had been unable to implement any serious reforms. You, as leader of Iran, blocked every presidential measure that you did not accept. As a result, millions of Iranians were disappointed in President Khatami—although it was actually you who was to blame.

The revolution that had begun in freedom, ended in the rule of President Ahmadinejad, with anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial. President Ahmadinejad boasted that he would wipe Israel, a member of the United Nations, from the map. Many like me feel a deep shame at this uncivilized and un-Persian anti-Semitism. Iran’s semi-official anti-Semitism and tyrannical rule toward its own people reveal the moral failure of the regime that you lead. Millions of people in Tehran and other Iranian cities have condemned this moral bankruptcy by demonstrating and by voting for Mir Housein Mousavi. Your regime is finished. Surely you realize that too, Excellency? And if you have not realized it yet, then surely you, just like the Shah some thirty years ago, must have heard the hundreds of thousands in Tehran shouting “Allahu Akabar, down with the dictatorship!”

Excellency, the demonstrations attest that the people of Iran, the children of the revolution, will accept your rule no more. Your regime is no longer able to exercise sovereignty over the Iranian people without the recourse to violence, extreme violence. I urge you to recognize that Iran is now undeniably at a crossroads: either the will of the people is accepted and a peaceful transition to democracy is achieved, or you plan to respond to these protests by launching a bloodbath, which will cause unprecedented chaos in Iran. Ask yourself: Can a regime that is hated and rejected by a huge majority of the population transform itself into a democratic administration that recognizes the rule of law? Has it ever in history been possible for a political transition to take place peacefully and without the shedding of blood?

The surprising answer is yes, it has been done. The Apartheid regime was also despised by the majority. And that regime was an extremely violent regime. Even so, South Africa chose for a peaceful transition under the brilliant leadership of Nelson Mandela. They negotiated to guarantee the interests (including security and property rights) of the ruling minority. At the same time, they discussed and developed a transitional constitution. This model, called Negotiating Justice, is founded on human rights and the principle of democracy. What happened in South Africa, a country torn apart by hatred and violence, can happen in Iran too.

Excellency, everything depends in the end on the will of the political leader. On you. You may, like De Klerk, the former president of South Africa, decide to create an opportunity for transition; or you may, as you have done in the past, choose to suppress the will of the people with violence. But I urge you to consider that millions of Iranians trust Mousavi. In the latest election, it was not Ahmadinejad but Mousavi who won. He could play the role that Mandela played in the peaceful transition in South Africa. If you give him that chance.

Naturally, people will ask what will happen to those who perpetrated the crimes against humanity, the mass executions that were committed in the name of the Islamic state. Here the precedent set by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa provides a possible solution. The will of the people need not end in bloodshed. The United Nations could play a crucial role. The organization has considerable experience in what is known as Transitional Justice. UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon should discuss this with the Security Council. Would this be an infringement of Iranian sovereignty? No.

Excellency, even you have your doubts about the declared outcome of that election since you have ordered the poll to be investigated. The mass demonstrations in the cities of Iran show that the desire of the Iranian people is for political transition.

Why should the UN Security Council concern itself with the Iranian question? Because an Iran dominated by violent internal conflict is a threat to regional peace and security and a threat to the people of Iran themselves. Furthermore, without the outcome of this conflict secured, the existence of advanced missiles and enriched radioactive material poses a severe threat to international peace and security. It is up to the United Nations to persuade you, if you fail to realize yourself, that a peaceful transition is possible. In the end it is Iranians, including Iranians living abroad, who must make this change happen.

Excellency Khamenei, you and I know that no tyranny has ever succeeded in creating a political system that lasts. Your advisors have been misinforming you these past years. They have made you deaf and blind to what is really happening. The truth is that the ruling elite is despised by the people. Your puppet Ahmadinejad, who likes to appeal to Iranians in populist terms, is reviled. If you continue to use violence against your people, then you have obviously learned nothing from the tragic fate of the last shah of Persia.

The mothers of the members of my family who were executed will not forgive you. But they will let you withdraw peacefully, for the sake of freedom and the peace of their grandchildren. Time is pressing for the Iranian people, and for the international community. I wish you wisdom and peace,


Afshin Ellian

Prof. Dr. Afshin Ellian was born in Tehran. He teaches Philosophy of Law at Leiden University, Netherlands. He has written his PhD thesis on the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the role it played in the years of political transition. His article “Monotheism as a Political Problem: Political Islam and the Attack on Religious Equality and Freedom” appeared in Telos 145 (Winter 2008).

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