(Washington, DC--February 15, 2005) Low levels of voter participation, most shockingly the 12 percent participation rate in the 2003 municipal elections, and a rising popular sense of helplessness are among the indicators used by Iran expert Alex Vatanka to explain the fact that the majority of Iranians do not prefer their current, theocratic government. Vatanka, an Editor/Analyst for Jane's Information Group, told a recent RFE/RL audience in Washington that the low voter turnout was an attempt by the people of Iran to deny the regime international credibility and "a clear signal to the ruling elite that voting makes no difference if no real choice is on the table."
Vatanka believes the Iranian people would have been willing to compromise and seek change within a constitutional framework; however, the Islamic camp has continuously rejected such efforts. As reformists increase their indifference, Vatanka predicts that any "notable reform could only realistically be expected to be initiated and implemented by the conservatives."
However, relying on the conservatives to begin regime change would be a stretch as well. Vatanka emphasized that, in today's Iran, there is no democratic movement or political organization with the ability to mobilize its supporters in the same way as the current regime, because there is a lack of unity among Iranians at both on the grassroots and organizational levels. Although he recognizes that organizations coordinated by Iranian exiles are potentially powerful tools for change, he cautioned that a disconnect exists between the culture and political objectives of these exiles in the West and native Iranian citizens.
While it is true that opinion polls conducted in 2002 indicated that approximately 70 percent of Iranians are in favor of dialogue with the United States, Vatanka expressed concern
that intense Iranian nationalism might rouse opposition against foreign intervention. Furthermore, past historical relations have weakened US credibility among the Iranian masses. Even when solely considering young Iranians, who make up 70 percent of the current population and who are most likely to oppose the current regime, Vatanka predicts that, "at the very best, a good portion of the young people will sit on the side lines and let events run their course, fearful of any direct participation."
Vatanka stated that fostering a genuine democratic movement within Iran is the best way to move forward. He noted that, "the inherent danger with sudden mass mobilization is that it could well be hijacked by yet another faction in the country, without actually producing a democratic system." Out of concern for durability, Vatanka said, it is imperative that any systemic changes be a product of educated choices, not simply mass mobilization.
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