How has your own experience, detailed in your two memoirs, shaped your view on the Islamic Republic and its system of governance and are your views of the current regime now firmly set? If not, what actions from the regime might cause you to reassess its legitimacy?
The Islamic Republic has been in power in Iran for about 33 years and its laws are based on Sharia law. Just to give one example, in Iran, according to the law, the testimony of a woman is worth half that of a man. A society in which half of the population is worth half of the rest can never be democratic or just unless the laws and the constitution change. In the 1980s, according to some accounts, more than 30,000 political prisoners were executed, and the majority of them were teenagers. Tens of thousands more were tortured and imprisoned. I was a political prisoner in Iran from 1982-1984. I was arrested at the age of sixteen, tortured, and raped repeatedly. These are the types of crimes against humanity that are ongoing as we speak. A system that has committed crimes against humanity can never be considered legitimate and its actions must be exposed. The innocents buried in mass graves in Iran deserve to be heard and so do all the other victims of the Islamic Republic.
What have those who seek to understand the Iranian system learned from your experiences?
My books have sold a few hundred thousand copies worldwide and have been published in 27 languages. I give five talks a week on average, mostly in Canada, the United States, and in Europe, at high schools, conferences, and universities. Thousand of people have heard me speak. I receive emails and Facebook messages on a daily basis from people from various nationalities, backgrounds, and age groups – including from Iranians living in Iran or in exile – who tell me that my books have brought attention to the terrible disregard for human rights in the Islamic Republic, and have inspired people to stand up to injustice in a non-violent way. I have created an online petition online aimed at the United Nations which people may sign to show their solidarity with Iran's political prisoners and survivors of torture.
Knowledge brings responsibility. My task is to make sure people know what is happening in Iran and that the people of Iran are not held hostage by their own government.
How can the international community promote democratic reforms in Iran without preventing public goods from being available to Iranian citizens? Can targeted sanctions balance competing security and human rights concerns – or would you recommend another course?
There is no doubt that sanctions against Iran affect innocent, helpless Iranian citizens who have been brutalized by their own government. On one hand, the regime suffocates its own people and imprisons and tortures them, and on the other hand, the sanctions that are supposed to weaken the regime create huge economic problems in Iran. These problems affect the poor and the middle class more than the rich and powerful governing elites who are directly or indirectly connected to the Revolutionary Guard. Sanctions are always a double-edged sword. There is no way that we can have sanctions against a country and not hurt average citizens and make them go hungry.
The main reason why the U.S. has implemented sanctions against Iran is not Iran's terrible disregard for human rights; we rarely hear government officials in the U.S. speak about the atrocities committed by the Iranian regime against its own people. The West seems to be mainly concerned with Iran's nuclear ambitions despite the fact that in the past 33 years no one has died because of it. The West's attention is misplaced when it comes to Iran. Bad U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, including the attack on Iraq and Afghanistan, has not helped the people of the Middle East to trust the West. When it comes to Iran, the West needs to concentrate on human rights issues, not only with rhetoric but with action; with a sound foreign policy that is not reactive and violent, but preventative and wise.
Real change in Iran can only come from within. Democracy cannot be given; it has to be achieved. History doesn't happen overnight, but it needs long-term planning that looks ahead more than three or four years. No recent U.S. president has looked ahead more than four years, and this has caused great damage not only within U.S. borders but worldwide.
How can members of the Iranian diaspora community best draw attention to the plight of Iranians under authoritarian rule? What types of pressure do these external activists face and/or what sensitivities must they balance in their home countries?
The Iranian diaspora community has serious issues to deal with. The majority of people who leave Iran and end up living in the West completely withdraw from politics for various reasons. Many are traumatized by the horrors they faced in Iran, such as imprisonment and torture and various forms of persecution. Others become defensive because of the way most mainstream media have dealt with Iran and have demonized the country without differentiating between its people and its government.
Some of the members of the diaspora that have remained engaged in politics are unfortunately affiliated with some extremist political groups like the Mojahedin-eh Khalgh organization, a cult-like group with a long history of violence. These complications have created a very sensitive and volatile situation that tends to exclude people with moderate views. The Iranian diaspora needs open forums where everyone can voice their concerns without being demonized. Unfortunately Iranians don't have lots of experience when it comes to tolerance and freedom of speech.
Should Canada be doing more to support refugees who flee Iran?
Recent changes to refugee laws in Canada are making it more and more difficult for refugee claimants who arrive here. I have become personally aware of a few cases of refugee claimants from Iran with traumatic backgrounds but who have been denied asylum and are in danger of being deported back to Iran, which would put their lives in serious danger. I have been trying to help these individuals in various ways, including writing letters to immigration authorities. I will take this opportunity to ask Minister Jason Kenney to help these desperate cases.
Are you at all optimistic that the June presidential election will be freer and fairer this time than it has been in the past?
According to the laws of Iran, the Supreme Leader, now Ayatollah Khamenei, must approve presidential candidates in order for them to run. Under such laws, the elections in Iran can never be truly democratic unless the constitution changes. The Supreme Leader never approves the candidates who disagree with him in any fundamental way. For the past 33 years, even the presidents that have been deemed "reformist" have been able to make only small, cosmetic changes that do not fundamentally affect the regime’s horrific disregard for human rights in Iran.