April 5, 2011

Former Italian Ambassador to Iran Discusses Opportunities for Pro-Democracy Movement

ToscanoWashington DC—“Civil society can mobilize the people and provoke the demise of a non-democratic regime,” said Roberto Toscano, the former Italian ambassador to Iran from 2003 to 2008, at an event at the Woodrow Wilson Center on Monday. Toscano, who is now a Public Policy Scholar at the Wilson Center, discussed the political and social dynamics that the Green Movement must address to be successful.

Toscano compared the protests in Iran to the protests in Egypt and Tunisia by emphasizing the importance of broadening the scope of protest rather than focusing on political issues only.

“In Iran, there are plenty of reasons of social discontent: cronyism, corruption and efficiency,” he said. “And yet, the Iranian protest is more imminently political. Socio-economic themes have the tendency to unite a wide spectrum of social strata.”

He argued that the Green Movement should focus on three specific areas when protesting: the ideological perspective, social economic issues and foreign policy.

According to Toscano, while theocracy is not compatible with democracy, secular and democratic countries can be compatible with religious believers, as he said is the case in the U.S. “Religion has shaped Iran, not only from a strictly religious point of view, but in ethics and aesthetics,” stated Toscano. “Religion is compatible with one version of democracy in the sense that…society admits the presence of organized religion in terms of culture, in terms of teachings and also politics.”

But what does not work, he said, is for there to be a “short circuit between religion and the state,” in which religion tries to exert direct influence on the state without passing through the free decision of individuals.

Toscano also emphasized the importance of addressing socioeconomic issues, like welfare and the establishment of a market free economy in Iran. “There are a lot of real wealthy private capitalists [in Iran],” he noted. “They thrive, they don’t pay taxes, they pay their workers when and how much they want, they operate practically without labor unions. So it’s a paradise for a crony capitalist. As long as you are in a good relationship with the government, you thrive.”

But, Toscano argued, “I think there are, in Iran, forces—especially young—that would love to engage in real market economy. And there are a lot of talents as we see when Iranians go abroad.” Therefore, there could be momentum behind calls for a real market economy, combined with welfare rights to replace the emphasis on charity.

Finally, Toscano insisted the Green Movement should no longer be “shy” about addressing foreign policy issues. For instance, he said, there is room for debate on elements of the nuclear file, despite the fact that Iran’s nuclear program is not a “regime issue” but rather a national one. By engaging in a debate on the government’s handling of the nuclear issue internationally, Toscano said, the opposition could “de-dramatize and especially reveal that the issue can be legitimate, the right is there,” but that the Iranian government has mismanaged it politically.





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