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‘I don’t want to be bleak, I want to be realistic’: Union debates reform in Iran

In the first debate of Trinity term, the Oxford Union debated the motion “This House Believes That the Islamic Republic of Iran Can Reform”.

Speakers for the proposition included two current Oxford students, alongside Dr Vahid Nick Pay, who lectures in International Politics at Oxford. 

The opposition speakers, Rana Rahimpour, John Limbert, and Professor Ali Ansari, are well-versed in the complexities of Iranian politics. Limbert, a former US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iran, was even held captive for over a year in the country after the U.S Embassy was captured by Iranian students in 1979.

The debate comes after the Crown Prince of Iran spoke at the Union in March, filling the streets of Oxford with supporters as he appealed to the West for support in his harshly critical view of Iran’s Islamic Republic government.

The term card’s description of the debate describes how, after the fall of the monarchy in 1979 and the subsequent rise of a theological government ruled by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, “opposition to the Iranian regime has never been more visible”.

Protests have raged in the country for over six months, sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini. She was allegedly beaten to death in September by the country’s religious morality police for wearing a hijab incorrectly, and for wearing tight trousers. 

The protests, led primarily by women, saw them cutting their hair and removing their hijabs, and soon evolved into a revolutionary movement calling for the overthrow of the regime.

Proposition speaker Mikaeel Toosy highlighted these feminist protests under the slogan “Woman, Life, Freedom”. He proposed this heightened unrest can force a “restructuring of government”, holding that his hope for reform is “not in vain”.

On the opposition, Rahimpour is a BBC journalist who has covered major international developments, following the story of the Iranian regime.

In the debate, her commitment that “I don’t want to be bleak, I want to be realistic” highlighted her pragmatic stance. Holding hostility to the West and sharia law as key obstacles to change, she said there is “still a long way to go”.

Ansari is the founding director of the Institute for Iranian Studies at the University of St Andrews, also holding a Professorship in Modern History with reference to the Middle East there. 

In his remarks, Ansari called the Iranian government an “exercise in perpetual crisis management”, arguing that the proposition of reform was “unlikely if not impossible”. He also called the government “politically and morally corrupt”.

His belief that hope for reform has reached its “ideological rigor mortis” reflected the history of protest being brutally crushed by the regime. He rejected what he saw as “indulgent romanticism” from the proposition.

With more optimism, Nick Pay held up Iran’s constitution originally following a “very liberal style” as potential for progress, alongside Iranians communicating across borders to share values and promote a “peaceful transition to democracy”.

Floor speeches included a contribution from OULC co-chair Ali Khosravi. His opposition argument called the proposition a “brave argument” in the face of a strawman position promoting Western intervention, instead favouring funding internal Iranian action.

Oxford Union Treasurer Rosie Jacobs spoke for the proposition, favouring reform over revolution as the regime would first need to be destabilised for any change.

Closing the proposition, Chris Collins held up the debate itself as showing the “prize and precious thing” those deprived of free speech in Iran lack. He concluded that change will come from the Iranian people.

In the final opposition speech, Limbert responded to the motion that “what I would like and what can happen are two different things”. The pessimism for reform was clear in his statement that change would always be held back because those in power see reform as “an existential threat”.

In comments to The Oxford Student, Mikaeel Toosy, a member of the Secretary’s Committee, stated: “I’m incredibly proud to have helped put together a debate spotlighting the discrimination towards women and Sunni Muslims in Iran and how this can improve.”