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May 1, 2007
19 Min read time
Changing Iran from within.
Most Iranians, I believe, share a broad outlook on American foreign policy: they think that Iran is valued only for its vast energy resources and its role in regional politics and that Iranian culture and economic development and the peace, welfare, and basic rights of Iranian citizens are largely irrelevant to American policymakers. I write this as an Iranian intellectual, not as a politician, and I offer these critical observations about U.S. policies with an eye toward more constructive proposals.
In particular, Iranians would endorse three basic propositions about the past 50 years of U.S.-Iranian relations:
American policy has focused on advancing America’s own economic interests and military supremacy. Because American strategic discourse has accentuated the role of military, security, and intelligence organs inside Iran, the agents who control those organs have been the main interlocutors for U.S. policy, while other political agents have been marginalized. The military concerns had roots in the Cold War. After the Soviet collapse, Iranians had hoped to see significant changes in U.S. foreign policy toward Iran and the Middle East. But the approach remained the same. And since the evil of 9/11, the “war on terrorism” has only entrenched this approach and eclipsed other possibilities.
American policy has been a major factor in modern Iran’s stalled political and economic growth. Of course, underdevelopment and despotism have deep roots in Iranian history, and are to a great extent the product of domestic cultural, social, religious, and economic factors. But Iranians will never forget the 1953 U.S.-supported coup that toppled the nationalist, moderate, democratic government of Dr. Mohammad Mosaddeq and ushered in a closed, dictatorial political system. Iranian society lost one of its most important historical opportunities for the establishment of a democracy.
In the 1970s the same U.S. interests produced the Nixon Doctrine, which promised military aid to strategic allies. Ostensibly to combat the spread of communism in the Middle East, the United States strongly supported the Shah’s regime, hoping it would act as a regional gendarme, regardless of its extensive violation of Iranians’ civil and human rights. As a result of this policy, efforts to foster democracy and protect human rights were completely overshadowed. After the 1979 Iranian revolution, the same stance turned the American government into a full-blown supporter of Saddam Hussein and his aggressions over the course of his eight-year war against Iran. The ruinous losses suffered by Iranian society pushed aside the ideals of freedom and justice that had inspired the 1979 revolution and brought national-security considerations to the fore. From the early 1990s on, the same preponderance of security and military considerations led to the American policy of dual containment and the economic sanctions on Iran. The Bush administration’s policy continues along this trajectory.
The Clinton administration did take some positive steps—as, for example, when Secretary of State Madeleine Albright described U.S. conduct toward Mosaddeq’s government as a mistake. But even during that period, the continued economic sanctions against Iran ultimately undermined the reformist government of President Mohammad Khatami. Some recent remarks by U.S. statesmen, too, have helpfully distinguished Iran’s cultured and peace-loving people from its repressive and fundamentalist state. Unfortunately, the impact of these welcome observations has been significantly diminished by the Bush administration’s escalating belligerence.
American policy has fostered a military mentality in Iranian political life. In the very first years after the Islamic revolution, a group of Iranian citizens occupied the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took its diplomats hostage. These radical forces cited American policies toward Iran to justify their conduct. In fact, radical forces in Iran—especially some of its security and military forces—have always used accusations of “enemy conspiracies” to justify repressive policies. Today, politicians with close ties to the military establishment have taken control of the Iranian government and are trying to manage the cultural and political arena in the style of a police state. These policies are, in turn, aggravating hostilities and allowing the Bush administration to justify its belligerence. Thus the vicious cycle continues.
The United States, by invoking the threat of a “Shia Crescent” or “Crescent of Crisis” extending from Iran (which is 90 percent Shia) through Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria, perpetuates the cycle by imagining a unified political enemy, and perhaps creating that unity in reality. The war that is now underway in Iraq—inflamed by al Qaeda and the former Baathist power holders—is much more a dispute between Iraq’s ethnic and religious communities over power and resources than a war between Islamic sects. Sunni and Shia religious teachings never endorse the abduction and murder of innocent people in streets and marketplaces or the destruction of religious sites.
Shias number more than 140 million in the Middle East. They constitute 75 percent of the population of Bahrain, 45 percent in Lebanon, 35 percent in Kuwait, 60 percent in Iraq, 10 percent in Saudi Arabia and Oman, 15 percent in Syria, 20 percent in Turkey, and 42 percent in Yemen. They have numerous, varied, and deep national attachments. Not all Shias favor Islamic governments: after the formation of an Islamic republic in Iran, some of the most senior Shia clerics in Lebanon and Iraq announced that the conditions did not exist in their countries for the establishment of a religious state.
Politicizing the Shia identity will only increase tensions in the Middle East, and may even destabilize North Africa and parts of Central Asia. Of course, some Islamic extremist groups see their political life as hinging on these polarizations. But encouraging these forces would only bring them from the fringes of the Middle East’s political arena to its volatile center.
• • •
The disastrous war in Iraq is the natural outcome of America’s military approach to the problems of the Middle East. In Iran, this approach is rapidly bringing the Bush administration to the brink of military confrontation with the government. But an attack against Iran would be morally and legally indefensible, and will produce calamitous results.
In saying this, I defend the nation of Iran, not the domestic or foreign policy of its current repressive, despotic government. But opposition to the current regime must not lead to a blanket endorsement of U.S. foreign policy.
What could justify military action against Iran? Under international law, governments have the right to take military action to repel an armed attack and to preempt a certain and imminent attack. But the United States has not been attacked by Iran, and is clearly not in any imminent danger of armed attack.
A more likely rationale is provided by the preventive-war doctrine formulated by the Bush administration in 2002. Preventive wars are said to be critical wars of last resort, directed at a “gathering threat” that might in the future dramatically change the balance of power to the advantage of the enemy. There are fundamental doubts about the justifiability of preventive wars, but even if we accept that such wars are justifiable in exceptional circumstances, such circumstances do not exist today. Even if the Iranian government is trying to produce nuclear weapons—despite its claims to the contrary—expert assessments put that goal at least five years away. In the meantime the international community can use non-military options to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. In the words of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s director-general, Mohamed ElBaradei,
I don’t see a military solution of the Iranian issue. First of all, as far as we know, what Iran has now today is the knowledge. We do not know that Iran has the industrial capacity to enrich uranium. We don’t know, we haven’t seen indication or concrete proof of a nuclear weapons program. So I don’t see that people talk about a military solution. I don’t know what they mean by that. You cannot bomb knowledge, as I said before. I think it would also be completely counterproductive.
And setting aside the Iranian government’s political poses, the Bush administration’s concern with Iran as a regional aggressor reflects a double standard. Based on the figures of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, in the years between 1988 and 2005, Iran’s annual military spending ranged between 16 percent and 73 percent of Israel’s spending. During this period, Iran’s military spending was also far less than Saudi Arabia’s and Turkey’s. If we look at per capita spending, calculated in a January report of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, in 2005 Iran spent by far the least in its region: approximately five percent as much as Israel, eight percent as much as Saudi Arabia, and less than half as much as Turkey.
On the nuclear side, Israel has about 100 to 200 ready-to-launch nuclear warheads. The January report of the International Institute for Strategic Studies put Iran’s nuclear-weapons manufacturing capacity years away: “If, one day, Iran has 3,000 operational centrifuges, the IISS estimates that it would take a minimum of 9 to 11 months for it to produce 25 kg of high-grade enriched uranium which would be enough for making one explosive weapon. On the most optimistic assessment, that day is two or three years away.”
Iran is not a serious military threat to any country in the region, nor has it upset the regional balance of power. Setting aside the sensationalist rhetoric of Iranian leaders, any realistic look at the Middle East and Iran must conclude that Iran’s military activities are primarily driven by fear and designed to preserve the regime. If the American goal is to achieve a just peace and reduce regional tension, inflaming the regime’s fears seems unlikely to succeed. The only legitimate way for Iran to develop nuclear technology for non-military purposes is to bring such activities under the supervision of the relevant international bodies, especially the International Atomic Energy Agency. The voluntary suspension of enrichment activity by the Iranian government until a comprehensive agreement is reached is the most rational and least costly way of preventing the escalation of tension and the outbreak of a ruinous war against Iran.
I believe this is possible. Through its official propaganda, the Iranian regime is trying to convince the world that there is consensus within Iran on its nuclear policies; in truth they are formulated by Iran’s leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Nearly all leading Iranian reformists and reformist groups have expressed opposition to these policies, either through open letters or confidential letters to Khamenei himself calling for the suspension of enrichment.
The voluntary suspension of uranium enrichment by the Iranian government will only yield lasting results, however, if it is a part of a broad set of initiatives that guarantee security, peace, and economic development in Iran and the Middle East. Unilateral action against Iran in the absence of an overall plan for regional peace and security will be seen by most of the people of the region as aimed at safeguarding Israel’s supremacy and imposing an unjust peace on Palestinians and the broader Muslim world.
Some people have tried to justify military action by claiming that the Iranian government endangers regional stability, specifically by obstructing the Palestinian–Israeli peace process. But the hollow slogans of Iran’s fundamentalist rulers are not preventing a just peace between Palestine and Israel. Statements favoring the destruction of Israel and denying the Holocaust are unwise and destructive, with serious negative consequences for Iran at the international level. But the root cause of much regional instability and violence, and of the troubling growth of fundamentalism, is the Palestinians’ appalling situation and the painful conflict between Israel and Palestine. There is no peace plan on the table today because the parties involved do not even have a common framework for dialogue. America’s unilateral support for Israel, its attempts to impose Israel’s power without considering Palestinians’ basic human rights, the setting aside of the Oslo Accords, and the recent wars in Gaza and Lebanon have, in practice, removed the possibility of achieving any kind of agreement in the near future. The Israeli government’s opposition to a genuinely independent Palestinian government and to a right of return for Palestinian refugees helps perpetuate the crises and makes peaceful life impossible in the region. If the U.S. government places on its agenda the establishment of two independent states in two independent lands—Palestine and Israel—no government can oppose such a plan.
Regional instability and insecurity, as well as extremism and fundamentalism, are fueled by pervasive poverty, illiteracy, and corrupt and dictatorial states that, more often than not, enjoy the support of Western countries, especially the United States. As long as these root causes remain, there will be instability and insecurity in the region.
Some may want to justify an attack on Iran with the claim that the Iranian government supports terrorism. This is another double standard: the fact is that some of America’s allies in the Middle East are more likely than Iran to be secretly supporting terrorist groups, such as al Qaeda, and Islamic fundamentalist groups, such as the Taliban.
A final justification for military action might be the extensive human-rights violations in Iran. The Iranian state is certainly guilty of violating many of its citizens’ basic rights; responsible members of the international community ought not to view these violations with indifference. But a military attack is not a just or effective response. Military intervention may be a valid humanitarian response to genocide, or crimes against humanity. But nothing so extreme is going on in Iran, and the Iranian government’s human-rights violations are much less severe than those of many of America’s allies in the Middle East.
And even if the rights violations were more severe, any case for military action must also take the consequences into account. First and foremost, an attack would be calamitous for the innocent people of Iran and the region. As in Iraq, where civilian deaths outnumber military ones by a factor of 15, the vast majority of victims in this war will be civilians. Politics must be aimed at reducing the pain and suffering of human beings. Any policy that increases human beings’ pain and suffering and violates their sanctity and dignity is morally repugnant.
A military attack on Iran would also yield terrible political consequences. It would foster the growth of fundamentalism in the region, which would be bad for the United States and other Western countries and even worse for the Islamic world. Fundamentalism—with its inhuman view of women, hatred of freedom and democracy, and denigration of human rights—is a significant factor in the underdevelopment of Islamic communities. Fundamentalists largely reject Western art, morality, philosophy, culture, and science, though they make an exception for technologies of violence. This narrow-minded view of some of humanity’s great achievements is particularly harmful to Muslims. But a military attack on Iran would reignite the conviction that the Judeo-Christian West, led by the United States, is assaulting the world of Islam, from Afghanistan and Palestine to Iraq and Iran; and it would encourage the view that fundamentalist methods are the best way to fight the non-Muslim invaders. Western governments must not equate the battle against fundamentalism with a battle against Islam—as President Bush does when he describes the “war on terror” as a “crusade,” or when he speaks of “Islamic fascism.” It not only isolates moderate and democratic Muslims; it also provides fertile ground for fundamentalists among them.
We can already see this dynamic at work. After the 1997 election of Mohammad Khatami as president of Iran, civil society, human rights, and political freedoms became the dominant concerns in Iranian political life. The current U.S. military threat has given the Iranian government a freer hand in repressing Iran’s budding civil society in the name of national security, provided a pretext to entrust key political posts to military and security officers, and so eclipsed democratic discourse that some Iranian reformists see themselves caught between domestic despotism and foreign invasion.
Political change in Iran is necessary, but it must not be achieved by foreign intervention. Any U.S. military attack is likely to involve “regime change.” Iran’s rulers know this and are likely to become far more vicious, severe, and repressive if they are forced to prepare to fight to the very last breath. In the historical memory of Iranians, regime change is accompanied by killings, the seizure of property, repression, and human-rights abuses. And if the regime change occurs through U.S. intervention, it will be far more destructive than any structural political change instigated by domestic forces.
In addition to its crushing effect on political life, the fire of war will also destroy Iran’s economic infrastructure. The people of Iran are still paying the cost of the eight-year-long war with Iraq, a war that not only overshadowed Iranians’ struggle for freedom but also derailed Iran’s economy for many years. A U.S. military attack would undo everything good that has happened since the end of that destructive war.
• • •
What, then, should be done about Iran? Iran’s largest problem is its domestic politics. I believe that a consensus exists among leading Iranian intellectuals and democrats that the current government is incapable of fulfilling Iran’s national interests and having a constructive relationship with the international community.
But regime change is the duty of Iranians. And it must proceed not by military means but through a sustained, nonviolent civil campaign. The campaign must protect individuals, groups, and professions. And it must aim to bring about free elections and a constitution that recognizes basic political and civil rights and creates checks on institutional power by establishing freedom of expression, the right to form trade unions and political associations, a separation of powers, a guarantee of the political neutrality of the judiciary and the armed forces, the rule of law, and fair trials.
Three decades of experience in southern and eastern Europe and Latin America demonstrates that a democratic transition will not occur through violence. Where force during the period of transition has produced sectarian conflict, authoritarian systems have reemerged. The aim of free and fair elections is not to replace unelected despots with elected despots. Getting agreement on the rules of political activity from the start—an agreement to respect those rules in the exercise of power—is more important than holding any single election.
Iran’s democracy movement must also reject a strategy of revenge and elimination. Faced with death or revenge, a political regime will have no inclination to negotiate and will not submit to the peaceful alternation of power. Iran’s leaders must have hope for their own personal and political futures. If Argentine generals, the leaders of the Pinochet regime, South Africa’s apartheid rulers, and eastern European Communists had come to the conclusion that democracy meant death, they would likely have resisted change with all their might, and history might well have taken a very different course.
A successful democratic transition in Iran will require favorable international conditions to increase the bargaining power of domestic pro-democracy forces.
First, the international community must understand that the Iranian government is grappling with extensive economic and social problems: widespread youth unemployment, administrative corruption, drug addiction, rampant inflation, and, for many Iranians, the lack of social and psychological security. Solving these problems hinges on economic growth. And economic growth requires foreign investment and a transfer of technology and know-how. But foreign investment in Iran fell from $482 million in 2003 to $100 million in 2004 and $30 million in 2005. For Iran’s oil industry to maintain its current level of production, it will need at least a billion dollars of foreign investment per year, as well as the transfer of the relevant technology. The international community can provide economic assistance while making it conditional on the Iranian government’s respect for human rights and democratic standards.
Second, the United Nations can supervise the allocation of economic projects to domestic and foreign contractors through the ILO, UNCTAD, and UNDP. The Iranian government has been giving these contracts to its own forces to strengthen its control over the economy and create allies against Iran’s movement for democracy and freedom. If international agencies decide that the Iranian government has acted unlawfully in allocating contracts, they can prevent new contracts with foreign companies. This supervision is particularly necessary in the oil industry.
Third, the international community can support Iran’s work force and strengthen its civil society by making its commercial arrangements with the country’s public sector conditional on the creation of a right to form independent trade unions. In Iran, neither public-sector nor private-sector workers are allowed to have independent associations to represent their interests. Just as the international community concerns itself with Iran’s nuclear activities and demands that they take place under the oversight of UN treaties and agencies, it must also work to bring Iran’s labor standards into compliance with international laws. The international community must not forget that the International Labor Organization, like the International Atomic Energy Agency, is an agency of the UN.
Fourth, the international community must ban exports to Iran of technology used for control and repression. The Iranian state has easily obtained up-to-date technology for filtering Web sites and tapping telephones, for example. These technologies have been instrumental in repressing Iran’s democracy movement by allowing the state to control the media and to paralyze the free flow of information.
Fifth, to establish long-term stability in the Middle East, the international community must devise an overarching policy for the region grounded in the principles of non-aggression and economic development. Purging the entire Middle East of nuclear and biological weapons should be an important element of any plan.
In response to such international support, leading Iranians, Iran’s freedom lovers, and the Iranian people in general must continue to pressure the regime to abandon its nuclear dream. Even if the Iranian regime only pursues nuclear energy, given the country’s poor technology and weak control, the Iranian people and neighboring countries will be in constant danger of human and environmental disaster. If Iran’s nuclear program becomes focused on creating weapons, the dangers will be much greater. But external pressure that would inflict hardship on Iranian men, women, and children is unacceptable.
The international community can offer to exchange economic assistance for democratic reform and make investment and (non-military) technology transfer conditional on free and fair elections, thus strengthening Iran’s budding civil society and supporting internal efforts to establish democracy. But taking these steps, and making them work constructively, will require a fundamental reorientation of prevailing American policy discourse about the Middle East. The threat of military action must give way to the idea of changing the current regime’s conduct and structure, making it accept the rule of law, hold free and fair elections, reform discriminatory laws, and recognize the Iranian people’s right to determine their own political destiny.
The Iranian and American governments have many common interests in the Middle East and can more effectively help bring regional peace and stability through cooperation. It will not be easy, but one thing is certain: lasting peace and stability cannot be established through violence.
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