More business, more democracy
U.S. sanctions on Iran and democratization of the Middle East
By Mehrdad Valibeigi
October 31, 2001
Three weeks after September 11, the Bush Administration removed U.S.
sanctions against Pakistan and India. As a result, there has been a renewed
interest in favor of doing the same for Iran. Following is some of my preliminary
thoughts on the issue and in particular in relation to the rise of interest
in promoting democracy in the Middle East.
I argue that removal of the sanctions on Iran is not only essential for
the short-term US interest in the Middle East, but also consolidates the
power base of the moderate Islamists and democratic movements. This in tern
benefits the West in the long run. I further believe that an expedited
removal of the sanctions would significantly improve the U.S. tarnished
image in the Islamic world.
Others have previously put most of the following argument forward. However,
the new rising circumstances begs a quick review of the proponents' arguments.
1. Removal of the sanctions will help the reformist movement, as the
conservatives can no longer blame U.S. for "economic terrorism".
2. Increased economic prosperity will not benefit the conservatives.
The conservatives no longer have absolute control over allocating oil revenues
in the economy.
3. Although sanctions have definitely hurt the Iranian economy, there
is little evidence that they have actually changed the mind-set and policies
of the hardliners who only benefit from continued severance of relations
with the United States.
4. Strategic U.S. economic interests will be much better served if American
oil companies can compete with other nationals in exploiting Iran/s vast
oil and gas resources.
5. Iran can become a hub for distribution of gas to Europe and East Asia.
6. The security of the Persian Gulf would be much better served if there
were less hostility between U.S. and Iran. Hence, no need for massive U.S.
military presence in the region.
7. The Middle East peace process will have a much better chance of success
if Iran's influence over Hezbollah and Hamas is diminished.
8. A friendlier Iran can always reduce the chance of widespread turmoil
in the Middle East, if U.S. decides to take on Saddam.
9. Improved relations and further integration of Iran into the international
community would allow closer monitoring of Iran's nuclear activities.
10. Support of the reformists would help spread emerging liberal interpretations
of Islamic political philosophy. The new approach, reflected in the works
of Ayatollah Mohsen Kadivar and Ayatollah Abdollah Nouri, can partially
fulfill the intellectual needs of Muslim youth who otherwise could turn
to the fanatic interpretations of Islamic politics.
11. A democratic Iran could be a model for other Islamic societies of
the Middle East.
I am not advocating an Islamic Republic system, but arguing in favor
of a socio-political system where the indigenous culture and intellectual
creativity are put to work to create harmony and compatibility between the
Islamic culture and the institutional requirements of a technologically-advanced
The current constitutional crisis between moderates and conservatives
has raised serious doubt about the viability of even a Third World brand
of democracy under the fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic political
philosophy. As a result, and contrary to the rest of the Islamic world,
demand for a secular state, modernism, and civil society among Iranians,
particularly the younger generation and women, has risen significantly.
Therefore, while the Iranian revolution of 1979 resulted in the spread
of militant and fundamentalist interpretations of Islam, it has also produced
a tangible historical experience that was not previously conceivable. It
has provided a valuable lesson for Muslim intellectuals who may now be
more cautious about the perils of not having clear constitutional demarcation
lines between the powers of mosque and state.
A repeat of the costly Iranian experience can only be avoided if the
political environment within Middle Eastern countries would allow free exchange
of ideas and dialogue among various social and political forces. Otherwise,
the West can rest assured that there will be an ever-increasing interest
in what has been correctly referred to as anti-modernist tendencies inside
Muslim nations.Therefore, promoting democracy in the Middle East should
start by supporting the reformists in Iran beginning with removing sanctions
The opponents of an expedited removal of sanctions have argued that the
U.S. should not reward the clerical regime for its lack of cooperation on
the three main issues of terrorism, opposition to the Middle East peace
process, and attempts to acquire and develop weapons of mass destruction.
They have further pointed out that continued hostility of the Islamic
Republic towards the U.S., as reflected in the harsh statements by Ayatollah
Khamenei after September 11, is a good reason for continuing the sanctions,
as Iran is still at the top of the U.S. State Department's list of terrorist-sponsoring
In my view, this logic is outdated for the two reasons; first, it is
not in line with the recent and growing international debate on the ineffectiveness
of economic sanctions as a foreign policy tool against authoritarian regimes;
second, it carelessly disregards new developments in Iranian politics and
growing divisions within the Islamic Republic.
With regards to the first, ample historical evidence points to the fact
that unilateral sanctions, particularly when imposed by one country such
as the U.S,, does not work in a today's highly-integrated global economy.
Without entering into the lengthy debate on the effectiveness of economic
sanctions, I invite your attention to some of the findings of a conference
in London in May 1999, titled, "Can Sanctions be Smarter".
There it was argued, "the theory that for decades has underpinned
sanction, i.e., that collective deprivation will lead to compliance, is
not valid. Causing general civilian pain with trade embargoes does not necessarily
lead autocratic regimes to change their policies and behavior or to be overthrown.
On the contrary... the target regime can use them for a 'rally around the
flag', mobilization of nationalistic sentiment."
This argument well reflects the impact of the sanctions on the attitudes
and policies of the conservatives in Iran. In other words, the imposition
of sanctions not only has not changed the anti-West, anti-American, policies
and attitudes of the powerful conservative minority, but has turned it into
a potent weapon for suppression of democratic forces and imposition of the
conservative agenda on the society. It has further given them ample excuse
to blame U.S. for their economic mismanagement during their absolute reign
prior to the 1997 elections.
Indeed, one can strongly argue that, with or without sanctions, the conservatives
would have pursued -- and will continue to pursue -- their anti-U.S. policies.
This is not only for their vested interest in keeping their control over
the sources of monopoly in the economy, but also, for their deeply-rooted
traditional and anti-modernist beliefs and interpretations of Islam.
The pro-sanction argument also disregards the long-term U.S. interest
in the region. In this regard, the recent official publication of the U.S.
Atlantic Council, reflects the direction of new policy recommendations in
the U.S. For example, it argues: Sanctions are "the main obstacle
preventing the United States from pursuing its complete range of interests
with Iran. Tehran refuses to accept the U.S. invitation to engage in a government-to-government
dialog until they are removed."
It continues, "Some obstacles to the achievement of U.S. national
interests have, in a sense, been self-inflicted, the primary example being
the sanctions, which have not achieved their stated objective of altering
Iranian behavior in areas of concern to the United States. Instead, they
have worked at cross-purposes with U.S. economic and long-term energy interests.
For these reasons alone the sanctions should be relaxed."
With regard to the neglect of current realities of Iranian politics by
the pro-sanctions camp, and in particular in support of my belief that supporting
reforms and democracy in Iran will have far reaching consequences for the
democratization of the Middle East, I would like to point to some of the
arguments by Ayatollahs Nouri and Kadivar. This is not only to point out
the significant differences between the reformists and conservative political
philosophies, but also, to highlight the depth of the reformists' conviction
to political democratization in the society.
For example, Nouri says: "With the implementation of these reforms
(political reforms), and by giving the people the opportunity to criticize
and express their rights, to which people are completely entitled to, a
political system could enjoy legitimacy and much higher level of approval
and support by the people." Or, "There is always a negative relation
between the real political power, and misuse of power in the violence, brutality,
and suppression. Some of the political leaders naively think that using
force and violence and abuse of political power increases their control
and dominance over the people." Or, "In the modern world, and
with enhanced mass communication and access to information, the role and
importance of individuals in the political life and legitimization of the
political authority have expanded significantly. Political power is further
consolidated and legitimized when it allows maximum number of citizens to
participate in the political process." In a recent article, Kadivar
argues: "A society that prosecutes, disrespects, and punishes the political
opposition is not a religious society although it pretends to be a religious
The reformist movement in Iran is a political reality that cannot be
avoided, overlooked, or viewed as a temporary side-effect of current developments
in Iran. The impact of the teachings of its leading intellectuals will remain
a formidable tool for the defense of liberal interpretations of the Islamic
texts. A peaceful transition to democracy in Iran could only be materialized
if the reformist forces, supported by the majority of the people, are assisted
vis-à-vis the conservatives.
This does not by any mean imply that the secular forces such as the so-called
the "Third Force", or secular ideologies such as the deeply-rooted
sense of Iranian nationalism and pride, should be undermined or neglected.
Democratic institutions have a much better chance to grow and flourish
under improved economic conditions and elevated standards of living for
the population. Removal of the sanctions, even in a step wise manner, is
certainly a prudent step towards promoting democracy in Iran and enhancing
long-term U.S. interests in the region.
Mehrdad Valibeigi is a professorial lecturer of economics at the American
University in Washington, DC.