Déjà vu all over again, the U.S. foreign policy has once again arrived at a critical historical crossroad. It is either faced with the prospect of continuing to escalate the geopolitical stability of Southwest Asia aka the Middle East, through its unilateral and preemptive military interventions and the unwavering support of unpopular dictatorial regimes in the region on the one hand, or to commit to a multilateral dialogue and achieve our strategic security, and economic and political objectives in the context of the aspirations of the people in the region for sovereignty, democracy, freedom, equality, justice and peace, on the other. Whereas one might argue that the first option will in the short run lead to a quasi-stability and economic and political concessions by the regimes in the region, it is the latter paradigm that in the long run will ensure the organic acceptance of our leadership for the mutually sustainable economic development and trades that benefit all parties concerned.
After spending up to four trillion dollars and losing thousands of precious American lives in Afghanistan and Iraq within the past ten years-never mind the catastrophic miseries inflicted on the locals- the question still remains as to whether such a heavy toll endured by all sides, has enhanced our strategic objectives or the daily lives of the indigenous. The so-called Arab Spring, which led to a degree of reforms in Tunisia and Egypt and the current stalemate in Syria, seems to have subsided. The struggle of the majority Shiite population in Bahrain, governed by the Saudi-transplanted Sunni clan the Al-Khalifa, for democracy and equality, is quenched (with U.S. approval as the U.S. Fifth Fleet is stationed in Bahrain by the heavy-handed Saudi military forces essentially occupying the “pearl” archipelago. Similar to all other Sheikdoms in the Persian Gulf, Bahrain is a new island nation set up by the British in the early 70’s, which, for the preceding millennium was an integral province of then Persia aka Iran.
After having no diplomatic relations since 1979, the prospect of a possible rapprochement between the U.S.-West and Iran seems most promising. The Islamic Republic regime, IRI, isolated from the international community for thirty five years, is increasingly faced with some of the most serious existentialist dilemmas. Sanctions spearheaded by the U.S. have now impacted every segment of the society, including the acquirement of medicine and food. Overpopulation, unemployment, underemployment, monetary devaluation, corruptions, a systematic violation of civil and human rights, a multitude of shadow government organs, pillage and rampage of natural and financial resources, and repressions of dissent and civil society are exacerbated due to sanctions. The IRI government, acting schizophrenic for its very legitimacy, should take most blame for such blatant failures. The IRI’s political rhetoric inside and outside Iran has faded away into oblivion and its economic and socio-political agenda has miserably failed. The IRI’s mistrust of the West-the U.S., especially after having witnessed the fatal demise of the uncooperative regimes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Egypt, is understood. By the same token, the U.S. animosity toward Iran has only been bolstered by events as taking the American diplomats hostage in 1979, which in relation led to provocation and western support of Iraq in a prolonged border dispute skirmish against Iran of inclusive end. It brought up to one million lives lost, Iraqi extensive use of chemical weapons against Iranian civilians, and a half trillion economic loss for both sides. The Americans should finally move beyond the loss of Iran’s Pahlavi monarchy as the closest strategic ally in region; the Shah stretched the green Islamic belt along the southern Soviet borders and served as the gendarme of the west preventing the Russian longing to stretch its feet into the warm waters of the Persian Gulf. Ironically, the Pahlavi dynasty was overthrown due in part to their return to power and erosion of democratic principles back in 1953 when the only nationally elected Prime Minster Dr. Mohammad Mosadegh was overthrown by a coup orchestrated by the CIA.
With the election of Hassan Rouhani as President in Iran and his recent UN address and conversation with President Obama, the question has emerged as to whether the IRI is genuinely interested in joining the international community while allowing the civil society and the rule of law to take hold inside the country. If so, what does the future role of the U.S. in Southwest Asia, to be manifested through Iran, look like?
Iran to outsiders in the occident looks like a theocratic monolithic State. Upon closer examination, however, one can discern a broad spectrum of socio-political forces, not only among the grassroots populace, but also among the so-called establishment oligarchs, that are in a power struggle with one another (see the endnote). The clergies of the religious minorities: the quarter of a million Armenian and Assyrian Christians, thirty thousand Jewish, fifty thousand Zoroastrians and the nearly ten million Sunnis remain apolitical. Nonetheless, as recognized in the IRI Constitution, they have representatives in the Majles, the Iranian Parliament. Up to a half million followers of the Baha’i faith, founded by the Shirazi merchant Mohammad Ali Bab (Bab, means gate to paradise) who claimed to be the last emerging 12th Imam, and his successor ironically a Shiite clergy, Bahau’llah in Iran in the mid-19th century, are not recognized and in fact persecuted by the government. Baha’ism coincided with the national movement for modernization, reformation, and the rule of law and civil society in the mid to latter part of the 19th century. Such progressive movements led to the establishment of the Constitutional Monarchy in 1907 replacing the absolute monarchy 2,500 years in the making. Violation of human and civil rights, imprisonment, torture and execution of political prisoners of conscience remain grave concerns in Iran. Baha’i followers are particularly singled out and more harshly persecuted, discriminated, imprisoned, tortured, exiled and sometimes executed.
Notwithstanding the governments that have come and gone for nearly three millennia in Iran, 75% of its current population, under the age of 35, were born after the 1979 revolution. Iran has the most educated and technologically-savvy population in the region, after Israel. Up to two-third of the nearly three million university students are women. Today’s Iran, which is only a fraction of its zenith existence several millennia in the making, has not invaded any other nation in at least two hundred years. The cultural influence of Iran, formerly known to the West as Persia, continues to reverberate through the Indus Valley, Central Asia, the Caucuses and Asia Minor. The contributions of Iranians since antiquity toward humanity is well documented.
As the U.S. cautiously moves forward for direct negotiation with the IRI, we must succinctly articulate our outcome expectations and the expectations of the IRI role in the region and fundamental reformations of their domestic policies. The prerequisite for such negotiation is mutual reaffirmation to respect the integrity and security of both nations. We should not extend our domestic eminent domain statutes to tap onto and exploit natural and territorial resources of other nations. Whereas the U.S. has not yet gotten over the hangover of losing its most strategic ally, the Pahlavis, in the Near Eastern oil sphere, IRI is only using the nuclear issue as an ace close to its heart so as to receive survival security guarantees of not being overthrown. Hence, the sovereignty and security of Iran and the nation’s destiny as decided by the people must be guaranteed. By the same token, the safeguard of the rule of law and civil society, civil liberties and human rights, and equality and transparency in Iran, should remain paramount in reaching any breakthroughs. In two recent independent polls in Iran, up to 90% asked for the normalization of diplomatic relations with the west, especially the U.S. No other nation in Southwest Asia could even come close to that resolve. The nation of Iran must ultimately decide as to its future directions; the nearly three million Iranians in diaspora could only play an auxiliary and facilitating and not a decisive role. Notwithstanding, one could only surmise for a government in Iran to be anchored on a national secular and democratic principle, whereby all religions and ethnicities, including Shiism, are respected, but none become the exclusionary political force.
The latest number of Muslims worldwide reported by Pew Research at 1.65 billion, comprises nearly 25% of the world population, second only to all denominations of Christianity. The Shiites comprise over 15%, of the total, that is, 250 million Muslims. There are over a hundred thousand Shiite clerics who intrude in the daily lives of the 90% of the 80 million, the population of Iran; the additional one hundred fifty million Shiites, in order of percentage of the total population live in Bahrain, Azarbaijan, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Oman, Tajikistan, Turkey, and Syria. Each have their own interpretation of Juris Prudence and the level of participation in political activities religiously allowed. The Shiite clergies, comprised of the more “revered” black turbans (descendent of the prophet Mohammad through his daughter Fateme) and the white turbans (commoners), subject to which original school (Najaf, Qom, Mashhad, Damascus or Jabal Amel of Lebanon) they adhere to, have a somewhat divergent set of decrees on society, politics, economics, etc. The black turbans at times wear a green shawl on their waist to accentuate their loyal pedigree to Mohammad’s family as well. There is a highly structured hierarchy within the Shiite clergy that in many ways resembles, and was presumably adopted from Catholicism (the grand ayatollah Ol-Ozma is equivalent to the Pope.) Most Shiite clerics, resorting to a theological detour called Taghieh, can make a U-turn on any fatva (decree) and retro-legitimize an action or inaction under a hadith (narrative.) It is exactly this theological concept that allows Shiism to turn and reform as it fits, when compared to Sunnism which considers reformations tantamount to the fundamental sanctity of Islam. The Vahabi-Salafi movement of Saudi Arabia, the cornerstone of the Al-Qaedeh, justifies any despicable act to preserve the traditionalist Sunni Islam. The Saudi royal family of nearly one hundred thousand and their extended network belong to this sect. Although the Qur’an and most religious narratives believed by both the Shiites and the Sunnis are in common, deviations from the origin of Islam and how Mohammad lived and acted will rarely happen among the more zealot Sunnis. Paradoxically, it is the fatalist Shiites--the believers of the arrival of the messiah Mehdi, who is the 12th Shiite Emam and descendent of Mohammad—that are regarded as the most radicals. The Fadaian Islam and Hojatieh movement of the 20th century in Iran are staunch subscribers to occultation and as such would resort to any acts imagined so as to expedite the arrival of Mahdi on the day of Reckoning and who is expected to establish the [just] kingdom of God.
In today’s Iran, the Hojatieh adherents have penetrated and taken hold of every segment of the government and trades. The supreme leader, Ali Khamenei is struggling to strike a deal whereby he could circumvent the Hojatieh clan by seeking Western security guarantees for the regime’s existence and receiving recognition by the U.S.-Western nations. In fact, due to the ever increasing presence of the western allied U.S. forces in almost every country surrounding Iran, Khamenei and his chosen President Rouhani are exploiting the nuclear issue and their influential proxies in Syria in particular but also in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf states so as to bolster their legitimacy and survival. In doing so, they hope to provide a degree of relative comfort for the Iranian populace thereby delaying any fundamental overthrow of their IRI both from within and without. The misguided military and foreign policies of the West in the region of the past few decades has bolstered Iran as the only quasi-stable country in the region.