Expanded version of a talk given at the University of Washington’s Persian Studies Program, Seattle, Washington, on Saturday, May 17, 2003.
The US-Iran relations can only be assessed in a boarder context of the global United States foreign policy and in particular in regards to the Middle East. It is also important to look at how the new right’s influence has shaped the US foreign policy in the current administration, and how the events of September 11, 2001, have provided the much-needed domestic justification for this policy.
The title of this panel discussion suggests that while “containment” refers to the Islamic Republic regime in power in Iran, the “empowerment” applies to the Iranian people – a policy which has also presumably been the motivation behind the US military attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq over the last two years.
These two wars have indeed provided us with ample evidence about the thinking behind the rhetoric’s of the new American foreign policy under President George W. Bush. These had been spelled out in the past by prominent figures of this administration, but were generally ignored as being irrelevant at the time, as few if any of them had any influence in the corridors of power then.
Now that they are well positioned in the Pentagon, the State Department and the White House, we understand what “Project for the New American Century” meant or what “Pax Americana” was all about. In effect, we are facing a policy of empowerment, not much of the nations under dictatorial rule, but of the global American power in a unipolar world dominated by a single superpower.
It is well documented that the current policy, followed under the general term of “fighting terrorism”, was formulated well before September 11, but that the tragic events of that day provided the means to persuade a sceptic American public opinion for military intervention in countries suspected of supporting or harbouring terrorism.
Make no mistake: the US involvement in the Middle East has all the hallmarks of colonialism, in the classical sense. Of course almost all similar adventures in the past too had some justification in terms of securing the trade routes, advancing the cause of civilization and/or bringing the words of God to the natives. And of course, not all colonialist adventures in the past were malign or of no benefit to the humankind.
Indeed, it can be said that civilisation as we know it would have been poorer if not for great advances by empires in the past. But the by-products of these advances should not obscure the fact that the real motivations behind almost all of them have been greed and the quest for power and domination.
Moreover, an inevitable outcome of these adventures has been the eventual rise of the people who have been at the receiving end, and the humiliating withdrawal or defeat of the foreign power. The history of the birth of the United States provides ample evidence for this. As all empires have experienced in the past, military intervention may bring swift victory at first but inflict a lengthy headache later.
Today it is mainly this awakened desire of the current world superpower for world domination that has drastically changed the political map of the Middle East in less than two years. It is also the same policy, which is at the heart of the administration’s thinking towards Iran.
Iran under the Islamic Republic regime is not only a police state with horrible record on human rights and a bastion of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism attached to it, but also an obstacle to the American influence in the area and its desire to pacify the region both for itself and for its ally in the area, Israel.
And so, we see a shift of policy from containment of the Iranian regime in the 80’s and 90’s to what is now termed as empowerment. As I mentioned earlier, “empowerment” was also the buzzword frequently used in the case of military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq.
These two countries have so far paid a heavy price in lives and devastations, with little evidence of how much power the average citizen have achieved or will acquire in the process. But the military actions have secured their primary aims: a permanent foothold for American military in those countries, and regime changes moulded in a way to guarantee American political and financial interests for the foreseeable future.
In the case of Iran, is it very doubtful that the American administration will be using the same military means. But that the eventual end is the same, is not in doubt. Here, the Americans are hopeful that a groundswell of public opposition to the current regime in Iran combined with political and military pressure would do the job for them with no need for military intervention. And that of course is a strong possibility.
In Iran of today, unlike Afghanistan or Iraq, there is a very strong and vociferous public opposition to the current regime. This opposition has been demonstrated in so many ways, from national opinion polls to public displays of anger and dissent, to widespread boycott of the nationwide local election on 28th February this year.
What is lacking is a strong opposition force that can galvanise this public discontent into a mass political movement and present a credible democratic alternative to the Islamic Republic regime.
This is very much recognised by the opposition political elite in Iran, and as the situation becomes more critical there are signs that old rivalries and mistrusts are giving way to a new understanding among many Iranian democratic political figures and tendencies, both right and left, towards a common solution. In this critical situation, the way the Americans are going to behave would have a very definite and profound effect on the eventual outcome of these moves.
If empowerment of the Iranian people is the real aim of the US policy towards Iran, it must be understood and committed that no military intervention in Iran in any form or shape or in any circumstances should be considered. Such an intervention would only strengthen the hands of anti-democratic forces in Iran.
Moreover, even purely on military grounds, such an adventure may not be as easily pursued and terminated as that of Iraq or Afghanistan.The US military forces in both Afghanistan and Iraq encountered armies who were mainly trained in offensive rather than defensive tactics. As a result, these armies were not much of use in defensive positions. Iranians, on the other hand, have had an 8-year experience of a largely defensive war, and as such well may prove a hard nut to crack in the battlefields.
The US should also refrain from making deals with the so-called pragmatists in the current Iranian regime who are pursuing a Chines-style rapprochement with the West and hope for a Nixon-like response in return. The political developments in Iran has far outstripped that of China in the 70’s, and any deal with the Islamic Republic regime which ignores the democratic aspirations of the Iranian people is doomed to a spectacular failure from the outset.
Instead, the US would best serve the interests of the Iranian and American people by applying maximum political pressure on the Iranian regime for improvement of human rights, and getting the European and other democratic countries on its side to apply the same pressure on the Iranian regime, and by supporting the strong and vibrant democratic forces inside Iran.
It should also refrain from any selective approach towards Iranian opposition political figures and tendencies and from trying to prop up or promote those whose political ideas it finds more akin to its ideological stands. In other words, it should take a broad view of the Iranian political scene, keeping away from showing favours to any political leader, and allow the future political leaders of Iran to emerge rather than being propped up.
Only if these conditions (no military intervention, no behind the scene deals with the current regime, and no leader making) are met, the American pressure on Iran could be termed “empowerment” and would be welcomed by the vast majority of the Iranian people. It would also serve the best interests of the United States of America in the long-term.
It is worth pointing out that the American policy towards Iran and the Middle East over the last half a century have mostly been determined not solely from the view point of the United States and its national interests, but by consideration of a third country. During the cold war, it was the Soviet Union, which played a pivotal role in the American foreign policy in the Middle East.
The philosophy behind this approach was that what was bad for the Soviets must be good for America. This policy led first to the Americans propping and supporting a range of dictatorial regimes in the area (most notably in Iran), and when it did not work, to promoting the creation of a “green belt” on the southern borders of the Soviet Union.
However, as both experiences failed, and the “green belt” policy of the 70’s led to the emergence of Islamic fundamentalist regimes in Iran and Afghanistan, it became clear that this dichotomy did not always work – that not everything that was bad for the Soviet Union was necessarily good for America. And then September 11 finally brought home the disastrous consequences of such a dependent policy.
Now that the Soviet Union is gone, another country has taken its position as the determinant factor of US foreign policy in the area. The administration is now looking through the interests of Israel, and whatever the US does in the Middle East today is coloured by what is perceived to be good for Israel.
Again there is no guarantee that what is good for Israel would necessarily be good for America. The American power may secure Israeli supremacy in the area and eliminate any threat against it, but it may well put the Americans’ long-term security and interests in danger in a world infested with terrorism. As a result, the Americans may again have to pay a high price for such a dependent policy in the Middle East.
Only if Americans can articulate and follow an independent and non-interventionist foreign policy, can they in true form claim empowerment. They should look at what America’s long-term interests require rather than what the sort-term interests of Israel (or any other country for that matter) dictate.
Supporting democratic movements around the world, and allowing democracies to develop form inside are in the best interests of the United States in the long run. There are voices in America today calling for either military action in Iran or spending money on supporting certain political tendencies with little support inside of Iran but a high visibility outside of it.
Neither of these would serve the cause of democratic development in Iran or the long-term interests of the United States. A best policy is a people-centred policy – to put maximal pressure on the Iranian regime from outside and to let the democratic movement of the Iranian people to develop from inside.
America has a proud history of home-produced and developed democracy. It can be a major force in democratic developments around the world. For America’s long-term interests it is better to deal with a Turkey, which can use its democratic power to block an American request, than a Pakistan or Qatar that easily accepts what is dictated to it.
And as Americans are proud of establishing their democracy independently, they should allow the same to happen in other countries around the world. This is needed nowhere else more than in today's Iran.
Hossein Bagher Zadeh is a human rights activist and commentator on Iranian political and human rights issues.