Patrick Clawson, Director for Research, at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, recently wrote an analysis with regards to recent developments in Iran and US policy. I have written few words and I would like to share them with you. In many respect I concur with Clawson’s analysis of the recent developments in Iran. However, I disagree with him on the form of US pressure on the Iranian regime.I agree with Clawson in that whether it’s US presence in Iraq or the intensity of people’s frustration with the regime and the slow pace of eforms, the student movement has regained a momentum that is not going to subside soon without a major breakthrough in the current political stalemate. Indeed, there are already sings of major new developments that can be summarized as follows:
1. There are reports that the Guardian Council has sent twin reformist bills back to Parliament for modification.The same report indicates that the Council may have reversed its opposition to the bills that would give President Khatami new powers and reduce the Council’s vetting role — in one form or anther.
The Council may indeed accept to limit role to that stated in the Constitution and stop vetting candidates for elected offices. If this happens, parliament’s doors may be opened to secular factions, such as the National Front, to participate in next year’s general elections.
This is in addition to Ayatollah Khamenie’s speech asking vigilante groups not to interfere with student demonstrations, as well as the Minister of the Interior’s announcement of the government’s intention to arrest and prosecute militant groups. Indeed, in Mashhad they did arrest their leader.
All and all, there is increasing evidence that a new round of compromise by the hardliners has started. And, as I have argued before, if let alone, this process in conjunction with appropriate US and EU policies, may take us to a point where a freely elected Parliament could revise the Constitution and peacefully remove “Velayate Faghih” as the linchpin of the Islamic Republic’s theocracy.
2. An open letter to Khamenie by more than a hundred members of Parliament is a clear indication of the determination of a large number of representatives to fight back by threatening to resign. Indeed, they did not attend a recent meeting with Khamenie. As The Guardian reported, “reformist MPs working within the system are focusing on gaining support for a referendum on reducing the powers of clerics and even towards separating mosque and state.”
3. The parallel struggle by the students and secular forces has certainly been strengthened by two major outside forces and developments. One is the psychological and emotional impact of US presence in neighboring countries. Another is the growing influence and popularity of satellite TV broadcasts. How could the US keep up pressure on Iran without harming the democratization process? On this, I significantly disagree with Clawson and the neo-cons.
Clawson argues that “no Iranian action has been as provocative to U.S. policymakers as those associated with Iran’s nuclear program. U.S. policy thus far has been to delay developments in the program in the hope that the hardliners will lose control before Iran ‘gets the bomb’. That scenario could still unfold, but the window of opportunity is closing with the program’s great progress. The ‘optimists’ maintain that Iran may not have a nuclear weapon for another three to four years; others believe the time frame is shorter. Regardless, Iran’s nuclear program is developing with a momentum that will have to be reversed soon if it is to be stopped.”
Contrary to Clawson, I believe, the US should not sharpen her differences with Iran on this aspect of her complaints, the WMDs that is. Emphasis on Iran’s nuclear ambitions, as the prime of reason to pick on the regime and increase pressure on Tehran, does not really help the cause of the democratic movement or long-term US interests in the region.
There is a consensus, and a lively debate among all factions of the opposition, on the issue of Iran’s real need for nuclear power as a source of energy, and nuclear weapons as a deterrent in a region infested with such weapons. This issue can be debated and resolved internally. Therefore, excessive US pressure on this issue may backlash and allow hardliners to find support and legitimacy in their anti-US rhetoric. The US could obtain more cooperation from Iran by lowering her rhetoric on WMDs and quietly solve the problem in a multilateral setting and through the IAEA.
There is a significant, substantive difference between those, like me, who see virtue in keeping up US pressure in support of the gradually flourishing democratic movement in Iran, and those who try to find excuses for one or another form of military invasion of Iran.
We have to be careful when advocating pressure on Iran. If by pressure we mean military aggression, we are certainly helping the cause of the hardliners. If we are blindly supporting the monarchists, we have helping the hardliners. If we mean increased economic sanctions, like current bills by Congressman Brad Sherman in the House and the “Iran Democracy Act” by Senator Brownback in the Senate advocating reinstating sanctions removed by the Clinton Administration, we are helping the hardliners.
It is a matter of consensus among economists that sanctions often contribute to the emergence and growth of monopolies and corruption that benefit oppressive tyrants. The masses will turn out to be real victims and losers of this power play. But, if by pressure, we mean adhering to the fundamental American values of respect for freedom, democracy, pluralism, human and civil rights, and to reiterate our determination to prosecute those who violate human rights, then we are helping the cause of reformist and democratic movement in Iran.
(I admit I may sound too optimistic, or outright naive, to ask the current US Administration to focus on issues that concerns human rights in Iran, or anywhere else in the world.)
I further appreciate Clawson’s recognition of the significance of massive revolutionary movements such as the Constitutional Revolution, the Tobacco Movement, and the Oil Nationalization. I would, however, like to remind him of the fact that those very significant popular movements were crushed by British and Russian imperial powers, or by admitted wrongful US interventions.
Therefore, since the demise of the Safavid Dynasty, foreign interference has cast a heavy and dark shadow on an otherwise internally determined socio-political process in Iran. And, consequently the country was brought to a point where its people were often associated with hostage taking, violence, and terrorism in the eyes of world public opinion.
There is certainly little awareness in the international community that as much as the Iranian people are the victim of their own social and cultural deficiencies, they are a victim of repeated foreign invasions and interventions in their internal economic and political affairs.
There is an overwhelming consensus among various leaders of the reformist and secular democratic movements that the Iranian political struggle should be resolved by people from within and that foreign invasion, or threat of invasion, would only deter and slow down this process.
US occupation of Iraq and satellite broadcasts by US-based TV stations have had positive psychological effect. But they have not been fundamental factors in the rise of reformism or other anti-establishment democratic movements in the country. The causes of such massive democratic demands and pressures are the very same that ignited the first stage of the Iranian revolution against the Shah and the US for its reckless support of his oppressive policies against the people.
The 1979 Revolution was a massive revolution comparable to the French and Russian revolutions. Its first stage was completed twenty-four years ago by the fall of the Shah, but its second stage started with a sense of self-reflection, a much deeper and more comprehensive understanding of the internal social, cultural, technical, and political shortcomings and contradictions.
Religious theocracy came as a result of people’s illusions about the potentials of deeply-rooted Islamic values and teachings, advocated by intellectuals such as Ali Shariati, Morteza Motahari, and Jalal Al-e Ahmad. In addition there was the opportunistic domination and monopoly of power by the clerical establishment. Absence of alternative institutions and organizations to fill the post-revolutionary power vacuum, a prolonged war with Iraq, and mistakes by the Mojahedin Khalgh and other leftist organizations, further consolidated clerical rule.
The foot solders of the first stage of the 1979 revolution were students and the urban poor, later joined by almost all other sections of the population, unified against the dictatorial rule of the Shah. The same students are now intellectual leaders inside and outside the country who are going to be inspiring and leading the foot soldiers of the second stage of the revolution, the young generation, the students, some of whom were born after the revolution.
Armed with new information technology and aided by a relatively open post-revolutionary intellectual and political environment, the new intellectual leadership’s distinguishing characteristic is that their vision of a free, democratic, and prosperous Iran is backed by their rich understanding of the past political history of their country. They see the redundance of notions such as “Islamic Democracy” or “Jaame-ye Tohidi” (classless Islamic society), and recognize the pitfalls of relying on foreign support and interventions and the inner workings of the international politics, as well as the significance of world public opinion.
Without going into further sociological analysis, I am simply trying to point to the nobility and genuineness of the current democratic movement which could be significantly harmed by incoherent, hawkish, or inappropriate US policies.
In conclusion, I believe the US should lend support to reformist members of the Iranian Parliament. By acknowledging their heroic efforts, they can be brought closer to the secular democratic movement, who are becoming increasingly alienated from Khatami. One should not forget that people tend to trust those leaders inside the country who stand by them and fight the battle alongside them, rather than those seasoned and brought in from abroad.
Again, I believe the US could quietly pursue its concerns on WMDs, but also sharpen its focus on violations of human and democratic rights by the hardliners.
Mehrdad Valibeigi is a professorial lecturer of economics at the American University in Washington, DC.