If the former Governor of Vermont Howard Dean becomes the next President of the United States, what would be his administration’s policy toward the Islamic Republic of Iran? Would he advocate a regime change in Iran similar to what George Bush supports or, as an ideological heir to the Clinton administration, would he be satisfied with containment and track-two diplomacy?
Iran has been absent from Dean’s brief foreign policy discussions thus far. His campaign has focused on winning the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries and establishing Dean as a front-runner. But faced with increasing criticism from frustrated opponents with more foreign policy experience, Dean went on the offensive and began to elaborate on his national security policy.
Two days after the capture of Saddam Hussein, Dean delivered his first national security policy address in Los Angeles, stressing the importance to US security of rebuilding America’s international alliances and partnerships. He formulated his national security doctrine, a combination of military muscle and diplomatic initiatives designed not only to win the war but also the hearts and minds of the alienated European allies.
Despite resemblance of some of Dean’s strategy to that of the current administration, Dean’s doctrine differentiates itself by emphasizing “collective security”. In sharp contrast with the Bush administration’s “go-it-alone approach” Dean’s focus on the collective interest and objectives of the US and its allies is clear:
“We and our partners must commit ourselves to using every relevant capability, relationship, and organization to identify terrorist cells, seize terrorist funds, apprehend terrorist suspects, destroy terrorist camps, and prevent terrorist attacks. We must do even more to share intelligence, strengthen law enforcement cooperation, bolster efforts to squeeze terror financing, and enhance our capacity for joint military operations — all so we can stop the terrorists before they strike at us”.
This part of the doctrine, although useful in cases such as Afghanistan and Iraq, is not applicable to Iran. It is unlikely that any future administration would pursue a military confrontation with Iran despite abundant evidence that the Iranian regime actively supports terrorist activities in the region. It is implausible that a policy, which even the most hawkish in the Bush camp had to refrain from, stands any chance of becoming the priority of a democratic president.
If Dean has a new policy toward Iran, the roots of such new foreign policy must be found in the second component of Dean’s doctrine, the emphasis on diplomatic initiatives and ideological warfare. In his latest speech Dean provides several clues to what a Dean administration may do vis-à-vis Iran:
“The next President will also have to attack the roots of terror. He will have to lead and win the struggle of ideas. Here we should have a decisive edge. Osama bin Laden and his allies have nothing to offer except deceit, destruction, and death. There is a global struggle underway between peace-loving Muslims and this radical minority that seeks to hijack Islam for selfish and violent aims, that exploits resentment to persuade that murder is martyrdom, and hatred is somehow God’s will. The tragedy is that, by its actions, its unilateralism, and its ill-considered war in Iraq, this administration has empowered radicals, weakened moderates, and made it easier for the terrorists to add to their ranks.”
There are many good reasons to believe this statement could be a basis for Dean’s future Iran policy. The great divide between moderate and radical Islam has been at the heart of Iran’s foreign policy debate for over a decade. In the eyes of some Western observers, Iran’s political scene is divided between radicals and moderates, the latter group being a potential ally of the United States.
Others, citing the high rates of voter participation in various elections, claim that Iran is already a democracy and normalization of the relations between the two countries will consolidate the democratization process. The recommended strategy thus becomes one of appeasing the Iranian moderate faction or engaging in diplomatic initiatives that would purportedly strengthen the hands of these peace-loving moderates.
Rapprochement with the moderate Iran with good will and an olive branch was the Clinton administration policy. The track-two initiatives from small business and student exchange programs, to wrestling and soccer games replaced substantial Iran policy and strategic thinking. Much of Iran’s involvement with regional and international terrorism was ignored in favor of a constructive engagement with the moderates.
The policy however produced dismal results. It was, after all, Madeline Albright who issued a formal apology about the past US interventions in Iran, only to receive more hostility and criticism from Tehran. The irony of that encounter prompted Iran’s most popular satirist, Ebrahim Nabavi, to echo the insanity of the regime in Tehran by writing: “Ms Albright has no right to apologize! We will not allow her!”
The belief in the existence of a global struggle, a great divide between peace-loving Muslims and a radical minority is pervasive among US policy makers and political analysts. Both liberals and conservatives carry this mantle of political correctness, as it appears to be the only alternative to the idea of a war of civilizations between Islam and the West. This vision may help the Western countries to positively engage their Muslim minority but is least helpful and often misleading in the case of Iran.
The “great divide” vision fails to see realities of the Iranian political and civil society such as the fundamental, cultural and religious differences between Iran and the Arab world, and the strong grass-root, pro-America, secular movement for democracy. The main struggle in Iran has not been between the moderate and radical version of Islam, but rather between a secular democratic movement and the theocratic dictatorship.
Iran is a country caught in a civil war between a majority who demands a nonviolent “regime change” and a minority who resorts to violence to stay in power. Moderates members of the clergy are not able and in most cases unwilling to bring about a democratic change.
As a majority of Iranians looked to the United States for moral and political support, US foreign policy focused on constructive engagement during the Clinton years and weapons of mass destruction during the Bush administration. Neither administration prioritized human rights and democracy.
US political and economic pressure on the Iranian regime was badly needed to redress the balance of power in favor of democratic forces. But Bush’s unilateralism and military adventure in Iraq has significantly damaged the US credibility in the region making it increasingly difficult to rally the Europeans behind the democratic insurgency in Iran.
The Iranian-American community can be confident that the Bush administration is not concerned about democracy and civil liberties within the US or abroad. Saddam’s brutal suppression of his opposition and other human rights atrocities became an issue for this administration only after all intelligence and search missions failed to produce any evidence for the existence of WMDs in Iraq.
The Bush administration claims to support democracy and human rights quickly dissipated to business as usual when Moamar Al-Qaddafi, the brutal dictator of Libya, “said uncle”. Once Libya opened their weapon sites for inspection, the President was quick to boast about his new victory and promised all cooperating dictators who abandon their weapon program special benefits. The clergy in Tehran took careful notes. But so should those in the Iranian American community who care about democracy and human rights in Iran.
The Iranian American community must mobilize support for Dean’s campaign. Whatever the faults and shortcomings, Dean’s campaign can be safely credited for being open to fresh ideas and responding to grass root supporters. The Iranian American community has significant money, numbers and influence in states like California, Florida, Texas, Illinois, New York, and certainly in Washington DC. But our community must also get directly involved in the campaign so that Dean’s Iran could be dramatically different from that of the Clinton administration.
Dean’s campaign can benefit from the advice and insight of Iranian democrats at a time when foreign policy and the Middle East are high priorities and will be a battle ground for both candidates next year. Dean is the only candidate who can put democracy and human rights on the Iran foreign policy agenda. He is the only candidate who could revive the old alliance with Europe, and convince European supporters of the Islamic Republic to change their policy and build a coalition for the advancement of democracy in Iran.
The Bush’s road map to peace in the Middle East has been nothing but a failure. As Democrats we need fresh ideas, new visions and a different direction in foreign policy. We need a road map to democracy for Iran. A long lasting peace in the Middle East region will be difficult to achieve without a democratic transformation in the Islamic Republic.
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