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U.S. should reassess Iran policies

By Moji Agha
June 12, 2001
The Iranian

Four years ago the conservative "religious" establishment in Iran was getting ready to "crown" its hand-picked choice for the Iranian presidency. It was so sure of its power that it blundered politically and allowed Mohammad Khatami, a political dark horse, to also run. The Iranian people took full advantage of this small democratic opening and by overwhelmingly voting for Khatami showed their thirst for change.

Their vote, however, was more a reflection of their rejection of the status quo, rather than a clear positive endorsement for change through reforms. In the ensuing years, the powerful establishment fought back furiously and showed that it would hold onto its political and economic control, even if it had to use violent means.

Two other major elections (parliamentary and municipal) again showed the strength of the Iranian people's will in favor of reforms. Banking on their popular mandate, the reformists could perhaps force the conservatives' hands by also using force, but that would risk plunging the country into another violent revolution and a possible civil war.

Needed to be tended to, however, was this underlying question: How was the country going to resolve the basic contradiction in her post-revolutionary constitution between democratic republicanism and the absolute rule of a supreme religious authority? Through revolution or gradual peaceful reform?

The reformists had to make up their minds. Mindful of the collapse of the Soviet Union and influenced by the Chinese model in the 90s, the conservative establishment tried to shift the focus away from political reform to economic expansion. However, Iran's "one-commodity" economy continues to be addicted to oil and it is still centrally controlled, in the firm hands of the post-revolutionary political-economic elite. It is also ill-adapted to the fast-paced structural and technological changes dictated by globalization and a one super-power world.

Despite lacking success in forcing its "economic development first" alternative, the conservative establishment continued to actively resist reforms, hoping to somehow pacify the popular demand for change. The establishment's barometer was whether the people would or would not turn out vigorously to vote for Khatami's second term.

Now, showing its surprising post-revolutionary political maturity (despite being quite young), the vast majority of the Iranian electorate has turned out again in unexpected numbers to loudly demand change. If Khatami's victory four years ago was more or less a "No" vote, the overwhelming vote on June 8 was a positive endorsement of a clear mandate for peaceful reforms in Iran.

Internationally, influenced by short-term power calculations in the Middle East, the American policy-makers' response to these deeply democratic developments in Iran has been cautious at best, if not indifferent or hostile. Moving beyond short-sightedness, the question for the U.S., and for Israel, is what kind of Iran is in their long-term national interests?

Unlike the Iranian people, the American and for that matter the Israeli power brokers are not faced in their relationship to Iran with an inherent constitutional contradiction. Their question is a simple, perhaps cynical, geopolitical one: Is Iran more "useful" to them as an "enemy" or as a potential friend?

Yes, in the short-term Iran could provide a useful "enemy" in order to justify the development of the hypothetically effective "missile defense" system, and also to justify continued dependency-producing support for Israel. However, blind insistence on a failed "containment" and unilateral sanctions regime, ignores and once again obstructs Iran's democratic development (remember 1953's CIA's ouster of Dr. Mossadegh?), and in the process it assures further radicalization of regional politics, global instability and further environmental destruction.

It is becoming increasingly clear that our tiny and fragile planet is in fact experiencing global warming, structural environmental pollution and over-population, and as a world community we still have no reliable alternative for non-renewable energy resources. Iran is naturally a major power in the Middle East and its very young population will go over 100 million in ten years and over 140 million by 2030. Rather than being purposefully ruined by short-sighted "colonial" policies, Iran should become a viable member of the international community because our planet has no other choice.

Now that the Iranian people have clearly spoken, it is time that the U.S. and Israel reassess their short-sighted Iran policies. The present "containment" and unilateral sanctions regime is an obstacle to peace, has failed and benefits no one, especially in the long run. Its only beneficiaries are international arms producers and dealers as well as opportunistic right wing politicians in the U.S., Israel, Iran, and elsewhere.

An engagement-based policy of mutual respect toward Iran will be a constructive alternative toward embracing her democratic evolution as a viable country in a critical part of the world. The continued attempts to "contain" Iran are not only unwise, racist, and immoral, but also do not allow this ancient civilization to shoulder her due responsibilities in our increasingly inter-dependent fragile planet.

It is time to lift the politico-economic sanctions against Iran as a way of sharing in the democratic joy of the Iranian youth, and in line with the spirit of the American constitutional wisdom.


Moji Agha is a visiting scholar in the Center For Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Arizona in Tucson. He teaches courses in cultural studies, conflict resolution, and cross-cultural psychology. He recently founded a non-profit center for inter-cultural and interfaith dialogue.

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