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More business, more democracy
U.S. sanctions on Iran and democratization of the Middle East

By Mehrdad Valibeigi
October 31, 2001
The Iranian

Three weeks after September 11, the Bush Administration removed U.S. sanctions against Pakistan and India. As a result, there has been a renewed interest in favor of doing the same for Iran. Following is some of my preliminary thoughts on the issue and in particular in relation to the rise of interest in promoting democracy in the Middle East.

I argue that removal of the sanctions on Iran is not only essential for the short-term US interest in the Middle East, but also consolidates the power base of the moderate Islamists and democratic movements. This in tern benefits the West in the long run. I further believe that an expedited removal of the sanctions would significantly improve the U.S. tarnished image in the Islamic world.

Others have previously put most of the following argument forward. However, the new rising circumstances begs a quick review of the proponents' arguments.

1. Removal of the sanctions will help the reformist movement, as the conservatives can no longer blame U.S. for "economic terrorism".

2. Increased economic prosperity will not benefit the conservatives. The conservatives no longer have absolute control over allocating oil revenues in the economy.

3. Although sanctions have definitely hurt the Iranian economy, there is little evidence that they have actually changed the mind-set and policies of the hardliners who only benefit from continued severance of relations with the United States.

4. Strategic U.S. economic interests will be much better served if American oil companies can compete with other nationals in exploiting Iran/s vast oil and gas resources.

5. Iran can become a hub for distribution of gas to Europe and East Asia.

6. The security of the Persian Gulf would be much better served if there were less hostility between U.S. and Iran. Hence, no need for massive U.S. military presence in the region.

7. The Middle East peace process will have a much better chance of success if Iran's influence over Hezbollah and Hamas is diminished.

8. A friendlier Iran can always reduce the chance of widespread turmoil in the Middle East, if U.S. decides to take on Saddam.

9. Improved relations and further integration of Iran into the international community would allow closer monitoring of Iran's nuclear activities.

10. Support of the reformists would help spread emerging liberal interpretations of Islamic political philosophy. The new approach, reflected in the works of Ayatollah Mohsen Kadivar and Ayatollah Abdollah Nouri, can partially fulfill the intellectual needs of Muslim youth who otherwise could turn to the fanatic interpretations of Islamic politics.

11. A democratic Iran could be a model for other Islamic societies of the Middle East.

I am not advocating an Islamic Republic system, but arguing in favor of a socio-political system where the indigenous culture and intellectual creativity are put to work to create harmony and compatibility between the Islamic culture and the institutional requirements of a technologically-advanced civil society.

The current constitutional crisis between moderates and conservatives has raised serious doubt about the viability of even a Third World brand of democracy under the fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic political philosophy. As a result, and contrary to the rest of the Islamic world, demand for a secular state, modernism, and civil society among Iranians, particularly the younger generation and women, has risen significantly.

Therefore, while the Iranian revolution of 1979 resulted in the spread of militant and fundamentalist interpretations of Islam, it has also produced a tangible historical experience that was not previously conceivable. It has provided a valuable lesson for Muslim intellectuals who may now be more cautious about the perils of not having clear constitutional demarcation lines between the powers of mosque and state.

A repeat of the costly Iranian experience can only be avoided if the political environment within Middle Eastern countries would allow free exchange of ideas and dialogue among various social and political forces. Otherwise, the West can rest assured that there will be an ever-increasing interest in what has been correctly referred to as anti-modernist tendencies inside Muslim nations.Therefore, promoting democracy in the Middle East should start by supporting the reformists in Iran beginning with removing sanctions on Iran.

The opponents of an expedited removal of sanctions have argued that the U.S. should not reward the clerical regime for its lack of cooperation on the three main issues of terrorism, opposition to the Middle East peace process, and attempts to acquire and develop weapons of mass destruction.

They have further pointed out that continued hostility of the Islamic Republic towards the U.S., as reflected in the harsh statements by Ayatollah Khamenei after September 11, is a good reason for continuing the sanctions, as Iran is still at the top of the U.S. State Department's list of terrorist-sponsoring nations.

In my view, this logic is outdated for the two reasons; first, it is not in line with the recent and growing international debate on the ineffectiveness of economic sanctions as a foreign policy tool against authoritarian regimes; second, it carelessly disregards new developments in Iranian politics and growing divisions within the Islamic Republic.

With regards to the first, ample historical evidence points to the fact that unilateral sanctions, particularly when imposed by one country such as the U.S,, does not work in a today's highly-integrated global economy. Without entering into the lengthy debate on the effectiveness of economic sanctions, I invite your attention to some of the findings of a conference in London in May 1999, titled, "Can Sanctions be Smarter".

There it was argued, "the theory that for decades has underpinned sanction, i.e., that collective deprivation will lead to compliance, is not valid. Causing general civilian pain with trade embargoes does not necessarily lead autocratic regimes to change their policies and behavior or to be overthrown. On the contrary... the target regime can use them for a 'rally around the flag', mobilization of nationalistic sentiment."

This argument well reflects the impact of the sanctions on the attitudes and policies of the conservatives in Iran. In other words, the imposition of sanctions not only has not changed the anti-West, anti-American, policies and attitudes of the powerful conservative minority, but has turned it into a potent weapon for suppression of democratic forces and imposition of the conservative agenda on the society. It has further given them ample excuse to blame U.S. for their economic mismanagement during their absolute reign prior to the 1997 elections.

Indeed, one can strongly argue that, with or without sanctions, the conservatives would have pursued -- and will continue to pursue -- their anti-U.S. policies. This is not only for their vested interest in keeping their control over the sources of monopoly in the economy, but also, for their deeply-rooted traditional and anti-modernist beliefs and interpretations of Islam.

The pro-sanction argument also disregards the long-term U.S. interest in the region. In this regard, the recent official publication of the U.S. Atlantic Council, reflects the direction of new policy recommendations in the U.S. For example, it argues: Sanctions are "the main obstacle preventing the United States from pursuing its complete range of interests with Iran. Tehran refuses to accept the U.S. invitation to engage in a government-to-government dialog until they are removed."

It continues, "Some obstacles to the achievement of U.S. national interests have, in a sense, been self-inflicted, the primary example being the sanctions, which have not achieved their stated objective of altering Iranian behavior in areas of concern to the United States. Instead, they have worked at cross-purposes with U.S. economic and long-term energy interests. For these reasons alone the sanctions should be relaxed."

With regard to the neglect of current realities of Iranian politics by the pro-sanctions camp, and in particular in support of my belief that supporting reforms and democracy in Iran will have far reaching consequences for the democratization of the Middle East, I would like to point to some of the arguments by Ayatollahs Nouri and Kadivar. This is not only to point out the significant differences between the reformists and conservative political philosophies, but also, to highlight the depth of the reformists' conviction to political democratization in the society.

For example, Nouri says: "With the implementation of these reforms (political reforms), and by giving the people the opportunity to criticize and express their rights, to which people are completely entitled to, a political system could enjoy legitimacy and much higher level of approval and support by the people." Or, "There is always a negative relation between the real political power, and misuse of power in the violence, brutality, and suppression. Some of the political leaders naively think that using force and violence and abuse of political power increases their control and dominance over the people." Or, "In the modern world, and with enhanced mass communication and access to information, the role and importance of individuals in the political life and legitimization of the political authority have expanded significantly. Political power is further consolidated and legitimized when it allows maximum number of citizens to participate in the political process." In a recent article, Kadivar argues: "A society that prosecutes, disrespects, and punishes the political opposition is not a religious society although it pretends to be a religious one."

The reformist movement in Iran is a political reality that cannot be avoided, overlooked, or viewed as a temporary side-effect of current developments in Iran. The impact of the teachings of its leading intellectuals will remain a formidable tool for the defense of liberal interpretations of the Islamic texts. A peaceful transition to democracy in Iran could only be materialized if the reformist forces, supported by the majority of the people, are assisted vis-à-vis the conservatives.

This does not by any mean imply that the secular forces such as the so-called the "Third Force", or secular ideologies such as the deeply-rooted sense of Iranian nationalism and pride, should be undermined or neglected. Democratic institutions have a much better chance to grow and flourish under improved economic conditions and elevated standards of living for the population. Removal of the sanctions, even in a step wise manner, is certainly a prudent step towards promoting democracy in Iran and enhancing long-term U.S. interests in the region.


Mehrdad Valibeigi is a professorial lecturer of economics at the American University in Washington, DC.

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