U.S. democracy promotion efforts in Iran are counterproductive
Empirically, U.S. support and resources for Iran's nascent reform and democracy movement have been lethal for the groups involved.
[ Page 45-6 ]
The near-term outcome of U.S. democracy promotion has been a fierce backlash from the regime and a corresponding freeze of Iranian civil society, curtailing Iranians' ability to engage with international organizations or accept external support. For Washington, the losses from the current wave of repression are more profound than the new scarcity of Iranian participants for Track II dialogues and other exchanges. By fostering debate and channeling political activism, Iran's semi-governmental organizations and intellectuals have played a critical role in advancing its political evolution. The ongoing intimidation of Iranian civil society and academia means that these parts of society, that had improbably managed to thrive within the fierce political and cultural restrictions of the Islamic Republic are now under siege. This leaves a void in Iran's political life and in the organizational and ideational development of any future opposition movement.There is some merit in the administration's argument that the current round of repression is a predictable outcome of Iran's dogmatic leadership, particularly Ahmadinejad and his appointees. Still, the U.S. tendency to evade its own responsibility in exacerbating the regime's paranoia and inciting a new crackdown bodes poorly for the prospect that the administration will exercise prudence in navigating the minefields of Iranian politics.
[ Page 45 ]
Among the array of U.S. diplomatic, military and financial tools for influencing Iran, democracy promotion is hardly the most consequential. But in its philosophy and implementation, the initiative is emblematic of the misconceptions and fallacies that have undermined the broader American effort to pressure Iran into abandoning its rogue behavior and to persuade its leadership to adopt a more constructive course. The historical baggage associated with any direct American role in Iranian civil society, prompted a crescendo of objections from a range of prominent Iranian activists and dissidents. Only weeks after Rice's $75 million request, renowned Iranian human-rights lawyer Abdolfattah Soltani told the Washington Post that the funding would have a "negative effect", and Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi described the initiative as "very dangerous to society." Noted dissident Mehrangiz Kar predicted with hard-gained prescience that the U.S. funding "will destroy these newly developed [civil-society] organizations like a storm." These admonitions were echoed by dissident and hunger-striker Akbar Ganji upon his March 2006 release from nearly six years in prison. "Political change in Iran is necessary, but it must not be achieved by foreign intervention", he declared.
[ Page 46 ]
The U.S. democracy initiative is based on the faulty assumption of the Iranian regime's vulnerability. Although the administration generally concedes that democracy promotion is the work of generations, it is clear from the size of the program and the breathlessness of U.S. appeals to Iranians that a much faster timetable is intended. Anticipating the next revolution is a longtime Washington parlor game, and each new rumble of discontent from Tehran brings a new avalanche of headlines predicting the regime's imminent demise. These expectations, while faulty, are not entirely without foundation. Iran has all of the risk factors for a revolutionary break: a disproportionately young population; restive ethnic minorities; an inefficient, distorted economy; and a regime mired in an obsolescent ideology, riven by factional feuds and reliant on repression.But the focus on these weaknesses overlooks the unfortunate evidence that the Iranian regime retains enormous repressive capacity over society and appears to be firmly entrenched in power for the foreseeable future. Its track record is worth noting. The Islamic Republic has survived every, calamity short of the plague: war, isolation, instability, terrorist attacks, leadership transition, drought and epic earthquakes. This does not imply that the regime is impregnable, nor that its leaders view it as such. Rather, the endurance of Iran's revolutionary, regime through multiple crises is a testament to the adaptive capacity of the system and its leaders as well as to the lack of any viable alternative power center.
[ Page 7 ]
The second mistake would be to count on the emergence of democracy to pacify the region. It is true that mature democracies tend not to wage war on one another. Unfortunately, creating mature democracies is no easy task, and even if the effort ultimately succeeds, it takes decades. In the interim, the U.S. government must continue to work with many nondemocratic governments. Democracy is not the answer to terrorism, either. It is plausible that young men and women coming of age would be less likely to become terrorists if they belonged to societies that offered them political and economic opportunities. But recent events suggest that even those who grow up in mature democracies, such as the United Kingdom, are not immune to the pull of radicalism. The fact that both Hamas and Hezbollah fared well in elections and then carried out violent attacks reinforces the point that democratic reform does not guarantee quiet. And democratization is of little use when dealing with radicals whose platforms have no hope of receiving majority support. More useful initiatives would be actions designed to reform educational systems, promote economic liberalization and open markets, encourage Arab and Muslim authorities to speak out in ways that delegitimize terrorism and shame its supporters, and address the grievances that motivate young men and women to take it up.
"The New Middle East
." Foreign Policy
. Vol. 85, No. 6 (November / December 2006): 2-11. [ More
[ Page 62 ]
Moreover, even if conditions within Iran were ripe for a democratic movement, any external promotion of it would prove counterproductive. The Islamic Republic suffers from a "conspiratorial interpretation of politics" that "permeates society, the mainstream as much as the fringe, and cuts through all sectors of the political spectrum." Memories of the American-backed 1953 coup that unseated Iran's democratically elected prime minister have fostered an obsessive resentment of U.S. policy and a conviction, which manifests itself even within Iran's widely pro-American population, that Washington was the root of their country's problems. For this reason, American involvement is far more likely to impair rather than advance Iran's democratic potential.
Tens of thousands of Iranians will gather in the streets today for what is supposed to be a ringing public endorsement of Iran's 28-year-old Islamic Revolution and its embattled drive for nuclear power. But many Iranians say the international dispute over Iran's nuclear program has become a rallying point for a president who otherwise would be facing substantial public dissatisfaction over soaring inflation, rising unemployment and widespread censorship. This has been a source of frustration to Iran's reformists, who dealt the president's party a blow at the polls in local elections in December but complain that the Bush administration's threatening rhetoric has pulled the rug out from under them. "You are harmful for us. We try to tell politicians in Washington, D.C., please don't do anything in favor of reform or to promote democracy in Iran. Because in 100% of the cases, it benefits the right wing," said Saeed Leylaz, a business consultant and advocate of economic reform and greater dialogue with the West.
[ Page 29 ]
In this spirit, Washington must abandon its hopeless policy of regime change, including its paltry award of $75 million to Iranian exiles and for broadcasts into Iran. For one thing, such idealism is misplaced. Unlike Eastern Europe in the 1980s, Iran simply does not have a cohesive opposition movement willing to take direction and funding from the United States. For another, calls for regime change are counterproductive. Washington's fulminations and its provision of aid to the (nonexistent) democratic opposition have convinced many Iranian hard-liners that Washington's offer to negotiate is an attempt to undermine the regime in Tehran. Thus, any effort by moderates to engage with the United States is routinely denounced as a concession to the Great Satan's subversive ploys. Iran will certainly change, but on its own terms and at its own pace. The United States has an interest in promoting a more tolerant government in Tehran, but it will not help itself by broadcasting tall tales from Iranian exiles or with Bush's appeals to an indifferent Iranian populace. Integrating Iran into the world economy and global society would do far more to accelerate its democratic transformation.
[ Page 7 ]
Aggressive democracy promotion is a strategy that is likely to backfire in another way. There is little doubt that a growing number of Iranians (especially young Iranians) are fed up with the repressive rule of the mullahs and want a more open society. But outspoken U.S. endorsements of their resistance campaign could be the kiss of death. U.S. support gives the religious hierarchy the perfect pretext to portray even cautious advocates of political reform as traitors and American stooges.