Let’s say it like it is. Iran’s president – Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (try saying that three times quickly) – is radical. He believes that the Jewish Holocaust never occurred and that Israel as a country should be dissolved. He is an active supporter of Iran building nuclear enrichment facilities, despite the fact that his country has some of the richest oil reserves in the world and is in no need of an alternative source of energy. While Iran has repeatedly stated that this program is for “peaceful” purposes only, that claim is improbable at best.
While ultimate power in Iran has rested with the religious fundamentalist Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the fact that the Iranian people popularly elected a radical like Ahmadinejad is disheartening. Though perhaps not as disheartening to re-electing George Bush.
So the knee-jerk conclusion is that Iran is a population of radical Islamists which poses a serious threat to the western way of life. But dig a bit deeper, and you see that this is not the case, and worse, the United States has contributed significantly to the rise of Mr Ahmadinejad.
Failed US Policies in Iran
In fact, the radicalism in Iran has to a significant extent been exacerbated by misguided US policies and meddling.
As I wrote in my article “in support of dictators and tyrants ”,
The United States supported the Shah of Iran (Mohammad Reza Pahlavi), the last Shah of 2500 years of continuous monarchy rule. According to Madeleine Albright, “In 1953 the United States played a significant role in orchestrating the overthrow of Irans popular Prime Minister, Mohammed Massadegh… it is easy to see now why many Iranians continue to resent this intervention by America in their internal affairs.” While the Shah did succeed in modernizing his country and improving the rights of women, he also ousted and arrested political dissidents, which ultimately lead to popular unrest and his overthrow.
In other words, we were supporting a monarch who had repressed political dissidents, which led to the radical 1979 Islamist revolution. The US then needed to form a counterweight to Iran’s power in the Middle East:
Once the Shah was overthrown and the fundamentalists took control of the country, the US chose a very strange bedfellow to support in the middle east: Saddam Hussein. Saddam was another brutal dictator who came to power in 1979. During the Iran-Iraq war initiated by Iraq, the US provided military and economic aid to Saddam. Importantly, during this war, Iraq used chemical weapons against Iran. In total, between 500,000 and 1,000,000 Iranians died in this war supported in part by the United States. Not exactly a role model for a US ally.
So you can see how the Iranian’s would be a bit negative towards the west. And in fairness, in the years since 1979, Iran has actively supported groups hostile to the United States and Israel (e.g., Hesbollah). So the aggressive US stance towards Iran is understandable. But ultimately, it has been more than ineffective. It has been counter-productive.
Rise of the moderates in Iran
By 1997, there was something of a counter-revolution brewing. The Iranian population, weary of oppressive and restrictive Islamic rule, elected the moderate reformer Mohammad Khatami as president on the strength of the younger voters and women in a repudiation of Islamic fundamentalism.
Importantly, Khatami developed and presented the theory of Dialogue Among Civilizations:
Basically, laying the ground for peaceful, constructive debate among nations; providing a context in which civilizations can learn from each other’s strengths and weaknesses; replacing fear, blame, and prejudice with reason, fairness, and tolerance; and facilitating a dynamic exchange of experiences among culture, religions, and civilizations aimed at reform and amelioration. Khatami believes that such dialogue would strike a balance between the two extremes of self-denial, unquestioning imitation, and surrender and hatred, irrational rejection, and execration. (Source: Wikipedia)
Not exactly what I would call a radical. The United Nations adopted this theory and declared 2001 as the year of “Dialogue among Civilizations.”
Khatami pursued pro-western policies like denationalizing state industries and removing commodities subsidies. According to the World Bank, “after 24 years marked by internal post-revolutionary strife, international isolation, and deep economic volatility, Iran is slowly emerging from a long period of uncertainty and instability.”
Recent US Interactions with Iran
In 2003, the Iranian government reached out to the US in an attempt to begin the process of settling some differences between the countries. Included was an offer to disarm Hezbollah and turn it into a political organization, and assist the US in stabilizing Iraq.
So what did the US do during this period? If ever there was an opportunity to support a reformer in Iran, to help Khatami succeed in the face of obstacles, this was it. Instead, George W. Bush refused the offer, and labeled Iran (and Iraq and North Korea) the “Axis of Evil.” We continued to isolate them economically and politically.
At the same time, Khatami’s “policies of reform led to repeated clashes with the hard-line and conservative Islamists in the Iranian government, who control powerful governmental organizations like the Guardian Council, whose members are appointed by the Supreme Leader .” Ultimately, Khatami was unsuccessful in pushing his major reforms past the government of the Ayatollah.
That the US hard line in the face of Khatami’s olive branch weakened his position in Iran is clear. Conversely, it is possible that positive US engagement could have ultimately given him the political capital to succeed with his other reforms.
The rise of Ahmadinejad
After two terms in office, Khatami wasn’t eligible to run for a third term. At the same time, the “Council of Guardians” – controlled by the Ayatolla – disqualified almost all reformist candidates. Between the general population’s frustration at the lack of reform progress and the absence of any credible reformist candidates, the conservative party was elected and Ahmadinejad came to power.
Painted Into A Corner
So here we are. Iran is a country of people weary of Islamic extremism, but which is controlled by a radical Islamist government which supports Hesbollah and is trying to acquire nuclear weapons.
Let’s face it, the two traditional US policies in these situations – economic isolationism and military intervention – have utterly failed.
Our history with economic blockades and isolation is extensive and unsuccessful. For example, Cuba has been under US economic embargo for over 50 years now. Fidel Castro has outlasted 8 US presidents, and his brother has now taken the reigns of power. The only people who have suffered are the Cubans .
Is it time to invade Iran? Recent history shows that not only is this foolhardy (we can’t even control Iraq after 7 years), it would not be possible without a MASSIVE mobilization and draft.
Is it time to bomb Iran? Tactically that’s possible and would likely be an effective way to temporarily halt their nuclear ambitions. But it would likely lead to further radicalization of the Iranian population at a time when they are hungry for moderation. And it would also likely lead to other consequences: Overt Iranian support of terrorist groups opposing the US and galvanization of OPEC nations in their quest to extort extreme prices from the world oil market that they control.
So it seems that the US has created a monster and we have no realistic policies to successfully combat it.
A New Way Forward
There is a better way, and it applies equally to Iran, Cuba and other nations. Surprisingly, Nixon showed how when he opened up the doors to economic cooperation with China. Thirty years later, China is a booming capitalistic society with much broader individual freedoms and opportunities as a result. They still have their issues, but they are unquestioningly moving in the right direction.
It’s very simple. If a country has a poor, uneducated, desperate population, it’s both easy to control them and foster extremism. Look at the Palestinian territories. Do you think they are fundamentally crazy enough to want to blow themselves up in suicide missions? No. They are poor, their families are impoverished, and they are desperate. While their solution is the wrong one, it is perhaps a foreseeable outcome.
Conversely, economic growth is the single most important step towards individual liberties. It is fairly straightforward for a government to oppress an uneducated, poor middle class. However, once a country achieves prosperity and a large, educated middle class, it is virtually impossible to effectively suppress individual and political freedoms long term.
So the United States should engage politically and economically with Iran. We should have open diplomatic relations, we should be willing to sit down without arrogance and pre-conditions, and begin the process of dialogue. We should find common ground where we both benefit. We should open economic ties and encourage the growth of the Iranian economy. We should pursue policies that benefit the moderates within the country. And we should work to tie this progress to restricting Iran’s nuclear expansion.
Not only is this a viable path forward. It is the ONLY path forward with a probable successful outcome.