The US-Iran dialogue and how it can affect the Iranian democratic movement

President Obama’s re-election for a second term has afforded him much more manoeuvrability on foreign policy issues, including Iran. What are the prospects for the US-Iranian dialogue in the next four years - and how will it affect the Islamic Republic's local pro-democracy forces?

President Obama addresses the Iranian people on Nowruz. Youtube/The White House. All rights reserved.President Obama addresses the Iranian people on Nowruz. Youtube/The White House. All rights reserved.

President Obama’s re-election for a second term has afforded him much more manoeuvrability on foreign policy issues, including Iran. The President highlighted this past week in his White House press conference that he would make a diplomatic push in the coming months to “get this thing resolved”. This coupled with ongoing rumours of prospective bilateral talks between the United States and Iran, indicates the possibility that there may eventually be a mutual agreement, or entente, between Washington and Tehran. Further, considering Iran’s own upcoming presidential election later this spring, it is all but difficult not to be reminded of the efforts of the Green movement and the democratic cause in Iran. This raises the question as to what the effects of any form of US-Iran engagement would be on the Iranian democratic movement. Would it be further marginalized? Would it be emboldened? Would the status quo persist?

Naturally, there exists a wide array of differing voices on how best to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue. Skeptics of any form of engagement, most notably neo-conservatives and Iranian expats vehemently opposed to the Islamic ruling establishment, contend that working collaboratively with Tehran is akin to paving the way for the immortalization of the Islamic Republic and legitimization of the government in Tehran in the eyes of the west, thereby sabotaging any chance of an Iranian democratic movement from prevailing. The preferred course of action for the skeptics is the continuation of economic sanctions and perhaps even military confrontation. For the theocracy’s staunch opponents, any option that would work to end the Islamic Republic would be preferable to actual dialogue.

The fear that engagement between the United States and Iran would immortalize the ruling establishment in Tehran is misplaced. History has shown time and again that a healthy relationship with the United States is ill-suited to preventing the will of the people of a particular country from prevailing. Case in point, Iran’s own history under the Shah: Iran enjoyed a mostly healthy relationship with the United States; this didn’t prevent the Islamic revolution of 1979. The Soviet Union, the Cold War adversary of the United States, had diplomatic relations with the United States and lived through a period of détente, in addition to a warmer relationship with the United States in the latter 1980s; this didn’t prevent the Soviet collapse. Most recently, Mubarak’s Egypt, a non-NATO ally of the United States fell two years ago as a result of mass demonstrations in Tahrir Square.

Tehran is aware that any form of agreement with Washington on the nuclear issue may result in demands for the Islamic Republic to alter its behaviour regionally and in other areas such as human rights, which is why the establishment in Tehran would be likely to deal with the United States through “controlled engagement”, based on a set of comprehensive principles that would ensure any deal on the nuclear file would not chisel away the authority of the Islamic Republic within Iran.

Controlled engagement with the United States would very likely maintain the status quo of impairment with regards to the Iranian democratic movement, which has been impaired since the 2009 Iranian presidential election, but would at the very least provide sanctions relief for Iranians. Depending on which perspective one takes, it is becoming increasingly clear that the current US strategy vis-à-vis Iran of economic sanctions and tough actionable rhetoric is either 'working' or 'having the opposite effect'. One would think the former when taking into account Tehran’s apparent willingness to enter bilateral negotiations, or when interpreting statements made by Iranian officials such as General Mohammad Ali Jafari, commander of the Revolutionary Guards, that: “Some have succumbed to pressures in the all-out economic war imposed on the Islamic Republic by its enemies and are suggesting a different course of action”. In contrast, the point could be made that the sanctions are not working as their intention was to harm the government and not the people of Iran. The economic sanctions have devalued Iran’s currency by 70-80 percent, drastically impacting on the lives of ordinary Iranians who are seeing their savings wither away while also encountering job layoffs across the board. Iran’s inability to import certain foodstuffs and medicines is also taking  a significant toll on ordinary Iranians. 

A brief look at the effects of US-Iran dialogue on Iran’s democratic movement suggests that any relationship that develops between the two countries would probably be highly controlled and predictable, thus maintaining the status quo of impairment for the Iranian democratic movement. However, the examples noted above (Shah’s Iran, Soviet Union, Mubarak’s Egypt) support the argument that any form of relationship between the United States and Iran would not close the door to a democratic movement within Iran since history has shown that a working relationship between any government and the United States is not a guarantor of that government’s survivability.

Whether rumours of bilateral US-Iran talks are true, constructive dialogue is critical to resolving the nuclear deadlock as sanctions relief is direly needed and any military confrontation would most probably conflagrate into a major regional war, severely impacting on the world’s economy, not to mention the lives of those in the region.

About the author

Navid Hassibi is a doctoral student at the University of Antwerp, focusing his research on the Obama nuclear weapons policy.