Iran's future: out of the trap

The combination of sanctions and the threat of war undermines the space for Iranian civil society to press its claim for rights and freedoms. The resumption of negotiations over the nuclear issues is an opportunity for western states to choose a better course, say Ramin Jahanbegloo & RN Khatami.

RN Khatami Ramin Jahanbegloo
8 May 2012

The restarting of nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 group opens the way to new  steps to halt the danger of war in the Persian Gulf. The talks, involving the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany, were held  in Istanbul on 14 April 2012, and will resume in late May. The replacement of the language of ultimatum by that of diplomacy is good news, though the underlying perils remain.

In particular, many in Israel and the United States persist in seeing Iran as a potential threat . Israel's prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu claims that economic sanctions on Iran have not deterred its pursuit of a nuclear weapon, and warns (in an interview with CNN): "If the sanctions are going to work, they better work soon." He and his supporters, in the US as well as Israel itself, remain adamant that Israel should take pre-emptive action to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.

This context makes it important to ask whether the issue of nuclear weapons, so dominant in media and public discussions of Iran, is as significant as often portrayed - or, rather, overhyped. After all, Iran is not known to be developing a bomb and, even if it were, is still years away from creating one (as both the United States and Israeli governments well know). But just as important as the facts of the matter is the larger question of diplomacy, and to answer the question: how best to deal  with the Iranian regime and the Iranian people in the long run? Those negotiating with Iran must be clear about which Iran they are dealing with.

The rising force

Iran’s parliamentary elections in early March 2012 resulted in a huge victory for supporters of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He hailed the elections as the most "critical" event since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979, while Iran's interior minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar welcomed the turnout as a "slap in the face" of the Islamic regime's enemies. This suggests that Iran’s leadership shows no interest in reaching out to reformists  and their supporters, and to reverse the political polarisation that has afflicted Iranian society since 2009 .

It is important to note that Khamenei has succeeded in recent years to create  around himself a cult of personality which has found more echoes among the Iranian paramilitary groups than among the quietist Shi’ite clergy and the elite of "grand ayatollahs". Indeed, perhaps the most important change in Iran's political structure  over the past three decades has been the rise of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC, or Pasdaran), which has transformed itself from an ideological institution to an expansive social, political, and economic force that controls every facet of Iranian society.

As a force in Iranian politics, the IRGC is less of a traditional military entity than a multidimensional player whose influence reaches deep into Iran’s foreign policy. The IRGC also controls Iran’s Basij force, an all-volunteer paramilitary group that has about a million conscripts. In April 2011, the United States imposed sanctions on the IRGC’s Quds force for supporting the Syrian regime’s crackdown on protesters. In this respect, the IRGC has stayed true to its original mandate of safeguarding the foundational principles of the revolution and exporting them to other Muslim countries.

More broadly, the Pasdaran exercises growing strategic economic control, ranging from telecommunications to Iran's oil sector, and dominates all of Iran’s strategic military assets, including the country’s increasingly sophisticated long-range missiles  programme. Viewed in these terms, the Islamic Republic is increasingly a military oligarchy with a clerical face.

Moreover, the IRGC’s  socio-political profile is set to grow even more in the months ahead - a trend reinforced by Iran’s geopolitical environment and the possibility of a military confrontation with the United States and Israel. The IRGC is fully aware both of the possibility that Israel will target  Iran’s nuclear facilities and the capabilities of the US military in the Persian Gulf. The very threat of war has a dual effect: it further empowers the IRGC's already massive apparatus, and makes its job easier by tilting ordinary Iranians’ opinions in its favour.

The stalled opposition

For their part, Iranian civil-society activists have faced severe restrictions for a long time. The green movement that erupted  in the aftermath of the presidential elections of June 2009, when the reformist candidates Mir-Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi were defeated amid allegations of widespread fraud , was last able to hold a major protest in February 2011. Since then, there have been a few small and sporadic demonstrations across Iran, but not enough  to indicate that the green movement is going strong.

Just prior to those February 2011 protests, Nader Hashemi suggested that Iranian dissidents compare their own struggle with that of the African National Congress and the wider South African experience, in order to learn lessons (see Nader Hashemi & Danny Postel eds., The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Freedom in Iran  [Melville House, 2011]). This recommendation is in line with an effective Gandhian model based on non-violence and a call for eventual reconciliation on a national level. The level of animosity inside Iran, however, makes this goal seem distant

It is made even more distant, however, by calls for war and the tightening of sanctions on Iran, for these stifle rather than promote both intercultural and intracultural dialogue. It is vital here to recall that, though the repressive mechanisms of the regime have ended the protest wave, most Iranians (especially the young) are more than ever looking  for change. A violent revolution is out of the question, so the only way for Iranians to kindle such a change from within  is to continue with dialogue and non-violent civil disobedience.

But in order for the Iranian people to have the means to pursue  their path, they must feel they are dealing with a government that will listen to their demands for sovereignty within the political realm. So long as other states treat Iran as a irrational pariah state and engage in bellicose talk of military action, the government and its repressive arms will act even more unreasonably, and the calls for national defence and unity will overcome the expressions  of peaceful dissent and the need for dialogue.

The road ahead

The sensitive situation inside Iran makes Iranian dissidents abroad even more concerned about the international treatment of their country. They have struggled hard to champion the human rights, civil liberties and livelihoods of the Iranian people, and against this background many feel that policy towards Iran has proved harsh and detrimental. Above all, Iranian dissidents believe that Iranians inside Iran must be enabled rather than punished if they are to secure their rights and freedoms (see Civil Society and Democracy in Iran  [Lexington Press, 2011]).

Much of this concern relates to the effect that broad sanctions are having on Iran. Many analysts and media outlets point out that sanctions will not deter Iran from pursuing its nuclear programme, and will have other undesirable outcomes. The combination  of sanctions and the talk of war has already caused oil prices to rise significantly without necessarily harming the regime. More than anything, they hurt ordinary Iranians and spoil opportunities to engage with them.

President Obama’s message to the Iranian people on Nowruz (Persian new year) illustrates how difficult such an engagement  will be. "Even as we’ve imposed sanctions on the Iranian government", he said , the US government is pursuing a series of innovations to empower Iranians to use the internet and further connect with the outside world. This, Obama went on to say, was because "(the) United States of America seeks a future of deeper connections between our people."

Many Iranians have bristled at this message, on the obvious grounds that Obama is castigating them with one hand while reaching out with the other. Moreover, he is alienating them by supporting Israel and refusing to speak out more forcefully against war. To make himself a true ally of the Iranian people, he would need to open himself to further contact with the Iranian regime. There was a hint of this in his comment, "If the Iranian government pursues a responsible path, it will be welcome once more among the community of nations" - but that phrase also highlights a basic problem, the absence of a diplomatic relationship between Washington and Tehran.

Barack Obama has followed the inflexible policy towards Iran of his predecessor George W Bush, opting for pressure at the expense of dialogue that could ease tensions. Most analysts, including Iranians critical of the Tehran regime, regard this strategy as misguided.

The National Iranian American Council , for example, opposes war as well as broad sanctions on Iran and pursues a policy of strategic engagement with the regime with a focus on human rights and regional security concerns. Its president Trita Parsi  recently wrote , "Broad sanctions reduce the likelihood of democratization in Iran while increasing the risk of war. War, in turn, will destabilize the region, cause the deaths of thousands of innocents on all sides, and actually increase the likelihood that Iran gets a nuclear bomb down the road."

The prominent political analyst Fareed Zakaria  expressed a similar view as sanctions took effect and weakened civil society in Iran. He offered  an alternative: "Iran has its own deep divisions, and many in the regime feel threatened by any opening to the West. But that is precisely why the [Obama] administration should keep searching for ways to create that opening."

The implication of these analyses is that sanctions against Iran will inflict greater hardships on the people and, to a lesser extent, the regime. The negotiations  between Iran and the P5+1 could provide a chance to stop an escalatory cycle that could otherwise (as happened in Iraq) pave the way to war. Iran's officials who have agreed to take part in these talks have received sharp criticism from some military and clerical figures, while the US president faces similar charges from his own domestic hardliners, and as a result must (especially in an election year) take precautions in dealing with Iran. The balance  between regional and strategic issues, the nuclear question  and domestic politics requires great sensitivity on both sides.

Beyond the current round of negotiations, the best option the United States, Israel and the European Union have to secure their long-term interests is to enable Iranian civil-society actors to work toward democratisation from within. This means dealing with the Iranian regime and the IRGC for the present, but with an eye toward later engagement with the Iranian people themselves. It also means working to incorporate Iran into the international community by removing its status as a pariah state. Those taking part in the negotiations should remember that in the long run they are dealing with the Iranian people, the heart and soul of their country's future.

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