How to return to the spirit of change: the US and Iran's reform movement

The US needs to alter its security orientated discourse on Iran to nourish the reform movement and democracy
Majid Sharifi
15 January 2010

To its credit, the Obama administration recognized the failed policies of previous administrations and made a genuine effort to engage the Iranian regime. He also reached out to the Iranian people. The hope was to change the previous discourse of coercive policies mixed with the rhetoric of human rights. But that hope has changed to despair, and the calls for pursuing more of the failed policies of the past have returned. I argue that three narratives explain the potential risks and opportunities.

The first narrative is that of US policy makers, in which Iran is perceived as an existential, immediate, and unpredictable threat which the US and its allies cannot deter, as it deterred, for example, the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Within the context of this narrative, some are recommending more of the same, the failed policies of coercion, such as the use or the threat of the use of violence, sanctions, isolation, and even sabotage. Others have suggested the broadening of coercive policies to include targeting Iran's human rights abuses, not necessarily for the betterment of the abused but for securing the world from the imagined threat of Iran. Yet others have suggested that the United States should postpone its coercive measures and focus more on human rights issues. I argue that the Obama administration should change the discourse of coercion and begin to invest in the Iranian reform movement.

The second narrative is that of the Iranian opposition in which neither the rhetoric of the US nor that of the Iranian hardliners correspond to its reality. Suffering under the repressive measures inflicted upon it on a daily basis, it has shown disappointment with Obama's cautious approach for using Iran's social movement instrumentally. Nevertheless, the movement has turned the growing collective frustration of Iranians over the state's repressive means, incompetence, corruption, economic mismanagement, and abusive religiosity into a unified voice for restoring their votes, rights, wealth, and sovereignty. Essentially, the movement is internalizing what hardliners are externalizing. This opportunity should not go to waste, and the Obama administration should not, even inadvertently, help hardliners in stopping this process.

The third narrative is that of the Iranian government. In that narrative, Western powers headed by the United States, in a grand conspiracy with its opposition, are threatening the purity of Islam, the security of Iran, and the development of the nation, including its nuclear technology. Hence, it has begun yet another widespread purge to purify the regime, as it did on four other occasions in the last 30 years. Because this narrative is so real to the regime's increasingly fragmented base, the implementation of more coercive policies would, in fact, be more enabling than retarding.

In short, resolving the Iranian 30-year conundrum requires influencing these three narratives. Instead of pursuing more of the failed policies of the past, the Obama administration should find the courage to desecuritize Iran by questioning the assumption of Iran as a natural threat.

First, Iran is not a threat, because it does not have the institutional capacity to wage a conventional or a nuclear war. Iran lacks the capacity to manage its economy, politics, bureaucracy, socio-cultural problems, and obviously, its electoral system. Iran cannot resolve its traffic problems, which take twenty times the lives of the world average. Those who exaggerate Iran's capacity are not familiar with its chaotic governing style. However, the lack of capacity to wage war does not mean the lack of capacity to defend the regime. While the former requires social support, institutional capacity, and management skills, which the regime does not have, the latter merely needs a committed political base, which the regime retains. Coercive policies have and will expand the hardliners commitment and mobilizing power.

Second, the Iranian nuclear threat is a hoax. The Iranian hardliners are rational actors, who realize going nuclear makes them more vulnerable not only to debilitating attacks, but also to the accusation of nuclear proliferation if any loose nuke or dirty bomb would go off anywhere in the world. Even if Iran goes nuclear, the US and its allies retain the ultimate deterrence of retaliation. Moreover, there are dominant societal values that prevent Iran from launching a nuclear offensive, which explain, for example, why the majority of Iranians view the nuclear issue in terms of economic development, not military use, or why Iran has not pulled out of the NPT, or why even hardliners argue that possession of nuclear weapons is un-Islamic. These declarations are not accidental or deceptive. They demonstrate which actions or policies are generally perceived as within the realm of possibility and which are not, the latter including an unprovoked military offensive. In desecuritizing the US voice on Iran, the Obama administration could isolate hardliners and empower the voices of moderation.

Finally, desecuritizing Iran enables the US to regain its credibility in raising human rights issues as a disinterested player. That would give the US the necessary credibility to positively influence the Iranians' hundred-year struggle for a sovereign democracy. This moment should not be missed or spoiled. The time for more coercive policies, which would once more consolidate hardliners and weaken their opposition, is over. Obama should find the courage to take this opportunity to change from the language of Republican Party to the original spirit of his own campaign.


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