The Iran we have

Anatol Lieven
5 December 2006

I share with Reza Pahlavi the desire that Iran should be a prosperous and stable democracy. Indeed, I am rather confident that this will one day be the case. Iran possesses considerably more of the preconditions for successful democracy than most other states in the region. For one thing, unlike Pakistan, Syria, Jordan or Saudi Arabia, Iran is a genuine and ancient nation, not a recent and artificial colonial or dynastic creation. Moreover, given the disillusionment of Iranian youth with the existing system, there seems good reason to think that in the decades to come, a new generation of Iranians will bring about Iran's transformation.

Anatol Lieven is replying to Reza Pahlavi's article, published simultaneously on openDemocracy:

"Talking to Iran" (5 December 2006)


In our book Ethical Realism: A Vision for America's Role in the World, my co-author John Hulsman and I part company with Reza Pahlavi over his belief that democracy in Iran can be promoted as an aspect of contemporary US strategy in the region, especially when associated with American policies that most Iranians find detestable.

As Reza Pahlavi is doubtless aware, from its very beginnings in the protests of the 1890s against the treaty establishing a British tobacco monopoly, democratic mass politics in Iran has been deeply intertwined with Iranian nationalism, and in particular with the country's hostility to real or perceived western imperialism.

The answers Iranians have given to opinion surveys concerning US policies indicate that, for the great majority of Iranians, the combination of US advocacy of Iranian "democracy" with the advancement of US and Israeli foreign and security policy objectives only discredits the forces of democracy in Iran; at least, if these are to be identified with Iranian liberalism rather than with the troubling but undoubtedly very popular mixture of populism, clericalism and nationalism being advanced by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Also in openDemocracy on Iran, its foreign policy and relationship with the United States:

V.K., "'Rogue state' bites back" (30 August 2001)

Mamoudreza Golshanpazhooh, "Listening to Iran" (30 January 2006)

Fred Halliday, "Iran vs the United States – again" (14 February 2006)

Bahram Rajaee, "Iran's nuclear challenge" (14 February 2006)

Kaveh Ehsani, "On the brink: the Great Satan vs the Axis of Evil" (3 May 2006)

Trita Parsi, "The United States's double-vision in Iran" (9 May 2006)

Hazem Saghieh, "Iran's politics: constants and variables" (12 May 2006)

Behrad Nakhai, "Iran, the US, and nuclear plans: pen and sword (18 September 2006)

Hooshang Amirahmadi, "Iran and the international community: roots of perpetual crisis" (24 November 2006)

This is especially true because Iran today is by no means the bloodstained clerical tyranny it was in the early 1980s. It is certainly not a democracy, but it contains more elements of democracy than several key US allies in the region. The electoral process which elected Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was highly constrained; but all credible evidence suggests that his election did represent in part a widespread public backlash against the growing corruption of the state elites. By contrast, there is little evidence to suggest that a more genuinely open process would have produced a victory for pro-western liberals.

This being so, if we believe that Iran has a vital role to play in any future regional order, and that compromise with Iran is essential to the future of both Iraq and Afghanistan, then we have no choice but to negotiate with the Iran that we have. We cannot afford to wait a generation in the hope of getting the kind of Iran we would prefer; the crises in Iraq and Afghanistan are far too urgent for that. And if we are not to seek help from Iran and other neighbouring states, then where can we hope to find it?

This does not mean supporting the existing Iranian regime, any more than US compromises with communist China represented support for Chinese communism. On the contrary, Nixon and Kissinger's opening to China helped to bring about the long-term social and economic transformation of the Chinese system. By contrast, US attempts to isolate Cuba, North Korea and Iran have helped only to consolidate the ruling systems in those countries.

If, however, we are going to talk to the Iranians, then - as the International Crisis Group argued in its February 2006 report (Iran: Is there a way out of the nuclear impasse?) - we have to offer proposals that the Iranian establishment can actually accept; and this can only mean returning to the 1970 nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) and accepting limited uranium enrichment under strict supervision. In addition, John Hulsman and I recommend a row of mandatory sanctions which Russia, China and other leading states will commit themselves by treaty to adopt automatically if Iran itself breaks the NPT and goes for weaponisation.

I agree that this is by no means an ideal solution; but threats of force against Iran are empty unless one is prepared to carry them through; and the probable consequences of a US attack on Iran seem to me absolutely disastrous: for western interests, regional peace, Iranian democracy - and for the personal prospects of any Iranian émigré who was foolish enough to allow his name to be associated with such an attack.

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