Washington Must Plan Today For Democratic Iran of Tomorrow

July 08, 2005
Michael Rubin

Two weeks ago, obscure hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad swept to victory in Iran's run-off presidential election. In his first news conference as president-elect, he vowed to continue Iran's nuclear program. "Today," Ahmadinejad proclaimed, "we can say that nuclear technology is our right."

A nuclear Islamic Republic would undermine any prospect for Iranian reform, Middle East peace or a cessation of the regime's sponsorship of terrorism. Yet even as Ahmadinejad's victory has undercut hope that European Union diplomacy can resolve disputes over enrichment in the Islamic Republic's nuclear program, the Bush administration still lacks a consistent policy on Iran.

Washington's chief concern is not that Iran would use nuclear weapons — although Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president who lost the run-off election to Ahmadinejad but who remains the second most powerful man in Tehran, threatened to do just that on December 14, 2001. Rather, the administration's worry is that with a nuclear deterrent, Iranian hardliners might feel themselves immune from the consequences of their actions.

Washington's skepticism about Tehran's intentions is deep-rooted. In December 2002, American intelligence confirmed the existence of clandestine nuclear enrichment facilities in Iran. The Iranian government initially said that it had no outside assistance with its centrifuge program, but after tests by the International Atomic Energy Association, or IAEA, found traces of weapons-grade uranium on Iranian centrifuges, Iranian officials changed their story and said that the contamination came from imported equipment not previously declared.

Likewise, the Iranian government revealed to the IAEA on May 26 that contrary to Tehran's previous insistence that it had ceased plutonium work in 1993, such work had continued for another five years. And on June 15, Rafsanjani told the BBC, "It's possible that at times, Iran has not reported its activities."

Suspicions over the Iranian government's intentions have also grown because of its refusal to ratify the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty's Additional Protocol, drafted in response to the IAEA's failure to detect Saddam Hussein's pre-1991 nuclear weapons and approved in May 1997. More than 60 countries have ratified the new agreement, which subjects signatories to augmented reporting requirements and also grants the IAEA increased powers of inspection. In exchange, countries have enhanced access to technology.

Tehran, though, found a loophole: By signing but not ratifying the additional protocol, it gained the agreement's benefits, but remained outside the new inspection regime.

Statements by Iranian diplomats that the Islamic Republic's program is peaceful have been undercut by officials close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. On May 29, hardline cleric Gholam Reza Hasani declared, "An atom bomb... must be produced as well. That is because the Koran has told Muslims to 'get strong and amass all the forces at your disposal to be strong.'" While Hasani is unpopular with most Iranians, he remains a confidant of the supreme leader and a window into his thinking.

The Iranian public, for its part, has had mixed reactions to the government's nuclear program. While pursuit of nuclear power is popular domestically, support among Iranians erodes sharply when they are asked not about Iran's right to nuclear technology, but about nuclear weapons. Shortly before the Iranian election, the Tarrance Group conducted a professional telephone survey of more than 750 Iranians. A plurality of respondents said that an Iranian nuclear weapons arsenal would add to their anxiety and discomfort.

Last month President Bush reiterated that "the Iranian people deserve a genuinely democratic system in which elections are honest and in which their leaders answer to them instead of the other way around." His administration, however, shows little inclination to work toward such goals.

State Department Policy Planning Director Stephen Krasner, for example, tapped an ExxonMobil Middle East advisor to advise him on Iran. She has since circulated papers friendly to the oil giant's policy of rapprochement and renewed trade with the Islamic Republic.

While the Bush administration has committed itself to support E.U. diplomacy with Iran, few officials believe the effort will succeed. Privately, many European diplomats say they believe it inevitable that Iran will get nuclear weapons — a tacit admission that their diplomacy is insincere. Some French and German officials have argued that Washington poses a greater threat than Tehran. By not demanding a timeline for diplomacy, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has allowed Europe to filibuster as Tehran runs down the clock.

Meanwhile, as the Iranian nuclear threat grows daily, it becomes ever more clear that certain policies will simply not work — expecting United Nations sanctions against Iran when oil hovers at $60 per barrel is pure fantasy.

As for Europe's prescription of economic engagement, it will neither help reform nor take the edge off the Islamic Republic's excesses because of the structure of the Iranian economy. Perhaps a third of Iran's gross domestic product — and the bulk of its industry — are in the hands of bonyads, or "revolutionary foundations," whose heads are appointed by Khamenei. Enhancing business with Iran would inject capital directly into hardline coffers, bolstering their relative power. The beauty of Bush's "Axis of Evil" speech was that without violence, it shook investor confidence in the Islamic Republic, and hit the pocketbooks of the regime's elite.

Track II non-governmental efforts will also flounder because of the tendency of both American academics and European diplomats to serve as echo chambers for Iranian rhetoric and because Iranian authorities refuse visas to voices less dismissive of American security concerns. Likewise, enhancing academic and cultural exchange will fall short: At the height of President Mohammad Khatami's "dialogue of civilizations," the State Department issued 22,000 visas to Iranians; the Iranian Foreign Ministry issued only 800 visas to American passport holders.

No American official has called for invasion nor, despite accusations to the contrary, has there been any proposal to employ the Mujahidin al-Khalq — an organization guilty of terrorism against Iranians, Iraqis and Americans — in pursuit of regime change. The White House nevertheless has a number of policies that could empower Iranians to the point where they win the same rights for themselves that Georgians, Ukrainians, Lebanese and even Bhutanese have in the past year.

A democratic Iran might not abandon its nuclear program, but neither would it sponsor anti-American terrorism, undercut the Middle East peace process or deny Israel's right to exist. Democratization, therefore, can take the edge off the Iranian threat.

A good start would be Iran's labor unions, which Tehran seeks to license and control. Iranian workers complain of rampant regime corruption. Hundreds of textile plants have gone bankrupt in recent years, according to the Islamic Republic's own press. In one instance, a bonyad sold a plant; the new owner then laid off the workers and sold the land for his personal profit. Protests at one Isfahan textile mill led to the deployment of security forces. Iranian pilgrims in Iraq spoke of deteriorating conditions and increasing tensions in Iran's oil fields. Pollution has cut the lucrative Iranian caviar harvest.

There is no reason why — as Poland prepares to mark the 25th anniversary of the Solidarity Movement — Europeans and Americans should support labor at home, in Latin America and in Southeast Asia, but deny aid to Iranian workers.

Washington should also take steps to bolster Iranian civil society. The January 30 elections in Iraq established voter participation as a measure of Middle Eastern government legitimacy, yet most Western journalists have accepted for last month's election voter participation figures issued by Iran's Interior Ministry.

Iranians visiting Iraq, however, contradict their government's statistics. While the Iranian government bragged about a 50% turnout in 2004 parliamentary elections, pilgrims suggested that in most provinces, the figure was less than 15%. The State Department should consider funding organizations capable of conducting independent surveys to reduce reliance on Tehran's often imaginary numbers.

America and Europe can also do much more to encourage that most cherished of Western values, freedom of speech. Iran hosts the world's third-largest blogging community. While authorities began cracking down on young web journalists in August 2004, Iranian youth are bold. They should have access to digital cameras and other equipment. Because the regime shuts down the cell phone network during demonstrations, student leaders should have satellite phones. Iranian satellite networks based in Los Angeles and elsewhere can also play an important role because of their immunity from regime intimidation.

As they near the 100th anniversary of their Constitutional Revolution, Iranians are increasingly bold in their demands for democracy. Washington should spare no effort to support them, cynical and counterproductive European resistance to democratization notwithstanding.

Should non-violent options fail, however, Bush may decide that pinpoint military strikes are the only mechanism by which to undercut the Islamic Republic's ambitions. And yet, his administration has yet to develop alternative strategies to fulfill his stated policy goals. As Iranian authorities pursue their race for nuclear weapons, American officials remain fumbling at the starting line, unsure of which direction to run.

In 2002, Rice delayed post-Saddam Iraq planning for fear of undercutting U.N. diplomacy. The Bush administration should not make the same mistake twice. E.U. efforts are nice, but the White House should not place all its eggs in a French basket.

Michael Rubin, a former staff adviser for Iran and Iraq in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and editor of the Middle East Quarterly.

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