TCS Daily


Iran and the Election

By Pejman Yousefzadeh - July 28, 2004 12:00 AM

Despite the prominence of national security and the war on terrorism as issues in the Presidential campaign -- and despite a disturbing report from the 9/11 Commission linking al Qaeda to Iran -- there has been sparse coverage on how the two major Presidential candidates stand on the issue of how to deal with Iran. This is surprising, because of Iran's longstanding ties to terrorist groups, and because of the ongoing struggle for the future of the country between hardline reactionary leftovers from the Khomeini era, and the pro-democracy and student movements.

The lack of extensive coverage is surprising as well because of the wide gulf between President Bush's and Senator Kerry's Iran policies. This recent Reuters news article reveals that while President Bush would work to support pro-democracy groups that want to displace the Islamic regime, Senator Kerry takes a decidedly different view:

"Reflecting a different approach, Kerry foreign policy adviser Rand Beers told Reuters in an interview: 'Yes, we would be prepared to talk to Iran.'

"He said the Democratic candidate is 'not naïve' and recognizes deep differences between the two countries. These include nuclear proliferation, the Arab-Israeli conflict and policy toward Iran's neighbor Iraq.

"'But we do think there are some issues about which we can talk and can move forward and hopefully those issues would represent building blocks on which to base a broader degree of cooperation,' Beers said."

The New Republic's Lawrence Kaplan -- who is a critic of the Bush Administration's policies regarding Iran, and who believes that the Administration has abandoned any hope of regime change in that country -- highlights the problems with Kerry's approach:

". . . The very regime that Kerry demands we engage, after all, has just been certified as an Al Qaeda sanctuary--and by the very commission in which the Kerry campaign has invested so much hope. The report's finding, moreover, counts as only one of Teheran's sins. Lately its theocrats have been wreaking havoc in Iraq and Afghanistan, aiding America's foes along Iran's borders in the hopes of expanding their influence in both countries, even as they continue to fund Palestinian terror groups. Then, too, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has amassed a mountain of evidence pointing to Iranian violations of the Nonproliferation Treaty. With two nuclear power plants slated to go online in Iran, and IAEA inspectors stumbling across designs for sophisticated centrifuges, even the Europeans and the United Nations have nearly exhausted their efforts to engage the Islamic Republic."

Kaplan's points are well taken. But we should also note the internal struggles in Iran that make Kerry's position not only unrealistic, but also potentially amoral -- even immoral. Iran's recent parliamentary elections were flawed and rigged to favor hardliners over reform advocates. Any semblance of adherence to democratic principles was dispensed with by the reactionary mullahs as they sought to consolidate their power, and to frustrate the aims of a reform movement that had overwhelming popular backing. Reform parliamentarians and Iranian president (and pseudo-reformer) Mohammad Khatami had their attempts to change the political system in Iran blocked by the hardline-dominated Council of Guardians and by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Religious Guide. The Islamic regime continues to engage in systematic human rights abuses, and in efforts to deny justice in the rare case when human rights abusers are put on trial.

If in the midst of these human rights travesties, a Kerry Administration decides to try once again to engage Iran, it will be giving the hardline rulers of the Islamic regime every reason to believe that the United States will do nothing to stand on the side of human rights in Iran, and on the side of a pro-democracy movement that identifies so strongly with America and the West. Meanwhile, the regime itself will be strengthened by being able to deal with the world's most powerful democratic republic, and will be able to use its newfound prestige to try to completely snuff out the pro-democracy movement. You see, the mullahs will tell the pro-democracy demonstrators, even the Americans accept our legitimacy and wish to do business with us. The international community -- led by America -- will welcome us anew and will want to deal with us as the valid rulers of Iran. Your cause is hopeless.

Additionally, there is scarce evidence that the Islamic regime is disposed to seriously bargaining with the United States. Ultimate power in Iran's government resides in the hands of Khamenei as the country's Supreme Religious Guide. As I have argued previously, various factors lead Khamenei to be a rigid hardliner in terms of his public policy stances, and Khamenei does not have the scholarly or intellectual credentials to depart from his hardline stance in a way that will not threaten his power. However, a departure from Khamenei's hardline stance is essential for negotiations between the United States and Iran to yield any serious or positive results. If John Kerry and his foreign policy team really believe that they will be able to negotiate with a country whose supreme ruler is effectively held hostage to his own reactionary stances, they are being quite naïve -- assurances to the contrary notwithstanding.

In The Prince, Machiavelli wrote that

"Men worry less about doing an injury to one who makes himself loved than to one who makes himself feared. The bond of love is one which men, wretched creatures that they are, break when it is to their advantage to do so; but fear is strengthened by a dread of punishment which is always effective."

The "threat of punishment" would do more to coerce Iran to act within international norms than would the premature bestowal of legitimacy on Iran's hardline rulers. But John Kerry's proposal to negotiate with Iran would undercut the regime's more democratic opponents, and reward the regime for its reprehensible policies -- and at a time when the regime are still quite weak, and vulnerable, no less.

If that doesn't leave you scratching your head in confusion, nothing will.

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