TCS Daily

How the West Can Win Iran

By Jaan Sepp - May 9, 2005 12:00 AM

Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has announced he will run for the Iranian presidency. Iran analysts mostly agree that he will be elected. For some time now, Persian émigrés have been saying that Rafsanjani, even more than the supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is the true leader of the theocracy. Rafsanjani is a veteran conservative and his return to formal presidency will end the interregnum of the apparently well-meaning but powerless Iranian Gorbachev, Mohammed Khatami.

Iran has been in internal turmoil for years now, as its rapidly growing youth population is gaining strength and audacity and becoming increasingly alienated from the theocracy's ideology. Much of Iran's large, relatively highly educated population is more pro-Western than the people in other countries we tend to consider as allies, such as Russia, India and certain Arab states. In a way, Iran is an antithesis to Saudi Arabia. In Saudi Arabia a small, relatively pro-Western elite rules over a deeply conservative population, but Iran's population of 70 million, often strikingly liberal, is ruled by a small, fiercely anti-Western regime.

But the West still must consider certain sensitivities. Just as in other countries in the region, the reformists and strong potential allies of the West are motivated not just by the desire for freedom and democracy, but also nationalist aspirations. Iranians think Iran deserves better than the present pariah status the regime has brought about. They tend to turn to the greatness of Persia's past, and blame the theocracy for the great country's recent decay. Ironically, the same forces of frustration and disillusion that have fueled radical Islamist opposition movements in many Arab countries are working against the Islamist regime in Iran. This is the first sensitivity the West should keep in mind: people are primarily interested in their own lives and their own country, and attempts to manipulate them for externally imposed agendas will backfire.

The West must be careful and not lose or compromise the uniquely powerful and efficient ally it could have in the Iranian nation. Iran, like another important country in the neighborhood, Pakistan, is a non-Arab Muslim state with an imperial past (which in Pakistan's case is the Mughal India). Moreover, unlike Pakistan, Iran is a Shi'ite empire, which isolates it in the Sunni and Arab dominated Muslim Umma. Shi'a Islam could be more liberal than Sunni, but the Iranian theocracy has hidden this fact.

A war against Iran, especially if rushed into and legitimized by claims of Iran's nuclear program, would probably create even bigger problems for Western forces than they have experienced in Afghanistan and Iraq. Instead, the West could learn from Pakistan how nationalist pride can work to the benefit of Western orientation and democracy. In Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf's bloodless coup d'état over the increasingly Islamist regime of the conservative Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was carried out with large popular support. Musharraf has brought about a more democratic and open society in Pakistan than his democratically elected predecessors, Sharif and Benazir Bhutto. The continuous propaganda slant portraying Musharraf as a dictator similar to the late military ruler Zia ul-Haq is counterproductive and risks undermining one of the West's most crucial allies in the ideological war against radical Islamism.

Another lesson should also be learned from Pakistan. Just as in India and Pakistan, in Iran a large part of the potentially pro-Western population probably sees the nuclear weapons program as a point of nationalist pride rather than a tool for bringing about the apocalypse or an "Islamic bomb". The huge symbolic value of the nuke can be observed in the national days of Pakistan and India, separated by one night only. Nuclear missiles are celebrated along roadsides, and children buy nuke-shaped balloons. India saw its nuclear weapon as a ticket to superpower status and parity with China. For Pakistan, a nuclear weapon was seen largely as an insurance policy against Indian aggression, but it also boosted national pride.

A hostile, non-nuclear Iran, constantly seeking ways to strike at the West and to undermine democracy in the Middle East, is probably more harmful than a nuclear Iran with a responsible, pro-Western government. Of course the problem is how to avoid the worst scenario: hostile nuclear Iran turning into the kind of zombie state found today in North Korea. North Korea was surely more dangerous for the US than Saddam's Iraq, but the point is North Korea was already beyond effective remedy, while Iraq, as it seems, could still be saved.

Iran's society is healthier than the one in Saddam's Iraq was. Iran has already many basic structures necessary for effective democracy in place, although they are completely disempowered. Therefore, Iran needs no full scale military operation, but rather a revolution that would remove the aging highest echelon of the theocracy, and bring about genuine, and strong, Iranian democracy. To achieve this, three elements are needed: a united opposition movement; a strong and visible leader; and resolute Western moral, political and material backing for the opposition, without compromising it, or letting it down (like in Iraq after the Gulf War).

The present regression in Iran's regime may be the swan song of the theocracy, a lengthened Iranian version of Gennady Yanayev's putsch in Moscow. Khatami, like Gorbachev once in the Soviet Union, has already prepared the ground by frustrating the youth with bogus reforms. The septuagenarian Rafsanjani may finally exhaust their patience.


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