Forcing Them to Be Free: Bush’s Project for the Muslim World
Liaquat Ali Khan
Managed Democracy: The US Quandary in the Middle East
Democracy and Human Rights: The Limits of US Support
Eligible for Regime Change? The Flimsy US Case against Iran
William O. Beeman
Wilful Ignorance: The United States, Democracy, and the Middle East
Terrorism and Democracy: Illness and Cure?
Bush and the Theory of the Democratic Peace
Omar G. Encarnacion
Spreading Democracy or Undermining It?
Iraq and the Global Democracy Movement
Beyond the ‘War on Terror’: Hegemony, Violence, and the ‘Global Democratic Revolution’
Barry K. Gills
Democracy, the Highest Stage of ‘Civilised’ Statehood
Yannis A. Stivachtis
The Feel of Democracy
Daniel M. Smith
First the Truth, Then the Reconciliation: An American Perspective
Robert S. Capers
Honest Brokers? US Presidents and the Middle East
Bloodshed on the Underground: The Deadly Connection Blair Denies
Volume 8 ● Number 3–4 ● Summer/Autumn 2006—Exporting Democracy
Eligible for Regime Change? The Flimsy US Case against Iran
These charges were reiterated in the Bush administration’s second-term National Security Strategy, unveiled in March 2006, which also stated: “To protect our Nation and honor our values, the United States seeks to extend freedom across the globe by leading an international effort to end tyranny and to promote effective democracy.”
The combination of harsh US criticism of Iran and profession of a policy of democracy promotion has given rise to intense expectation that the Islamic Republic might well be the next Muslim state to be subjected to US military attack, an attack that would undoubtedly be justified partly on grounds of Iran’s alleged democratic failings, and that might be presented as an attempt to promote democratic regime change in Iran. But, as I seek to show in this essay, the chief US charges against Iran lack substance, and constitute no basis for military action against the Islamic Republic.
The major news on Iran in the United States in recent years is that the Islamic Republic continues to carry out uranium enrichment. The United States claims that this is proof that Iran plans to develop nuclear weapons. Exacerbating the American accusations have been the frustrated outbursts by Iran’s religious leader Ali Khamenei and Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad asserting that nothing will stop Iran from exercising its rights under the nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. At this writing, the United States is pressing to have the United Nations Security Council sanction Iran for not ceasing its enrichment activities, and rumours of a possible military attack against Iran by the United States or Israel are rife.
The United States seeks to undermine the government of the Islamic Republic. The plan to do this is more than a decade old, and was conceived by a group of American political officials known unofficially as the “neo-conservatives”. The group includes Vice-President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, the US ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, the former chairman of the Defence Policy Board, Richard Perle, and the current president of the World Bank, Paul Wolfowitz. Others have permanent positions in conservative Washington think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute.
The charge of developing nuclear weapons is only the last in a series of attacks made by the United States against Iran since the Islamic Revolution of 1978–9. It is also the last remaining charge against Iran that would justify military action in the eyes of citizens of the United States and Europe. Over the years, slowly but surely, Iran has quietly been cleaning up its act. It has, in fact, addressed nearly every other complaint levelled against it by American politicians for more than two decades.
The principal criticisms of Iran by the United States have encompassed three areas besides the continuing development of nuclear-power resources: support of terrorism, treatment of women, and oppression of minorities. All of these accusations may have had some substance twenty-five years ago, but in 2006, they have paled.
Patience is not a strong commodity in Washington with regard to Iran. Hot-headed Bush administration officials like Nicholas Burns and UN ambassador John Bolton act out their raw prejudices against the Islamic Republic with virtually no reflection of reality. Egged on by their colleagues at right-wing think tanks, they have done little more than hurl invective any time Iran’s name is mentioned. The Iran detractors clearly believe that slogans such as “axis of evil” verify themselves. Yellow journalism, such as Atomic Iran by Jerome R. Corsi, which accuses Iranian government officials of stealing children to stay in power, and of plotting to kill even more children by dropping bombs on Central Park, do little to encourage civil discourse between Tehran and Washington.1
Examining the hoary old accusations against Iran in the light of today’s world may help clear the air, but there is a deeper need for the United States. This is to come to an understanding of why the United States and Iran have been in this unprecedented standoff of nearly thirty years—virtually the longest period of estrangement between two nations in the past century.
In this discussion I will examine the complaints the United States makes against Iran, and then try to arrive at a deeper understanding of the reasons why the two nations cannot reach entente. Finally, I hope to put forward a few modest suggestions for relieving the tension between the two countries.
Of all the accusations levelled against Iran by the United States, the strongest, and least questioned, is the charge that Iran “is the [world’s] most active state sponsor of terrorism”, to quote the US State Department in 2002. This claim is both inaccurate and overblown. If the United States ever hopes to influence Iran in other ways, such as persuading Tehran to modify its plans for the development of nuclear power, it must re-examine this long-held article of faith.
The US government first began to identify Iran as a supporter of terrorist activities in 1984 under the Reagan administration. The accusations have grown more strident from year to year. On an annual basis, the State Department has repeated accusations that Iran has supported virtually every terrorist attack in the world.
This is an astonishing exaggeration. In fact, Iran cannot be linked to any direct attack on the United States since the 444-day hostage crisis, which ended in 1981. The assertions of Iran’s continued support for terrorism are prime examples of “truth by repetition”, used commonly by many conservative commentators, and myriads of US legislators and officials—including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during her post-inauguration European tour.
Of all these claims, one alone has some substance: Iranian support for the Lebanese Shi’ite organisation Hizbollah is verifiable. However, the flat statement “Iran supports Hizbollah” is simplistic and misleading. It is important to understand the real nature of this support, and the extent to which Iran is actually able to influence the actions of this Shi’ite Lebanese group. Moreover, it is important to take into consideration the fact that Hizbollah is arguably no longer a terrorist organisation, as it could be said to have been twenty-five years ago.
Iran had an undeniable interest in the fate of the large Shi’ite community in southern Lebanon following the Islamic Revolution of 1978–9. The Lebanese Shi’ites were under oppression both from Sunnis and Maronite Christians. Moreover, Sunni Palestinian refugees, settled in their midst, served both as a drain on weak local economic resources and, because of their attacks on Israel, as magnets for violent Israeli retaliation in the region. The Shi’ites, who were attacked as much as the Palestinians, felt helpless and frustrated, and eventually fought back by forming Hizbollah.
The successful revolution in Iran was enormously inspirational to these Lebanese Shi’ites, and many Iranians, zealous and excited at their victory over the Pahlavi regime, were looking for ways to spread their revolution. Under these conditions, support for Hizbollah seemed to be virtuous aid for a hapless community of co-religionists under oppression, just as the Iranians had felt themselves to be before the Islamic Revolution.
The Iranian central government was weak and scattered after the revolution. Semi-independent charitable organisations called bonyads (literally, “foundations”), sponsored by individual Shi’ite clerics, began to help the fledgling Hizbollah organisation get off the ground. There was little the Khomeini government could do to curtail these operations without endangering public support for the fledgling Islamic Republic, since internal power struggles were endemic.
Syria also had a strong role in the early establishment and sustenance of Hizbollah, and its role was far more practical and self-serving than Iran’s. Indeed, Iranian ideologues could never have had entrée to southern Lebanon without Syria’s co-operation.
Now, after nearly two decades, the export of Iranian revolutionary ideology in this loose and uncontrolled manner may have succeeded too well. Hizbollah maintains a stronger commitment to the symbolic legacy of the Islamic Revolution than Iranians themselves. According to Hizbollah expert Daniel Byman, Iran “lacks the means to force a significant change in the movement and its goals. It has no real presence on the ground in Lebanon, and a call to disarm or cease resistance would likely cause Hezbollah’s leadership, or at least its most militant elements, simply to sever ties with Tehran’s leadership”.2
In short, although Iranian religionists were instrumental in aiding its establishment, Hizbollah has now taken on a life of its own. Even if all Iranian financial and logistical support were cut off, Hizbollah would not only continue, it would thrive. Put simply, Iran’s support is not essential for Hizbollah to continue. Byman flatly states that if the United States is really serious about stopping Hizbollah, it would do better to attack Syria than Iran.
Hizbollah has achieved stability and respectability by becoming as much a social-welfare and political organisation as a militant resistance organisation. According to international relations specialist Dwight J. Simpson, in 2004 it had twelve elected parliamentary members in Lebanon. Moreover, many Hizbollah members hold elected local government positions. The group had by that time built five hospitals and is building more. It operated twenty-five chiefly secular schools, and provided subsidies to shopkeepers. Its support came primarily from zakat—the charitable “tithe” required of all Muslims—not from Iran.3
The Lebanese Shi’ites, having seen their co-religionists in Iraq succeed in initial elections in 2005, have hopes that they, too, will assume the power that accords with their status as Lebanon’s largest community. As and when this happens, Hizbollah will fully cease to be a terrorist group and will gradually assume the role of a political organisation. Its “terrorist” activities will be reframed as national defence, especially as it gains control of conventional military forces and weapons.
Iran has in fact taken the hint. It has withdrawn virtually all of its support troops from Lebanon and from Hizbollah. Moreover, it has been doing so not as a result of the recent Syrian pullout, but quietly for the last five years.4 Some minimal contact will probably continue, since Hizbollah members revere the Iranian revolution and are “Twelver” Shi’ites, as are most Iranians. However, the idea that Hizbollah depends on Iran for its existence today is patently false.
Treatment of Women
Iran’s treatment of women has long been ritually invoked as proof of its unworthiness as a state. It is certainly true that Iran’s clerical leaders would like to enforce more modest behaviour for women, but the intrepid women of Iran have had different ideas, and have moved to liberate themselves from the unreasonable restrictions imposed nearly thirty years ago. Fearless and outspoken Nobel Peace Prize–winner, human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi, is a prime example of this powerful New Iranian Woman.
In Europe and the United States there is a pervasive stereotype about women in the Islamic world. They are perceived as helpless victims of a patriarchal system that oppresses and enslaves them. This image is reinforced through superficial observations of female dress, and outdated stories of the treatment of women in Islamic nations. Perhaps no work reinforced this stereotype more poignantly for Americans than the first-person account Not without My Daughter.5 This sad story of an American woman who moved to Iran with her Iranian husband, a man from a conservative family, only to have him capture their daughter and prevent both of them from leaving the country, painted a cruel picture of Iranian life for Americans, particularly when it was turned into a major Hollywood film. The author, Betty Mahmoody, undoubtedly suffered terribly through a harrowing experience, but it is also clear that she never informed herself before marriage about Islamic custody laws, according to which children belong to the family of the father after a specified age. Most Iranians who have seen the movie acknowledge that there are families who fit Mahmoody’s profile of her in-laws, but they point out that the vast majority of families are kind and loving.
Similarly, many of the events reported in Azar Nafisi’s highly popular book, Reading Lolita in Tehran, are outdated for Iran today.6 Although the classroom exercise of the “reading of Lolita” that defines the book in its early chapters takes place in the mid-1990s, the bulk of Nafisi’s observations date from the early 1980s—more than twenty years ago. Many of the conditions she describes regarding the conduct and treatment of women have been modified significantly today.
The simple truth is that these stereotypes ignore the extraordinary efforts that women themselves have made to improve their own lives. These efforts range from simple choices in clothing to more dramatic life-choices in family composition, education and career.
Westerners tend to fetishise “the veil”—the all-encompassing black chador—as a sign of female oppression. Today, the chador is reserved for the most conservative families, and for religious rites. Modest street and office dress has evolved into high fashion. Head coverings are both minimal and colourful, and the chador has become a light, tailored frock worn frequently over jeans with embroidered bottoms.
But fashion does not tell the whole story. Seventy per cent of successful university entrants are now women—even in fields like engineering and medicine. Women are everywhere, and their power is making itself felt.
Women have always had a strong role in Iranian life. Their prominent and often decisive participation in public political movements has been especially noteworthy. Brave and sometimes ruthlessly pragmatic, women have been more than willing to take to the streets in a good public cause throughout modern Iranian history.
The Islamic Republic has made a special point of emphasising women’s equality in education, employment, and politics as a matter of national pride. Although women have served in the Iranian legislature and as government ministers since the 1950s, there are more women in the current parliament than ever served under the Pahlavi regime.
The average marriage age for women has increased from eighteen years before the Islamic Revolution to twenty-one years today. Education for women is obligatory and universal. More than 75 per cent of the nation is under twenty-five years of age, and for this segment of the population, literacy for both men and women is well over 90 per cent, even in rural areas.7 University enrolment is nearly equal for men and women. As women’s education has increased, Iran’s birth rate has fallen steadily, and is now estimated at a respectable 2.45 per cent.8 The BBC recently reported that an estimated 75 per cent of Iranians practise some form of birth control. The population of Iran would be more than one hundred million in 2006 without family planning. It is now estimated that it will be approximately seventy-one million. All of this is attributable to women’s choices concerning birth control.
In a related development, on 12 April 2005, the Iranian parliament with the acquiescence of conservative mullahs ratified a bill allowing abortion in the first trimester when the foetus is non-viable or the mother’s life is in danger. This law was the direct result of lobbying by women, horrified at the death rate from illegal back-street abortions throughout the nation.
Employment is the one area in which women have suffered a decline since the years immediately preceding the Islamic Revolution. However, the statistics are difficult to assess, since unemployment is extremely high for both men and women (30 per cent). Under the current Islamic regime, virtually all professions are theoretically open to women. There has even emerged a class of female religious leaders. They have attended religious training schools and have the title “mujtahedeh”, the female form of the word “mujtahed”, or “religious judge”.
Virtually the sole limitation on female employment is that women must maintain modest dress or “hijab” in the workplace. Islam requires that both women and men adopt modest dress that does not inflame carnal desire. For men, this means eschewing tight trousers, shorts, short-sleeved shirts, and open collars. Iranians view women’s hair as erotic, and so covering both the hair and the female form are the basic requirements of modesty. This precludes women from some physically active professions. In earlier years, Revolutionary Guards accosted women who violated the dress codes in public, including wearing make-up. Today, such attacks are rare, although periodic backlashes by the Revolutionary Guards and the conservative judiciary are troubling. The attacks can be violent and sudden, and all the more surprising because they are much rarer than in the years following the revolution.
Since the revolution, an alternative form of acceptable clothing has emerged: a long dress with full-length opaque stockings, a long-sleeved coat, and a headscarf covering the hair. The dress has gradually evolved into a thin shoulder-to-ankle smock called a “manto” after the French word manteau (“overcoat”). The headscarf has been transformed into a hood modelled after a similar garment in north Africa called a “magna’eh”.
In adopting this attire, women have been wonderfully inventive. The “manto”, though dark in colour, is often made of silk or other fine fabric, embroidered, finely tailored, with elegant closures. Women wear it over jeans or other Western fashions. The “magna’eh” may also be of satin and turned out in fashionable colours like aubergine or dark teal. In short, Iranian women have made a virtue of necessity and created high fashion from their concealing garments.
Many older, Westernised, women decry any restrictions on their dress, but younger women who grew up in the Islamic Republic take them in their stride.
Indeed, the universal modest dress code may have helped women from conservative families. “Before the revolution, religious parents would not let their girls even go to school for fear they would be dishonoured,” said Parvaneh Rashidi, a Tehran schoolteacher of my acquaintance. “Now they have no trouble letting their daughters go anywhere.” Judging from the large number of women one sees today in the streets, in retail management, in offices and on university campuses, Ms Rashidi appears to be more than correct in her assessment.
Iranian women may actually be in the vanguard in the Islamic world. As their progress becomes better known, they are sure to inspire others to pursue their dreams. The New Islamic Woman is a reality, and will undoubtedly be a force to reckon with in the future.
Minorities in Iran
Finally, although ethnic and religious minorities were mistreated by zealots immediately after the revolution, today the situation has almost completely been reversed. Except for the Bahai community, which is considered heretical in Shi’ism, religious minorities live in peace and without any restriction regarding trade, education or government service. The Jewish, Armenian and Assyrian communities all have designated parliamentary representatives.
Ethnic groups are likewise enjoying more freedoms today than under the Pahlavi regime. School instruction and publication are now undertaken in the long-repressed Kurdish, Azerbaijani, Baluchi and Arabic languages, in addition to Persian. Other local languages may follow.
It should be noted that Iran’s human rights record for political dissidents is far from admirable, but interestingly, this has not been a point on which the United States has ever pressed Tehran. The reasons for Washington’s relative silence on this matter are unclear, but it is obviously difficult to complain credibly about Iran’s failings on human rights in the light of Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and the US practice of shipping America’s own political prisoners to Yemen or Uzbekistan to be tortured.
The Nuclear Question
This leaves Iran’s nuclear development efforts as the sole remaining complaint against Tehran. Since there is no proof at all that Iran has nuclear weapons, or a nuclear-weapons development programme, this complaint also remains specious. Moreover, when one listens carefully to Iranian politicians, one hears that their principal concern is not anxiety about restrictions on nuclear-weapons development: it is anger and resentment that their country is being singled out as an exception to the NPT, to which it is a signatory. They correctly point out that the treaty grants Iran the unambiguous right to the peaceful development of nuclear energy, including the development of a full fuel cycle. Iran’s leaders have repeatedly repudiated the development of nuclear weapons as contrary to the tenets of Islam.
Moreover, the development of nuclear energy is a matter of intense national pride. Although the clerical leaders of Iran are not loved by the people, their defence of nuclear-energy development has been universally approved by Iranians. As Iran’s religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said on 1 May 2005, addressing Western nations: “The people of Iran achieved the [nuclear] technology through their own experts, they did not borrow or beg it from you.”
Occasionally, American critics have argued that Iran doesn’t need nuclear energy to generate electricity given its petroleum reserves. The great irony in this critique is that the US government first urged Iran to develop nuclear energy—and indeed supported the training of nuclear engineers—in the 1970s. The rationale was precisely that employed by Iran today—namely, that nuclear energy frees oil supplies for more cost-effective uses.
Iran almost exclusively uses natural gas for electricity generation. At present, it uses almost all of its gas supplies either for this purpose, or to fulfil international contracts for gas exports. It is far, far more cost-effective for Iran to sell its natural gas abroad than to use it to generate electricity. Iran has recently agreed a huge multi-year contract with China for liquefied natural gas—a contract that will be made possible by the opening of the nuclear electricity-generation plant in Bushehr.
The current squabble over the NPT is a classic “spitting” contest. In fact, the United States would like nothing more than to push Iran to withdraw from the treaty, which the Bush administration hates. Not only does the NPT allow Iran to enrich uranium, it also requires the United States to reduce its nuclear arsenal. To abandon the treaty and blame the abandonment on Iran is a neo-conservative fantasy.
Iran and the United States have a deeper problem in dealing with each other. This has to do with two matters: first, the unresolved difficulties deriving from the time of the Islamic Revolution and the subsequent hostage crisis; and second, the intercultural dynamics that repel and attract the two nations.
The Islamic Revolution was a watershed event for the world, but particularly for the United States in its relations with the Middle East. There is no question that the United States both installed and supported Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as one of the “twin pillars” who would protect world energy supplies from the Soviet Union. (The other “pillar” was Saudi Arabia.)
Unfortunately, the shah’s regime was repressive, and supportive of rapid Westernisation that shocked and dismayed Iranians. The revolution of 1978–9 rejected both the shah and his principal supporter, the United States. The subsequent decision on the part of the Carter administration to give refuge to the shah resulted in the 444-day hostage crisis, during which American diplomatic personnel were held captive, being released only when Jimmy Carter’s presidency was officially over.
Neither the United States nor Iran has ever got over these events. Iran not only blames the United States for the shah’s regime, but ties it to the heavy-handed policies of the British, who had dominated Iranian politics for more than a century before. The United States still cites the hostage crisis as evidence of Iran’s “outlaw nation” status (as recently as 2003).
Despite the fact that these events are long past, the unprecedented resentment on both sides lingers on, as the two nations remain in a state of “qahr” or non-communication.
“Qahr” is an Iranian term for a curious type of standoff. Two parties who are tied to each other have a tiff and refuse to talk. They can be reconciled only by a mediator or mediators who force them to resolve their difficulties and to “kiss and make up”. In the meantime, the two parties aggravate each other from a distance—as a way of keeping the relationship alive.
The United States and Iran are in a perfect state of “qahr”: they don’t talk, won’t reconcile, and do everything possible to make life unpleasant for each other. Since neither side actually inflicts damage on the other, most of the annoyance is rhetorical, or directed through surrogates. Opportunities for reconciliation (such as the December 2003 earthquake disaster in the city of Bam) are quickly sabotaged.
The United States maintains ineffective economic sanctions against Iran, and puts Iran in the “axis of evil”. It also tries to sabotage Iran’s development, for example, by attempting to veto an Iranian natural-gas pipeline to India through Pakistan.
Iran has few ways to irritate the United States directly, apart from launching some demonstrations at which “Death to America” is shouted, but it can always get a rise out of the United States by issuing empty threats against the nation it sees as America’s surrogate in the region, Israel.
There is a curious paradox in the dynamics of these encounters. Iran is a hierarchical society that recognises the relationship between subordinate and superior as a normal part of life. The United States is egalitarian, eschewing hierarchy in interpersonal dealings. However, the United States wants Iran to acknowledge American superiority in the world and to obey American commands, such as on the question of nuclear power, thus emphasising hierarchy. Iran, by contrast is desperate to be seen as the equal of Western nations in terms of its great, deep civilisation and its modern industrial development, thus emphasising equality. Neither side is willing to budge on this paradoxical point.
Living with Iran
War, regime change or violent action against Iran will fail. They are non-starters. Although American jingoists, and some Iranian émigrés, would like to see these options, the chances of bringing about significant change in Iranian behaviour through these means are nil.
Iran’s youthful population is well disposed to the United States. America will lose this good will utterly if it tries to install a new ruler, or tries forcibly to change the Iranian government—a logistically impossible task, since the government is quite complex and quite stable.
Iran today is being transformed as rapidly as its youthful population is moving into adulthood. Its previously moribund economy is being revitalised, with new construction, manufacturing and sophisticated exports, such as passenger cars and light aircraft. If the world will wait just a few years until the post-revolutionary generation becomes the majority voting population, all the hopes of the United States for Iran to become an emerging, productive economic partner for the developed world will be realised.
One might concede that American verbal pressure has been the source of Iran’s movement away from support of Hizbollah and towards better treatment of women and minorities. If so, then Washington should be delighted. However, it seems that the further Iran retreats from giving substance to American complaints, the more eager the Bush administration is to intensify the harsh invective, drawing line after line in the sand, however pale and undefined they may become. If these complaints are merely a pretext for violent action against the Islamic Republic, as many in Tehran believe, Iran will never succeed in placating the Washington hawks no matter how well it behaves.
2. Daniel Byman, “Should Hezbollah Be Next?”, Foreign Affairs 82, no. 6 (November/December 2003), pp. 64–5.
3. See Elaine Pasquini, “Hizbollah May Have ‘Bright Political Future’ in Lebanon, Says Dwight J. Simpson”, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs 23, no. 7 (September 2004), pp. 56–7.
4. See Robin Wright, “Most of Iran’s Troops in Lebanon Are out, Western Officials Say”, Washington Post, 13 April 2005.
5. Betty Mahmoody and William Hoffer, Not without My Daughter (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1987).
6. Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books (New York: Random House, 2003).
7. See Golnar Mehran, “Lifelong Learning: New Opportunities for Women in a Muslim Country (Iran)”, Comparative Education 35, no. 2 (June 1999), pp. 201–15.
8. Janet Larsen, “Iran’s Birth Rate Plummeting at Record Pace”, Humanist, January/February 2003.