Democracy in Iran

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Anytime I hear someone suggest that the only proper way to deal with Iran is to steer the country on the path towards democracy, I think of Michael Ledeen and his calls to topple regimes across the Middle East in some unspecified way—“Faster, please”—and cringe a bit. Which is too bad, since the sentiment has a lot going for it. In the Los Angeles Times yesterday, Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian human rights advocate and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, made a more level-headed plea for promoting democracy and human rights in Iran:

So, what can the West do? Western nations should help the U.N. appoint a special human rights monitor for Iran. It would remind the General Assembly of Iran’s human rights record annually, and strongly condemn it if the record keeps deteriorating. Contrary to the general perception, Iran’s clerics are sensitive to outside criticism.

The World Bank should stop providing Iran with loans and, instead, work with nongovernmental organizations and the private sector to strengthen civil society. The West should support Iran’s human-rights and democracy advocates, nominate jailed leaders for international awards and keep the cause in the public eye. Western nations should downgrade diplomatic relations if Iran continues violating basic human rights.

Iran is at least six to 10 years away from a nuclear bomb, by most estimates. The crisis is not even a crisis. There is ample time for political reform before Iran ever develops the bomb. Meanwhile, the West should permit Iran a limited uranium enrichment program (as allowed under the nonproliferation treaty) under strict safeguards by the International Atomic Energy Agency — but only when Tehran undertakes meaningful reforms, including freeing political prisoners and holding free and fair elections.

Lastly, the U.S. and Iran should enter direct negotiations. It is simply absurd for the U.S. and the most important nation in the Middle East not to communicate directly. The Bush administration should not be seduced by exile groups with no support in Iran. Developing democracy is an internal affair.

“Slower, please.” Nothing here seems that objectionable, and as I mentioned in my last post, it’s useful to remember that Iran almost certainly is “at least six to 10 years away from a nuclear bomb, by most estimates. ” See Jeffrey Lewis for the technical details. But I’d add that—and Ebadi seems to agree, judging by her last paragraph—that “Western nations” can only influence Iranian behavior and promote good governance if they have some sort of relationship with the regime. The United States can’t ever threaten to “downgrade diplomatic relations if Iran continues violating basic human rights” if diplomatic relations are already, you know, non-existent.

The United States has rarely, if ever, promoted reform, much less democracy, in countries it has alienated or isolated completely (although a large number of people seem to persist in the curious belief that our Cuba policy has somehow “worked” all these decades). There’s no reason to think Iran would be any different—strangling the country with sanctions while encouraging fringe exile groups to rise up almost certainly won’t get anywhere. “Smart sanctions” may offer a key middle ground—punish the leaders but not the people—but even that seems unlikely to foster serious change. One rather drastic alternative, then, is China-style engagement, which, it seems, Ebadi is suggesting, with some modifications.

Granted, with China, the United States hasn’t managed to parlay economic engagement into progress on human rights—or else has avoided doing so, for various economic reasons—but China may be exceptional in this regard, since the U.S. lacks serious leverage over the country. More recently, however, the Bush administration decided to defer trade talks with Egypt until Mubarak undergoes serious political reforms. We’ll see whether the administration is serious about this threat or not, but that’s the sort of subtle pressure for reform that’s presumably more effective when directed at friends rather than embittered and isolated foes.

Judging from this New York Times report today officials in the State Department already agree with a lot of this: “A heavy-handed sanctions approach is going to hurt an awful lot of Iranians that we don’t want to alienate,” says one. And David Ignatius reports that Condoleeza Rice and Stephen Hadley are re-evaluating America’s Iran policy, trying to avoid a confrontation and hoping for a split in the regime between radicals like Ahmadinejad and the so-called “pragmatists.” That’s hardly seeing eye-to-eye with people like Ebadi, but it certainly counts as drastic progress since the good old “Axis of Evil” days.


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