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Misunderstanding Iran | The Nation

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Misunderstanding Iran

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Still, Pollack's fear of a nuclear-armed Iran ultimately leads him to draw upon his blinkered interpretation of Iranian history to devise a new policy for dealing with the Islamic Republic. However, because he disputes the effectiveness of either unilateral concessions that would incrementally remove economic sanctions or a comprehensive settlement of Iran's "silly grievances," he ends up with a scheme that, stripped of its policy-wonkism, amounts to little more than a perpetuation of the ineffectual containment policy already in place (albeit with the caveat that the United States should continue its "development of anti-ballistic missile defenses," just in case).

About the Author

Reza Aslan
Reza Aslan, a scholar of religions, is the author of No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam (...

Also by the Author

Iran Awakening is the memoir of Shirin Ebadi, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her struggle to hold Iran's clerical regime accountable for its gross human rights violations.

On November 4, 1979, a few months after the collapse of the Iranian monarchy and the inauguration of Iran's Islamic Republic, a group of college students calling themselves the Muslim Students Fo

But as a recent report by the Council on Foreign Relations declared, two and a half decades of sanctioning, isolating and containing Iran has only strengthened the hand of the country's clerical regime, accelerated its weapons program and made the achievement of a full-fledged democracy there a more distant prospect. For this reason, many foreign policy experts, most notably Zbigniew Brzezinski and Richard Haass, have been publicly calling for the Administration to follow Europe's lead and actively pursue negotiations with Iran's clerical regime.

Pollack remains skeptical, pointing to President Clinton's failed attempts to coax Iran into dialogue as proof that negotiations are doomed to failure. But Clinton's efforts came at a time when Iran's conservative and reformist factions were embroiled in a cultural civil war for control of the country. In those years, diplomatic relations with the United States were the proverbial "third rail of politics" that few in Iran were willing to touch.

That is no longer the case. The civil war for Iran's future is over, and for the moment the conservatives have won. Iran's clerical establishment is more deeply entrenched now than it has been in a decade. The country's once-vibrant reform movement is slowly crumbling into irrelevance. Despite the dreams of the Bush Administration, the time for another popular revolution has come and gone. In an utterly collapsed economy, where nearly a fifth of the population (and a third of those under 30) is unemployed, the vast majority of Iranians are far too concerned with eking out a living to consider rising en masse against the clerical establishment, the fantasy of Pentagon neoconservatives.

This is precisely why an increasing number of experts now favor the "China policy" of entering into interdependent trade relations with Iran in the hopes that economic growth will foster democratic change. Again, Pollack disagrees, arguing that the removal of economic obstacles in China has only allowed its leaders to ignore pressure for political change by emphasizing the country's economic development. What Pollack does not recognize is that unlike China, Iran is built upon a representative constitutional framework (albeit one that has been hijacked by the clerical oligarchy) and has in place the democratic institutions that can pave the way for dramatic social and political change. However, these institutions can exert themselves only if Iran is forced out of its economic isolation. If recent history has proven anything, it is that some sort of representative government plus some sort of free-market economy usually paves the way for national stability and greater openness.

The fact is, there are only three options with regard to Iran. We can continue our failed policy of isolating and containing the regime and simply learn to "live with a nuclear-armed Iran," as Pollack suggests. We can continue with the Administration's plans, recently revealed by Seymour Hersh, to strike Iranian targets pre-emptively in a vain attempt to incite a popular uprising (or, as Dick Cheney hinted, allow Israel do it for us). Or we can put aside our ideological reservations and aggressively engage the clerical regime in diplomacy and dialogue--the way we did with the Soviet Union, the way we do with China.

There is every reason to believe that the clerical establishment, despite its stale, shrill anti-American rhetoric, would jump at the chance at opening economic ties with the United States. It would be an enormous coup for it to accomplish what Iran's reformists have been trying so hard to do for more than a decade. Already the clerics have co-opted the rhetoric of reform in order to appease the population and thereby cling to power: A new generation of clerics now speaks openly of a steady transition to full democracy. Extremism and militancy in the clerical hierarchy are gradually giving way to moderation and pragmatism, particularly in the economic realm, and Iran's leaders have reportedly discouraged their Shiite allies in Iraq from seeking to impose an Islamic theocracy along Iranian lines.

President Bush has launched his second term on a rhetorically bold initiative of spreading freedom and liberty to the world, but he must recognize that there is more than one way to accomplish this task. Indeed, in Iran there is but one way to do so, and that is by stimulating Iran's economy and persuading its leadership to open the country to the rest of the world. This is far from the "siren song" that Pollack suggests it is. It is conceivable that this President, with his impeccably hawkish credentials, is in a position to bring it about. After all, if only Nixon could have gone to China, then perhaps only Bush can call Tehran.

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