Two decades after Iran’s Islamic revolution of 1978-79, another US administration has been surprised by violent demonstrations on the streets of Tehran and other Iranian cities. The Clinton Administration and members of Congress watched with alarm and some helplessness as Iranian student protests persisted and spread–despite official warnings, the brutality of religiously inspired vigilantes claiming to protect the Islamic Republic’s interests and carefully orchestrated counter-demonstrations. The US Department of State has reacted cautiously to these developments, while members of Congress–usually eager to criticize the Clinton Administration’s intelligence failures–have remained silent so far.
As initially peaceful marches in Tehran spread to other cities and sparked clashes with security forces last week, the State Department issued terse statements urging the Iranian government to safeguard the students’ rights to free assembly and expression in accordance “with international human rights standards.” The students’ core demands–respect for the inviolability of university facilities, the release of their jailed leaders and other dissidents, and freedom of the press–are consistent with the Clinton Administration’s rhetoric favoring democratic movements worldwide. The US, however, has hesitated to embrace the students, who, along with other constituencies, voted overwhelmingly for Khatami in the May 1997 election.
The Administration’s stance towards Iran’s latest unrest reveals a historically flawed understanding of democratization. While articulating a discourse of popular freedom, Washington has traditionally worried that genuine democratization in the Middle East would subvert American interests and goals, namely, the containment of radical forces and great power competitors, the protection of Israel and the free flow of reasonably priced oil. At the height of the Cold War, US presidents used these interests to justify policies that undermined democratic forces in Iran. Now, well after the Cold War’s end, Iranian students are implicitly testing the Clinton Administration’s commitment to democracy in the Middle East.
Four key factors underlie the Administration’s reluctance to support the Iranian student movement unequivocally. First, the students lack a clearly identifiable leadership, despite their strong organizational potential. Rather, the protesters have referred to themselves as “Khatami’s students,” imploring their president to restrain the security forces and to accelerate the pace of reform.
The US also worries that embracing the students could give hard-line conservatives the excuse they need to suppress the protests brutally. Supreme Leader Ali Khamene’i, believed to control the state’s security apparatus, has already warned the demonstrators against manipulation by “foreign agents.” Recent press reports from Iran indicate that hard-liners are now openly blaming the US for fomenting last week’s violence.
Third, the “less-said-the-better” approach to Iran’s unrest reflects divisions within the Clinton Administration and Congress over whether and how to deal with the Islamic Republic. Even after pronouncing the policy of “dual containment” in 1993 to thwart the influence of “rogue regimes”–Ba`athist Iraq and the Islamic Republic of Iran–US decision-makers have differed over whether isolating Iran merely intensifies anti-Americanism within the clerical leadership. Moreover, those in the Administration who favor restoring diplomatic relations have disagreed about how this should proceed: Would Tehran or Washington make the first move? And with which Iranian leaders would the US talk?
Khatami’s victory in 1997 seemed to answer these questions. Advocating a “dialogue of civilizations” and the beginning of people-to-people contacts between Iran and the US, Khatami gave the Clinton Administration grounds for guarded optimism. Yet Iran’s president has not proved consistently able or willing to challenge his conservative rivals.
Recent developments in Iran leave the US in the unenviable position of having to decipher Khatami’s motives and maneuvering without the benefit of contacts on the ground in Iran. Because of its isolationist approach to Iran, the Administration has little choice but to watch and wait, hoping that Khatami does not succumb to conservative pressures to halt reforms and crush future demonstrations. Such a crackdown could doom the initial tentative steps toward a rapprochement between the US and Iran.
Although members of Congress have not yet commented on the Iranian protests, the Clinton/Gore team can ill afford to ignore its legislative opponents. Legislators have generally doubted Khatami’s ability and willingness to reform a regime they consider a threat to American and Israeli interests in the Middle East. If Khatami fails to resolve the current crisis peacefully, the Administration’s congressional critics will feel vindicated in their skepticism.
Finally, Washington will weigh the impact of Iran’s unrest on neighboring states, particularly among the oil-rich but politically unrepresentative kingdoms of the Persian Gulf. Unlike the Islamist leaders of the 1978-79 upheaval, who sought to export their revolutionary fervor, today’s Iranian students have articulated domestic demands and grievances. Nevertheless, if demonstrations erupt again, they could inspire aggrieved constituencies in neighboring countries to make similar demands–an improbable outcome but one that the US would not welcome, despite its pro-democracy rhetoric.
Although the student protests caught Washington off-guard, the Administration and members of Congress must take some comfort in the limited nature of the students’ objectives as well as in Khatami’s resilience and commitment to pursue reform–until now. If the Iranian president manages to meet the students’ more reasonable demands, he will gain domestic and international credibility as a leader who respects both the rule of law and popular freedoms. Meanwhile, the US is likely to continue emphasizing the students’ human rights without openly embracing their movement. Washington may not know just what it wants in Iran, but it clearly fears that continued protests might plunge Iranian society into chaos or result in a decisive victory for conservative forces within Iran’s theocracy. Either outcome would indeed be deja vu all over again.