The Islamic Republic of Iran is in hot water with Washington and European capitals because of its apparent pursuit of a nuclear bomb. Dangling carrots of increased trade, the Europeans are trying to persuade Iran to renounce atomic ambitions. Skeptical of these methods but bogged down in Iraq, the Bush administration has grumbled on the sidelines.
Hawks in Washington want the United Nations to impose sanctions on Tehran, the theory being that the clerical regime is so unpopular at home that it will crack under additional pressure from abroad. Especially after reactionary hardliners recaptured Iran’s parliament by fixing the February 2004 elections, this reasoning goes, the Iranian people are fed up. Indeed, Iranians are chafing under renewed restrictions on personal expression, and many of them abstained from the spurious voting in the spring.
But not every international lever can unleash democratic forces in Iran that might eventually change the regime from within. U.N. sanctions or military strikes directed at halting the progress of the nuclear program will strengthen the hand of the regime, despite widespread disillusionment with political repression and economic stagnation. Should missiles hit or sanctions hurt a population already facing considerable hardship, hard-line clerics will be able to mobilize nationalist sentiment against an external enemy. As one student, Saida Hussain, asked a reporter for the BBC: “Why should the United States, Britain and Israel all have nuclear weapons and not us?”
But another form of international pressure might assist the struggling movement for democratic change in Iran, a policy that places human rights over Western security concerns and economic interests. For the last seven years, intrepid journalists, student protesters and other activists have pushed vigorously for transformation of the hidebound Iranian system. These activists have borne the brunt of the conservative backlash, winding up jailed, beaten and even killed for their beliefs. In November 2004, not content to have stopped the reformist printing presses, hardliners began arresting people for what they posted on the Internet. Right-wing editorialist Hossein Shariatmadari claimed to espy “a spider’s web” spun by exiled supporters of the former Shah and the CIA.
While the United States—from President George W. Bush on down—has been quick to denounce Iran’s alleged quest for a nuclear weapon as “intolerable,” the regime’s violations of human rights have drawn far milder words of disapproval from Washington. Even after the rigged February elections, the State Department had hardly anything to say. European negotiators, for their part, have reacted with alarm when Tehran seemed to be backtracking on promises not to enrich uranium, but merely tut-tutted at the arbitrary imprisonment of pro-democracy reformers. These virtual silences send ordinary Iranians the message that the world can easily tolerate them languishing under oppressive and corrupt clerical rule.
Washington’s hawkish stance is not inspiring another Iranian revolution, and the Europeans’ proffered carrots may fail to entice the Islamic Republic to halt its nuclear program. It is time for a new and coordinated approach. The Bush administration should remove Iran from its rhetorical “axis of evil.” Both the United States and the Europeans should open a political dialogue with Iran to resolve security concerns, without preconditions. Expanded trade relations and investment, however, should be subject to the world’s evaluation of how well the Iranian regime is respecting the civil and human rights of Iranian citizens.
That kind of pressure would earn the respect of the majority of Iranians, and make clear that the main enemies of their prosperity and political participation reside within their own government. Under that kind of pressure, the hardliners’ grip on Iranian society might indeed begin to slip.