If the surest sign a country has achieved evil empire status is when it becomes a joke on David Letterman, Iran has arrived. The late-night comedian cracked Friday that “my favorite event, of course, is the four-man jihad.”
But the Bush administration’s new move to demonize Iran is no joke. In fact, it could be one of our biggest foreign policy blunders in years.
In his State of the Union address two weeks ago, President Bush made news when he identified Iran, along with North Korea and Iraq, as being part of an “axis of evil.” In the strongest language used by an American president against Iran in a long time, he accused the Islamic Republic of exporting terror and seeking weapons of mass destruction, “while an un-elected few repress the Iranian people’s hope for freedom.” Hinting at pre-emptive action, President Bush warned that the United States would “not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons.”
With the war on terrorism enjoying massive popular support, hawks have jumped onto the Bush bandwagon, stepping up their calls for the United States to openly attack regimes they deem dangerous — a list to which Iran has suddenly been added. Conservative pundit William Safire has led the charge. Pointing to Israel’s recent seizure of Iranian arms destined for Arafat’s Palestinian Authority while ominously invoking Iran’s nuclear program, in a New York Times column last month Safire essentially called for a preemptive military strike against Iran. (Safire backpeddled a bit later, calling for “surgical” military strikes only if Iran developed nuclear weapons.) In recent weeks, American officials have accused Iran of harboring al-Qaida escapees and trying to destabilize Afghanistan’s new government. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld charged that Iran runs terrorist training camps in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Even Secretary of State Colin Powell, a Bush administration moderate, threw down the gauntlet to Iran.
These bellicose statements from the administration and influential pundits — driven by a desire to justify missile defense and a bloated defense budget and maintain a climate of fear that will guarantee President Bush’s popularity — are certain to resurrect Americans’ worst fears about Iran, painting it as an extremist monolith bent on supporting every terrorist group across the globe that has an anti-Western tilt.
That image is inaccurate. And expanding America’s war on terrorism to include Iran would be a serious, if not catastrophic, mistake. At this crucial moment, with a suspicious Islamic world watching the United States’ next move and our European allies increasingly dismayed at American unilateralism, it is critical that our government doesn’t retreat into outmoded stereotypes and simplistic good-versus-evil distinctions. Vital foreign policy decisions must not be driven by newly empowered hawks who are using the national consensus against terrorism to try to push through narrow, flawed and ultimately dangerous agendas.
It is long past time to ask some honest questions regarding our Iran policy, questions that go well beyond the rudimentary analysis offered by the Bush administration. Do we continue our confrontational stance towards Iran, which has completely failed over the past 20 years, or escalate it even further to open hostilities? Or do we seek to constructively engage with a flawed but dynamic, increasingly democratic and fast-evolving country? The stakes are high. No nation is more crucial to the entire direction of America’s future foreign policy, especially with regard to the Muslim world, as Iran. And every substantial strategic and tactical argument points to adopting a new policy of American engagement.
Contrary to what the Bush administration and its entourage of conservative hawks would like us to believe, contemporary Iran is not a nation of maniacal zealots but a complex blend of tradition and modernity, pluralism and authoritarian rule.
The history of my own family is a perfect illustration of this. For my grandfather, Islam was everything. The first son of a farmer from northern Iran, he enrolled in the religious seminaries in the Shi’ite holy city of Najaf, immersing himself in a lifelong study of Islamic law and theology. He banned music in his household and considered Christians and Jews unclean.
His youngest brother, however, was transformed in a different way. Hussein Agha had opened up an office for the family textile business in Italy, and by the time he returned to Iran he had traded in his fez and prayer beads for an Italian suit, a phonograph and a stack of American orchestra favorites. A generation later, my grandfather’s eldest son, Ahmad Agha, turned to tradition like his father before him. Even as our family’s large pharmaceuticals corporation grew up around him in the 1970s, he shunned calculators and continued to do the company accounting on a traditional wood-carved abacus. My father and his brother Muhammad, the youngest of their generation, would swing the pendulum back again, against tradition. They both settled in the West, far from the Muslim heartland, with my father taking an American bride of Jewish-Christian descent born in the Bronx.
These are not atypical family anecdotes. Such diversity — religious, cultural, political — is found not only within countless Iranian families but within the country itself. Unfortunately, too few Americans have come to know this Iran, and the prevailing environment of hostility between the two nations has only contributed to this ignorance. Over the last 20 years, the bearded zealot has been the dominant face of Iran in the American imagination. After all, who can forget those searing images of enraged crowds shouting “death to America” and parading blindfolded embassy hostages? But we Americans forget our own history when we say we don’t understand the fanaticism of Iran. We forget the hostile crowds of our own Revolutionary War, burning effigies of King George and denouncing him as the incarnation of Satan. We forget our own revolutionary leaders firing American imaginations by associating revolt with the second coming of Christ and the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth. Iran is not so different from what America once was.
Times have changed in Iran since the Islamic revolution. There are still angry crowds on the streets of Tehran, but their rage has not been directed at America — at least, not until Bush’s speech — but at Iran’s repressive religious regime. They chant “Down with the mullahs!” and “We love America!” They hold spontaneous moments of silence in packed soccer stadiums for those killed in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Most of the people in those crowds have no memory of the revolution, the autocratic Shah or his American patrons. They are the two-thirds of Iran’s nearly 70 million people who are under 25 and have grown up almost entirely under theocratic rule. Unlike the foot soldiers of past American and Iranian revolutions, these people do not color their revolt with religious imagery. They do not threaten to export Islamic revolution. Instead, they crave Western freedoms. They have more in common with the global youth of the MTV generation than they do with the stern clerics who govern them. They are the future faces of Iran.
But aren’t the Iranian people powerless, as in so many Middle Eastern nations? Don’t they cower under the yoke of one-party states such as Egypt or Syria, or brutal military tyrants like those of Iraq and Algeria? No. The Bush administration’s efforts to lump Iran together with dictatorships across the Middle East flies in the face of the fact — acknowledged by all serious students of the region — that it is one of the most democratic nations in the region. Voter turnout for Iran’s free and fair presidential and parliamentary elections regularly dwarfs percentages for their American counterparts. And the last several elections in Iran have been dominated by a young, brash constituency that has returned reformists, led by president Mohammad Khatami, to power through landslide victories. Khatami’s platform: reinvigorating Iranian civil society and enhancing the rule of law while engaging in what he calls a “Dialogue Among Civilizations” with the Western world. Unlike other states in the region that have flirted with democracy by establishing hollow, top-down institutions with no real authority, Iranian democracy has roots that reach deep down to the local level. In February 1999 voters in 730 cities and 40,000 villages elected about 200,000 local council members across the country, including more than 500 women.
Nevertheless, President Khatami and his supporters are indeed locked in a power struggle with an “un-elected few” — the conservative clerics, led by Iran’s spiritual leader, Ali Khamenei, who control the armed forces, the judiciary and the intelligence services. A Guardian council screens all candidates for elections and blocks legislation considered “un-Islamic.” Reformist newspapers are shut down for expressing dissent and calling for change. Intellectuals are hunted and murdered for their views; dissidents are subjected to closed and dubious trials. Religious minorities are persecuted. Large religious foundations with ties to the government and billions in petro-dollar resources fund terrorist groups around the world. The conservative mullahs of Iran regularly denounce American and Israeli imperialism and seek weapons of mass destruction.
But time is not on the side of Iran’s conservative mullahs. To understand why, one must look at Iran’s recent history.
They say that revolutions eat their children, and in the beginning, the Islamic revolution in Iran proved this maxim. An unlikely coalition of secular leftists, students, workers, urbanized peasants, traditional merchants and religious classes, all with very different conceptions of what Iran would look like upon victory, united to oppose the Shah. After the Pahlavi regime fell, the mullahs were able to impose their vision of Islamic rule on the fractured political landscape. Fighting a devastating eight-year war with Iraq in the 1980s (a war in which the United States provided arms to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq), the ruling clerics threw family planning out the window and encouraged Iranians to breed them an army. Iran’s population nearly doubled in the 20 years following the revolution, and the younger generation that is trying to reshape the political system was born. In the end, the children of Iran may, in fact, eat the revolution — but they will need our help.
The question is how best to help Iran’s new generation of democrats and accelerate the demise of its authoritarians. Unfortunately, America’s prevailing policy over the past 20 years has only hindered Iran’s new generation while indirectly helping the ruling regime maintain power. America has been in a state of enmity with Iran since the aftermath of the ’79 revolution, when it broke ties and imposed economic sanctions on it with the intention of punishing Iran for its extremism, reducing the resources it could devote to terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, isolating it from the world and perhaps motivating its people to overthrow the clerical regime.
This initial move was understandable, but America — clinging to a policy of “dual containment” that treated Iran and Iraq as equal international pariahs — has failed to adapt to Iran’s new realities. The heavy-handed Iran and Libya Sanctions Act of 1996, which imposed unilateral secondary sanctions against companies that invested in energy development in Iran or Libya, has alienated our trading partners, portrayed us as an arrogant nation imposing its will on the rest of the world and completely failed to dislodge the hard-line mullahs. The world community, including our staunchest allies, has not joined the American embargo against Iran. Our sanctions regime, far from isolating the Islamic Republic, seems to have only isolated us. It is seen as unfairly punishing everyday Iranians for the misdeeds of their government.
Most important, the current American containment policy gives the conservative mullahs of Iran exactly what they want. It keeps Iranian civil society, primed and ready for change, more insulated from global interaction and off-balance. It allows the clerics to blame America, instead of government mismanagement and corruption, for Iran’s economic problems. It promotes a paranoid siege mentality among the mullahs that will make Iran more, not less, reluctant to moderate its nuclear aspirations. Far from forcing productive change upon Iran, American policy has inhibited it. Bush’s recent speech, as reported in Salon and the New York Times — whose Feb. 8 headline noted “Bush’s comments bolster old guard in Tehran” — has only made matters worse.
Even if American sanctions were effective, the Iranian government — which has $20 billion in annual oil revenues — would still have more than enough resources to suppress internal dissent, support anti-Israel terror and fund a nuclear weapons program. The current American policy gives us no leverage over the Iranian regime and does little to hurt it. Which is why the most positive initial step America could take would be to unilaterally drop the economic sanctions against Iran.
Iran is ripe for change. A clear constituency within the Iranian government, backed by a clear majority of the Iranian population, believes in democratic reform and wants to re-engage with America. But Iranians are not waiting to be “liberated” from the mullahs by America, as Safire wants us to believe. The last time America “liberated” Iran was through a CIA-backed coup d’itat in 1953 that replaced the elected government of Muhammad Mossadegh — whose crime was nationalizing the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, now known as British Petroleum — with the autocratic Muhammad Reza Shah. The Shah’s brutally repressive policies, indecisiveness and reliance on his American patrons contributed to a violent backlash 26 years later in the Islamic revolution. Iran’s reformers want to see their nation evolve within their current political system, as they showed by their overwhelming participation in the recent elections. We have little to lose by fostering dialogue with this group.
Defenders of America’s enmity towards Iran argue that if we were to warm up to Iran we would lend legitimacy to an authoritarian group of clerics and give them an excuse to crack down further on the burgeoning reform movement. Reactionaries in Iran might claim that reformists have become American stooges, like the Shah of the old Iran. But this slander has been used so many times in the political squabbles of the last 20 years in Iran that it has become a hollow charge. Moreover, there is no real rage anymore among the Iranian people toward America to back it up. Anti-American demonstrations have become affairs staged by conservative groups and their lackeys. They do not enjoy support from the broader population.
And escalating American-Iranian hostility by a unilateral military reprisal against Iran, as Bush’s saber-rattling speech hints we might do, would be catastrophic for positive change in Iran — not to mention its devastating effects on America’s standing in the entire region. Already our European allies have distanced themselves from President Bush’s tough talk, correctly suspecting that he is using the terror war to advance unrelated foreign policy goals against old American foes. Moreover, military action against Iran wouldn’t work. An attack on Iran will only cause its people to close ranks around the conservative mullahs, refocusing their energy outwards towards a foreign foe instead of inwards at a restrictive regime. Iran’s new generation has little reason to hate America. It would be imprudent to give them one.
We have a precedent for this exact scenario in the not too distant past. In 1986 the Reagan administration bombed Libya, claiming that it had unequivocally silenced one of the demons of global state-sponsored terrorism, Colonel Moammar Gadhafi. We know now that American aggression only rallied the country to Gadhafi’s side, allowing him to crack down on the Libyan resistance movement, which had been growing in strength. Moreover, the Reagan bombing didn’t prevent Libyan agents from downing Pan Am Flight 103 two years later. After Sept. 11, Americans know firsthand what effect a foreign attack on a country’s soil can have on patriotic feeling among its citizens and the approval rating of leaders (including those whose legitimacy had been called into question). Iran’s mullahs have become increasingly unpopular. Let’s not reverse this trend.
The weapon America has that the ruling mullahs of Iran fear most is one we have not used yet. It is not a bomb or a missile. It is the unmatched power of cultural and economic exchange that has made and remade societies for millennia. Greater contact with the outside world will obliterate the climate of paranoia and fear in Iran and empower its people, especially its bold young people, to challenge the ruling classes in even more provocative ways.
An Iran that is more integrated with the world community of nations would also be a more law-abiding, moderate country. The business of terrorism and nuclear proliferation becomes more costly for a government when it stands to lose substantial trade and investment by maintaining these policies. Hundreds of thousands of new jobs need to be created each year in Iran. By providing some of those jobs through increased economic ties, we create a constituency within Iran for moderation and lawful behavior. By continuing to blockade Iran, we deprive ourselves of this crucial leverage over Iran’s actions.
But what about Iran’s support for anti-Israel terrorist groups — the single issue most decisive in leading the Bush administration, which was lobbied hard by Israel, to place Iran in the “axis of evil” column? Iran has a hard-line anti-Israel stance and supports Hezbollah, the militant Lebanese-based Shi’ite group. To a lesser extent, it provides support to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and, to a much lesser extent, Hamas. The latter two groups have staged numerous terrorist attacks against Israel. As a result, the U.S. State Department lists Iran as “the most active state sponsor of terrorism.”
Ending Iran’s support for these groups in the endless semi-war between Israel and the Palestinians is a key goal of America’s Iran policy. But allowing that entire policy to be determined by that is unwise, as numerous analysts have pointed out.
In any case, befriending the Iranian regime, not justifying Iran’s support for terrorism by remaining hostile, is a more effective strategy. (Even the head of Israel’s intelligence service, Mossad, believes that pursuing better relations with Iran will ensure Israel’s security better than confrontation.) When terrorism as a goal truly becomes too costly for the Iranian regime, jeopardizing lucrative relations with Western partners, the Iranian government itself will begin to crack down on those supporting terrorism. There is precedent for this exact scenario in President Musharraf’s Pakistan. Tied to the West by lucrative IMF loans and trade relations, Pakistan’s regime was quick to side with America against its former Taliban and al-Qaida clients. Under American pressure, President Musharraf has even cracked down on the Pakistani resistance groups that have waged terrorist attacks in the disputed Kashmir region.
If Iran was really preparing to rain nuclear missiles down on Tel Aviv, as Safire warned, of course there would be no question of detente. But Safire confuses rhetoric with reality. Iran does indeed want nuclear weapons, not as an offensive arsenal but as a defensive deterrent to foreign aggression. There is ample historical reason for this: During the eight-year war with Iraq, Iraqi bombs and missiles, supplied by America and other Western nations, mercilessly fell on Iranian cities, killing thousands of people. In the current environment of growing opposition at home and accelerated encirclement abroad, the mullahs of Iran are concerned more with self-preservation than exporting revolution. Launching nuclear attacks on Israel would be an act of suicide, resulting in the immediate annihilation of the Iranian regime at the hands of Israel and the U.S.
Moreover, the elected government of Mohammad Khatami and his foreign minister Kamal Kharazi have considerably softened on the issue of Israel and the peace process. President Khatami himself publicly hinted recently that if the Palestinian people choose to recognize Israel and reach a settlement, then Iran must accept this.
Inflammatory sermons by hard-line mullahs aside, a strong streak of pragmatism is discernible in Iran’s behavior. This is an important clue to the potential within the Iranian regime for constructive dialogue. Look at Iran’s actions on the ground over the last decade. During the Gulf War, when the region was aflame with anti-American sentiment, Iran stayed prudently on the sidelines. Iranian officials have brokered deals to help American hostages gain freedom in Lebanon. They have publicly distanced themselves from Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1989 death sentence against British writer Salman Rushdie. Iran is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and has agreed to constant monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency, something other American allies such as Israel and Pakistan have refused to allow. Although it did not join the military effort against the Taliban, Iran did agree to cooperate with the United States on search and rescue efforts if American planes were shot down over Iran and opened a port to ship American wheat to the Afghan people. “By and large, the Iranian role diplomatically has been quite constructive,” according to the State Department’s director of policy planning, Richard N. Haass.
In short, Iran has some history as a peaceable member of the international community, although this behavior has not grabbed headlines like more extremist deeds and language. Moderate ayatollahs who resist extremism in Iran are not a myth, as the Bush administration would like us to believe in order to justify its hostile agenda.
Finally, there are powerful strategic and security concerns that argue for better relations with Iran. In the aftermath of Sept. 11, it has become clear that long-term peace and stability in the Middle East is not just a vague foreign policy objective but critical to our security as a nation. We have proven we are good at waging war. But as the Gulf War showed, sustaining a long-term, prosperous peace after victory is often more elusive. Saddam Hussein is still a threat over 10 years later. Forging appropriate friendships in the region will be as important as destroying adversaries. And by virtue of its geography, culture, and resources, Iran can exercise a singular influence over the region and help ensure our interests.
The modern Middle East is an unstable patchwork of artificial borders that were drawn by scheming colonial masters bent on dividing and ruling, not unifying and stabilizing. Although the region is one of the oldest inhabited places on Earth, the sovereign nation-state is a relatively new concept. Consider Iran’s immediate neighbors. They have spent the better part of the last 80 years as infant nations struggling to hold their fractious populations together. Iraq has its Kurds in the north and its Shia Muslims in the south. Afghanistan has its Uzbeks, Tajiks, Pashtuns and Hazaras. Pakistan has its Pashtuns, Balochis and Sindis. Even in relatively stable Turkey, the government has been waging a vicious war in the southeast against breakaway Kurds. The fledgling “–stan” nations of the Caucasus region to Iran’s north are barely a decade old after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In this unruly neighborhood, Iran has a key attribute that few have: a potent national identity stretching back over 2,000 years, transcending religious, ethnic and sectarian differences. Iran has its own Kurdish, Azeri Turk, Jewish, Zoroastrian, and Armenian communities. But all Iranians, including these groups, share a fierce, almost ethnocentric national pride. They consider themselves a race ethnically and linguistically distinct from Semitic Arabs or Turks. This common consciousness within the mind of each Iranian creates a collective stability that can act as an anchor in an otherwise balkanized region.
Iran’s geography also makes it important to our strategic objectives in the region after 9/11. As Gary Sick, former national security chief under President Carter, has pointed out, Iran is uniquely located between the “twin towers” of terrorism, Afghanistan and Iraq. It has exercised an important influence over both nations and their internal politics for millennia. Moreover, Iran’s interests in these countries are now more than ever aligned with America’s.
The Bush administration claims that Iran is meddling in Afghanistan and trying to destabilize the fledgling government there, with the aim of ensuring a more religious state. But these reports — which have been categorically denied by Tehran — are highly unlikely to be true. Destabilizing Afghanistan is not in Iran’s interest. Why would Iran want to destabilize an Afghan government that it already has some influence over through its longtime client, the Northern Alliance, one of the most powerful constituencies within the Karzai regime? And why would it want to re-install a Sunni religious regime that would more than likely be hostile to its Shiite brand of Islam? This reasoning extends to allegations that Iran may be giving sanctuary to al-Qaida members. The clerics of Iran have little reason to harbor escapees whose puritanical, Wahhabi strain of Islam they find abhorrent.
Indeed, in response to Bush administration allegations that Iran was harboring al-Qaida members, Iranian foreign minister Kamal Kharrazi extended an unprecedented invitation to U.S. agents to come to Iran, share their intelligence and help the Iranian authorities root out al-Qaida. The American response to Kharrazi’s overture: silence. It seems the Bush administration is more comfortable with Iran as an enemy even if the Islamic Republic’s behavior contradicts this image.
What Iran is concerned with is its growing encirclement by American-backed regimes and the presence of U.S. forces near its borders. Its border “mischief” of late is sphere-of-influence jockeying, not a coordinated move against the nascent Afghan government. After all, America has scored two impressive military victories over Iran’s close neighbors in the last 10 years. It is the spread of American influence in its neighborhood that Iran fears. If we can establish some level of trust with the Khatami government, far from being a nuisance, a friendly Iran could influence the Northern Alliance leaders to work more smoothly with the Karzai coalition for a stable Afghanistan. A maker of mischief would become a guarantor of peace and prosperity in a war-torn land.
But perhaps the best indication of Iran’s positive intentions in Afghanistan is its commitment to rebuild the war-shattered nation. Iran has pledged $560 million over three years, making it the single largest contributor in the world. Of course, self-interest is involved, as it is with every nation’s foreign policy — but unless the U.S. makes Iran its enemy, that self-interest need not be threatening to U.S. interests.
Iran could also play a vital role in America’s dealings with Iraq. Under the ruthless rule of Saddam Hussein, Iran’s western neighbor has long been the premier outlaw state in the region and may be next on America’s list in the war on terror. Iran fought a bloody war with Iraq in the 1980s and has no love for a regime that supports dissident anti-Iranian guerilla groups. At the same time, Iran has broad political and spiritual influence with the clear majority of Iraqis who belong to the Shia sect of Islam. In fact, this influence was a major factor in the U.S. decision not to overthrow Saddam Hussein in the wake of the Gulf War: We feared a pro-Iranian state would replace him. By befriending a moderate Iran that fear would disappear. A friendly Iran could influence Shia dissident groups to work more closely with other factions in Iraq, such as the Kurds, for a pluralist, stable nation.
World energy security is another area where a relationship with Iran would pay huge dividends. Iran is the third largest exporter of oil in the world and contains 15 percent of global natural gas reserves. It is strategically located just south of the Caspian and Central Asian regions and could shore up the stability of those areas while reducing the transport costs of their massive oil and gas reserves to Western markets. The cheapest pipeline route from the Caspian region to the Persian Gulf is indisputably through Iran. By relying more heavily on Iranian, Caspian and Central Asian petroleum resources, America could ultimately reduce its own dependence on Saudi oil and the complex Arab-Israeli politics that accompany it.
But peace and stability in the Middle East and security for America will not only depend on the strength of our strategic alliances with Iran and other nations. We have strong relations with the governments of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, but this did not prevent Saudi and Egyptian nationals from committing the atrocities of 9/11. In fact, it was these exact relationships that motivated our attackers. Political dissent in Egypt and Saudi Arabia has been summarily crushed since their creation as nations. It was only a matter of time before it became radicalized and boiled over to strike what is perceived as the main patron of the Egyptian and Saudi regimes — the United States.
Although most Muslims find Osama bin Laden’s tactics and worldview abhorrent, he does articulate a legitimate grievance against America from the Muslim perspective: How can the Bush administration make no distinction between terrorists and those who support or harbor them at the same time that it gives billions each year in military aid to nations, such as Egypt and Israel, that systematically wage terror against populations under their control? The hypocrisy only becomes more glaring when the Bush administration claims that there is no such thing as a “good terrorist” or a “bad terrorist.” For many Muslims, there clearly has been a distinction in the mind-set of American leaders for some time. So far we are losing the war for hearts and minds in the Middle East.
A rehabilitated relationship with Iran could help win that war. Many Muslims believe, rightly or wrongly, that America is trying to secularize the politics of the Muslim world, to strip Muslims of their religion. Why else would America support countries like Turkey and Algeria even after military juntas in both nations squashed peaceful Islamic movements that had won free and fair elections? From the Muslim perspective this is a double standard: When Islamic political parties play by the West’s rules of liberal democracy and win, they are quietly removed from power.
Forcibly purging Islam from the political spectrum, whether it is a conscious strategy or not, is not the answer. It has been tried in the past, creating a backlash that only aggravated the political landscape. Both Turkey and Iran experimented with forced secularization in the first half of the 20th century. In Iran, it only contributed to a violent Islamic revolution. In Turkey, it led to a cabal of generals wielding entirely too much political influence in a nation where the only grass-roots political organization is still the Islamist Virtue party. Excluding Islam, a religion intimately intertwined with politics since its inception, from political life will only radicalize the tactics of its adherents, as has already happened in Egypt and Algeria.
Alternatively, by including Islamic political parties within the political development process, you do two things. You begin to reinvent Islam, rationalizing a religion that, unlike Christianity, has never experienced a reformation with the modern world of tolerance and civil liberties. You also reinvent Western democracy, making it more culturally authentic in the eyes of its Muslims citizens.
Today, Iran is the only country in the Middle East that is experimenting with highly potent forms of both democracy and Islam. It is also the only nation in the region whose people have waged a successful revolution against the tyranny that is such a common component of Middle Eastern governments. This has created perhaps the most charged political atmosphere in the region. It has given Iran the chance to politically evolve like no other state in the history of the Middle East. Unlike in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the people of Iran have peaceful means of articulating their dissent within the political system. They do not need to resort to acts of terrorism at home or abroad. They can vote conservatives out of office, as they did in overwhelming numbers in the recent presidential and parliamentary elections. They can express their views in one of the reformist newspapers that, despite periodic government crackdowns, have made Iran’s print media the most vibrant in the region.
This political environment makes Iran breathe like no other nation in the region. However committed the ruling clerics are to preserving Islamic restrictions in Iran, there is a natural limit to their repression. What is little understood in the United States is that the Islamic revolution was waged against oppression and for accountable government. The clerics cannot be seen to betray the same principles that they themselves fought for.
Perhaps most intriguing of all is the fact that there are no clear-cut battle lines in this war between conservatives and reformers in Iran. Many of the most outspoken reformists are also respected members of the conservative religious establishment. This is a telling measure of how much Iran has evolved since the days of the revolution and how infected with change even the Iranian clerical groups have become. Take Ayatollah Hosein-Ali Montazeri, for instance. In the early years after the revolution, Montazeri was Khomeini’s heir apparent and one of the architects of Islamic rule. He preached global Islamic revolution and was a conduit for funds to terrorist groups around the world. Today, Montazeri is one of the fiercest opponents of the ruling clerics, openly criticizing their autocratic rule and personally attacking the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, himself. Although he has been reprimanded, the ruling clerics do not have the power to completely silence him. Drawing from a venerated tradition of competitive argument and independent judgment that has its roots in the Shia brand of Islam, he continues to critique clerical rule.
In other words, in Iran, it is not only the political landscape that is being transformed. Islam itself is being re-created, as some clerics call for a reinterpretation of the faith to accommodate the demands of modern life. Others call for a wholesale withdrawal of the mullahs from government. What is slowly emerging from this conflict is a wholly authentic blend of Islamic and democratic values that Iran’s people can call their own. In a region of political underdeveloped and despotic nations, Iran could be a model for stable, accountable government — a government that shares both America’s democratic values and its strategic interests.
I have many more reasons than most Americans to hate the Islamic Republic of Iran. After the revolution the new regime seized my family’s pharmaceuticals company with a nonchalant wave of the hand, stripping my father and his brothers of their life’s work, a business they had created from selling cough syrup door-to-door. Worse, like many Iranians, my family was wrenched from our cherished homeland and splintered across the globe as perpetual exiles.
It is easy to hate. It is easy to punish, to ignore, to attack and criticize. It is much harder to sit down, work out differences and develop trust. So far, both America and Iran have taken the easy way out. This is understandable, given the legitimate grievances both countries have against one another. But these misdeeds are well in the past. A new generation of reform-minded Iranians reminds us of our own struggles for freedom as a young nation. We should nurture, not spurn them. Moreover, showing that we can reach out, even to the fundamentalist nation that slapped us in the face 22 years ago, would send an enlightened, mature message to the rest of the Islamic world. With our encouragement, Iran could yet reinvent itself as one of the few democratic states in the Middle East, one that is also comfortable with its Muslim heritage. And that would be a victory for the future of Islam and democracy.