Fear and Loathing in Tehran

August 29, 2007 Topic: DemocracyHistorySociety Regions: Persian GulfMiddle East

Fear and Loathing in Tehran

Mini Teaser: By meddling in Iran’s internal affairs, the United States has inflamed Iranian fears and made a muddle of U.S. policy.

by Author(s): Suzanne Maloney

ANY FUTURE administration must come to grips with two unpleasant truths about Iranian politics. First, the regime is here to stay for the foreseeable future, and second, American involvement is far more likely to impair rather than advance Iran's democratic potential. An alternative American approach to democracy promotion in Iran should begin with an eye toward realism and viability. There are no quick fixes.

We need responsible leadership to promote prudent long-term investments rather than high-profile but low-impact initiatives. It will be difficult to abandon altogether the extravagant funding and official U.S. operational role; however, a more sensible approach would redirect funds from direct civil-society support toward the less politicized arena of educational opportunities and exchanges. Subsidizing hundreds of scholarships for Iranians at U.S. colleges and universities would have a vastly greater public-diplomacy benefit inside Iran today, and would expose Iran's best and brightest to American culture and opportunities, helping create a new generation of U.S.-trained intellectuals poised to steer their country in a new direction. In addition, we should move from a U.S. government-centric approach to a more broad-based effort by authorizing all U.S. NGOs to network with Iranian partners and engage in humanitarian projects, capacity building and community development in Iran. Such work is currently barred by U.S. sanctions except for case-by-case licenses. A general license for American non-profits would permit a thousand flowers to bloom and would erode some of the taint of official American approval.

Washington should also endeavor to "re-brand" U.S. outreach, particularly the State Department's new Dubai office, which was unfortunately described by Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns as a 21st-century version of the "Riga station"-the U.S. listening post along the Soviet border during the Cold War. Rather, the Dubai office should serve as the shadow embassy and launching pad for enhanced diplomatic mechanisms and people-to-people dialogue. In the short term, none of these steps promise a breakthrough, but they can slowly foster conditions conducive to democratic outcomes.

Iran's volatile politics present Washington with a profound dilemma. At minimum, a more democratic political framework would mitigate the most troubling dimensions of Iran's current policies-the regime's nuclear ambitions, its support for Iraqi militias and terrorists across the region, and its treatment of its own people. For legitimate reasons, curtailing these policies ranks high on the administration's agenda, with nearly universal bipartisan support. Unfortunately, though, the Bush Administration has adopted a prescription for Iran's democratic deficit that disregards the fundamental realities of the disease. Recognizing what is truly achievable is axiomatic for success, particularly in countries where our interests vastly outweigh our expertise.

Finally, we should recognize that Iran's internal developments are largely beyond the influence of Washington. This should not imply hopelessness about Iran's political future; a history of semi-competitive politics and a well-educated populace give the country perhaps the strongest platform for democracy in the region. Rather, Iran's persistent unpredictability and unexpected evolution since 1979 only reminds us that we truly don't know what twist Iranian politics may yet take.

Suzanne Maloney is a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution and was a State Department official until May 2007.

Essay Types: Essay