The U.S., the Muslim World and Iran

March 31, 2004 Topic: Rogue StatesSecurity

The U.S., the Muslim World and Iran

Muslims, especially those in the Middle East, attribute many of their problems (dictatorial regimes, regional turmoil and economic failure) to the U.

Muslims, especially those in the Middle East, attribute many of their problems (dictatorial regimes, regional turmoil and economic failure) to the U.S., either because of U.S. actions or inactions. This is a region where only one Muslim country has had national elections that "might" be considered as somewhat free and open to both male and female voters. This is a region where real per-capita income has declined  (while globally it has roughly doubled) over the last twenty-five years even though many of the countries have had significant revenues (from oil) with little work input. Oil revenues have been embezzled or squandered, especially on the military; and Iran may be in a position to develop a nuclear bomb and a long-range delivery capability. These countries increasingly blame the U.S. for the Palestinian impasse. The war on terrorism and the invasion of Iraq have exposed the U.S. to criticism of hostility toward Islam and toward Muslims.  The U.S. has become isolated even from its traditional European allies. During the fall of 2003, in two General Assembly votes on the Middle East, the U.S. and Israel were on the short end by 144 to 4 and 133 to 4. The U.S. and Muslim countries invariably find themselves on opposite sides on high-profile issues. Islam and the U.S. are on a collision course and it sure looks as if the U.S. wants to head towards a clash of civilizations.

The Elements of a New Approach

First and foremost, the United States needs a good dose of humility. The U.S. cannot afford to be intoxicated by its military and economic power. We cannot alienate and fight the whole world. We, like other countries, have no choice but to function in this world as it is and can only change it by persuasion (and not by confrontation and invasion). Phrases such as "bring ‘em on" do nothing to further U.S. interests and only fan the flames. Yes, we have the power to change governments, but at what cost and with what future political and economic implications? We have needlessly created enemies and terrorists with our hubris and with our use of unnecessary feel-good phrases. Humility on the part of the U.S. will go further than anything else to win the hearts and minds of average Muslims in Iraq and around the world.

To regain the respect of the world, the U.S. should disavow regime change and interference in the internal affairs of any country as national policies. Regime change is up to the citizens of a country. Independent democratic regimes come about as the result of internal struggle and not from outside intervention. Another problem with regime-change-as-foreign-policy is that, because of its nature, it will be applied selectively and when it is convenient. This is the painful reality as seen by Muslims. To appeal to the Muslim world, the U.S. must be consistent in the conduct of its foreign policy. It should withhold its support from corrupt undemocratic regimes, which ironically it has not done. Only under exceptional circumstances should regime change be adopted and then only by the world community (through the United Nations) to confront egregious regimes. We must stress that, like the UN, we in the U.S. are committed to protecting the territorial integrity of each and every country. This cannot be an elastic concept.

On a related point, we must emphatically state that we will not interfere in the internal affairs of any country and that we will not support corrupt undemocratic rulers. Even adherence to this simple commitment (which is, after all, what we espouse) will win us considerable support. Ironically, it is for this reason that the Middle Eastern country where the U.S. is most popular is Iran, a country that has had little contact with the U.S. for nearly twenty-five years!

If we want to play a positive role in the Middle East, we must act as an honest broker in the Arab-Israeli conflict. If we cannot do this, we would be better served by a hands-off policy.

Finally, appreciating the synergy of policies is essential. We need a number of simultaneous policy initiatives in order to succeed. At the same time, it is essential that we incorporate the broader ramifications of each and every policy. Tunnel vision is not a viable option.

In sum, the U.S. needs to do three things to win the hearts and minds of Muslims around the world: promote democracy in the Islamic world (in deed as well as in words), act as an honest broker (Arab/Israel, Iran/Iraq, etc.), and embrace Islam as it does other religions.

Why Iran is Key

There are a number of reasons why Iran may afford a unique opportunity for at least a good start in the effort to win the hearts and minds of Muslims and to turn things around in Iraq. If it wishes to engage Iran, the U.S. must pursue rapprochement, as opposed to isolation and containment, as its new policy toward Iran. 

Iran's population is larger than the combined population of Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Iran's population is young, with over 50 percent aged eighteen and under. Sandwiched between Afghanistan and Iraq, Iran is strategically located and could play a positive political and economic role as a market for regional exports and for the trans-shipment of oil and gas from a number of former Soviet republics.  Iran has vast natural resources, including the second largest gas reserves and the fourth largest oil reserves in the world. With more enlightened economic policies, Iran could become an economic giant in a span of ten years and, as a strong economic partner, it could afford hope to poorer Muslim countries. Iran has had its revolution. It has a constitution, flawed though it may be. Iran is unlikely to have an upheaval on the scale of its revolution - something that might still occur in a number of neighboring countries, including Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Syria. Iranian institutions and human rights policies do not yet live up to Western standards, but they are way ahead of those of their regional Muslim counterparts.  Although the vetting of candidates for political office does not live up to our expectations (a policy that this regime will have to change if it wants to survive), Iran does hold fair elections by regional standards. It is up to Iranians to force a change in their electoral laws to eliminate the veto power of the Council of Guardians. Still, Iran affords much more of a basis to build on than do other Muslim countries in the Middle East. From a practical standpoint, it is worth repeating the fact that the majority of Iranians were born after the Revolution and do not blame the U.S. for their own shortcomings, ironically affording the U.S. a more receptive audience for cooperation. Through its engagement of Iran, the U.S. could be successful in changing Iran at the margins and pushing it toward a more democratic system.

Arguably, our worst relationship with any country is the one we have with Iran, a member of the "axis of evil" as coined by President Bush. Iran is a large Muslim country that is seen as hostile to U.S. interests. Iran is a country that commands a good deal of respect in the Muslim world; in large part because of its past problems with the U.S. and the way it has stood up to the U.S. Iran is a country that can help the U.S. in the current situation in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in the Middle East peace process, in the struggle to win over the hearts of Muslims and in the fight against global terrorism. In the case of Iraq - whether the Administration likes it or not - Iraq will be Shiite governed. While Ayatollah Sistani is first and foremost an Iraqi and is unlikely to adopt the political posture of his Iranian counterparts, he will listen to their views and advice. The Kurdish issue in Iraq can be ameliorated or fueled by Iran. In Afghanistan, the veterans of the Northern Alliance and warlords of western regions have close relations with Iran. In the Palestinian territories, important factions have both ideological and religious connections to Iran. An amicable rapprochement will impress Muslims of honorable U.S. intentions. Cooperation with Iran, given Iran's perceived radical Islamic credentials, will win us support among disparate groups of Muslims.

There is no better time for us to adopt the new policy approach outlined above and to reestablish relations with Iran. So-called experts on Iran, who reside in Washington, who have not visited Iran since the Revolution, who have not engaged a representative sample of Iranians or who had had any significant exchange of views with senior Iranian officials have been saying the same thing for nearly twenty-five years; they advise against rapprochement because the regime in Teheran is on its way out. Wishful thinking - an unfortunate malady in Washington - will do us very little good. Iran can play a positive role in the Muslim world and in the region from India to Algeria. A balanced U.S. policy would do much to encourage Iran to play such a positive role. Such a policy should be bold and comprehensive, as opposed to timid and narrow.