It is time to acknowledge a painful truth about U.S.-Iran relations—Iran will eventually become a nuclear power, and there is nothing the West can do to stop it. No credible military option exists, notwithstanding the bravado from Republican Party presidential candidates, nor will economic sanctions or political ostracism force the Iranian regime to change course. Given this reality, a new U.S. policy towards Iran is desperately needed, and the democratic revolutions in other parts of the Middle East suggest a way forward.
For more than thirty years, Iran has been sanctioned by the United States and its allies in one form or another. Yet there is little evidence that sanctions have actually changed the behavior of the Iranian regime. For nearly ten years, the focus of international sanctions has been Iran’s controversial nuclear program. Yet economic sanctions have done little to compel Iran to re-examine its nuclear policy. As the recent IAEA report has revealed, Iran has accelerated its nuclear ambitions rather than curtailing them. This should come as no surprise: the Iranian regime views an advanced nuclear program as key to regime survival and as a frontline defense against external attack. This point was specifically mentioned by Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei in March 2011, when he chided Qaddafi for giving concessions to the West over Libya’s nuclear program. According to Khamenei, Qaddafi’s fall served to vindicate Iran’s uncompromising position on that issue.
Furthermore, after a recent visit to Iran Fareed Zakaria confirmed what Iran experts have known for a long time: Western sanctions have strengthened the clerical regime and weakened the middle class and civil society. What is desperately needed today is a long-term strategy toward Iran and a new U.S. policy that focuses on the one area where the regime is at its most vulnerable—its internal legitimacy, purportedly derived from a democratic mandate.
A new U.S. policy that is anchored on the cornerstone of democracy is important for several reasons. First, after a democratic transition Iranian nuclear policy will substantially shift under new leadership. This remains the only way to ensure that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon. It is likely that a democratically elected government in Iran will move quickly to reduce regional tensions and alleviate the concerns of the international community.
Secondly, the Arab Spring has significantly altered the political and moral landscape of the Middle East. A new global spotlight has been focused on the region that exposes dictatorships while simultaneously giving voice to opposition movements. Iran’s ruling clerics are deeply worried about this development. They are in the awkward position of paying lip service to democratic revolts in the Arab world while cracking down on identical protests at home (while clandestinely supporting the crushing of protests in Syria).
After the ouster of Mubarak in February, the contagion of the Arab Spring was quick to reach Iran. Tens of thousands responded to a call by Iran’s opposition Green Movement for a solidarity rally with Tunisia and Egypt. While the rally was brutally crushed and the leaders of the opposition placed under house arrest, deep discontent and hunger for democracy remain widespread.
At the moment, Iran ranks near the top of the world in the number of imprisoned journalists and intellectuals. Censorship is pervasive, and the regime spends considerable resources to block the free flow of information. What Iran’s ruling oligarchy fears most is a free exchange of ideas and an open public debate about Iran’s domestic and foreign policy—specifically, the role of religion in politics and the state of human rights in the country. The regime fears such a debate because it knows it will lose. That is why it is forced to manufacture lies such as the one Ahmadinejad recently told Fareed Zakaria: “There are no political prisoners in Iran.”
Furthermore, the fraudulent 2009 presidential elections considerably narrowed the support base of the ruling regime. This partly explains why large segments of the economy have been turned over to the Revolutionary Guards, who increasingly are dominating political life as well. Currently, Iran is engulfed in an embezzlement scandal involving several leading banks. Two of the key figures at the heart of this story have fled to Canada, and Ahmadinejad’s government has been implicated.
Elite factional rivalries between supporters of the president and the supreme leader continue to shake public confidence in the ruling elites, specifically among conservative segments of society that previously were devoutly loyal.
Last month, Ali Khamenei dropped a bombshell. He suggested that Iran might move from a presidential to a parliamentary system of government. While this was presented as an innocent choice between different forms of democratic rule, it reveals the continuous de-democratization of Iranian politics and the regime’s fear of its own population, thereby necessitating the need to tightly limit and control national elections.
In short, the prospects for democracy in Iran look good over the long term. The key social-science indicators suggest as much. But as we have learned from the Arab Spring, there is no exact formula to predict when an authoritarian regime may crumble. One size does not fit all when it comes to the strength and durability of authoritarian regimes versus democratic opposition groups. What has been missing from this equation is a suitable international context that enhances the prospect of democracy in Iran. A qualitative shift in U.S. policy can help facilitate this.
What would this new policy look like? First, it must be democracy-centered. The objective should be to create the conditions that are conducive to an internal democratic transition in Iran while strictly avoiding any direct interference in Iranian domestic affairs. At every step these questions must be asked: What are the consequences for democracy and authoritarianism? Will a forthcoming public statement, policy initiative or round of sanctions strengthen the Iranian regime or the opposition?
Secondly, diplomacy should be given a chance not because Tehran will necessarily reciprocate but because it most likely will not. Any U.S. outreach to Iran, as we saw in the early part of the Obama administration, immediately causes an internal crisis within the Iranian regime. This is because a U.S.-Iran dialogue leading to diplomatic relations is widely popular in Iranian society, including among factions of the ruling regime.
In a remarkably insightful essay on the topic, Alex Fattal (brother of the recently released U.S. hiker and a graduate student at Harvard) correctly observed that even if diplomacy does not “precipitate a breakthrough (which it almost certainly will not) and Iran continues to lean on the rhetorical crutch of anti-Americanism (which it almost certainly will), the redoubled outreach will entrench the political fissures in the Iranian establishment. Those on the neoconservative end of the spectrum in the Beltway would do well to consider this simple truth: Engagement is more controversial in Tehran than in Washington.”
While the precise details of a new U.S. policy towards Iran will take time to develop, the goal should be a democratic transition. It must be crafted with care and with a deep appreciation for the troubled history of U.S.-Iran relations since 1953. Specifically, it should be designed in a manner that does not violate the preferences of Iran’s courageous democratic opposition.
A transition to democracy in Iran is the only way of bringing about a qualitative change in Iranian behavior. Shifting to a new policy toward Iran will not be easy, but it is an essential substitute for our existing failed strategy.
The reality is that Iran will eventually develop the technology to produce a nuclear weapon. While Washington may be able to stall this process, it cannot prevent it. Therefore, the question facing the United States is this: Do we want a nuclear Iran that is controlled by clerical oligarchs or one ruled by liberal democrats? If the latter is our preference, it is time for a U.S. policy that can expedite this outcome.
Nader Hashemi is an assistant professor of Middle East and Islamic politics and the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. He is the coeditor of The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran’s Future (Melville House, 2011).
Image: Agencia Brasil, Marcello Casal Jr\ABr