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What Washington Doesn't Get about Iran

What Washington Doesn't Get about Iran

Policymakers fail to grasp how Tehran's political system operates.

 

How to Reform the Islamic Republic?

It may seem exhausting for the U.S. foreign-policy establishment, having devoted so much effort to closing off Iran’s “pathways to the bomb,” to be expected now to address an array of additional concerns about Iran, from political disenfranchisement to human-rights abuses, suppression of women and minorities, destabilization of neighboring countries, and support for terrorism. The list is long, and Washington’s record of tempering Tehran’s malignant behavior offers little grounds for optimism.

What makes these concerns more pertinent today is not the closing off of Iran’s illicit pathways to the bomb under the JCPOA, but the opening up of a new pathway to the bomb courtesy of the JCPOA itself: the right granted to Iran to become an internationally recognized nuclear power when the agreement’s restraints expire. Secretary Kerry emphasizes how far into the future that time will be. Can the United States be certain that the regime in Tehran will have “reformed” by then? And—crucially—what changes from today’s Iran would constitute “reform”?

If one were to poll experts on how the United States should measure reform in Iran, a consensus would likely be elusive. Ending the loyalty screening and disqualification by the Guardian Council of candidates for office would be an obvious metric; yet it has been more than two decades since the percentage of registered candidates ultimately permitted to run for president has exceeded 2 percent. Even with Rafsanjani’s two electoral victories, in 1989 and 1993, more than 96 percent of registered candidates were disqualified in advance.

Certainly a sharp reduction, and preferably the end, of executions in Iran would herald reform; yet here again, one has to question the likelihood of meaningful change. The State Department’s 2015 annual human rights report, released in April 2016, cites a long list of human rights abuses in Iran, noting that “Impunity remained pervasive throughout all levels of the government and security forces.” President Rouhani, upon being elected in 2013, nominated as his justice minister Mostafa Pour Mohammadi, a man personally implicated in the 1988 extrajudicial executions of as many as thirty thousand jailed dissidents. This was a crime “of greater infamy,” according to British-Australian human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson, whose 2009 inquiry brought the full story to light, than the World War II Japanese death marches or the 1995 Srebrenica genocide.

While a serious debate is needed on U.S. policy toward this troublesome, and troubled, regime, there is one act that more than any other would signal to the West, Iran’s neighbors and above all its 79 million citizens that reform is at hand. Iran’s rulers need to face the inescapable truth that in their quest to be at once a religious caliphate and a sovereign country, they have failed in both roles.

By removing from the constitution the writ of divine power— velayat-e faqih— that has corrupted both politics and religion in Iran with immeasurable human costs, the clerics can focus on repairing their religious reputation and return the revolution to its rightful owners, the Iranian people. The world will reward Iran for a national effort to pursue reconciliation without recrimination, a social contract enabling freely elected leaders to reflect the goodness of a great people. In time, an Iran so reformed will recover, and assume a position of honor and responsibility among nations.

Ambassador Lincoln Bloomfield Jr., a former U.S. defense and foreign policy official now serving as Chairman of the Stimson Center in Washington, has written and testified about the inaccuracies of narratives emanating from the regime in Iran. Dr. Ramesh Sepehrrad is a ranking executive for a major American technology company and a Scholar Practitioner at the George Mason University School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution. Her parents and sister were arrested by the fundamentalist regime in Iran during the 1980s for helping to publish pro-democracy literature; detained at the age of fourteen, her sister was kept in prison for two years.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/ Official website of Ali Khamenei