It’s wrong to target Iran as an individual, isolated issue. Iran must be addressed int he context of a broader, regional policy
By Ghassan Michel Rubeiz
US policy on Iran should be integrated with policies on other vital issues. Considering the growing threat of ISIS, the worsening tragedies in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Libya, the ignored Arab Israeli conflict, the fragmentation of an entire region, considering all these interacting nightmares, a comprehensive regional approach to Iran is an irrefutable mandate. Targeting Iran as an isolated issue to produce compliance will backfire because it is too narrow in focus, disingenuous and short sighted.
Iran has been demonized. In a region stacked with troubled regimes. The regime in Tehran is peculiar and it has it shares of problems, but it is not dysfunctional or irrational. The Islamic Republic is much more liberal than Saudi Arabia in matters that affect human rights. Compare Iran’s relatively competitive elections with the predictable elections of other Arab countries. Iran has no occupied territories. It is not the only state with a nuclear capacity. One could go on, but the point is made: the international community ought to treat Iran in the context of the Middle East, where politics is regressive, autocracies vary in flavor, militias are entrenched, religions are hijacked and foreign intervention has for centuries played a significant role in border design, nation building, security of compliant regimes and overthrow of rejectionist governments.
The United States and Iran have taken impressive diplomatic steps over the past two years, steps which have borne fruits over the past few weeks in fulfilling the conditions of a nuclear agreement, lifting of sanctions, establishing channels of communication and exchanging prisoners.
That said, there still is considerable opposition among many American political leaders, particularly in the Congress, toward rapprochement with Iran. US sanctions imposed for “support of terrorism” remain in place. Last week new sanctions were slapped on Iran for testing ballistic missiles. A new list of anti-Iran bills are on the way to be debated in the US congress.
Imposing new US sanctions on Iran may prove to be counterproductive. The Iranian people are yearning for regime change from within; Iranians naturally resent the punitive measures imposed on them, which tend to weaken the vulnerable, strengthen the reactionary, reinforce the outlaw, and expand black markets. Iranian patriotism often trumps popular desire for reform. Additional sanctions, anti-Iran rhetoric and continued harassment of Iran play into the hands of reactionary forces at home.
US critics charge that Iran is a rogue regime, just another North Korea. In contrast, advocates of dialogue with Iran appreciate a strong momentum for reform in Iranian society which they believe is worthy of support. The international community seems inclined to give Tehran the benefit of the doubt; most nations are on the side of diplomacy. Regrettably, improved relations with Iran seem to threaten many in the US congress and its allies abroad.
Despite domestic yearning for reform from within and despite mounting external pressure, the Islamic Republic is not likely undergo radical reform in the near future. It may be a generation or longer before a new paradigm of governance emerges in Tehran.
Too many forces within the regime are in play to resist change. Like most states in the Middle East Iran is severely hampered by a self-serving theocracy. A vast military and militia structure controls the economy. A patriarchal social order marginalizes women and youth. Men dominate the family, religious institutions, the political structure of governance, the judiciary and the economy. A powerful minority of Iranians benefit from the status quo. Reform undermines the authority of the regime. The forces of resistance to change include the clerics, the Revolutionary Guards and the Morality Police.
What is changing in Iran? The most important domain of change in Iran is social, not political. The majority of Iranians are eager to rejoin the world community. Iranian society is young and industrious. Women lead an academic and scientific revolution. Most people love Western culture and are in admiration of America; what they do not like is American politics. An underworld of modernity does exist in urban Iran, but it is kept under a thin façade of modesty to avoid regressive penal practices. A digital revolution is under way; use of the internet and social media are rapidly expanding. There is passion for the latest consumer products, modern music, sophisticated fashions and international cuisine.
Most Iranians see the signing of an agreement with six world powers as a historical opportunity for reactivating social development. Open trade will increase cultural exchange; rising foreign investment will accelerate the pace of reform. Women and young people will lead the movements for change. Reactionary forces will try to slow them and their reforms.
Is the regime immune to change? By electing Hassan Rouhani as president the people have sent a clear message of yearning for reform. The nuclear deal has turned President Rouhani into a popular statesman, despite the overwhelming presence of the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. Foreign Minister Jawad Zariff, the chief nuclear negotiator for Iran, has also gained prestige and power. The popularity of Rouhani and Zariff may boost the chances of reform candidates in the approaching elections scheduled for late February. But no one is certain how the electoral wind will blow.
In a few weeks a new parliament will be elected. Despite harsh pre-election screening of candidates by an autocratic government, the electoral race is likely to be competitive; international experts will monitor the elections.
In this election the Assembly of Experts will also be chosen. The Assembly of Experts selects the new Supreme Leader; this Assembly of religious scholars decides when the top leadership will be replaced, and subsequently elects him.
In the not too distant future a new Supreme Leader is expected to succeed Ayatollah Khamenei. If a substantial number of progressive elements is elected for the parliament and the Assembly of Experts the next Supreme Leader may be more flexible than Khamenei. A progressive Ayatollah would bring a new wave of reform to a nation under immense stress.
Iran is key to the dynamics of two ongoing civil wars in the region. Will Iran soften on Syria and Yemen? The drop in oil prices limits Iran’s capacity of supporting the Syrian regime. Russia’s dominance in Syria has also weakened Iran’s influence. If a Syrian solution is reached soon- not a very likely event- Iran may re-evaluate its relationship with Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia, an active external player in Syria’s civil war. The Iranians must be tired of spending money abroad while their own people are economically suffering and stigmatized- as agents of instability across the region.
The key to a solution in Syria and Yemen is a paradigm shift in relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Syria is Iran’s Vietnam and Yemen is Saudi Arabia’s quagmire. Both Riyadh and Tehran will have to patch-up their differences if they wish to avoid political self-destruction. The threat of ISIS could be efficiently reduced through Saudi-Iranian cooperation. The US and Russia must jointly press Riyadh and Tehran respectively to start working on a political solution for Syria and Yemen.
The next US president is not likely to be as flexible with Iran as President Obama has been. The next US administration could disturb relations between the American and Iranian people in the pretext of strengthening vigilance, tightening national security and honoring patriotic sentiments.
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