WILL WASHINGTON SUPPORT DEMOCRACY IN IRAN?
By Michael Rubin
Bush policy is motivated by the grave and growing threat from the Islamic Republic's nuclear weapons program, and the realization that neither Iran nor the European Union are sincere in preventing Iran's acquisition of nuclear weaponry. The Islamic Republic's potential threat to American security emanates from Tehran's determination to develop satellite launching capability, which could well substitute as an intercontinental ballistic missile delivery system, as well as from the regime's continued sponsorship of terrorists.
A new U.S. policy will also recognize that the dichotomy within Iran is not one of reformers versus hardliners within the Islamic Republic, but, rather, proponents of constitutional democracy versus proponents of theocracy and authoritarianism. Even if Iranian acquisition of nuclear capability is inevitable, the threat comes from the nature of the regime rather than from the Iranian people.
As hardline ideologues consolidate power in Tehran, Iran will mark a number of important anniversaries which might spur ordinary people to agitate against their government and for constitutional democracy as they call for a new national referendum on the future of Iran.
During Bush's first term in office, the U.S. government lacked an Iran policy. The State Department, Pentagon, Central Intelligence Agency, and Treasury Department twice failed to reach consensus on a National Security Policy Directive. Neither then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice nor the President forced the issue. As a result, American policy was schizophrenic. While Bush labeled Iran as part of the "Axis of Evil" in his January, 2002, State of the Union Address, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage described Iran as a "democracy." 
With no clear White House policy direction, Senate Republicans likewise took contradictory positions. While Arlen Specter (Pennsylvania) dined with the Iranian Ambassador to the United Nations,  Sam Brownback (Kansas) introduced an Iran Freedom and Democracy Support Act, which would have created a $50 million fund to support opposition satellite stations and promotion of civil liberty and a civilized society in Iran.
State Department lawyers, meanwhile, argued that non-interference clauses in the 1980 Algiers Accords, the agreement which had led to the release of the U.S. Embassy hostages, prohibited funding of opposition media. Retired National Security Advisors, though, disputed the State Department's line.  In recent weeks, the White House Legal Office has opined that nothing in the Accords prevents assistance to Iranian democrats and constitutionalists.
New National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley's decision to remove Richard Haas's protégé Meghan O'Sullivan from the Iran portfolio (she retains her position as Senior Director for Iraq at the National Security Council) also bodes well for a more activist policy, especially as the new National Security team again reviews Washington's policy -- or lack thereof -- toward Tehran. O'Sullivan had long been both dismissive of Iranian dissidents and a proponent of engaging the Islamic Republic.
The Islamic Republic's potential threat to American security is just as serious, though, both because of Tehran's determination to develop satellite launching capability, which could well substitute as an intercontinental ballistic missile delivery system,  and because of the Iranian regime's continued sponsorship of terrorists. American officials continue to blame Iranian intelligence for planning the 1996 bombing of an American military barracks in Khobar, Saudi Arabia.  The 9/11 Commission's bipartisan intelligence review found that the Iranian regime lent passive support to many of the 9/11 hijackers, between eight and ten of whom transited Iran in the year before the attack.  Washington also takes seriously reports that Iranian authorities have sheltered senior al-Qa'ida figures in Revolutionary Guard bases near the Caspian town of Chalus. 
While some editorialists and politicians argue that Washington should support the diplomacy of the European Union troika of London, Paris and Berlin, many European diplomats and analysts privately acknowledge that they believe Tehran's acquisition of a nuclear bomb to be inevitable, a tacit admission that European diplomacy is a charade. American officials may not be so blunt, but many believe their European counterparts care more about the preservation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty than they do about Iran going nuclear. If the European Union allows the Islamic Republic to negotiate acquisition of nuclear capability, then they need not admit the emptiness of the current non-proliferation regime.
Even if Iran's acquisition of the bomb is inevitable, to American strategists, the question is not whether the United States can live with a nuclear Iran, but rather whether the United States can live with a nuclear Islamic Republic of Iran. To many Bush administration officials, the danger is not necessarily that the Islamic Republic would use its nuclear weapon against the United States, but rather that the feeling of immunity from retaliation that a nuclear capability might lend regime ideologues would lead to an increase in terrorism in the Middle East and Europe, and violent attempts to subvert Iraq and Afghanistan. Iranian authorities, for example, ignored numerous Turkish diplomatic demarches, and only scaled back support for Kurdistan Workers Party [PKK] terrorists operating in Turkey after the Turkish Air Force bombed the Iranian border town of Piranshahr.  Had the Islamic Republic enjoyed a potential nuclear retaliation capability, Turkish authorities could likely have not forced an abandonment of Tehran's PKK support. Meanwhile, American authorities are increasingly concerned by the resurgence of the Revolutionary Guards within the Islamic Republic's political class. Revolutionary Guard influence has been most recently evidenced by their effective veto of Turkish commercial involvement in the communications sector and Tehran's new airport. 
Such concerns -- and the unwillingness to assume that regime ideologues will not try to act upon their deeply-held beliefs about the United States and Israel -- are responsible for the current debate about the efficacy of military action. While targeted strikes on nuclear and ballistic missile sites might not eliminate the Islamic Republic's capability, the question is whether they could delay Tehran's nuclear ambitions beyond the lifespan of the Islamic Republic.
Both anecdotal and statistical evidence indicate the Iranian people are ready for change. While some outside analysts continue to speak of a dichotomy between hardliners and reformers, most Iranians now accept that the political tension within Iran is between regime and dissident. On December 6, 2004, students heckled Mohammad Khatami, chanting "Shame on you" and "Where are your promised freedoms?" 
In August, 2002, the Tarrance Group, a professional polling outfit, conducted a survey of Iranian public opinion. They randomized the last four digits of every Tehran telephone exchange, and surveyed residents rich and poor. Just 21 percent of the statistically-representative sample of more than 500 people said that the Guardian Council represented the will of the Iranian people, while only 19 percent supported a politically-active clergy. The poll also found significant economic malaise, perhaps motivating the disillusionment with their leadership. Only 16 percent felt that their economic situation had improved during the Khatami years, while 68 percent said their family's financial situation had declined since the Islamic Revolution. 
A quarter century of Islamist dictatorship and theocracy has moderated the Iranian people. While studying in Iran in 1996 and 1999, many Iranians told me they supported Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini less out of an endorsement of his views than out of a reaction to the autocratic dictatorship of the Shah. While American and European intellectuals may criticize Bush's "Axis of Evil" rhetoric as simplistic, the fact remains that there is a correlation between Bush's moral clarity and the willingness of Iranians to take to the street, as they did en masse on July 15, 1999, on October 16, 2001, on November 17, 2002, on July 18, 2003, and at a number of more localized demonstrations. 
On April 1, 2004, Iranians marked a more recent anniversary -- the 25-year anniversary of Khomeini's declaration of an Islamic Republic. On that day, Khomeini announced the results of a referendum asking a simple question: "Do you want an Islamic Republic." Ninety-eight percent of Iranian voters said "Yes." "By casting a decisive vote in favor of the Islamic Republic," Khomeini told an enthusiastic crowd, "you have established a government of divine justice." Increasingly, though, a growing and disparate number of Iranian groups are suggesting that Iran is ready for a new referendum.  Many Iranians suggest a simple question, "Theocracy or democracy." The Tarrance Group poll found that 71 percent of Iranians would favor such a poll.  While it is not likely that the Islamic Republic's leadership would ever consent to an internationally-supervised referendum -- they understand the contempt with which most of their charges view them -- such a referendum would better focus international attention on the fundamental issue of the Islamic Republic's lack of legitimacy and its moral bankruptcy.
Into this tinderbox was inserted the success of Iraq's January 30, 2005, elections, that country's first free poll in a half century. It is a juxtaposition Iranians -- many of whom believe themselves to be culturally superior to their Arab neighbors -- cannot miss. In June, 2005, Iranians will march to the polls to elect a president. Under the terms of the Islamic Republic's Constitution, the new president will have only limited power and will remain subordinate to the unelected Supreme Leader, Ayatollah 'Ali Khameini. While the unelected Guardian Council of Iran severely limits the choice of candidates in Iran, Iranians have already noted the full range of candidates allowed to compete in Iraq's elections. Many European, American, and Arab commentators sought to correlate voter turnout with election legitimacy in Iraq. The same standards might be applied to Iran, where many Iranians may choose to stay home, as Iranian pilgrims in Iraq estimated that 80 percent of their compatriots did during the February, 2004, Majlis elections.
After four years of policy ambiguity, the Bush administration will finally make a concerted approach to change the status quo in Iran. European officials may calculate they can live with a nuclear Islamic Republic of Iran, but they are wrong. If the current regime goes nuclear, Iran will unleash a new and potentially devastating wave of terrorism, which will end any hope for stabilization in Iraq and Afghanistan -- and peace in the Middle East. The White House is right to pursue democratization as a solution. Europe would be wise to hope for its success, because the alternative for Washington might not be acceptance of a nuclear Iran, but rather military action.
The Threat of Radical Islam
War & Peace in the Real World
Islamist Terrorist Attacks on the U.S.A.
Osama bin Laden & the Islamist Declaration of War
Against the U.S.A. & Western Civilization
Islamist International Terrorism &
U.S. Intelligence Agencies
U.S. National Security Strategy
Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is Editor of the Middle East Quarterly. He served as an Iran and Iraq staff advisor to the Office of the Secretary of Defense between 2002 and 2004.
The foregoing article by Michael Rubin was originally published as a Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs Issue Brief, February 12, 2005, and can be found on the Internet website maintained by the Middle East Forum.
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