The Iranian Parliamentary Elections and US-Iran RelationsThe Iranian Revanchists, known as “conservatives,” have won the parliamentary elections. Some called it a coup as candidates were screened and votes rigged. President Bush expressed disappointment and sent a supportive message to the Iranian people. Ironically, those who express the deepest regret at the results are the same people who boycotted the elections and made every effort to discredit the reformers. It is like shooting a victim and then crying for the dead.
While the elections process was deplorable, the results should not be hastily dismissed. Fifty percent of the 46 million eligible to vote participated, the lowest participation rate of any of the six previous parliamentary elections. Of those who participated, about 15 percent voted blank. Large cities like Tehran, Isfahan, Mashhad and Tabriz showed a participation rate of about 30 percent. Most votes were collected from smaller towns and villages, where local, ethnic, and tribal differences are often translated into election contests.
A so-called “rationalist” faction among the Revanchists, referring to themselves as the Abadgaran or “Developmentalists” won the most seats. Many of them are religious laymen and technocrats who like to be viewed as largely non-political, though they are avowedly partisans. They are the Leader Ali Khamanei’s alternative to the original, and now largely undermined, “pragmatist” Servants of Reconstruction (Kargozaran-e Sazandegi), who formed around former President Hashemi Rafsanjani and joined the reformists against the Revanchists.
The Developmentalists, who already control many of the local councils and the Tehran municipality, are better defined as a transitional social group within the Revanchist movement. They are a hybrid nativist group with roots in the bazaar, neither modern nor traditional. While all Revanchists wish to recapture their lost prominence – hence the term — the Developmentalists are less concerned about the revival of a mythical past, and their ultimate loyalty to theocratic fundamentalism is suspect. They hold an unsophisticated view of Iran’s international and domestic challenges, despite the fact that some among them hold doctorate degrees and a few have studied abroad.
The winners now have to deal with both opponents and supporters in a generally dissatisfied large population besieged with declining real income, administrative corruption, and social ills like crime and addiction. The poor want their basic needs addressed, the educated groups require freedoms, the wealthy demand a secure business climate, the young people want jobs, and women demand equal rights. They must also deal with the expatriates crying for lost national pride, the separatist calls by certain ethnic groups, and strike a balance between the modern and traditional forces.
Meanwhile, they must respond to the multiple concerns of the United States and Europe. These include weapons of mass destruction, currently focused on the nuclear technology question; terrorism in all its forms and against Israel in particular; and peace in the Middle East. Human rights have become an increasingly bigger concern, but for the moment it has taken a back seat to the nuclear and terrorism issues. The good news is that these matters are all negotiable, but the real problem has always been to find the right roadmap.
The Developmentalists are expected to make mistakes similar to the reformists and pragmatists. The middle class reformists claimed that political development was the key to Iran’s ills. As a consequence, they neglected to address economic development and social justice. Before them, the pragmatists had determined that the solution to all of Iran’s ills was an economic one, a mistake that essentially forced them out of power. The Developmentalists seem to think more like the pragmatists, with a small dose of social justice. In reality, economic growth, political development, and social justice are mutually inclusive in Iran.
As such, a coalition of the Iranian entrepreneurs, the middle class and the working people, along with other civil and political groups, and the international democratic community, can address these problems, but such a coalition remains a distant dream. Even within the Revanchists in power, who include the clergy, the strategically positioned state bureaucrats, and the big merchants, a united front cannot emerge. In post-elections Iran, a major fault line will develop between the transitional and fundamentalist factions.
The anticipated friction within the Revanchists could ultimately tilt the balance in favor of the transitional group if the pro-democracy front and the United States were to map out an approach to the regime in Tehran that would co-opt rather than isolate the Developmentalists. The name of the game is “engagement,” but one that would, over time, weaken the political power of the fundamentalists while empowering the rest, including the civil society. How might this be achieved?
The reformists, largely the middle class intelligentsia, must now be content with loss of power, join forces with other democratic groups, and begin the hard work of organizing the disenfranchised civil and political societies. Their movement must now become a socio-political one. They must also acknowledge the needs of the Iranian entrepreneurs, in an attempt to build a broader coalition and a more powerful economic base. The pro-democracy groups must also loudly support the normalization of relations with the United States.
US-Iran hostility remains the key challenge of democracy and development in Iran. Anti-American nations have never opted for democratization. More than 75 percent of Iranians view the normalization of relations with the United States as the best thing for their national interest. They know well that the lack of relations has cost them huge material and political losses as well as a decline in international prestige. The one key demand they have is that any negotiation between the two governments is fully transparent.
The American national interest would also be well served by the normalization of relations with Iran. In the past 25 years, when the two countries have had no diplomatic relations, every American administration has acknowledged the strategic, economic, and cultural significance of Iran. Iran holds the fourth largest oil and the second largest natural gas reserves of the world, and with a population of over 70 million, and with an investment deficit of over $100 billion, it is the largest market in its region.
The good news is that the environment of US-Iran relations is slowly but surely changing in a positive direction. Iran helped the United States fight al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and Saddam Hussein. Tehran has also generously contributed to the Iraqi and Afghan reconstruction funds. Iran has signed the Additional Protocol of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and is cooperating with it, though many problems remain to be resolved. Iran now officially accepts a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
The Bush Administration has on more than one occasion acknowledged the positive contributions of Iran to American wars in the region and Iran’s cooperation with the IAEA. President Bush welcomed Iran’s signing of the IAEA’s Additional Protocol as “a very positive development,” and responded generously to the Bam disaster and offered to send a high-level delegation to the country. Indeed, rhetoric aside, the Bush Administration has taken no significant practical steps to further isolate Iran.
Twice in recent months the United States had the opportunity to isolate Iran, but on both occasions at the IAEA it sided with the European states — dropped threatening languages from the resolutions, toned down its criticisms of Iran’s nuclear activities, and even agreed to praise Iran for cooperation. Another highly significant change on the US-Iran front was the unexpected approval of the Iraq-Iran pipeline in early March by the Coalition Provisional Authority.
The elections now provide a new window of opportunity for the United States to engage Iran. The transitional Revanchists are expected to consolidate power by taking the presidency when President Khatami’s term ends next August. They are expected to insist on relaxing social restrictions, pouring billions of dollars from oil revenues, and billions more they are expected to borrow, into the economy, and moderating foreign policy. They will also be prepared to hold dialogue with the United States, if approached properly.
Given the mistrust on both sides, any engagement must begin with building trust between the two governments. A key starting point is a coordinated simultaneous announcement that, under certain conditions, Tehran and Washington will be prepared to engage with the intention of normalizing relations. To further their mutual trust, the two sides might also underscore the need for, and the key role of, regional cooperation.
Misperception has been at the root of mutual demonization and deception. To build trust, both sides must broaden their perspectives of each other’s concerns, deeds, intentions and capabilities. Tehran must stop seeing the United States as a sworn enemy of Iran. True, Americans helped the British in the 1953 coup, but Americans have also contributed to Iranian development. The list of Americans who have served Iran is long; it includes Morgan Shuster, who helped organize a modern administration in Tehran, and Howard C. Baskerville, who lost his life for the Iranian Constitutional Revolution.
American officials have stressed Iran’s strategic significance, but this is often done to underscore its potential for aggression. The presumption that “a weaker Iran is a better Iran” was the basis of the “dual containment” policy — which often ignored Iran’s legitimate defense needs. Yet, in the last 150 years, a strong Iran has never initiated any hostility toward its neighbors. A strong Iran, in partnership with the United States, can indeed become a pivot of regional stability.
The common interests of the United State and Iran far outweigh their differences. This has not often been acknowledged or used to develop a common purpose and action plan to fight terrorism and to moderate Islamic fundamentalism, eliminate weapons of mass destruction, advance the Middle East peace, institutionalize a regional security system, stabilize Iraq and Afghanistan, ensure the safe flow of oil from the region, and improve governance and human rights in the region. At stake also is the stability and sustainable independence of the states in the Central Asia and Caucasus.
The situation in Iraq and the proximity of American and Iranian forces in the region, particularly in Islamic Afghanistan and Iraq, provides additional strategic imperative for the two governments to work cooperatively. A stable Iraq and Afghanistan are in the best interest of both countries, and Iran can help to positively influence the situation in both countries as it has influence among key Shiite and other leaders there. The United States must give Iran the opportunity to do so and then reward it for its cooperation.
US-Iran engagement will weaken the fundamentalists while strengthening the position of the transitional groups and pro-democracy and pragmatic forces within and without the government. As the elections also indicate, most Iranians do not want violent regime change, though many yearn for democratic transformation. Diplomacy and trade build respect for human rights and freedoms, rightly asserted Secretary of State Colin Powell in a recent speech on US foreign policy.
Those who think engagement with the Iranian Revanchists is not good for democracy there or for the United States’ national interest must also consider this: in the last 25 years, some 30 dictatorships have made transition to democracies. They all had diplomatic and trade relations with the United States. Examples include states in Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe, and Asia. In contrast, dictatorships with no diplomatic ties with the United States, and under its economic sanctions, remain in place. Examples include Cuba and North Korea.
Under no condition should US-Iran engagement overlook Iran’s dismal human rights records or weaken its pro-democracy movement. US pressure on Tehran to observe its constitutional and international obligations must increase as the two sides open a dialogue and cooperate on specific concerns. There is no alternative to Iran becoming a democratic nation, where religion and the state operate in separate fields. Allowing humanitarian fund transfers and American NGOs to operate freely in Iran, and relaxing visa restrictions on their Iranian counterparts, will be most helpful.
As the two governments build confidence, they must also be prepared for a bargain that puts an end to their dispute and normalizes relations. Iran ought to further help the United States to eradicate terrorism in all its forms and against all nations, including Israel, and to end violence in Iraq and the Palestinian-Israeli territories. Iran must hand over the known Al-Qaeda terrorists to their home countries, stop its support for the Jihad and Hamas, help transform the Lebanese Hezbollah into a more conventional political force, and begin to view Israel as a normal state even if it is not prepared to normalize relations.
Iran needs to remove the nuclear concern from US-Iran relations. Tehran will likely shy away from a Libyan approach to its nuclear program, but the “disclose when you are caught lying” approach will not work either. It will further damage Iran’s credibility and call into question its commitment to remain within the bounds of peaceful use of nuclear technology. Iran should abandon enrichment in return for guaranteed fuel supplies, and the United States should take Tehran’s offer to participate in Iran’s nuclear technology development for peaceful purposes.
The United States needs to reciprocate such grand bargains if offered, and what should be offered and when is a matter of policy. Washington can remove Iran from the list of terrorist states, end sanctions in stages, drop opposition to Iran’s membership in the World Trade Organization and Asia Development Bank, free Iran’s remaining frozen assets, and address Iran’s security concerns by defining and institutionalizing a regional security system that incorporates Iran as an influential member.
Iran should not become another Iraq or Cuba for the United States. The national interests of neither side would be served by such eventualities. The American policy toward the former Soviet bloc and South Africa, for example, provides a more effective alternative. The next months before the presidential elections in the United States are critical. The conditions are better, a strategic imperative exists, and both sides need each other as never before. An “October surprise” is by no means unthinkable.