Iran – the other strategic challenge in the Middle East

Posted in Broader Middle East , Iran | 04-Nov-03 | Author: Rado Petkov

While the situation in Iraq captures the headlines of international media, developments in another country in the region may ultimately decide the future of the Middle East. And that country is not Saudi Arabia, where the risks of disrupting international oil supplies outweigh, for the moment, legitimate concerns about the kingdom’s role in supporting terrorist networks. That country is Iran.

Iran poses, as U.S. Senator Joe Biden recently put it, a“ vexing set of challenges” to the United States and the international community. It is closer to developing nuclear weapons than any other country in the region; has an Islamic theocratic rule that sponsors terrorist groups and stands in shark contrast to Western designs for democracy in the Middle East; and is the spiritual leader of the Islamic Shia community, which for historic and social reasons is most susceptible to radicalization. Taken together, these challenges make Iran a pivotal country in the region, one with a large (68 million) and young (70% under the age of thirty) population and long borders with Afghanistan and Iraq, where the major resources of the international community are currently focused.

The threat of Iran’s nuclear capability tops the list of immediate concerns. Some experts believe Iran is now only one to two years from having the capability to enrich uranium to weapons-grade. The country’s pursuit of nuclear weapons is not new and is not tactical, as it is in North Korea. Iran sees itself surrounded by hostile forces, with the U.S. replacing recently Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and the Taliban’s regime in Afghanistan as main security concern. Following 9/11, however, the international resolve to eliminate potential sources of weapons of mass destruction has become a driving force in foreign policy. Iran has, smartly, chosen not to challenge the international community on this in the current situation. The recent agreement reached with the EU to suspend development of nuclear weapons and submit to wider international inspections (although not as intrusive as some in the U.S. would like to see) is a result not so much of the negotiating skills of the EU foreign ministers as of the fact that 130,000 U.S. troops are within a striking distance of Tehran. Playing North Korea in this situation would not have been prudent and Iran’s security establishment realizes it. This does not mean, however, that Iran has or will abandon its quest to acquire nuclear weapons. The country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the last word on all state matters, warned on November 3rd that "if we reach the point that Iran's national interests and values are threatened, we will not hesitate to stop our cooperation.” Such an attitude will fail to dispel the concerns of many in the region, especially Israel, which sees Iran’s nuclear capabilities as the greatest strategic threat to its security after the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Thus, the prospect of dealing with a nuclear Iran remains and calls for a strategic, rather than a temporary solution.

The other challenge that Iran poses to the peace process in the Middle East is its persistent support of terrorist groups, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. In contrast to its nuclear ambitions, the terrorist sponsorship is entirely a post-1979 revolution phenomenon. Extremism is not innate to Iran’s Persian culture; it is an ugly byproduct of a theocratic revolution that has radicalized certain segments of Iranian society after failing to deliver on its promises. So it must be challenged where it rests – with the current rule of the conservative clerical forces that have put 40% of the population below the poverty line in a country rich in natural and human resources.
Former Iranian president Hashemi Rafsanjani, foreground, leads the Friday prayers at the Tehran University campus in Iran, Friday, Oct. 24, 2003.
Finally, Iran’s Islamic theocratic rule is not a model that the international community would like to see spreading to Iraq and other Muslim countries. That prospect is most unnerving in the neighboring Iraq. Although Iran cannot afford to challenge directly the U.S. occupation, there is a growing body of evidence that Iran’s intelligence operatives are engaged with Iraqi Shia groups hostile to the U.S. presence. And despite the fact that Iran does not have a full sway over the Shia population in Iraq (which is Arab, not Persian like in Iran), it is a powerful counterpoint and irritant to the efforts of the U.S. and its allies to introduce a democratic model of governance in the Middle East. The paradox is that Iran itself has a tradition of democratic developments, which were violently interrupted twice in the last fifty years: in 1953, with the coup that brought the shah into power and in 1979 with the Islamic revolution, which overthrew him. Even now, Iran has arguably more democratic ingredients in its political life than any other country in the Middle East, with the possible exception of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. It has a popularly elected president and a popularly elected parliament, both of which are reform-oriented, albeit overpowered by the conservative clerical establishment.

The strategic task of the international community in this situation is to foster internal change that will eliminate both the immediate and long-term challenges to regional stability and international peace that Iran poses by lessening the influence of the country’s theocratic rulers. That change can not come by force and from the outside, both because the forces that could carry it out are currently facing a much taller order in Iraq and Afghanistan than they had bargained for, and because lasting change simply does not come from the outside. The transformation of Iran into a modern and responsible member of the international community must come from within, aided by a concerted international support for internal forces that work to undermine the rule of the mullahs. This will require an adjustment of the current U.S policy that would stress more the carrot than the stick and a more forceful engagement by Europe (including Russia), which would stress more support for democratic developments than short-term economic bargains. In other words, Iran’s transformation can be aided by softening of the U.S. position and hardening that of Europe. The ultimate objective should be to nurture the emerging consensus in the Iranian society that the current theocracy is leading the country to an economic and political dead-end and help Iranians design a more open and inclusive model of governance that caters to the political and economic aspirations of its young population.

In practice, this would mean a dual strategy that would require a fine, but not impossible, balancing act. On one side, the international community should intensify its contacts with and increase its support for those internal forces that carry the biggest democratic potential, such as the pro-reform student groups and human rights activists like this year’s Nobel prize winner Shirin Ebadi. This can be done, inter alia, by granting more, rather than less visas to Iranians to visit and study in the U.S. and Europe, expanding the outreach to the Iranian people (the U.S. Department of State’s Persian web site, which gets 3,000 hits a day, is a good example in that direction), and sponsoring private exchanges and dialogue with Iranian intellectuals and policy experts, similar to a program conducted by the United Nations Association of the U.S.A.

Parallel with support of internal pro-reform groups, the international community should engage the elected, and mostly reformist, parts of Iran’s elite on issues of clear mutual benefit such as narcotics and stability in Iraq and Afghanistan. Iran is a major transit route of heroin from Afghanistan and Southeast Asia to Western Europe with the sad result of more than two million drug users in the country. Iran also has a clear interest in having stable and peaceful neighbors in Iraq and Afghanistan, which is also the goal of the U.S.-led coalition in both countries. Finally, nuclear proliferation is a common strategic threat both to Iran and the international community. With or without nuclear capability, every country’s security is undermined by the spread of nuclear weapons and the likelihood of terrorist organizations acquiring them. To stimulate Iran’s official engagement in matters of mutual interest, the international community should offer economic incentives, including lifting of commercial sanctions (which rarely work anywhere), increased foreign investments and support for Iran’s bid to join the World Trade Organization.

Engaging Iran through this dual strategy will mitigate current risks to stability in the Middle East and will foster a strategic solution to the region’s fundamental problems (disenfranchised population with little economic prospects and protection of human rights) by propping one of its most pivotal countries on the road to a modern and responsible to its people and the international community state.