Will Washington Support Democracy in Iran? (JCPA-JERUSALEM CENTER FOR PUBLIC AFFAIRS) Michael Rubin JERUSALEM ISSUE BRIEF Vol. 4, No. 17 13 February 2005)
JCPA-Jerusalem Center Public Affairs
JCPA-Jerusalem Center Public Affairs Articles-Index-Top
After a first term marked by schizophrenic Iran policy
initiatives, the Bush White House will soon develop a coordinated
policy to promote peaceful regime change in Iran. The Bush
administration is heartened by the apparent success of the Iraqi
election and believes that Iranians are ready to exert their
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
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 democracy versus proponents of
theocracy. 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 democracy as they
call for a new national referendum on the future of Iran.
A Stalemated Iran Policy
In his January 20, 2005, inaugural speech, President George W. Bush
declared, "America will not pretend that jailed dissidents prefer
their chains, or that women welcome humiliation and servitude." Less
than two weeks later, Bush argued in his State of the Union address
that "the victory of freedom in Iraq will...inspire democratic
reformers from Damascus to Tehran." Such statements are not mere
rhetoric, but mark a new willingness to advance democracy in 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."1
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,2 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 civil society.
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.3 In recent weeks, the White
House legal office has opined that nothing in the Accords prevents
assistance to Iranian democrats.
New National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley´s decision to remove
Richard Haass 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 Bush administration´s new focus on Iran is a reflection not only
of the President´s sincere conviction that the Iranian people
deserve freedom and liberty, but also of the belief that the United
States cannot live with a nuclear Islamic Republic of Iran. While
many European officials and American academics describe Iranian
politicians like former president and current Expediency Council
chairman ´Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani as a pragmatist,4 U.S.
policymakers do not dismiss his December 14, 2001, threats to
initiate a nuclear first strike against Israel,5 nor do they dismiss
as rhetoric banners reading "Israel must be uprooted and erased from
history," draped over medium-range Shihab-3 missiles in a September
22, 2003, military parade.6
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,7 and
because of the 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.8 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.9 Washington also takes seriously reports
that Iranian authorities have sheltered senior al-Qaeda figures in
Revolutionary Guard bases near the Caspian town of Chalus.10
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.11 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.12
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
Are Iranians Ready for Democracy?
The best option from an American point of view would be a peaceful
transition of power leading to an Iranian abandonment of the Islamic
Republic´s more threatening convictions. The relevant question
therefore becomes whether the Iranian people are ready for democracy
and, if so, when they might rise up and demand real rather than
cosmetic rights. No one in Washington seeks to use military force to
oust the Iranian regime, and rumors that the U.S. government even
considered lending support to the Mujahidin al-Khalq are without
basis. Democracy advocates within the Bush administration are likely
to ask whether they can take any actions which would catalyze the
Iranian people´s ability to replicate last year´s peaceful
revolutions in Georgia and the Ukraine.
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?"13
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
A quarter century of 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 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 in July 1999,15
October 2001,16 November 2002,17 and July 2003,18 and at a number of
more localized demonstrations.19
Historic Opportunity: The Call for a Referendum
Iranians, inheritors of a 2,500-year-old culture, are far more
historically aware than many in the West. Recent democratic
developments in Iran coincide with a number of symbolic
anniversaries. December 2005 marks the hundredth anniversary of the
start of Iran´s Constitutional Revolution when merchants, liberals,
clergy, and nationalists rose up to demand basic rights in the face
of an autocratic ruler. After a year of struggle, the Shah granted
the Iranian people a constitution. In December 2006, Iranians may
ask why their forefathers had rights today´s Iranians no longer
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.20
Many Iranians suggest a simple question, "Theocracy or democracy."
The Tarrance Group poll found that 71 percent of Iranians would
favor such a poll.21 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 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 in 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.
1. Robin Wright, "U.S. Now Views Iran in More Favorable Light; a Top
Official Makes a Distinction between the regime in Tehran and those
of fellow ´axis of evil´ members North Korea and Iraq," Los Angeles
Times, February 14, 2003.
2. Robin Wright, "Activity Heats Up as U.S. and Iran Flirt with
Closer Ties," Washington Post, February 1, 2004.
3. Michael Ledeen, "Act on Iran," Wall Street Journal, October 23,
4. Reuel Marc Gerecht, "Going Soft on Iran," Weekly Standard, March
5. Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran, December 14, 2001.
6. Ron Kampeas, "As Palestinian Picture Improves, Ominous Signs
About Iranian Nukes," Jewish Telegraphic Agency, November 22,
7. "Iranian ´Sputnik´ Could be Trojan Horse for Tehran´s Ballistic
Missile Program," Aviation Week Group, November 28, 2004.
8. The 9-11 Commission Report, p. 60.
9. The 9-11 Commission Report, p. 240. Also see: "Iran´s Link to al-
Qaeda: What the 9-11 Commission Found," Middle East Quarterly (Fall
10. "Nearly 400 al-Qaeda members and other terror suspects in Iran,"
Agence France Presse, July 15, 2004.
11. "Iran Accuses Turkish Jets of Bombing its Territory," Associated
Press, July 18, 1999.
12. Karl Vick, "Politics on Collision Course at Shuttered Iranian
Airport," Washington Post, August 10, 2004.
13. "Students Heckle Iranian President," BBC News, December 6, 2004;
14. Public Opinion Survey in Iran, August 23-28, 2002, Tarrance
15. "Fateful Moment in Iran," New York Times, July 14, 1999.
16. "Tehran Gripped by Pro-Western Street Violence," Independent,
October 27, 2001.
17. "Iranian Student Protestors Call Referendum on Hard-Line
Rulers," New York Times, November 29, 2002.
18. "Student Leaders Seized by Vigilantes in Iran," New York Times,
July 10, 2003.
19. See reporting, for example, of the Student Movement Coordination
Committee for Democracy in Iran, www.daneshjoo.org
20. Eli Lake, "Iranian Democrats Establish a United Front," New York
Sun, December 7, 2004.
21. Public Opinion Survey in Iran, August 23-28, 2002, Tarrance
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