Iran has stronger prospects to transition to a liberal democracy than most Arab states, new research suggests, but the Islamic Republic remains “a very grim picture” when it comes to human rights, the Obama administration said today.
Nevertheless, the Iranian regime’s failure to impose Islamist ideology “leaves the door of hope for political change wide open,” according to a leading analyst.
The past year witnessed “a continuation of many negative trends” in Iran, said Michael H. Posner, assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, citing intolerance of dissent, unfair trials, amputations, floggings, executions and restrictions on free speech, internet freedom and political participation.
“So it’s a very grim picture,” he said, highlighting the case of seven Baha’i leaders sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment, in a presentation to mark the release of the State Department’s 2011 Human Rights Report.
Iran’s nuclear program is too advanced and entrenched to be stopped short of regime change, a prominent analyst said today.
“Iran is insecure, but it believes it is profoundly entitled. This mix of vulnerability and grandiosity is a bad combination,” writes Aaron David Miller, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “The Iranian regime wants the bomb, not primarily to have the option of attacking Israel, a possible fringe benefit, but as a hedge against regime change and as a prestige weapon in its quest for regional power and influence.
“Iran’s nuclear program is too advanced, too entrenched, too redundant and too secretive to be stopped permanently, even by military attack. To do so, you’d need to change the regime.”
In pursuing a form of cultural Cold War against liberal values, the regime has striven to impose Islamist ideological strictures on Iranian society in a vain struggle against modernity, writes Mehdi Khalaji, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
But “after the brutal implementation of Islamic ideology for more than three decades,” it has “overstretched its political authority.”
Women and youth want to look to the future but the government wants to imprison them in a mythological past. Under the Islamic Republic the number of schools for foreign languages in Iran has enormously increased, because families are keen to provide their children with secular education. Despite censorship people are more eager to read Western books or watch Western movies or listen to Western music.
Even former Islamist ideologues like the film maker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, the late poet Qaisar Aminpoor and the intellectual Abdul Karim Soroush have rejected Islamic ideology.
“In fact the true believers who abstain from becoming morally and economically tied to the regime are susceptible to become revisionists and reformists,” says Khalaji, a Qom-trained Shiite theologian. “If the Pahlavi monarchy was trying to modernize the society from above, the Islamic republic has unwittingly but successfully modernized the society from within.”
None of the transitional states emerging from the Arab awakening have expressed any desire to emulate the Islamic Republic.
“While the Islamic Republic’s soft power fails, the Iranian people’s urge to integrate into world culture and economy is unprecedented. This leaves the door of hope for political change in Iran wide open,” he concludes.
Indeed, Iran has stronger prospects to transition to a liberal democracy than most Arab states and even some Asian and European countries, according to recent research.
Iran shows an “abnormal gap” between the societal potential for liberal democracy and the actual level of political liberty, the research concludes, with robust support for liberal norms co-existing alongside conservative values. In comparison to 64 other countries, Iran’s potential to develop liberal democracy was found to be higher than Arab countries, such as Egypt, Morocco and Jordan, such Asian states as South Korea, India and Thailand, and certain European countries, including Russia, Ukraine and Romania.
“Our findings demonstrate that Iranian society as a whole is characterized by a pro-liberal value structure that is deeply at odds with the fundamentalist regime,” said Yuval Porat, a member of the research team. “This presents considerable potential for regime change in Iran and for the development of liberal democracy.”
While the findings are encouraging, writes analyst Anshel Pfeffer, some questions are left unanswered:
1. Are Iranians with democratic aspirations in favor of continuing their nation’s nuclear program and acquiring nuclear weapons? In the past, also reform-minded Iranian politicians, including former prime minister and presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi (now under house arrest), staunchly supported nuclear development. …..
2. Do Iranians who are not supporters of the regime see the region in the stark terms of Shia versus Sunni? Would they relinquish Iran’s current policy of destabilizing other nations in the Gulf and cut off support to Hezbollah and other such groups? Or would the hostile standoff between the regional powers remain also if a democratic government would rule in Tehran?
3. Would some form of democracy in Iran equate with a renewed openness with the West and what of a resumption of the once close ties with Israel? Or will one of the first things they agree upon in a new constitution be a ban on “normalizing” ties with Israel, as the new democratically-elected Tunisian parliament did early this year.
4. Are Iranians prepared to act upon their desire for freedom and democracy and challenge the regime? And what would they be willing to risk in such a challenge? This is a question no survey can give anything near an accurate answer to, but it is key in trying to establish where the regime’s tipping-points are. A tipping-point could be the refusal of security forces to fire on demonstrators. It could be a level of civil disobedience and chaos which shuts down a nation’s infrastructure and it could be violence of a magnitude that would necessitate foreign intervention. …..
“Terrorizing Iranian expatriates has become a feature of Iran’s policy under President Ahmadinejad,” she wrote recently:
The regime has no tolerance for a discourse challenging its version of what the Iranian people want. It silences individuals or groups whose activities or discourse it does not direct or control. To stop any alternative perspective from leaking out, it also targets Iranian expatriates who travel to Iran and communicate with their peers. The international community has successfully campaigned for the release of prisoners in the past. But the well-connected and highly visible individuals are exceptions. Saeed Malekpour, like Zahra Bahrami, is neither of these. The international community can make a difference by showing that it is not fooled by televised confessions. To do so, it has to consistently challenge the regime’s version of facts and call for the release of the victims of a judiciary that makes a mockery of due process of law.
Economic sanctions are beginning to undermine the regime’s confidence, raising the likelihood of a crunch coming over the summer, say analysts.
“The regime has the money,” says Abbas Milani, head of the Iranian Studies program at Stanford University.. “They are not sure of the security of their own investment! That’s the only way I can understand this kind of a fall [in the rial]. The Iranian middle class doesn’t have the kind of money to bring about this kind of a fall.” The mullahs, Milani says, are “clearly trying to save some gold and save some currencies in kind of liquid forms so they can get what they need if the bigger sanctions come. All of these drastic changes are the beginnings of what might come in July.’’
For Abbas, who has advised the last two U.S. administrations on Iran policy, the deeper question is whether current optimism over the talks is, as he put it, “too optimistic.” He doubts that Iran’s recalcitrant Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, will approve a deal that lets the next round of sanctions against Iran go forward as planned in late June, something Washington has said must happen. The current sanctions have no doubt hit Tehran very hard, Abbas says, but he suspects that the huge drop in the value of its currency, the rial, is driven by Iran’s own government, which is hoarding dollars and euros so it has the cash on hand for when the July sanctions take hold.