Re-Thinking Iran Policy: How the West Should Approach Iran


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by Joshua D. Goodman

The January 31, 2008 cover of The Economist asked an ominous question, “Has Iran Won?” The question certainly has merit. The release of Nation Intelligence Estimate (NIE), which declared that “Iran halted its military program to develop nuclear weapons in 2003,” delivered an unconscionable blow to the United States’ case against Iran. However, there may be a silver lining. The NIE report now gives the US and Europe a chance to re-think how they define and combat the Iranian challenge, which to date has been shortsighted in both scope and reach.

The Iran debate should not merely about the Islamic Republic’s pursuit of nuclear sophistication, but extend to its support of global terrorism, its egregious human rights record, the threat it poses to the sovereignty of other nations, and its hegemonic ambitions.

Likewise, Western policy towards Iran must extend beyond negotiations and economic sanctions if it is to generate the necessary pressure to change Iran’s strategy. The Iranian regime will only alter its policies if it feels the survival of the regime is threatened. Generating that level of concern will require the type of external and internal pressure that economic sanctions alone can not deliver. Thus, the West’s policies must look beyond the framework of the current strategy and engage the agents of change that exist within Iran – if it wants to succeed.

Pressure Works

One of the important lessons from the NIE report is that pressure, or the threat thereof, can bring about a change – whether nominal or significant – in Iranian policy. The report concludes that Iran altered its nuclear strategy “in response to increasing international scrutiny and pressure resulting from exposure of Iran’s previously undeclared nuclear work.” Analogously, Ray Takeyh argues, in his important work Hidden Iran, that in the wake of the attacks of September 11, Iranian conservatives began to question the “utility in continuing the conflict” with America.

Behzad Nabavi, a stalwart of the revolution and prominent MP, argued that “Normalizing ties with the U.S. does not contradict our values – the conditions today require different policies.” Thus, the right amount of pressure can generate a change in strategy.

Unfortunately, economic sanctions in the current climate will not engender the necessary pressure to convince Iran to alter its policies. The greatest obstacle to effective economic action is the lack on international consensus on the issue. As the most recent UNSC sanctions package indicates, achieving general agreement requires watered-down action. The European Union has experienced similar difficulties reach universal accord on even minor economic measures.

For its part, Iran has been somewhat successful in circumventing the sanctions through a combination of direct bilateral trade (Iran conducted over $2 billion in trade with Iraq last year) and trade in non-USD or Euro currencies (Iran-Japan energy trade is conducted through the Yen). Such action limits the effect of Western sanctions.

Skepticism within Europe towards the utility of economic sanctions was evident in the February 2007 leaked memo from the office of Javier Solana, the EU’s High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy: “The problems with Iran will not be resolved through economic sanctions alone.”

Tough economic efforts should continue – including the recent proposal by Democratic members of the US Senate to sanction Iran’s central bank, Bank Markazi. However, more will need to be done to meet the requisite level of pressure.

Taking firm political action by downgrading diplomatic representation and Iran’s positions in international organizations would send a strong message to the government, and the Iranian people.

According to Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Shirin Ebadi, political sanctions “make sense” to Iranians and can have a significant effect: “European countries and the Security Council can downgrade their political ‎relations with Iran to a level below ambassadors. This will be more effective in forcing ‎Iran into observe its international obligations.” While Ebadi slightly overstates the effect of political sanctions, the threat of international isolation will likely generate a certain degree of dissent amongst Iranians, who firmly believes that the energy-rich Iran should be amongst the global leaders.

Refresh Public Diplomacy

In an effort to reach Iran’s population Western public diplomacy has generally been run through traditional broadcasting medias like the radio and television. The preference for this antiquated Cold War strategy, which includes Voice of America’s Persian Service (VOA) and Radio Free Europe’s Radio Farda, has proven ineffective. A 2006 report for the United States’ Iran Steering Committee (ISC) found that “neither station is a primary source of news for Iranians.” Additionally, the content being presented to Iranians is often contradictory to the stated purpose of building common ground with the West and promoting democratic transformation. The same ISC report noted that an April 18, 2006 VOA program on Iran’s nuclear program featured a “Mr. Nakhai,” an advisor to the regime and an ardent supporter of Iran’s nuclear program – both points that the VOA failed to note. While arguing that Iran met every possible standard established by the IAEA, Nakhai asserted that “five countries [i.e. the P5] who have broken every rule of the NPT is sitting upon judgment of one country who has obeyed every rule.” His assertions went unchallenged.

Controversial content aside, the current public diplomacy strategy is not reaching the appropriate audience. Iran’s population is bottom heavy and growing exponentially; the median age in 2007 was 25.8, while the birthrate exceeded the mortality rate by almost 4 fold. Most analysts believe that the under-30 generation, which is attracted to Western society, offers the best chance for fundamental change within the Islamic Republic. But to build bridges with this generation, Western public diplomacy must take place through the Internet and telecommunications protocols: medias that will attract this technologically savvy generation.

Azadeh Moaveni, a Tehran-based Time Magazine reporter, noted in her 2005 memoir how the emergence of the blogosphere in Iran became a forum where “intellectuals were writing innovative, sparkling satire, graphic designers were creating websites for the west. Their interest was turning intensely outward, to the world of ideas outside.” Today, Persian is the third-most commonly used language in the global blogosphere.

Iran has cracked down heavily on blogs, even authoring a number of laws to regulate them, and the government recently announced it was shutting down the Internet before the March 14 elections. However, text messaging (or SMS, Short Messaging System) has largely evaded censorship. The latter is a preferred method of communication, with a reported 20 million text messages sent everyday within Iran. And in the absence of censorship, Iranians have used text messaging to challenge the establishment. During the 2005 presidential elections, Iranians used text messaging to call for the boycott of some candidates. According to Radio Free Europe, one such message warned, in reference to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s candidacy, that “The Taliban is coming.”

Western public diplomacy needs to reflect the realities of Iranian society and engage those who seek to challenge the regime though their preferred vehicles.

Address Iran’s Human Rights Violations

Engaging the voice of dissent Not sure what you mean in Iran will be perfunctory if there is not a platform through which to defend their rights. For the most part, civil disobedience in the Islamic Republic is “swept under the rug.” One of the primary consequences of the focused debate over Iran’s nuclear program is that the Islamic Republic’s egregious human rights violations have essentially been ignored. In the absence of any real scrutiny, the human rights situation has drastically worsened. According to the 2007 Country Report on Human Rights Practices, released by the US Department of State on March 11, 2008, “The Iranian regime violated freedom of speech and assembly, intensifying its crackdown against dissidents, journalists, women’s rights activists, labor activists, and those who disagreed with it through arbitrary arrests and detentions, torture, abductions, the use of excessive force, and the widespread denial of fair public trials.” Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have both labeled Iran the world leader in child executions. Thus, for the past five years, human rights in Iran have been the subject of a UN General Assembly resolution expressing “deep concern” over its record.

Pressuring Iran on its human rights record should not be difficult. Iran is party to all international human rights treaties, including the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Additionally, the US and Europe already have active partners in Canada and Norway on this front. Canada has led the annual rebuke of Iran in the General Assembly since the horrific torture and murder of Canadian-Iranian journalist Zahra Kazemi. The Norwegian government has similarly taken the lead on holding Iran accountable for its execution of children. The problem is that there is no forum through which to effectively bring attention to and deal with these issues.

The United Nations Human Rights Council has continuously failed to address the most pressing issues. As such, the West needs to establish its own commission to tackle Iran’s blatant human rights violations. Leading human rights activists like Natan Sharansky were most effective because they had a platform from which to be heard. Moreover, Shirin Ebadi is offered a degree of protection on account of her international celebrity. Drawing international attention to Iran’s oppressive human rights record and the internal voices of dissent will embolden Iranians to stand-up to the regime and fight for change. Without that platform, the Iranian regime will continue to stifle the voice for change.

Keep the Pressure Going

The primary lesson of the last few years is that there is no one policy option that will stop Iran in its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Even the military option has been questioned, not simply on its legitimacy but also on its effectiveness. Thus, the EU and the US need to expand their actions and begin adopting a “policy cocktail” to generate the necessary combination of pressure to stop Iran. The Islamic Republic thinks its has won: as evidenced by their recent statements and abrupt decision to end nuclear negotiations. Their declaration may well be premature, but it should come as a stern warning that they are confident and currently hold an advantageous position.

Pursuing these policies will also serve long-term strategic interests. While the West should certainly not accept the idea of Iran gaining a nuclear weapon, it must still develop a strategic plan for that eventuality. Stopping Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons will not eliminate the challenge it poses to international peace and security; its support of terror and aggression towards its neighbors will persist, if not amplify. As a result of the demographic shift, the face of Iran will be changing. Western policy must acknowledge and reflect the changing face of Iran in order to combat its’ myriad challenges. Otherwise, Iran will most certainly win.

About the author: Joshua D. Goodman works at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington D.C.-based think tank devoted to defending democratic values and fighting the ideologies that drive terrorism.

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