How can Iran change?

Upcoming elections aside, U.S. engagement could turn the tide

How can Iran change?The acrimonious relationship between the United States and Iran in recent years has been neatly personified by their respective presidents: George W. Bush and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In his 2005 State of the Union address, Bush described Iran as “the world’s primary state sponsor of terror” and accused it of “pursuing nuclear weapons while depriving its people of the freedom they seek and deserve.” Threats of military strikes against Iran—often couched in euphemisms about “leaving all options on the table”—were common throughout the Bush presidency. Ahmadinejad, for his part, called for America’s ally Israel to be “wiped off the map” and generally ratcheted up belligerent rhetoric to levels not heard in years.

It’s difficult to believe today that the two countries co-operated against the Taliban in the wake of 9/11. And in May 2003, shortly after the American invasion of Iraq, Iran sent a message to Washington proposing what has since been dubbed a “grand bargain” to normalize relations with the United States. The potential deal would see Iran accept a “two states approach” to solving the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. In return, Tehran wanted an end to sanctions and America’s policy of regime change, as well as recognition of Iran’s “legitimate security issues” in the region. The Bush administration doubted the offer’s sincerity and the ability of Iran’s then-reformist president Mohammad Khatami to deliver what it promised. They ignored it. Two years later Ahmadinejad became president, and relations between Iran and the United States went into free fall.

Now, with Iran preparing for elections this June, there are signs that Washington and Tehran may once again be drawing closer to each other. Barack Obama is simultaneously playing the role of good cop and bad cop in his approach to Iran. He’s reaching out to Syria in an effort to peel away a key Iranian ally and leave Iran isolated. But he’s also signalling that the United States is ready for a diplomatic thaw. Obama released a video greeting to mark the Persian New Year festival of Nowruz, and addressed it to both the Iranian people and their leaders. He referred to the “Islamic Republic of Iran,” implicitly legitimizing that country’s religious rule, and said the United States is seeking constructive ties and “engagement that is based on mutual respect.” Not once did he mention Iran’s nuclear program—the source of much of the tensions between Iran and the rest of the world—nor did he make any demands or threats.

It’s a startling reversal in tone and substance from Bush’s stance toward Iran. But it’s unlikely to amount to much as long as Bush’s old sparring mate Ahmadinejad remains in power. His victory in the June election is by no means guaranteed. And should he be defeated, “it comes with a mandate to change the direction of Iranian foreign policy, to change the direction of Iranian domestic policy, and really do what Obama is doing in the United States,” says Mohamad Tavakoli, a professor of history and near and Middle Eastern civilizations at the University of Toronto. “It would be a shift parallel to the shift in the United States.” A renewed mandate for Ahmadinejad, on the other hand, will reinforce Iran’s hostility toward the United States and Israel, and will prolong the stifling restrictions on personal freedoms and liberties that Ahmadinejad’s government has imposed. Liberal newspapers will remain shut down, and the morality police who prowl Tehran’s sidewalks looking for women exposing too much hair will stay there.

Ahmadinejad has a decent chance of winning. He is a populist and connects with the sorts of Iranians few Western journalists ever meet—the poor and the rural. He has a modest image that many find appealing, compared to the perceived self-importance of leading clerics such as Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, whom Ahmadinejad defeated in the 2005 presidential contest. But Ahmadinejad has at least two strikes against him. While some Iranians are proud of him for standing up to the United States, many are also tired of the isolation his bellicosity has brought them. More significantly, he’s made a mess of the economy and no longer has the benefit of high oil prices to shield his mistakes. “Now that the downturn is coming, they’re going to find out what he really did wrong,” says Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, a scholar at the Brookings Institute think tank and professor of economics at Virginia Tech University.

Two prominent candidates have so far declared their intention to run against Ahmadinejad: Mehdi Karroubi, a senior cleric, and Mir Hossein Mousavi, a former prime minister who, like Ahmadinejad, is not a religious leader. Both men have been described as reformists, but politicians in Iran defy easy categorization, and Mousavi and Karroubi are no exceptions. Karroubi is a harsh critic of Ahmadinejad’s foreign policy but stresses his loyalty to the ideas behind Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution. Mousavi has condemned Ahmadinejad’s “extremism” and has recently called for a “détente” in Iran’s foreign relations. But he too supports what he describes as “religious democracy.” A third candidate, Mohsen Reza, a former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps who is wanted by Interpol for his alleged involvement in a 1994 suicide bombing attack against a Jewish cultural centre in Buenos Aires, has also declared but has little chance of winning.

The fact that neither Karroubi nor Mousavi questions Iran’s theocratic foundations reflects the undemocratic nature of elections in Iran. Only candidates who are approved by the Guardian Council—a group of 12 Islamic jurists who owe their position, directly or indirectly, to Iran’s unelected supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—are permitted to run. “Non-Islamists, meaning those who do not believe in an Islamic state, they cannot possibly run. They cannot become candidates,” says Saeed Rahnema, a professor of political science at York University. “There are many other reformers. There are secular reformers. But they cannot possibly run. Nobody knows their names.”

Payam Akhavan, a professor of international law at McGill University, describes Iranian elections as a contest for power “within very clearly prescribed limits.” Millions of Iranian citizens are secular democrats, but no Iranian politician will be permitted to champion their cause. To make matters worse, it is Khamenei who holds ultimate power in Iran, not the president. “Formally or not, executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government all operate under the absolute sovereignty of the supreme leader,” writes Iranian journalist and former political prisoner Akbar Ganji in a recent essay. “Khamenei is the head of state, the commander-in-chief, and the top ideologue. He also reaches into economic, religious, and cultural affairs through various government councils and organs of repression, such as the Revolutionary Guards, whose commander he himself appoints.”

Because of these limitations on who can run for president, and what the president can actually accomplish, many Iranians who want fundamental changes in their country will boycott the elections. Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian lawyer and Nobel Prize winner, says she will not vote. Arash Azizi, a young Iranian journalist who recently immigrated to Canada, also questions the utility of voting for Guardian Council-approved reformists. “The idea that you can gradually change the Islamic Republic into something better might be popular inside Western circles and with Mr. Obama, but it’s not really so in Iran,” he said in an interview with Maclean’s.

“Our real hope for changing Iran, my real hope and the majority of people’s hope, is for overthrowing this government. Because I believe there is no such thing as a reformed Islamic republic.” Still, Azizi thinks presidential elections in Iran can make a difference. If a reformist were elected, “we would get our books published faster. We would get our newspapers—maybe—published faster.” He hopes these small changes would make society more turbulent and lead to protests demanding more radical changes, until eventually the whole theocratic system crumbles.

Saeed Rahnema, the York University professor, is sympathetic but doesn’t think attempting to overthrow the existing regime is realistic or even desirable. Iran’s ruling clerics are too entrenched and too powerful. They have their own militia and multiple power bases in mosques and community organizations that dispense money and patronage. “Anybody who thinks that a velvet revolution, an orange revolution, all these colourful revolutions, are going to work in Iran, they don’t know Iranian politics,” he says. The other alternative is foreign military intervention, which, he says, would drive even those most opposed to the Islamic regime to the side of the government.

Engaging Iran, on the other hand, might weaken hard-liners by taking away the spectre of a Western bogeyman against which all Iranians supposedly need to unite. Rahnema admits engagement confers legitimacy. “But what can you do?” he asks. “I think Obama was right, much to the dismay of all of us, when he called it the ‘Islamic Republic.’ It is the Islamic Republic, whether we like it or not. I mean, I don’t like it, but it is. They created this mess, and we should hope that gradually it will be improved.”

An improved relationship between Iran and the United States would rearrange some of the pieces on the Middle East’s chessboard. McGill’s Payam Akhavan says Iran’s sponsorship of Hamas is based on power politics rather than ideological affinity. Iran sees Israel as a competitor and threat and is using Hamas to destabilize it. “The idea that Iran and Israel are locked into some sort of clash of civilizations between Jews and Muslims is absolute nonsense,” he says, noting that Israel provided assistance to Iran during the Iran-Iraq war. If Iran no longer felt threatened by the United States and Israel, he believes its leaders might agree to cut off Hamas.

Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia and political party, is a different story. Hezbollah is indispensable to Iran’s quest for regional influence and, unlike Hamas, its members are Shia Muslims, as are most Iranians. But Akhavan believes Iran might stop arming Hezbollah and limit itself to political support—which is essentially what Iran proposed in its 2003 “grand bargain” offer. “That tie is not going to break. But it might change,” he says. Iran’s nuclear program is also likely untouchable, at least in the short term. “I don’t think any political leader, unless he’s suicidal, would question Iran’s nuclear program, because it’s been made such a sacred cow.”

A thaw between the United States and Iran—even with an Iranian reformist as president—would be gradual, with incremental changes that might nevertheless add up to a critical shift. Iran’s leadership is pragmatic, Akhavan says, and the two countries share common interests in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq. There is room for co-operation. The cost for America will be accommodation with the Islamic Republic and an end to a policy of regime change in Iran.

This would no doubt dismay those who would interpret such a concession by the United States as an abandonment of Iranian democrats. But, Akhavan says, regime change at the hands of the United States was never a practical policy. Change is more likely to come because of economic pressures and the discontent of young people in a country where 70 per cent of the population is under 30, and therefore far too young to even remember the Islamic Revolution of 1979. “The real threat to the regime comes from within,” he says. “It doesn’t have to do with the United States. It has to do with demographics, economic conditions, the emergence of civil society. I think the clerics understand they cannot indefinitely rule.”

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