The real problem in Iran

Why focusing solely on Ahmadinejad’s nuclear capability is a mistake

The real problem in IranIn the four months since Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stole the June 12 presidential election, thousands of Iranian opposition supporters have disappeared into the maw of Iranian prisons, where many have been beaten and raped. Among these uncounted victims, the detention of three young brothers is particularly significant. Mohammad Mahdi Montazeri, Sadegh Montazeri, and Mohammad Ali Montazeri were detained in the holy city of Qom last month. None is said to be politically active. But they are all grandsons of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri.

Hossein Ali Montazeri, 87, was a leader of the Iranian Revolution of 1979, and was once the designated successor to the Islamic Republic’s founding supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Montazeri clashed with Khomeini in 1989 over abuses committed by the government, particularly the execution of the 13-year-old daughter of a colleague who was suspected of belonging to an opposition group. He’s been a firm government critic ever since, but has remained politically powerful. Despite a period of house arrest from 1997 to 2003, his influence and prestige among Iran’s most senior clerics afforded him some protection.

That protection vanished this summer. “No one in their right mind can believe” the official election results, Montazeri said of Ahmadinejad’s apparent victory. When protests were crushed, Montazeri warned soldiers and police that “receiving orders will not excuse them before God.” He called for three days of public mourning after female protester Neda Agha-Soltan was shot by a sniper. And he condemned the silence of other clerics in the face of these abuses against Iran’s own citizens. Reasoning that targeting Montazeri directly would not shut him up, the regime went after his family.

Relatives of other dissident clerics have also been jailed. These are men who only months ago were part of Iran’s establishment—as were Ahmadinejad’s challengers for the presidency, Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi. The fact that they are now treated as political subversives reflects the enormous changes that are taking place within Iran’s power structure. One Iranian exile described it, with only a hint of sardonic exaggeration, as regime change, but not the regime change that George W. Bush had hoped for. Religious and political leaders who question Ahmadinejad’s right to govern risk seeing their grandsons hauled away. A country that was once a theocracy with multiple pillars of power is transforming into a more familiar military dictatorship, where power is increasingly concentrated in the hands of the Revolutionary Guards and the pro-government Basij militia.

There are different ways to interpret these changes. To be sure, they are worrying. The Revolutionary Guards are violent, radical, and unaccountable. But they are also widely scorned within Iran, and their ascent and aggression reflects both the fragility of and the lack of popular legitimacy for Ahmadinejad’s renewed presidency.

This raises the question of how the United States and its allies should deal with Iran. U.S. President Barack Obama came to office promising to engage with the country over its nuclear program, and he has. Talks in Geneva this month between Iran and six of the world’s leading powers (France, Britain, the United States, Russia, China, and Germany) resulted in Iran agreeing to allow international inspectors to visit a newly revealed nuclear plant in Qom. It’s unclear whether this represents a genuine Iranian change of heart or if it is simply a stalling tactic to avoid sanctions.

What has been largely overlooked, however, is the possibility that, by focusing on Iran’s nuclear program, the United States has confronted Ahmadinejad on ground where he is most comfortable making a stand, and it has missed an opportunity to challenge the Iranian president on issues where he is most vulnerable—the legitimacy of his rule and the rights of his fellow citizens.

The argument that Iran’s nuclear program is a misplaced priority for the United States is based on an unpalatable assumption that is nevertheless likely true: that Iran will eventually develop a nuclear weapon—or at least the capability to do so. Negotiated deals, sanctions, even military strikes might disrupt Iran’s nuclear program, but they are unlikely to end it. “The most important part of the program is human capital—the scientists and engineers. And they’re still going to be there,” says Daniel Byman, director of Georgetown University’s Center for Peace and Security Studies.

According to Payam Akhavan, a professor of international law at McGill University, “The international community could possibly delay Iran’s acquisition of nuclear capability but it cannot stop it. Sooner or later, Iran, which has a highly educated population, will acquire nuclear capability. That’s an unavoidable fact,” he said in an interview with Maclean’s. “But at the end of the day, the problem is with the regime and not with its nuclear capability. There are many countries with nuclear capability: Japan, Brazil, Argentina, South Africa, and Korea. We don’t worry about those regimes, largely because they are democratic. A regime that is democratic is going to respond to the real demands of the people, which are economic and democratic issues. A regime that uses violence against its own citizens is more likely to use violence as a means of extending influence against its neighbours.”

Fair enough, President Obama or French President Nicolas Sarkozy might say. We wish Iran were democratic, too. But it’s not. And in the meantime Iran’s nuclear program is not something we can safely ignore.

This is true. According to Byman, it is unlikely that Iran would launch an unprovoked strike against Israel or the United States, or that it would give nuclear technology to a terrorist group. But the repercussions would still be severe. With a nuclear umbrella protecting it, Iran would be emboldened to extend its influence in Afghanistan and Iraq, and through its proxies Hamas and Hezbollah in the Levant. Iran’s neighbours and adversaries in the Middle East, particularly Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, would feel threatened and might reason that they too must acquire nuclear weapons to protect themselves. So even if Iran’s nuclear program can only be stalled, the ramifications of a nuclear Iran are sufficiently dire that playing for time is a better option than doing nothing.

But those countries negotiating with Iran should also consider that the nuclear issue is a powerful propaganda tool for Iranian hard-liners at a moment when the Islamic regime is weaker than it has been for decades. “The nuclear issue has been presented to the Iranian public as the right of Iran to develop nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. And Western attempts to prevent Iran from acquiring that capability have been portrayed as attacks on Iran’s sovereignty and attempts to keep Iran backwards and dependent on the West,” says Akhavan. “Iranians have a strong sense of national identity. They have memories of imperial domination by the British and the Russians, and of America’s role in the 1953 coup d’état against [former prime minister Mohammad] Mosaddeq. The regime is playing to that sentiment.”

It’s a public relations ploy with limited appeal. Saeed Rahnema, a professor of political science at York University, says that most Iranians are concerned about political freedoms, education, and economic opportunities rather than Iran’s nuclear capability—an assessment that is echoed by Arash Azizi, an Iranian journalist who recently immigrated to Canada. Still, according to Djavad Salahi-Isfahani, a research fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, “Iranians generally rally to the side of the government when the United States and the French say unreasonable things. And most Iranians know that what Iran is doing, Brazil is doing as well.”

None of this is to suggest that Iran’s nuclear program isn’t important—only that it is not the most important thing happening in Iran right now. What will ultimately matter more to Iran’s future, and the future of Iran’s relationship with the rest of the world, is the fracturing of Iran’s power structure, the emergence of the Revolutionary Guards as the dominant pro-government force in the country, and the continued resilience of Iran’s democratic opposition.

The Islamic Republic, in short, is in turmoil. And where it can be most effectively challenged is not over nuclear weapons but its democratic legitimacy and the rights of its citizens. These are issues on which the United States and its Western allies can assert their values and count on a greater degree of support from Iranian citizens themselves.

“There should always be room for dialogue, but I think that when the nuclear issue becomes the focal point, that is a mistake,” says Akhavan. He notes that international travel bans and asset freezes have been directed against individuals and institutions linked to Iran’s nuclear program, not to the ongoing human rights abuses that matter much more to people inside Iran. “People are saying, ‘What about crimes against humanity? What about leaders that are responsible for murders and torture and rape? Why do we not have targeted sanctions against them? Why is everyone worried about the nuclear issue and the question of oil supplies, but nobody is worried about our struggle?’ ”

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