Prospects for Democratization in Iran: Policy Implications

By Zahedi, Dariush | Insight Turkey, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview
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Prospects for Democratization in Iran: Policy Implications


Zahedi, Dariush, Insight Turkey


The most pressing challenge created by the United States' failure to create a friendly, stable and prosperous ally in Iraq is how to deal with Iran. By removing Iran's chief military threat and failing to credibly replace it, the US has opened the door to an expansion of Iranian power and influence in the region. Coming at a time when Iranian ultra-conservatives are ascendant, reformists are in disarray, and the nuclear program is reaching the point of no return, the problem is increasing in both its urgency and intractability. While the imperatives of thwarting Iran's nuclear ambitions and dampening its influence in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories remain, the strategic environment has become much more complex and fluid, and the US's influence over actors and events promises to be much less decisive than in the past. (1) Given Iran's increasing strategic importance, having a compliant regime in Tehran matters now more than ever.

In seeking to engineer this outcome, the Obama Administration, in contrast to the Bush Administration that had sought to isolate, contain and weaken the Islamic Republic, has endeavored to promote dialogue with Iran while bolstering democratic elements within Iranian society. When, in the spring of 2003, Iran sent a secret letter to the Bush Administration detailing a proposal for comprehensive negotiations, (2) Vice-president Cheney's office, bent on a policy of regime change, thwarted the idea. However, even before the inauguration of the Obama Administration, the United States decided to break the historic taboo on high-level meetings with Iranian officials, and has now abandoned its refusal to engage Iran unconditionally. In the event that diplomacy fails to dissuade Iran from exchanging its low enriched uranium for moderately enriched uranium, the Obama Administration has pledged to seek targeted sanctions against the Islamic Republic. Even after the imposition of such sanctions, however, the administration will continue to leave the door to engagement and diplomacy open. At the same time, though, the options of regime change or military action will still remain "on the table." Meanwhile, the State Department has established a new office devoted solely to fostering political change in Iran and dramatically increased its democracy promotion efforts, allocating $75 million for television and radio broadcasts, exchange programs and strengthening Iran's civil society. In short, the strategy remains one of engaging the current regime, while grooming indigenous opposition groups as potential democratic successors.

This strategic vision operates on two assumptions: First, that the breakdown or modification of the Islamic Republic, though not imminent, may finally be appearing on the horizon. Second, that the eventual modification or annihilation of the Islamic Republic could result (as in the scenario touted for Iraq prior to the invasion) in the establishment and consolidation of a democratic partner for the United States in Iran. Upon closer examination, the first assumption turns out to be probable, while the validity of the second appears to be more tenuous. Indeed, in the event that the regime were to fall, Iran is bereft of many of the social and economic requisites for a stable democracy. About 80% of the Iranian economy is in the hands of the state, the private sector is dependent and feeble, and the 70% of Iranians under the age of 30 are neither propertied nor middle class. In the meantime, the state is becoming even more powerful as it tightens its stranglehold over the Iranian economy and an increasing number of the middle class becomes a client to the state. Moreover, a political culture of consensus and compromise has not as yet become ingrained, even among the elite.

In what follows, it will be argued that in the event of regime change or modification, these structural impediments to democracy are more likely to lead to the kind of elected authoritarianism we see today in Russia rather than a transition to liberal democracy.

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