The Shifting Premise of Iran's Foreign Policy: Towards a Democratic Peace?

By Ramazani, R. K. | The Middle East Journal, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

The Shifting Premise of Iran's Foreign Policy: Towards a Democratic Peace?


Ramazani, R. K., The Middle East Journal


The all-important foreign policy component of Iranian president Muhammad Khatami's election has been universally overlooked, partly because of the reformist rhetoric of his election campaign. This essay argues that the pivotal synergy in President Khatami's worldview between reforms at home and peace abroad was the principal reason why his overall message resonated so dramatically with young Iranians. More self-reliant, and also more exposed to worldwide influences of the democratic movement than their parents, these young men and women voted for Khatami significantly because they aspired to greater freedom at home and more cooperation with the rest of the world.

Does the election of Sayyid Muhammad Khatami as president of the Islamic Republic of Iran represent a silent revolution of young Iranians?' Twenty million voters, largely women and the young, or 69 percent of the eligible voters, cast their ballots for him in May 1997 in a universally acknowledged free and fair election. Two decades ago the previous generation of Iranians destroyed the Pahlavi regime, sending shock waves around the world. That generation supported Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's slogan: "We must become isolated in order to become independent."2 Now the children of that revolution are saying they must become democratic in order to become part of the `new world order'. This essay will argue that this new premise is the real meaning of Khatami's presidency. Were this premise ever to be realized, centuries of Iranian autocracy would be reversed. Yet, President Khatami's election was a surprise; his effective leadership of the most successful summit meeting in the history of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), held in Tehran in December 1997, was a surprise; and his courageous overtures to the American people for reconciliation a few weeks later was the mother of all surprises! Why? Because Iran critics cannot believe that a clerically dominated theocracy can cry out for democracy; the self-styled `political realists' see nothing but another changing of the guard in Iranian politics and the continuing struggle for power between two leaders (today between President Khatami and Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah `Ali Khamene'i, and yesterday between former President `Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Khamene'i); and the 'fatalist' theorists of revolution continue to deny the possibility of any real evolutionary process of change in any revolution.

DEMOCRACY AT HOME AND PEACE ABROAD

Yet, the landslide election of President Khatami had its roots in the fertile soil of just such an evolutionary process of change. It was marked by the heavy social, economic and political toll of revolutionary fervor; of terror and counter-terror, especially in the early phases of the Iranian revolution; of the calamitous eight-year war (1980-88) with Iraq, at enormous cost in terms of casualties and material destruction; and of the postwar consequences of eight years of massive economic reconstruction that resulted in unprecedented social and economic betterment and equally unprecedented economic and social hardship.

The quest of young Iranians for an open society at home and a peaceful state abroad3 has two immediate sets of causes; one springs from the depth of internal changes that have taken place in Iran since Khomeini's death in 1989, and the other reflects exposure to global realities. Internally, their aspirations stem from a paradoxical combination of psychocultural sufferings and hopeful expectations for a better life. Young Iranians' expectations reflect, in part, the economic development of the previous eight years during the two-term (1989-97) administration of former President Rafsanjani. Although the young people began then to enjoy a better standard of living than their parents, they also wanted a freer social and political life. Materially, millions of rural people, for example, started to enjoy the comforts of electric power and running water as economic improvement spread to 85 percent of some 60,000 villages; the nation's rate of literacy soared from 45 percent in 1978 before the revolution to about 80 percent of the population; life expectancy of the average Iranian reached 65; women joined the workforce in large numbers, contributing increasingly to household incomes; about 40 percent of students in higher education were women; and last, but by no means least, Iranian society began to witness a renaissance of social and political thought that engulfed secular and religious intellectuals alike. …

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