Dr. Payam Akhavan on the Democratization of Iran

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May 22, 2013

The Canadian government, among others, has been focused on the Iranian regime’s nuclear program, as well as its support for terrorist groups. Do you think the human rights in Iran have been sidelined as a result?

I think that the human rights issues in Iran tend to be at the margins of most governments’ agendas. But I also think that in all fairness, the Canadian government – and this extends across Liberal and Conservative governments  – has played an important role in drawing attention to the human rights of Iranians at the United Nations. For the past 10 years, Canada has sponsored a resolution condemning human rights abuses in Iran at the UN General Assembly. Canada has also adopted UN sanctions against individuals involved in Iran’s nuclear program. However, while the United States and the European Union have now moved towards targeted sanctions on those involved in human rights violations including crimes against humanity, Canada has not. So, there is more to be done.

Can the international community address the Iran’s nuclear program and human rights violations simultaneously? Or does progress on one impede progress on the other?

We need to better appreciate the connections between human rights abuses and democratization – which tend to be seen as soft, marginal issues – and the nuclear program and regional instability, which are typically considered to be hard power realist issues.

There’s an inextricable connection between the authoritarian nature of the Iranian regime and the militarization of its foreign policy. An authoritarian regime – in particular one that feels threatened by both its international isolation, because of its nuclear program, and its internal isolation, because of popular discontent – will become increasingly radicalized, and increasingly militarized. The Iranian regime believes that acquiring a nuclear capability will safeguard against international and domestic pressure; that it will serve as a deterrent and a national rallying point. That is likely why the regime is willing to pay such a heavy price in order to acquire nuclear capability.

So the way to address the potential threat of the Iranian regime acquiring a nuclear weapons capability is through encouraging democratization?

First of all, democratization is not something that can come about with the wave of a magic wand. It cannot be imposed through military confrontation; it is an organic process, and it is a long-term process. It is also a process for which I believe Iran already possesses all the necessary ingredients. While it is true that the regime has become increasingly militarized and radical, the Iranian social space has become more and more amenable to a thriving secular civil society, which is really the pillar for democracy. This is true of Iran far more than it is for any other country in the Islamic Middle East.

More so than Egypt?

The Egypt of Tahrir was the Iran of 1979, not the Iran of 2009, when the Green Movement emerged. The new youthful, Internet savvy, glued to satellite television generation in Iran is a post-ideological generation, and a post-utopian one.

When I was serving with the UN in Cambodia, one of the Cambodians told me he sent his son to study at Moscow University in the Soviet Union, instead of in Paris, because he wanted to make sure his son didn’t become a communist. He wanted his son to see how the Soviet utopia had failed. The one place in the Middle East where no one wants to install an Islamic Republic is Iran, because the Iranian people know that some kind of Islamic-governed deliverance is an illusion ­– they’ve lived through the instrumentalization of religion to acquire absolute power, and the corruption and human rights abuses that inevitably follow. Iran will move forward via democratization, and the nuclear issue will be solved when that occurs.

But can the international community afford to wait for democratization as domestic repression and/or foreign aggression continue or worsen?

When it comes to international intervention, at the end of the day, there really is no military solution – there is only democratization. We should look at the example of the military juntas in Argentina and Brazil during the 1980s, both of which pursued nuclear programs, both of which were discontinued upon the restoration of democracy. Post-apartheid South Africa also discontinued its nuclear program. So in a sense, soft power is what will determine hard power. Democratization is the only lasting solution, but it cannot be kept to a clear schedule; it is always going to be complex, messy.

How optimistic are you that the democratization process will pick up speed?

I believe that although the regime crushed the Green Movement in 2009, it lost all legitimacy in the process. That was a historic moment – the regime is still reeling and will likely never recover the position it had before 2009.

We now see that even among the hardliners, there are very deep divisions – between the Ahmadinejad clan and the Lurianic clan, for example. Iran today is not an ideological state, it’s a kleptocracy; effectively, it has become a system of gangster capitalism where the real power struggles are about who gets to steal what part of the national wealth. Now that’s not a very glorious system, but it is part of the process of democratization. It is part of the fragmentation of power which precedes political opening. Fragmentation is what ultimately happens both among hardliner elites, as they become disillusioned with the false ideological promises of their leaders and skeptical of their right to hold power, and among the population as a whole, as they realize that they must assume responsibility for holding their leaders accountable. The ingredients are all there in Iran. Long-term stability for Iran, the region, and the world, will not be achieved until these forces are allowed to come to fruition.

In the interim, is there a role for diplomacy?

I think there should always be room for diplomacy and negotiation. I am skeptical about the current regime agreeing to halt its nuclear program, because as I’ve explained, for them it is an existential necessity.

I think there has to be a multilayered approach in dealing with Iran that makes clear to the regime to that it will pay a price for its inappropriate behavior, outside and inside Iran. Until very recently, Iran’s biggest trading partner was the EU. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, more than 200 Iranian dissidents were assassinated in the streets of Berlin and Paris and very rarely was the Iranian government held to account. So the West has been part of the reason why the regime has literally gotten away with murder. Still, there is no magic bullet in dealing with Iran. Greater international accountability can help, but at the end of the day, the Iranian people are the only force that can democratize their own country.

I don’t see any viable option except to deal with Iran at many different levels, and one level will have to be nuclear negotiations, so as to give Iran an exit even if they do not ultimately accept it. There’s nothing to be lost n continuing negotiations, but at the same time, there needs to be an engagement directly with the Iranian people. I think in that light, the new initiative of the Canadian government, the Global Dialogue, is to be welcomed.

Do you think reaching out directly to Iranians is a viable strategy?

Iran has a vibrant civil society for Canada to engage with – look at the women’s movement, the labor movement, the student movement, the human rights movement, the artistic community…. In the West, too often the view of Iran is slanted, sensationalist, and one-dimensional: Iran as Ahmadinejad, the Islamic madman with a bomb. There is not enough understanding of the complexity of Iranian society. That is why no one saw the Green Movement coming, or the Arab Spring for that matter. In 2007, when I was testifying in Washington, the debate was basically binary: either we bomb Iran or we appease Iran. When myself and my colleagues talked about civil society, people ridiculed us. Policy analysts observing from afar very rarely understand the mood on the street. For them, political analysis is about struggles among political elites as opposed to seismic demographic, sociological shifts, which is what is transforming Iran and the wider Middle East.

Just as Europe went through a historic transition, the Middle East is going through its own transition as well, and I believe Iran is the furthest along in that process, in the sense that it is closest to having the sort of secular civil society necessary to create sustainable democratic institutions and cultures.

Is reaching out directly to the Iranian people the only option left to Canada if we want to support the cause of human rights, given the decision to close our embassy?

One can debate whether Canada’s closure of the embassy was a good or a bad thing, but the point is that at the very least, it creates an opportunity because we no longer have diplomats that could become potential hostages in Tehran. I think that it is very good that the Canadian government has not simply closed the embassy and disengaged, but rather is trying to exploit the space in order to engage in a meaningful way.  Direct engagement can help move our understanding of Iran away from the simplistic portrayal of a suicidal, fundamentalist state that is certainly going to use a nuclear weapon as soon as it can, and toward a more sober, realistic one.

Will understanding Iran better make any difference to the severity of human rights violations?

Constant saber rattling and talk of war can only help the regime. The Iranian people are disillusioned, miserable, and angry on account of the regime’s economic mismanagement, corruption and human rights abuses.  The only thing that can save the regime is the perceived threat of war because that is the only way they can legitimize themselves as the leaders of the Iranian nation – as guards against external enemies. It would be very unfortunate if Canada played into that game, and so helped repressive rulers hold on to power longer.

Could a political transition occur in that loosens the grip of Iran’s rulers without leading to widespread human rights violations?

We must do everything possible to avoid a violent transition in Iran, because once you unleash violence—whether through military confrontation, or civil war, the consequences are dire and long lasting. A lot of the killing now being done in Syria is the work of Iranian agents (or of those operating at their behest), and by Iranian-backed Hezbollah agents, which could be some sort of rehearsal for how the regime would respond to a revolution in Iran. So, what we need is for the regime to come to a dead end and realize that if wants to retain any sort of authority, it must liberalize and open up some political space, even if only to a limited degree. Then, during that transitional period, that space must be exploited in order to bring about the further changes required to create a real, sustainable democracy. A sudden collapse of the regime is fraught with unpredictable consequences. The best-case scenario is reform from within, followed by a transitional period that gives rise to democratic elections, not one where the elites feel they must fight to the bitter end in order to hold onto power.

Also in the series

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Human Rights and Historical Amnesia

Kaveh Shahrooz on why it is essential to revisit Iran's painful past to get to a democratic future.
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Nationalism & Human Rights in Iran in Historical Context

Ali Ansari on the historical context of the Iran's push for human rights.

John Baird on Canada’s New Dialogue with Iran

Minister John Baird on Canada's advocacy on the issue of human rights in Iran.
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The Key to Religious Freedom in Iran

Geoffrey Cameron and Robert Joustra on why the rights of Iran's religious minorities won't be respected until those of the majority are as well.
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Why Iranian Women Can't Have Any of It

Gissou Nia on why denying women the right to run for President is only a small part of the regime's apparatus of repression.