Iranian reform dying in crossfire

February 10, 2006

With its War on Terror, the US undermines a budding democracy that could stabilise the Middle East, argues Elaheh Koolaee

Like most people around the world, Iranians anxiously watched television images of the horrible attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001. We, too, had suffered great pain from terrorism over the past two decades. From the Iranian viewpoint, the tragedy revealed the disappointment and anger of its perpetrators. But we could see no justifiable link between the attacks and our Islamic values of loving all the people of the world. September 11 was for many of us a product of the lack of balance between developed and underdeveloped countries, a tragic episode that showed the necessity of finding a solution to the world's unjust economic political relationships.

September 11 also presented an opportunity to revise that system. The attacks changed the international atmosphere. Iran played an influential role in the war against the Taleban regime in Afghanistan.

Nevertheless, US President George W. Bush still named my country as a part of his "axis of evil".

His words had a negative impact on Iranian reformists who had been trying to improve relationships between the two countries. Scholars such as Samuel Huntington have acknowledged that Iran is in some sense an electoral democracy and that "in the Persian Gulf, the most democratic government is the greatest antagonist of the US".

The election of Mohammad Khatami as President of Iran in 1997, with support from the Islamic Left, had promised a profound transformation in relations with the West. It focused on the necessity of co-operation instead of confrontation, on dialogue instead of conflict. Khatami's first term produced many changes in attitude among the Iranian people, including an acceptance of diversity of opinion, a willingness to recognise reality and an erosion in the cult of personality. But conservative forces bided their time during Khatami's presidency, waiting for the conditions in which they might regain power.

The US War on Terror provided them that opportunity. It has destroyed the infrastructure of democracy in the Middle East, in particular in Iran. For many Iranians, the War on Terror is just a new way to consolidate US hegemony, a means to find a new enemy to fill the void left by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Some more optimistic Iranians accept the claims of the US officials. In fact, many Iranians believe the US could play a positive role if it worked to expand democracy throughout the Middle East.

But in recent years, Iran has been seriously damaged by internal and external unrest. State-building and democratisation is a difficult task in developing countries. The Iranian people simply want to raise their standards of living while retaining their values and ideals. In these conditions, authoritarian tendencies have been able to prevail and multiply. The conservatives have returned to power.

Now, even as the War on Terror gains pace, the US Government has been accelerating its efforts to get the full endorsement of the International Atomic Energy Agency and the United Nations Security Council against Iran's nuclear programme. The American neoconservatives have focused on the threat that so-called rogue states might pose if they gained the ability to make weapons of mass destruction. But is Iran's nuclear programme really a threat to world peace?

The programme should be considered in its regional and historical context.

Like all oppressed people in Third World countries, Iranians want to be genuinely independent. And as we strive towards that goal, the achievements of our scientists are very precious to us. At the same time, recent attempts by Iranian officials to manufacture long-range ballistic missiles are more a gesture of national prestige than a real threat to any other country.

Western nations would be better off pursuing a policy of respect towards Iran rather than increasing sanctions, a strategy that may be ineffective and may even worsen the situation. Putting pressure on Iran in this way only further spreads waves of instability across the region.

From the US view, war is now a legitimate instrument of policy with which to attempt to maintain security. The effect, however, is not the one intended: war does more to promote insecurity on a global scale. In fact, the more the US relies on military solutions to Middle East problems, the greater the resistance to the US presence in the region will grow.

It is vital to consider the anxiety generated by Iran's historical experience and its people's perception of the West, especially given the US's role in supporting the Shah's regime. Iran can play a constructive role in this very troubled part of the world. Isolating us will not help spread democracy, peace and stability. That is true not just for the people of the Middle East but for everyone around the world.

Elaheh Koolaee is associate professor in the faculty of law and political science at the University of Tehran and a former reformist MP.

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