June 2, 2007


Making Iran our friend: Abandoning our stated goal of regime change could bring about the reforms in Tehran the U.S. has always wanted (Reza Aslan, June 2, 2007, LA Times)

The great irony, of course, is that abandoning regime change in Iran is the surest way to ensure the regime's collapse. This is because, contrary to widespread perception, Iran is already a democracy. It's just not a very successful one.

Unlike most other countries in the Middle East, Iran has a long and deeply embedded democratic tradition that goes back more than a century. The country boasts what is arguably the most robust political culture in the Muslim world. Since 1980, Iran has held more than 20 elections — all of them freer and fairer than those of any of America's Arab allies — that have drawn 60% to 80% of the electorate to the polls. Despite harsh restrictions on who may run for office, Iran's elections offer lively political campaigns and raucous debates between contrasting candidates who do not shy away from any topic of concern.

Iran also boasts one of the most energetic civil societies in the region, with diverse political action groups, a fearless press and dozens of active student organizations that repeatedly stage strikes and sit-ins in defiance of the government. Thousands of Iranian nongovernmental organizations work to foster ethnic, legal and, most especially, women's rights. Iranian women now hold 60% of the college degrees in the country and enjoy literacy rates approaching 90%.

True, all of these civil organizations and democratic movements labor under the autocratic rule of an unelected shadow government. But when I talk to Iranians about their problems, few cite the restrictions on their freedom posed by the Islamic republic. Rather, their primary complaint is the country's stagnant economy. Nearly a third of the population is unemployed, almost 40% live in poverty and the annual rate of inflation is 24%, so few Iranians have the means to translate their sophisticated political activism into meaningful democratic reform.

If the U.S. engaged Iran the way it engages other "autocratic democracies" in Latin America, Eastern Europe and the former Soviet bloc, that would do far more to encourage democratic change than anything tried so far. The lesson to be learned from America's misadventure in Iraq is that democracy cannot be promoted from the top down; it must be reared from within.

Iran already has the civil and democratic infrastructure necessary for dramatic sociopolitical change. But these institutions can only exert themselves if Iranians are allowed to emerge from their forced political and economic isolation.

A not surprisingly sound analysis of Iran, but blind to the fact that Iraq too is a democracy (even if we "imposed" it).

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 2, 2007 7:25 AM

Ah yes, that a most peculiar institution....

Posted by: Barry Meislin at June 3, 2007 3:30 AM