Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Iran: Convoluted US Foreign Policy

The movement against the Islamic government in Iran has been heating up but the United States and other Western democracies are not willing or are hesitant to step up to the occasion.  President Obama in his recent statement said, “… the United States joins with the International community in strongly condemning the violent and unjust suppression of innocent Iranian citizens …” referring to the street demonstrations and unrest in Iran.  But that is the extent the United States and other Western democracies are willing to engage as far as the human and democratic rights of the Iranian people are concerned.  Even these types of statements are few and far between.  The Islamic regime in Iran considers the suppression of the civil rights of the Iranian people as an internal affair. Condemnation of these violations when public attentions are focused on them, while these condemnations are not part of the policy agenda, is a strong indication that Mr. Obama’s administration tacitly agrees with this claim of the regime in Iran.

The centerpiece of President Obama’s policy has been constructive engagement with the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI), preferably through negotiations – focusing on the issue of nuclear proliferation that the IRI is accused of – while threatening Mr. Ahmadinejad’s government with further sanctions if he fails to step forward and engage.

President Obama’s policy is to accept the Islamic autocracy as the legitimate government; represented by Mr. Ahmadinejad through the recent election.  The thrust of his policy differentiation is that the IRI has been mishandled by the previous administration, and a little negotiation could open up the path to a constructive engagement.

At best the US policy toward Iran is a convoluted one, with few points of distinction from the previous administration.  If you step outside the halls of power where these views are developed, this policy confuses the hell out of everybody else.

Why is the nuclear issue with Iran the centerpiece of the foreign policy and not the civil rights of the Iranian people?  The answer so far by all the previous administrations including the present one has been that the Islamic government of Iran is based on extremist forces which are a threat to the democratic world and a destabilizing force in the region.  As such a nuclear Iran cannot be tolerated and needs to be confronted head on.

Here is the problem.  Confronting Iran with the nuclear issue as the axis of the foreign policy gives an excuse to the Islamic regime to portray itself as the guardian of the national sovereignty and split the reformist movement.  Any sanctions and pressures by the west imposed on this basis will only play into the hands of the extremists to justify their failures by pointing to the west.  The issue of civil rights in Iran being subordinate to the policy of nuclear containment tends to confuse the people of the democratic world while they are watching all the developments in the streets of Iran.

It is true that the government of Iran is an extremist, theocratic government and it is dangerous.  But what is the basis of this extremism?  It is primarily a danger to its citizens’ civil rights and its extremism is in its practices, a violation of the civil rights of the Iranian people, women rights, political rights and freedom of religion, disguised as custom and tradition.  The outward extremism, its word mongering toward democratic societies, is just a cover for that internal extremism.  An Iran that respects the civil rights of its citizens will not be an extremist country; a democratic Iran should and could enjoy the unhindered benefits of nuclear development and research as any other democratic country.  There is a saying in Iran, “why then are we blowing the bugle from the wide end”.

It seems reasonable that the US foreign policy should be based on seeking the remedy to the violations of the civil rights of the Iranian people.  These are hard fought principles that are the cornerstone of the civil world and are also part of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights ratified by the UN and obligatory on its members.  These violations that are documented every day are not merely the internal affairs of this autocratic regime.  As such these violations are adequate to identify the theocratic government of Iran as illegitimate, irrespective of how many votes it has counted on its behalf.

This does not take the nuclear issue off the table or reduce the threat of the Islamic government to the world security but changes the priority of the requirements.  Integration of the government of Iran into the world bodies and enjoyment of its benefits should be tantamount to its progress on the issue of the civil rights in Iran.  This does not tie the hands of the US to respond to any threats coming from Iran whether nuclear or otherwise.  This will only unify and strengthen the democratic forces around the world including the progressive forces in Iran.  The leaders of the democratic world have been talking about the nuclear issue every day and about the civil rights on special occasions.  The threat of nuclear Iran is contained more effectively and will be reversed if they talk about the violations of the civil rights of the Iranian people every day and insist on the need for the international observers on the ground in Iran to verify the government of Iran’s progress on these vital principles.  Obviously the nuclear issue could be pursued vigorously and in a more clear and transparent political context.

The continuous resistance to the theocratic practices of the government of Iran has pushed aside its pretenses of custom and religious traditions.  Custom and religious traditions are voluntary matters that should be respected for each individual to practice freely.  Once it enters into the domain of governmental compulsion it is no longer custom or tradition but naked violation of the civil rights of the citizens despite its appearances or the number of people that the autocracy could rally in its support.

What will happen to the US policy toward more conservative societies such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt or Jordan which are allies of the United States?  Protection of civil rights as the axis of US policy toward Iran does not have to change the policy toward the other Middle Eastern countries.  On the contrary it will provide a clearer context on how they could deal with their own extremist contenders and be more inclusive of the progressive forces.

A clear policy toward Iran will expose the government of Iran as a predatory regime compared to Saudi Arabia.  How is that possible?  Iran has elections and Saudi Arabia does not; women in Iran can drive cars and do not have to cover themselves as much as women in Saudi Arabia; more than 50% of university students in Iran are women, Saudi Arabia does not come anywhere close to it; women are engaged in lots of professions same as men, again a far cry from Saudi society; more books and papers are published in Iran than Saudi Arabia.  Based on these raw statistics maybe we should sanctify the regime in Iran and vilify the Saudis.  I am not a fan of the Saudi regime and its slow incremental approach to social progress, but the issue is the direction of the movement and its social potential.  In case of Iran, the women’s social engagements, their positions and the demand for broader political openness is due to a richer historical background, from constitutional movements of early 20th century through more western oriented Pahlavi regimes and paradoxically also due to the movements against Pahlavi regime.  The theocratic regime in Iran has tried consistently to push back all progressive movements in women’s rights, individual and political rights, and freedom of religion; one can go on and on.  In Iran it is the social and cultural progress in motion which the regime is trying to stamp out.  In Saudi Arabia the regime corrupt as it is, incrementally is implementing reforms against a backdrop of extreme backward and conservative social and cultural tapestry.   The principal adversaries of the Islamic Republic are the progressives, while the serious adversaries of the Saudi Regime are mainly the Osama Bin Laden types.  Clarity of principles in the US policy will only create transparency and repels the distorted comparisons between different regimes and countries in the Middle East.

President Bush saw the democratic opening in the Islamic world through the Invasion of Iraq.  The lack of any clear progressive social movements in Iraq, the long term US occupation has been a contributing factor, has dampened that prospect.  Meanwhile the movements in Iran are telling us that the spearhead of social progress in the Islamic world has been somewhere else – right in front of our noses since the 1979 revolution.  It was only hibernating because of the 8 year Iraq-Iran war and weariness thereafter.  Are we going to miss this opening once more with political blunders?

1 comment:

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