Middle East

Youth Views

Understanding Iran

Iranian journalists of newly published reformist daily, Rouzegar (Times) work at the editorial of their newspaper as a copy of it's first issue is seen on the table. The Iranian press enjoyed some freedom under the previous reformist government of Mohammad Khatami from 1997-2005, but even then the hardline judiciary shut down scores of titles and detained dozens of journalists. (Photo: Behrouz Mehri / AFP-Getty Images)

The latest standoff between the United States and Iran over the country’s nuclear program highlights how estranged the two countries have become in recent decades. From an American point of view, the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iranian state could dramatically change the balance of power in the Middle East and lead to a decline in its own influence in the region. On the other hand, for most Iranians the pursuit of nuclear technology for both civilian and military applications represents a national right directly linked to the country’s growing economic needs as well as the desire to protect itself in an increasingly hostile international climate.

The current standoff leaves very little room for diplomatic maneuvering as both governments seem equally adamant not to compromise. The stakes are high as a conflict with Iran could potentially have serious implications not just for global oil prices but also for the stability of the wider Middle East region. In this respect, understanding the complexities and internal dynamics of Iranian society — a country routinely vilified in the American media, which never shows more of it than scowling mullahs and women covered in the amorphous chador chanting anti-American slogans — is essential to formulating any effective U.S. policy in the Middle East.

Washington and Tehran have always had a complex and tumultuous relationship, but there was a time when their relations were not so strained. It is worth remembering that less than three decades ago, Iran was the United States’s leading ally in the Middle East and was viewed as a force for stability and economic modernization in the region. All that dramatically changed in 1979, when the populist Islamic revolution overthrew the government of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, ending three thousand years of Persian monarchy and ushering in the first Islamist theological government of modern times, headed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The U.S. government’s longstanding support of the Shah in spite of his appalling human rights record and anti-democratic style of government had led to widespread resentment of U.S. policies by many Iranians.

After the Iranian revolution of 1979, the United States imposed three decades of economic and political isolation on Iran. The unwillingness of successive American governments to engage with the Iranian regime has come at a substantial price, which includes the election of the hard-line candidate, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as President.

The failure of the reformist government of former president Khatami to deliver on its political and economic pledges undoubtedly played a major role in swinging popular support in favour of Ahmadinejad. His rise to power on an explicitly populist and nationalist campaign coincided with renewed U.S. pressures for Iran to curb its nuclear program and open it up to international inspections. Moreover, over time the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, and Iraq has led many in the Iranian establishment to suspect the United States of pursuing a policy of military encirclement, and mounting international pressure against Iran’s nuclear program has helped bolster Ahmadinejad’s political support at home. The President has used every opportunity to portray himself as an Iranian and Muslim nationalist fending off American aggression, a stance that has won him popular support not just among Iranians but also in the wider Muslim world.

Iran’s growing regional strength was most vividly demonstrated this summer when its long time proxy, the Lebanese militia and political party Hezbollah, managed to secure a major political victory in the face of a sustained Israeli military campaign aimed at wiping out the group. Israel’s military offensive resulted in scores of Lebanese civilian deaths and immense damage to the country’s infrastructure, but Hezbollah itself has remained intact. The Iranian regime also has close ties to the Shi‘a-dominated government in Iraq — many of whose members were in exile in Iran during the worst days of Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical rule — as well as the recently elected Hamas government in the Palestinian territories. For many analysts, Iran’s most potent weapon of mass destruction is its ability to use terror to undermine the region’s stability and increase tensions between Israel and its neighbours.

Yet modern Iran is a society of many fascinating contradictions. It is the first country in the region to have an Islamic revolution but is also the country with the oldest home-grown struggle for a constitutionally-based government, with roots that extend back to 1911. The Islamic revolution of 1979 mandated that women wear veils in public, yet Iranian women are among the most highly educated in the Middle East. It is estimated that well over half of university students in Iran are female. And, despite certain institutional restrictions, they take part in almost every aspect of public life, and can even be elected to Iran’s parliament.

To be sure, the present Iranian regime continues to violate human rights, such as freedom of expression and association. Independent newspapers are routinely closed down, and political dissidents are frequently jailed for voicing criticisms of the government. U.S. policy towards Iran must precariously balance the need for creating incentives for the Iranian regime to enter into a serious dialogue over its nuclear program while at the same time not appearing to be appeasing the Iranian regime.

Fostering relations between American and Iranian civil society through renewed educational and cultural exchanges is one important step in the right direction. In the long run, U.S. interests are best served by those Iranians who are genuinely struggling for political reform in their own country and for better relations with the West. Taking a confrontational position against Iran with the implicit threat of possible military action will only further exacerbate already inflamed Muslim sentiment against the United States and embolden the hard-line elements with the Iranian polity. The time for Americans and Iranians to talk is now.

Rehan Rafay Jamil is a senior at Oberlin College where he is majoring in History and Politics. This article was originally published by the Common Ground News Service.