US/Iran relations: How is the fight for democracy in Iran affected by who becomes the President of the United States?

Some analysts believe that there are no elements of democracyai??i??such as liberalism, individualism, and pluralismai??i??in Iran and that Iranian society could not accept democracy so far without those elements. While these factors are important in a democratic society, Ai??it is important to know that Iranian society also does not accept oppression, the suppression of ideas, self-indulgence, and other aspects of dictatorship. In fact, Iranians have fought against despotism throughout their history.

The history of democracy in Iran began in 1906 when the Iranian constitutionalists pushed the government to accept modernity and democracy. For the first time, the government formed a parliament and recognized the freedom of speech. At that point, civil society was shaped by the establishment of various new non-governmental organizations, such as the Iranian Journalistsai??i?? Union. After going through many conflicts, the 1979 Revolution happened with the resolution of having a democratic government instead of a Shahai??i??s semi-monarchy. At that time, all the opposition groupsai??i??secular, democratic, religious, communist, and the student movementsai??i??formed a coalition under Ayatollah Khomeini’s leadership, who was influential and charismatic as a revolutionary leader. At that time, Khomeini believed that the clergy should not take power as government leaders. He seemed to support democracy. He had emphasized that there should be checks and balances between the leader and the people in the Islamic republic.

However, after the referendum in which the people voted for the Islamic Republic, things changed. Clergy took power in many ways and religious leaders found new positions in the government. The corruption that contributed to the fall of the Shahai??i??s government remade itself once the mullahs came to power. However, the expanding education system and higher literacy decreased the effectiveness of the mullahs since the new generation did not readily accept the mullahsai??i?? rhetoric. Instead, they learned from reading books, newspapers, watching television, and listening to the radio. New technologies such as the internet and satellite receivers transformed the availability of knowledge. This shift weakened the influence of local religious rules and traditional social principles, diminishing the conservative mullahsai??i?? effect on Iranian society. These changing social dynamics have created a suitable time for the development of democracy.

In 1997, when Mohammad Khatami became the president, the new chapter of democratization has begun. He was the first who initiated the ai???Reform Movement.ai??? He achieved distinguished success in two cases. First, with more freedom given to the press, writers, book publishers, and film producers, Iranians were better able to express their liberal ambitions; this helped infuse these democratic thoughts into society and strengthen progressive demands.

Second, the formation of councils and local elections during Khatamiai??i??s term was an important step towards the establishment of democratic institutions in the country. The next step, which in my opinion is critical, is to develop strong political parties. When there are political parties which can mobilize the crowds to obtain their purposes, liberal forces can better line up against authoritarian forces. However, during his eight years in office, Khatami failed to fulfill many of the liberal and democratic plans he had used as slogans, and that failure became a toll on his activities, resulting in the diminishing of his democratic legacy and, influence on the society after he left office.

Amidst it all, United States has worldwide influence, serving as a beacon of freedom and democracy throughout the decades and it has always affected the democratization procedure in Iran. Ai??Next week, in Part II, we will look more closely at examples of this influences and the importance of the current election and its widespread effects on Iranai??i??s struggle for democracy.

The United Statesai??i?? influence on Iran can be seen over the past several decades. In 1953 for instance, following the directions of the Republican president, President Eisenhower, the CIA organized a military coup that overthrew Iranai??i??s democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh. Britain, unhappy that Iran nationalized its oil industry, came up with the idea for the coup and pressured the United States to remove Mossadegh. For years the U.S. denied its involvement in the coup, but in March 2000, then Secretary of State Madeline Albright acknowledged, ai???In 1953 the United States played a significant role in orchestrating the overthrow of Iranai??i??s popular Prime Minister, Mohammed Mossadegh. The Eisenhower Administration believed its actions were justified for strategic reasons, but the coup was clearly a setback for Iranai??i??s political development. And it is easy to see now why many Iranians continue to resent this intervention by America in their internal affairs.ai???

Moreover, in December 2002, U.S. and Iranian envoys worked together at the Bonn conference to establish the first post-Taliban government in Afghanistan. President Khatami’s administration, despite all the enmity the Supreme Leader and hardliners had about the U.S. policies, was pivotal in turning the Afghan opposition into support for the U.S.-backed candidate for president, Hamid Karzai. However, in the years that followed, diplomatic engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan went downhill. Cooperations stopped when President Bush called Iran a part of ai??? axis of evilai??? in his State of the Union Speech on January 29, 2002–four months after 9/11. “Axis of Evil” speech hardened Iranian attitudes toward cooperating with the United States. The administration was censured by observers and some of the inner political elites like the Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright–who called Mr. Bush’s comments “a big mistake.”–for using the word ai???axis,ai??? implying a World War II-style alliance and sounding as if Washington was threatening Iran with war. The criticism distorted how the speech was received, particularly abroad, and gave it a war-mongering cast. This act not only affected Iranian elite but also had an immense impact on peopleai??i??s view concerning the West, especially the United States. In an interview with CNN, Khatami said American policies have “only increased, and will only increase, extremism in our region.”

Khatami himself was criticized for what had happened. Hardliners and Orthodox clergy pressured him to retreat from participating in both foreign and internal policies. This helped open the door to a sustained campaign by judiciary and security forces to shut down the reform movement. They were able to silence intellectuals, professors, and journalists clamoring for a more democratic Iran. The clerical right was well on its way to reassert authority and to prevent any form of reformation. The rightai??i??s campaign gave almost unlimited power to the security apparatus, particularly the Revolutionary Guards and veterans of the Iran-Iraq War, who had become part of a rising counter-elite of political apparatchiks. In the 2004 elections, a new generation of radical revolutionaries won a sizable share of seats in parliament as well as many city and village council elections. By electing Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president, democracy began to regress again.

The president of the United States and his administration have always had, and will continue to have, a great impact on the procedure of democracy in Iran. The right-wing often looks for radical ultra-reactionary policies from abroad to criticize as examples of the West’s power-mongering. Negative language from democratic world leaders can be used persuade the public that diplomacy with the West never works because they are ultimately seeking supremacy and colonization, and thus it is better to suppress reformist doctrines for the greater good of the country. With candidates like Donald Trump, history will probably echo itself in the region and heighten tensions again; conservatives will find the pretext to insert more pressure on Reformists to retreat, similar to what occurred in President Khatamiai??i??s administration. For instance, Trumpai??i??s views about banning Muslimsai??i?? entrance into the U.S. and renegotiating an annexed agreement with Iran have already provoked some hardliners in Iran. According to Al-Monitor’s Arash Karami, who tracks Iranian media, Hossein Shariatmadari, editor of the hardline Kayhan newspaper and a leading voice among Iran’s hardliner camp, recently commented on Trump’s views of the deal, “The wisest plan of crazy Trump is tearing up the nuclear deal.” He said the agreement has caused nothing but “damages, humiliation, and deception.” Ai??In response, the reformist newspaper Arman Daily, bit back in a front-page news story titled “What Shariatmadari and Trump have in common,” stating that Trump’s position was the source of happiness for Iranian hardliners, as it provided them more evidence of the Westai??i??s self-absorption and gave the right wing a pretext to show people that diplomacy never works with them.

On the other hand, in my opinion, if candidates like Bernie Sanders who want to preserve democratic and social values become president, not only might relations between Iran and the U.S. begin to normalize, but the whole region may begin to stabilize. In the 3rd democratic debate, Bernie Sanders pointed out, ai???[United States] did get rid of a terrible dictator named Gadhafi. But what happened is a political vacuum developed. ISIS came in, and now occupies significant territory in Libya, and is now prepared, unless we stop them, to have a terrorist foothold. But this is nothing new. This has gone on 50 or 60 years where the United States has been involved in overthrowing governments. Mossadegh back in 1953. Nobody knows who Mossadegh was, democratically-elected prime minister of Iran. He was overthrown by British and American interests because he threatened oil interests of the British. And as a result of that, the Shah of Iran came in, terrible dictator. The result of that, you had the Iranian Revolution coming in, and that is where we are today. Unintended consequences.ai???

For any new U.S. President, it is important to think about the unintended consequences their words or actions might have on other nations. The U.S. stands as a representative of democracy to the world, and our interactions with other countries can have a far-reaching effect on their view, and acceptance, of democratic principles. Candidates who exercise understanding and amicability in their foreign diplomatic policies will provide a less disruptive environment in the region. As a result, Iranian intellectuals will have a more expansive atmosphere with less tension and oppression from the hardliners scrutinizing the government, which will lead to more democratic activities through the social cognition.

The history of Iran shows that Iranian people are open to democracy but also pessimistic about U.S. foreign policies. For democracy in Iran to thrive, priority should be given to solving problems diplomatically and through peaceful negotiations–by both the future United States President and by the President of Iran.

By Shervin Abachi

 

 

 

 

Sources:

RealClearPolitics, Bernie Sanders on Foreign Policy:
As President, I Will Think Of The Unintended Consequences (February 2016)
The Iran Primer:
http://iranprimer.usip.org/resource/iran-and-democracy
http://iranprimer.usip.org/resource/engaging-iran
U.S. Department of State: Iran: Centennial Anniversary of the Constitutional Revolution
http://2001-2009.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2006/70005.htm
Gozaar: Khatami and the Growth of Democracy in Iran
http://www.gozaar.org/english/interview-en/Khatami-and-the-Growth-of-Democracy-in-Iran.html
Are Iranian hard-liners backing Trump?
http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2016/04/iran-newspapers-nuclear-deal-trump-shariatmadari.html#

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