Democracy promotion in the national interest
Over at the National Interest, Nader Hashemi puts the call out for a US Iran policy centered on democracy promotion. I doubt it’ll get much attention, even from among the Iran policy community. That’s because there’s just too much else to talk about in the here-and-now to focus on very long term structural issues. (Ask the Saudi Ambassador to the US what he thinks about prospects for democracy in Iran…). Still, I’m glad it was written, if for no other reason than to provide fodder for conversation that isn’t: “Can we contain Iran?”
Overall, Hashemi, who co-edited the definitive book on the Green Movement protests, strikes a great balance here. He says the US should support democracy but in the sort of way you’d take care of a baby bird that falls out of its nest: you don’t want to get too hands-on or it’ll be rejected by its friends and family (or something like that. The crappy metaphor is mine, not the author’s). Hashemi boils it down to this much more artful suggestion:
[US democracy promotion] should be designed in a manner that does not violate the preferences of Iran’s courageous democratic opposition.
That’s about as good a suggestion for democracy promotion as I’ve seen, and need not be limited to the Iranian case. On the whole, I think the Obama administration has been pretty good about abiding by this rule throughout most of the Arab Spring.
That said, there are a couple of things in Hashemi’s article that are really troubling. First, there is simply no evidence to support the view that
After a democratic transition Iranian nuclear policy will substantially shift under new leadership.
In order to declare such a statement without supporting evidence, one must have some pretty flawed assumptions about the current regime in Tehran, the likely rulers of a democratic Iran, or both.
Secondly, although Dr. Hashemi is right to characterize Iran in recent months as increasing repression, stifling speech, jailing journalists, empowering the security services, and retrenching conservative hardliners, I could not comprehend how, based on those trends, he arrived at the conclusion that “the prospects for democracy in Iran look good over the long term.”
Perhaps I am not thinking in sufficiently long terms, but I believe the Islamic Republic since the violent clampdown after the 2009 election has lent considerable support to the thesis that authoritarian regimes are highly durable. It seems to me that coming to that conclusion based on what looks like an exceedingly negative situation for democracy on the ground in Iran skips some pretty important analytical steps.
Of course, it’s easy to engage in wishful thinking when it comes to a topic like democratization in Iran. We’ve all done it. But this article — which could have been a really useful catalyst for some fresh thinking in Washington — falls largely into that category.