“Since the major student riots of 1999, disturbances have frequently spilled out of the campuses and on to the streets. Especially in June 2003, which saw ten days of nightly violent clashes between those seeking greater freedoms and the Basij (mullah-backed militia). American officials, including President George W. Bush , voiced their support for the protesters, but this only allowed the regime’s hardliners to dismiss the demonstrators and hooligans and the affluent remnants of the monarchy, dancing to the tune of their masters in Washington…It remains to be seen how long a small group of ageing clerics can impose their desire fir an Islamic state on a society in which the majority of people are under 30 and have no memory of the Revolution of any appetite for its ideals.” Nasrin Alavi We Are Iran: The Persian Blogs p. 139
The emerging global debate over the Iranian nuclear programme has revealed the vacuum of western policy towards Iran. Fareed Zakaria’s highly useful piece in Newsweek (January 30th) argues persuasively that many boats have been missed and that the tactics required for minimizing the threats of a nuclear Iran require different approaches than the approaches rehashed from the current foreign policy menu. David Brooks’ piece in the New York Times of January 22nd 2006 argues perceptively that there are four current positions on Iran, none of them satisfactory: pre-emptionists (who would use military force to preempt an Iranian nuclear capacity) , sanctionists (who would attempt to deter Iranian militarism through sanctions) , reformists (who will wait for a better regime in Iran) and silent fatalists (who acknowledge the limited options of an overextended “west” in dealing with the new situation in Iran. There is a possible fifth position, radical pro-democrats, attempting to assist the development of a next-generation cyber-democracy, concerned with the type of regime that exists in Iran and adjusting short term tactics to achieving these objectives. The fifth option obviously requires a careful calibration of designing incentives and deterrents and then constructing international coalitions, but we are on an accelerated learning curve in this global cosmopolitan world. Iran will be a critical test of the global rule of law coalition.
The role of Canadian foreign policy in promoting democracy in a new Persia is complex. It is obviously caught in the same labyrinth of competing stratagems and philosophies that underlie the approach of other western democracies. As Canadians, we can overstate our potential influence, the role of soft power, the promotion of Farsi-language film makers at the Montreal Film Festivals, the ties between Canadian and Iranian technologists at Canadian universities, the Canadian track record of supporting dissidents and democrats from Mandela to Havel when that wasn’t the orthodoxy of “realpolitik” foreign policy. But we can also underestimate the role and impact of global cosmopolitanism in backing sustainable democracies in key parts of the world.
The politics of contemporary Iran is particularly complicated because Persia has played such a unique role in the last half century of world history. It is a great power that has been locked in an ideological backwater since 1979. The poisoning ideology of that revolution has contaminated the Iranian political culture. The harassment by Iraq since 1980 has further contaminated the culture and this created a new reality with which we must now deal. The global pro-democracy community is now dealing in Iran with the result of these many political wounds that have become infected. The global pro-democracy movement cannot succeed without leveraging the current multilateral international efforts on Iran’s compliance with nuclear controls. Conversely, the agenda of ensuring a peaceful role for Iran in the global community cannot succeed without sensitivity to the impact these negotiations are having on Iranian democracy. In the short term, inclusion of Iran into a multi-power structure to manage the nuclear issue is one way to help empower globally-oriented members of the Iranian political community. But in the long term, the only way to allay the understandable global concerns about the Iranian nuclear programme is to nurture the development of a stable democratic Iran. The tactics are as we all know, tricky. We are forever unraveling the tangled cord of 19th Century imperial histories and 20th Century Cold War “realpolitik” foreign policies.
Let us start by trying to untangle these cords. The western democracies missed opportunities to back Iranian dissidents in the 1970s and 1990s. Any future Canadian role has to deal with the challenges of creating and earning credibility for western democracies in the Farsi-speaking world. As in other parts of the world, our own expectations have to be calibrated to be bold but to stay within the parameters of the possible. Canadians and pro-democracy movement are all too aware of how difficult it has been to back democratic movements even in Burma, a country where the geostrategic complexities do not include the specter of nuclear proliferation or in apartheid South Africa where it took a long time to come around despite the current global celebration of the triumph of democracy there. So even with realistically calibrated expectations, what can Canada do about the pursuit of Persian democracy and the development of a role for a new Iran on the world stage? The answer is that we can start to lay foundations, learning from the successes of the African National Congress and the Polish Solidarity movement.
Iran could be a success story like post-Ataturk Turkey, Korea, and Japan after 1945, or it could turn out to be like Germany after 1918. Iran is one of the countries where there is a great debt owed by the west, where we have failed in the past to promote the cause of Iranian democracy. Western democrats failed to advocate the cause of democracy effectively under Mossadegh, even as we helped Persians resist Stalin. More recently, western democracies failed to understand the implausibility of the Shah’s regime, failed to find a point of leverage to back the democratic elements in 1979 and allowed the secular Bani-Sadr and Bazarghan coalitions to dissolve into exile and political weakness. Above all, we failed to recognize the huge impact and trauma of the Iran-Iraq war and the, at minimum, negligence of the global community in that period. This in no way exonerates the extremism of the current regime. Nor does it in any way understate the dangers represented by such an extremist rogue regime. However, it does speak to the tactics required to empower courageous and visionary Iranian democrats and lead to the successful democratization of Iran.
The political challenge for proponents of rule of law in the global community is one which requires an effort to find an Archimedean point to back democratic forces in Iran. In Somalia, an enforced rule-of-law could contribute to a progressive outcome and dictates the pro-democratic strategy. In Sri Lanka, an enforced peace and a negotiation between groups who are disarmed may produce a Northern Ireland type of best possible outcome and this dictates the pro-democratic strategy. Iran presents a different challenge.
So, how does Canadian foreign policy play a role in influencing the direction of a democratic Iran? Our role is to back the progressive social forces in Iran, the globally-oriented progressive democrats without discrediting them by having our backing. Our hope is to help them invent a vibrantly democratic Iran, governed by rule-of-law, becoming at minimum a Malaysia or South Korea in the global economy as it organizes its intellectual capital and takes a constructive role in the new global geopolitics. Here are seven potential contributions that Canadian foreign policy could make:
(b) To strengthen the hand of Persian reformers, western democracies have to admit they were wrong in failing to back previous democratic movements: Apologies are an invitation to an endless and counterproductive reopening of history. (“We ask the French to apologize for the Norman invasion” is the ultimate in the inappropriate use of history). Apologies must not be allowed to become a blank cheque for political extortionists or apologists for neofascism. Nevertheless, the treatment of Iran in the global community between 1953 and 1979 and, in different ways, between 1979 and 2005 reveals a failure western democrats should acknowledge. We collectively acknowledged how Cold War geopolitical strategies contributed to the toleration of the apartheid regime in South Africa in the process of rehabilitating the “communist” and “terrorist” Mandela. How else do we communicate to the 25-year olds in the Persian street that we “get it”?
(c) The Canadian role in creating a global petro-economy which emphasizes productive reinvestment strengthens the hands of democratic reforms in Iran: We have to use our potential global role in petro-diplomacy and energy diplomacy to include Iran in a collaborative discussion of post-OPEC oil diplomacy. This might be an informal exercise involving Iranian academics and bureaucrats along with Chinese and Indian investors and investor analysts and led by Canadians suddenly self-conscious of the fact that we are the world’s leading energy superpower. As Canada assumes its role as one of the world’s leading energy superpowers, we can develop more strategies to include Iranian democrats in the management of a new global economy programmed to facilitate the development of an entrepreneur-led sustainable prosperity. The more we create multilateral frameworks for deciding issues about global energy consumption and production, the more we encourage and support Iranians with the skills and ambitions to participate in such frameworks. This is reminiscent of the discussion about supporting young South Africans in the 1980s.
(d) Canadians can facilitate investment in new public capital markets, like the Tehran stock exchange, which leads to increased pressure for transparency and increased involvement of new capital markets in Canadian projects: Canada’s foreign economic policy can be more involved in creating a multilateral framework for South-South economic transactions that create growth and operate within the rules of a transparent and rule-of-law inspired economic framework. The negotiations that are part of the WTO process and in which Canada has long enjoyed its avenues of multilateralism become suddenly relevant in a world where Chinese investment in Syria, Malaysian investment in South Africa, Korean investment in Uzbekistan and Indian investment in southeast Asia becomes one of the drivers of the new pattern of economic growth. German involvement in the Tehran stock exchange has been a significant new phenomenon in the construction of a globalized and globalizing Iranian economy. The more accountable and well-regulated cross-investment takes place, the easier it will be to create a constituency of support for democratization. As more Iranians participate in this process, the consensus for integration in the global economy will grow deeper.
(e) The Canadian support for human rights means that while we are backing the democrats in the new Persia, we have to create an equivalent of the Helsinki protocol to monitor repressive activities in the realities of the present tense: We could create the equivalent of the Helsinki protocol for Iran, working with Amnesty International, Transparency International and over like-minded governments without an imperial history to create a data base of political prisoners and violations in the standards of rule of law in Iran. Sunlight is a disinfectant and simply making the world more aware of events in Iran creates one of the preconditions of a successful democratization process, while western support is at best a double-edged sword, it can be used to empower individuals as the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the human rights activist, Shirin Ebadi demonstrates. We do not have the equivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize in terms of publicity but in the age of the internet, this kind of focused activity has enormous potential to illuminate and disinfect.
(f) Even though we have had trouble figuring out how a G-8 becomes a G-12 or how an L-20 becomes relevant, there is a role for an international grouping to manage nuclear proliferation, the nuclear powers plus Iran. How do we maintain the principle of nuclear non-proliferation now that the global community has accepted the Pakistani and Indian nuclear programmes? How does the New Delhi-Beijing-Moscow role in shaping global policy affect pro-democracy agendas in Iran? The advantage of pursuing such a strategy, similar to the six-power negotiations in the Koreas is that it provides an incentive for responsible Iranian participation and it recognizes the need of having China, India, Pakistan and Russia in a new collaborative framework. It gives Iran a chance to participate, without necessarily having to acquire nuclear capabilities. It also gives internationally-oriented Iranians a podium from which to participate in the international management of nuclear proliferation. Canada’s role in the G-8 provides a standing to help facilitate this.
(g) The Iranian world of today is filled with a dynamic emerging cyberdemocracy, well documented in the western press. Like the samizdat of Soviet Russia, it creates a framework for a new regime philosophy. In the short term, the Persian diaspora has to be assisted in backing these positive forces. The role of a democratic foreign policy is to ensure that these forces are known, celebrated and backed. Contributing to the growth of a Farsi-language new media network is an exciting potential role for Canadian foreign policy. As we know from the experience of Ukraine and Lebanon, the role of new media in facilitating the emergence of democratic thought is something which government bureaucracies continue to underestimate. (Some Iran-oriented web-sites are listed below).
These are obviously small steps. But they do point in the right directions and they do leverage our advantages. They are the first steps in using Canadian foreign policy to empower Iranian democrats and in starting to play a role in the Dubai to Singapore world where the tides of global economic history are shifting. Our moral principles and our economic self-interest point in the same direction. It is imperative that we do not miss this opportunity as we have missed so many others in the past fifteen years.
Useful web-links on Iran include:
Also, it is strongly recommended to read the work of Ray Takeyh at the Council of Foreign Relations, accessible on-line at http://www.cfr.org/bios/bio.html?id=9599
Zakaria on Iran (January 23rd Newsweek) http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/10966808/site/newsweek/
David Brooks (January 22nd, 2006) www.nytimes.com (by subscription)