Engaging Iran, slowly

Iran now tops the State Department's list of seven terrorist-sponsoring states. After 10 days in Iran – four cities, 60 interviews – I have little doubt that the United States is better off engaging Iran, as it does China, rather than trying to isolate it, as it does Iraq.

Regrettably, it is also clear that President Bush's axis-of-evil speech stopped most Iranian reformers cold. Since that address, the reformers' often valiant struggle (some were in jail, some were shot) for a more liberal Islam suddenly seemed unpatriotic, as Iran expects to be attacked by the US sooner or later.

Although the reformers' support is widely based (they have repeatedly won more than 70 percent of the vote), the mainspring of their support is anticlerical, protesting the long list of dictates the unpopular mullahs have imposed on everything personal – from dating to drinking.

However, I did not find any among the scores of Iranians openly criticizing the hard-liners who did not view themselves as patriotic Iranians. Hence, for now, the reformers feel they must lie low. "We don't want to be seen as weakening our nation when under siege," one of their key leaders told an American visitor.

This is particularly disconcerting as Iran, a non-Arab country, was on its way to becoming easily the most liberal nation in the region. All this requires elaboration.

Iran's most striking feature is its young population; 70 percent of its people are under 30. Most are pushing against the regime imposed by their elders. Women's scarves are receding, especially in the cities, revealing a bit of hair or more. While red lipstick is still considered provocative, many dare to wear brown shades. Some young lovers even hold hands in public. Alcohol is increasingly available, but only in private homes. Social scientists estimate that about half of the young do not show up for prayers or fast during Ramadan. Forbidden Western movies are eagerly exchanged in private.

Until Mr. Bush named Iran as one of only three "evil" nations, the desire of the youth (and quite a few old-timers) for more personal liberty also expressed itself politically. Since 1997, reformers have won the votes of the overwhelming majority of Iranians, in both national and local elections, despite various hurdles thrown their way.

Granted, the hard-liners were not about to surrender even before Bush shored up their position. They responded to the reformers' surge with various constitutional and institutional changes that allow the supreme leader (Ayatollah Ali Khamenei), and the religious Leadership Council to veto or deflect most acts by elected officials. Moreover, while I was in Iran, editors were jailed and newspapers closed. In preceding weeks, an outspoken writer had been shot.

One may ask, if the hard-liners were firmly holding on, why did Bush cause such a setback for reform? Visiting Iran, one cannot avoid noting that the regime has been losing its nerve. The moral police that used to patrol the streets have largely given up. Editors who are jailed are soon released. Closed newspapers are often allowed to quickly reopen under a new name. The clergy are reluctant to wear their distinctive headgear in public.

While there is still what the locals call a "darker side to the regime," it dares not jail reform leaders en masse or go the way of death squads. And there are considerable divisions among the hard-liners that are rarely covered by the Western press.

Iran has a different culture and quality of education, and is more pluralistic than Iraq. (Iranians, as non-Arabs, are proud of their pre-Islamic heritage.) All these factors seem to favor a more liberal society and foreign policy. Such a transformation is further encouraged by the demand for jobs and the need – from the war with Iraq – to repair the infrastructure.

One may say that the Bush administration is not out to liberalize Iranian society but to prevent terrorism and overcome the threat of weapons of mass destruction. Such a notion ignores the point that, unlike Iraq, where Saddam Hussein may well be replaced by another tyrant, if Iran were governed by reformers it would likely moderate its foreign policy. During a meeting I attended, a leading Iranian reformer called for cutting the defense budget to pay for domestic development. For a moment, I thought I was at a meeting of Americans for Democratic Action.

How does one recant a threatening speech? The last thing the US should do is openly realign itself with the reformers; this would be the kiss of death for them. Covert help would be worse, given Iranians' historical sensitivities about the CIA.

The US should engage Iran, as it did China when it was still much more regimented. Washington could lift the sanctions on commerce (on most but not all items), permit investment in Iran, and allow for a freer flow of visitors.

The US should still pressure Iran to cease supporting terrorists or building weapons of mass destruction. If all else fails, we may destroy these weapons one day. But for now, reform should be given a chance, and Iran should be invited to join the nations fighting terrorism.

• Amitai Etzioni is the author of 'The New Golden Rule' and is a University Professor at George Washington University.

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