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Time for Stronger Words about Iran

GB Geo-Blog

Time for Stronger Words about Iran

More than anywhere else, the future of the Middle East will be decided in Iran. This dynamic and resource-rich society sits astride Iraq, Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Caspian Sea, and the Persian Gulf. Iran also wields crucial influence over various non-state actors, particularly Hezbollah in Lebanon. The government in Tehran is pursuing what everyone recognizes as a nuclear weapons program that involves both uranium enrichment and ballistic missile development.

In the summer of 2009 students, reformers, and even established political figures throughout Iran voiced their strong and courageous disapproval of the repressive and belligerent policies pursued by the government. They voted in large numbers for nationalist reformers and they took to the streets when their votes were denied. Since then public discontent has remained palpable in Iranian society — as witnessed in Twitter videos sent abroad and the continued crackdowns by government leaders. In recent weeks, the Tehran government has incarcerated numerous journalists, lawyers, and activists, as well as their families, on manufactured charges of treason against the regime.

The Islamist Revolution of 1978-79 in Iran has failed and everyone knows it, including the mullahs who continue to run the country. They cling to power today by exaggerating threats about enemies at home and abroad. Of course, Iranians have reason to fear the expanded American presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, but more belligerence and repression only contributes to a spiral of increased conflict. President Barack Obama has made many overtures to the Iranian leadership, and it is time that the international community strongly condemn the regime’s continued stonewalling.

The people of Iran need to know that the international community cares about their plight and wishes to support their efforts at reform. The people of Iran need to know that the international community will work toward reforms that will increase the country’s security if it does the same for its neighbors. The people of Iran need more encouragement in their efforts to change their society from within. A new more democratic and peaceful Middle East must come from within the nations of the region, but it needs more support from external actors, especially the United States and Western Europe. Constructive political change, not continued war, is the only route to a more secure future for Iran and its neighbors.

The opinions expressed in this blog are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of either Global Brief or the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs.


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  1. Ryosuke Shibuya February 11, 2010

    Dear Professor Suri,

    First of all, congratulations on your contribution to this fascinating blog. As a former student of yours, I continue to be inspired by your boundless energy and keen intelligence on various issues.

    In regards to your above comment, I could not agree with you more that the future of the Middle East will be decided by Iran. A more peaceful and democratic Middle East must only come from the nations within the region and Iran, in my opinion, has the best potential to bring the lasting stability to the region. I also agree that the international community must stand firm with the people of Iran to call for more serious reforms and support their wishes to change Iran from within.

    That said what concerns me the most in regards to America’s policy towards Iran is the fact that Washington has not found a comprehensive strategy that supports the people of Iran while allowing Washington to bring more pressure to the current Iranian regime simultaneously. We all know that Washington cannot afford to allow the Iranian government to spoil our unequivocal support for the Iranian people as their propaganda tool. At the same time, the call for a more democratic Iran will soon be erased if external actors become more serious about dealing with this issue. Washington has neglected to deal with Iran for decades and many opportunities have been missed by ad hoc diplomacy. I hope that Washington finds enough political will to finally get serious with Iran and begins the process to establish a more peaceful and democratic Middle East.

  2. Jeremi Suri February 11, 2010

    Thank you for your thoughtful and provocative comment, Ryosuke. You are certainly correct that American and other international policy-makers have missed many potential opportunites to reach the Iranian people in recent years. American policy, in particular, has lurched from efforts to isolate the Tehran regime to covert moments of cooperation, as in the Yugoslav War. Washington has failed to formulate a strategy that will build credibility with the Iranian people through efforts at mutual respect and cooperation, while opposing the most violent and threatening acts of the regime. The international community must encourage internal reform and raise the costs of violent repression in and around Iran. War will not achieve this outcome, nor will avoidance of the issue. We need consistent and creative diplomacy, as your comment suggests.

  3. Debbie February 11, 2010

    Creative Diplomacy: Richard Haass, in a recent article written in Newsweek (http://www.newsweek.com/id/231991) makes a similar argument about the need for Obama to renew attention towards Iran.

    One venue Haass sees for this creative diplomacy is through documentation efforts. In this article he cites Yale’s human rights center:

    “New funding for the project housed at Yale University that documents human-rights abuses in Iran is warranted. If the U.S. government won’t reverse its decision not to provide the money, then a foundation or wealthy individuals should step in. Such a registry might deter some members of the Guards or the million-strong Basij militia it controls from attacking or torturing members of the opposition. And even if not, the gesture will signal to Iranians that the world is taking note of their struggle.”

    Deterrence through records remains a dubious claim at best. Furthermore, I am cognizant of the fact that the U.S. government is suffering from the economic crisis; yet, it appears to me that efforts like this should be receiving more attention and resources. Not only will it signal to the Iranians that the world is taking note of their struggles now, but it provides a record for accountability later on, if there is a transition in any form. I believe this is an example of creative diplomacy that has not yet been fully explored by the administration or the public.

  4. Jeremi Suri February 11, 2010

    Excellent point, Debbie. I agree that documenting internal Iranian human rights abuses in a credible and fair way would be valuable. As you say, it would provide a record for future discussion and adjudication. It would also shame the regime, and further delegitimize its claims of victimhood, especially when these claims are employed to justify the Iranian nuclear program. Most of all, credible documentation of abuses would tell Iranian citizens that their sufferings are receiving sustained international attention, with possible ramifications. Clear and transparent evidence of Iranian abuses would restore some of the humanity to the suffering citizens. .

    To undertake this kind of documentation process, the international community needs to act as an international community. No single country or region can control the work. To escape the taint of political, regional, and cultural bias, the project of documenting abuses should occur in a multinational and cross-regional framework, perhaps through an inter-governmental organization (like a more assertive United Nations agency) or a non-governmental organization (like an expanded Human Rights Watch.) Universities and other academic bodies should aid this process by providing experts and students to help with the details of research, presentation, and record-keeping. The act of documenting Iranian abuses can serve global educational, as well as policy, purposes.

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