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What Will Iran Look Like in a Decade?

Winter 2010 Strategic Futures

What Will Iran Look Like in a Decade?

strategicfuturesWhat will Iran look like in 10 years?

Trita Parsi

What will Iran look like in a decade if we continue to put the nuclear clock at the centre, while neglecting the crucial importance of democracy for the country? What will this tortured nation look like in a decade if the current waves of democracy prevail, but Western demands on Iran remain doctrinaire and unchanged? Will the West find itself at odds with a democratic Iran, just as it did with its theocratic form, or will there finally be a recognition that a stable Middle East cannot reasonably be achieved without a strong Iran?

» Dr. Trita Parsi is founder and president of the National Iranian American Council, and an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute. He is the author of Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel and the United States.

Reza Aslan

The stolen election that returned Iran’s bellicose president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to power, and the awe-inspiring uprising that erupted in response, have perched Iran on a dangerous precipice. On the one side is the very real possibility of a military dictatorship led by the Revolutionary Guard – the military-intelligence-security apparatus that has seized almost all levers of Iran’s government and that, by some estimates, now controls more than a third of Iran’s annual budget, and practically all of Iran’s black market. On the other side is the possibility of a more open society that could ultimately lead to a gradual transition of power from the unelected shadow government that currently rules the country to the elected, democratic institutions already in place in Iran. Put simply, Iran at the end of this decade will look like either Burma or China. The path that Iran takes depends in large part on the success of the so-called Green Movement to force a political compromise. Despite the brutality displayed by the Revolutionary Guard in response to the demonstrations, such a compromise from the Iranian regime is not as far-fetched as it may seem. Iran is currently facing a crumbling economy, with a 26 percent annual inflation rate, and an unofficial unemployment rate of nearly 40 percent. Part of what has made the current protests so robust and seemingly unstoppable is the disastrous stewardship of the economy under the current government. That is why the protesters in the streets of Iran are supported by a growing coalition of religious, political, and business leaders who are increasingly frustrated by the political and economic control of the Revolutionary Guard. For those of us who lived through the 1979 Revolution, this coalition looks eerily familiar. After all, it was a similar alliance of religious, political, and business interests that toppled the dictatorship of the Shah 30 years ago. Iran’s economic troubles could be exploited by the US and EU through a comprehensive offer of security guarantees and economic incentives, the purpose of which would be to tip the balance of power away from the current regime and toward a more pragmatic, more open society modelled along the lines of China. Of course, unlike China, Iran is already built upon a representative constitutional framework, and has in place the democratic institutions necessary for dramatic sociopolitical change.

Yet these institutions can exert themselves only if Iran is forced out of its political and economic isolation. Further isolation will only increase the power of the Revolutionary Guard, leading Iran in the next decade to devolve into a military police state – and a nuclear one at that. The China model may be unsatisfying for those waiting for a secular, Jeffersonian democracy to miraculously drop from heaven onto Iran. But it is a model that the vast majority of Iranians – those on the streets and those in the halls of power – would gladly accept.

» Reza Aslan is the author of No God but God, and How to Win A Cosmic War.

Peter Jones

Trying to predict what Iran will look like in 10 months is hard enough; trying to predict the next 10 years approaches folly. Nevertheless, let me be foolish enough to try. Another revolution on the scale of 1979 is unlikely. The Iranian people are cautious about unleashing that monster again, and the security services are unlikely to ‘step aside’ as they did in most Eastern European countries when communism fell. But the people do want change. If the protests that we see on the streets really were an aberration, or the work of a small minority of foreign-inspired malcontents (as the regime would have us believe), they would have ended by now.

For its part, the regime has two broad options: crack down much more brutally than it has to date, and try to violently suppress the discontent; or try to reach some accommodation with the ‘acceptable’ forces of reform that will address some elements of the peoples’ wishes, while leaving the fundamentals of the regime in power. The first option might work for a few years, but it would accelerate the already serious decline in Iran’s economic fortunes. The second option may hold the prospect of a longer period of relative stability, but will also unleash an ongoing balancing act – how much reform will the government allow, versus how much will it take to satisfy the bulk of the population? More seriously, expectations have a habit of evolving. Once a process of reform is underway, however circumscribed, can it be controlled? If so, for how long?

For the rest of the world, we should not expect that any Iranian regime that emerges from either of these options (and especially the first) will necessarily be more amenable than the present one is to our interests on such issues as the nuclear programme. It is often forgotten that the supposedly moderate political forces that believe that the June 2009 election was ‘stolen’ were supportive of Iran’s nuclear programme. But a regime that emerges from the second option might be less adversarial in its tone, thereby opening a door to some form of diplomatic engagement with the West.

A final note of caution: the foregoing is the product of a relatively conventional analysis of the current trend-line in Iranian politics. Most predictions of this kind are, but these types of analyses cannot accommodate sudden and unforeseeable events: a devastating earthquake (to which Iran is prone); a more prolonged economic downturn; a regional conflict that involves Iran; the unexpected death of a leading figure. Any of these developments could result in much more fundamental and rapid change.

May you live in interesting times…

» Peter Jones is Associate Professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa.

Alidad Mafinezam

A key source of Iran’s strength is the historically entrenched diversity of its population. For thousands of years, the ethno-linguistic and religious pluralism of Iranians has been a source of communal cohesion, and a solid bulwark of national identity. Only in a handful of countries is multiculturalism as deeply rooted as it is in Iran – a country literally at the crossroads of civilizations.

Iran in the year 2020 will have built on this deeply entrenched human endowment, and will be well advanced in harnessing its diversity for the benefit of all Iranians, as well as of that of other countries in West, South, Central Asia and beyond. Time and again over the country’s millennial and turbulent history, the inclusiveness and tolerance of Iranian culture has washed over the otherwise fractious impact of different religions. Whatever else might constitute their identity, Iranians bond, first and foremost, with their national – and thus inclusive and tolerant – roots. While Shi’a Islam is Iran’s official religion – and has been so for five centuries – it must be remembered that Sunni Islam equally has deep roots in the country, dating back to the Islamic conquest. Zoroastrianism, the mystical religion which inspired the German philosopher, Frederick Nietzsche, to produce his most influential work, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, was born in Iran some 3,000 years ago.

Christianity, for its part, has been practiced in the country since the religion’s inception. Iran’s substantial Armenian community, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, has practiced its Christian faith in Iran for over 1,700 years. The Ismaili faith, a branch of Shi’a Islam, was conceived in Iran 1,200 years ago. The Bahá’í faith, now outlawed by the Iranian government, was equally founded in Iran in the mid-19th century. And in the rhetorical and geopolitical contest between Iran and Israel, we often forget that, among the world’s 57 Muslim countries, Iran has more synagogues and a larger Jewish community than any other predominantly Muslim country. In no other country has Judaism been practiced uninterrupted over the span of 25 centuries.

Against this historical background, the country – notwithstanding its contemporary challenges – has great potential to build a modern, pluralistic country within, while exerting a powerful, stabilizing influence abroad. This could be Iran in 2020. History and geography seem to have destined it to fulfill this role.

» Dr. Alidad Mafinezam is the co-founder of The Mosaic Institute, Toronto.

Sam Sasan Shoamanesh

The future of Iran is not as uncertain as one may be inclined to believe. My certainty rests on the courage and unyielding aspirations of the Iranian people. Contemporary Iran is troubled by a system of rule that fosters prejudices of religion and gender, with little breathing space for the expression of liberties – political or other. The Iranian struggle for a bona fide constitutional order has been in the making since at least the turn of the 20th century, when Iranians of all religious and ethnic stripes, and of all classes – peasants and merchants, alongside socially perceptive romantic aristocrats, such as the then-young Mohammad Mossadegh or Abdolhossein Teymourtash – together formed an unprecedented movement of constitutionalists fighting to curb absolute rule and inequality in their country. Bref, the struggles witnessed in the streets of Iran today are modern manifestations of a century-old longing, yet to be fulfilled.

Surely, predicting what any nation will look like in a decade is a difficult task – one complicated several-fold by the unique complexities of Iran. What is more, to venture a guess into what the Iranian body politic will look like in a decade equally belies the central point: no matter what form of government reigns in Iran 10 years hence, it will either fully meet the people’s needs or, like its predecessors, will have to answer to a people unbending in their progressive and democratic demands. These are demands emblazoned in Iranian consciousness from the time of the Iranian Constitutional Revolution (1905-1911), with calls for the (i) rule of law (حکومت قانون), (ii) rule of the people (حکومت مردم), (iii) freedom of political parties (آزادی احزاب سیاسی), (iv) freedom of the press (آزادی مطبوعات), and (v) modernity (تجدد) and all that it entails… Certainly, things may get worse before they get better. Yet, if this forward thrust is not derailed by damaging external interventions, a decade from now, Iranians will either be relishing the sweet fruit of their century-old struggle or, at a bare minimum, find themselves yet another step closer in their epic journey toward realizing their full democratic aspirations. Whether that triumphant day is tomorrow, a decade or even decades from now, it is surely on the horizon.

» Sam Sasan Shoamanesh, co-founder and Managing Editor of Global Brief, is a legal adviser at the International Criminal Court (ICC). The views expressed in this commentary have been provided in the author’s personal capacity, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the ICC.


Image: The Charter of Cyrus the Great, a clay cuneiform cylinder describing the humane treatment of Babylonia after its conquest by the Persians, has been hailed as the world’s first declaration of human rights.

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