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Iran – Neighbourhood and Future

GB Geo-Blog

Iran – Neighbourhood and Future

Abbas MilaniGB sits down with Stanford’s Abbas Milani to discuss Iran: from Tehran and Bushehr to the Diaspora

GB Where do you see Iran a decade from now?

AM It would be very surprising if, in a decade, Iran is not a more democratic, pluralistic and secularized society and polity. Iranian society is already very secularized in the sense that the people believe that the separation of politics from religion is fundamental to democracy and to safeguarding individual freedoms. But the regime has not accepted this. It is unlikely, however, that the regime’s narrative will win. What is happening at the core of Iranian society – that essential and true renaissance that has been budding in Iran for the last 150 years – suggests that democratic change is inevitable.

GB How do you interpret Ayatollah Khamenei’s recent remarks concerning abrogating the post of the President in favour of a parliamentary system?

AM The government is trying to chip away at the democratic rights of the people, and electing a President is one of the last remnants – diluted though it may be – of participatory democracy in Iran. There is an attempt to make Khamenei the absolute single voice of despotism in Iran, and to do away with the possibility of any challenge even from someone as hand-picked as Ahmadinejad. This will not work. First, three-fifths of Iranian society is under the age of 30. These young people are at least as connected to the Internet as are youngsters in Turkey and Israel. They are as vibrant in terms of their sensibilities, their discourse on democracy and their taste in art as any cosmopolitan youth anywhere in the world. Take, for instance, the revolution that is happening in Iranian music, including underground groups in major cities: even in Mashhad, there is a vibrant underground rap scene serving as a form of social critique.

On top of this cosmopolitan society sits literally and metaphorically a medieval regime – medieval in the sense that it believes in divine legitimacy, rather than in a Rousseauean social-contract underpinning democratic life. With every passing day, the people at every level – through the magazines that they publish, the films that they make, the music that they write, the paintings that they draw – are increasingly attracted to the social-contract conception of governance. And yet the regime is moving in the opposite direction. Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi recently announced that to oppose Khamenei is to oppose God himself – and this for a man who is not even elected by other clerics, but rather intuitively ‘discovered.’

GB Will future political change come from within Iran or via external forces?

AM It is the fundamental precondition of democracy that the people themselves should determine their own fate. So the idea of an outside force exporting democracy to Iran is sheer nonsense, and in conflict with the tenets of democracy. But if by outside forces we mean the Iranian diaspora, then Iranians living anywhere in the world have as much to say in determining the future of Iran as those who live within the geographic limits of what we today call Iran. Iran is not just a geographical denomination: it is a cultural, emotional, linguistic and historical entity. And anyone who considers herself or himself to be part of this larger Iran must have a say, can have a say and, if the diaspora gets its game together, will have a say in determining Iran’s future. But the future cannot be dictated by an outside government. It has to be a function of the will and the way of the Iranian people themselves.

GB What is the appropriate role of the Iranian diaspora vis-à-vis Iran and its future?

AM Because of the nature of the information age in which we live, the Iranian diaspora is absolutely an integral part of Iran’s civil society. What can be achieved? The Iranian diaspora could, today, if mobilized, completely break down Iranian censorship by publishing on the Internet any book that is banned in Iran. It can ensure that any journalist who is banned by Tehran, and who is now living in the diaspora, has a platform to publish her or his material, and to make that material available in Iran for free. It can help governments that have the requisite technological capability to provide free satellite access to every Iranian.

Over the past 32 years, the Iranian government has done a lot of damage to the economic, moral and political fibre of Iranian society. The regime has created a society wherein all too many think that it is acceptable to take a bribe, beat your children, have multiple wives, and limit the movement of your daughter based on a strict interpretation of Islamic laws. The transition to democracy will be difficult. But there is hope: consider East Germany, and how West Germans underwrote the democratic transition of their East German brethren. East Germany probably has had an easier transition to democracy than Eastern European states. The reason is that there was West Germany – the German diaspora, effectively – to facilitate the transition. Why is it that India has had such rapid success in economic development? Why it is that Israel or China can grow so rapidly? Economics aside, all of these countries have one thing in common: a powerful, dedicated diaspora that gives back. The Iranian diaspora should do the same.

GB Might the diaspora – disconnected as it is from Iran’s day-to-day realities – in some cases do more damage than good?

AM There cannot and will not be an Iranian Chalabi. If Iraq did not accept a Chalabi, then Iranian society certainly will not accept an Iranian analogue. Ahmed Chalabi represented a segment of the Iraqi diaspora who actually believed that they were the liberators. They literally called themselves as such, and had no hesitation about arriving in Iraq atop a tank. That there will be no acceptable Chalabi for Iran is not, however, the same as saying that the Iranian diaspora has no role to play. The diaspora must be humble, and it must accept that its members will not be the liberators of Iran. If you look at the democratic quest in Iran over the last century, in every major phase, the diaspora – in 1905 in Istanbul, in 1919 in Berlin, or the confederation under the Shah – had a great deal of theoretical savvy to offer.

Right now, the more theoretically savvy, the most sophisticated arguments, the most interesting historical inquiries, and the more important innovations are coming from inside of Iran. It is the diaspora that is watching Iranians inside Iran to see what is happening. It is not the other way around. If people have the humility to accept this, then there is a constructive role for the diaspora. There are people in the Iranian diaspora who talk about themselves and of Iran as if they were the messiah. People do not take these individuals seriously.

GB What would have been Iran’s political evolution but for the 1979 Revolution?

AM Democracy was very much on the horizon in Iran. We now know that the Shah had cancer and was very sick. I have no doubt that his son or his wife could not have continued the kind of autocracy that he had established. The Shah himself had begun to recognize in the early 1970s that something had to give; that is, that there needed to be political participation. He called in Mehdi Samii, one of Iran’s best-known technocrats, to create a party that would have legitimacy. If we believe that there is an integral connection between economic and political development, then if you look at the trajectory of pre-Revolution Iran, the country would have grown into the fifth largest economy in the world. Post-1979 Iran has yet to reach – after 32 years – the same GDP. Indeed, this government is destroying the middle class and the private sector – both essential components of a democratic process. The Shah was creating these things. Whether he genuinely wanted democracy does not really matter. The fact is that Iran was inevitably headed toward democracy.

GB What has been the impact of the Arab Spring on the Iranian government?

AM The Iranian government has attempted to offer a narrative on the Arab Spring that is fundamentally flawed. Whether you call it an Awakening – as Hicham Ben Abdallah, the Moroccan Prince here at Stanford recently stated – or a Spring, the Arab uprisings are in some organic way connected to the 2009 presidential election disputes in Iran. The Iranian government tries to connect the uprisings to 1979. In 1979, the model that the regime eventually offered – by bait-and-switch, obviously – was government based on Sharia. Many in Egypt and Tunisia have said – at least to date – that they do not want a government based on Sharia. The paradigm that is more appealing is the Turkish paradigm, which Erdogan described in the following terms: “We are democratic, we are secular, and we are Islamic.” The Turks, thus far, have proved that they can deliver all three of these, and economic growth to boot.

One of the lessons to be derived from the Iranian experience is that people should not readily believe the promises of Islamists who claim to be following the democratic process. That is exactly what Ayatollah Khomeini promised, and then he reneged on the deal. While we should give everyone the benefit of the doubt, and not discount the possibility that there are parties like the Muslim Brotherhood (which, en passant, has long been advocating Sharia-based government, but is now saying that it has had a transformation), we must remain cautious. The other lesson is that, in a violent revolutionary process, the most violent, amoral and best organized usually win. The longer path of peaceful, dignified protest might seem arduous, but what you often get at its conclusion is a much more stable and much less demagogical regime.

GB Are there similarities between the dynamics of the Arab Spring and those of the 1979 Iranian revolution?

AM People in both cases wanted accountability, dignity and justice. In both cases, they were critical of corruption in government. That is where the similarities end. The Iranians in 1979 had a great sense of utopian social engineering: leftists who wanted to create their own socialist model (à la China, à la Soviet Union or à la Cuba), or Khomeini’s social engineering model for a perfect Islamic state. These were all dangerous idealizations that begot nothing but monstrosities. The regime has utterly failed in its project. The movements that we are witnessing today seem to suggest the lesson that it is better to go for gradual, partial reform than for total transformations that invariably come with great violence.

GB What is driving the Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah axis?

AM One of the lessons of the last 32 years is that it is not enough to be merely an anti-colonial force of resistance. It is at least as important to be also an advocate of democracy, moderation and rationalism, the rule of law, and equality for the people in a society. If you are going to enslave your people based on a fascist ideology (as they do in Syria) or on a rigid form of Shiism (as they do in Iran or might try in Lebanon), but also stand up to foreign hegemony, then you still have failed at one of the core raisons d’être of government: to serve the people.

GB What is your reaction to the purported Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador to the US on American soil?

AM Clearly, there are big loopholes in the story that we have been told to date. Is this the entire story? All signs suggest that it is not. Is there a possibility that there might actually be a case here? Based on the way that the Iranian government is responding, it is clearly worried that the Americans might have a case. Tehran has been issuing statements almost every 24 hours in order to provide a new narrative. But if all that the US has is in that indictment, it is certainly not a winnable or credible case.

The Iranian government has had a hand in many assassinations outside of Iran. Are they capable of doing something like this? Of course. Have they done it on American soil? No, they have not (except once some three decades ago). Would they try to raise the ante by saying that, as you have killed three of our scientists in Iran, we are going to come to your backyard and hit you where it hurts? This is conceivable. Is it likely that they would do it this way? Highly unlikely. We have not seen the end of this case.

Consider this: if this file was presented vis-à-vis any other country, no one would have taken it seriously. You may say but others have more to gain from this incident. That may be true, but if all of these factors remained the same, and Iran was not a country that has pursued the policies that it has for the last 32 years, it would not stick. Why give them a stick to beat you with it? As Shakespeare says: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves”.

GB What are the implications of the 2012 presidential elections for the US-Iran relationship, and for the Middle East at large?

AM If the Republicans win, the bilateral relationship will be far more confrontational. Their rhetoric is really antagonistic. It is unlikely that the Republicans have studied the Middle East carefully enough. To be sure, Romney and Perry have not given much thought to Iran. Their positions are much more rhetorical than real. If they get elected, the whole machinery of US government will likely come down and try to educate them about the reality of the Iran question. Frankly, there is not much that the US can do vis-à-vis Iran and its nuclear programme. The Iranian government is, for all intents and purposes, near where it wants to be – and that is to become a ‘virtual nuclear state’; that is, to have the known capacity to build a bomb, but not make the political decision to build it. What can any American government do about that? Are they going to bomb 300 sites – most of them in heavily populated areas? Are they going to hit these with bunker-busters, which, according to some simulated models, would kill scores of innocent civilians and damage the environment? That is an unlikely proposition.

GB How do the motivations behind the current nuclear programme in Iran compare to those behind the programme under the Shah, prior to the Revolution?

AM There is no doubt that the Shah also wanted to achieve at least ‘virtual nuclear status.’ He went on the record to state that, if Pakistan and Iraq go nuclear, Iran will go nuclear. He told the then-chief of Iran’s nuclear programme, Akbar Etemad, that Iran needs a nuclear capability – not the bomb just yet, but a capability to produce a bomb very quickly should anyone else in the neighbourhood produce one. He wanted Iran to be a major power in the region – to ensure that the country had the capacity to go nuclear if anyone else in the region moved in that direction, and to thwart Arab expansionism at the cost of Iran. If the Shah had stayed in power, Iran would have become a nuclear state. If Khomeini had not been so self-righteous and not dismantled the Bushehr nuclear power plant, Iran would have long ago been where it is today. Let us remember that Bushehr was nearly finished when the new regime came into power in 1979.

The strategic calculus of today’s regime is much the same as was that of the Shah, but with one proviso: the current regime thinks that if Iran becomes a nuclear state, it will become more impervious to outside pressure to democratize.

Does it make geo-strategic sense for Iran to have a nuclear deterrent? If Iran was a democratic country, it would have every right on the nuclear programme that any other country enjoys in the region, including Israel – but only in a democratic Iran where the will of people decides these sensitive matters, and not the few who usurp power.


Abbas Milani is the Hamid and Christina Moghadam Director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University, and Co-Director of the Iran Democracy Project at the Hoover Institution. He is the author of many books and scholarly publications, including, most recently, The Shah.


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