When David Letterman asked New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman to analyze how the Muslim world reacted to the Sept. 11 hijackings, Friedman pointed out that looks can be deceiving when it comes to the Middle East. As an example, he conjectured that the country whose public most denounced the attacks was, in fact, a country which historically has been among America’s most vocal critics: the Islamic Republic of Iran.
But tell that to George W. Bush.
In his State of the Union address last Tuesday, Bush labeled Iran as one-third of an “axis of evil” spreading terror across the globe, lumping one of the Middle East’s most democratic countries with the likes of Iraq.
By Western standards, Iran’s current government is certainly despotic. Power is concentrated in the hands of a despised minority of conservative clerics. They view freedom as the source of anarchy and dismiss the rule of law as a Western fabrication unfit for Islamic sensibilities.
But while ultimate decision-making authority lies with the conservatives, Iran’s parliament and presidency are controlled by reformists. These reformists champion greater freedom and democracy, gender equality, and increased trade and foreign investment. And with respect to the United States, the reformists reflect the demands of the Iranian people: a more open relationship between Iran and America.
However, the United States’ current foreign policy toward Iran is preventing such progress. While Iran’s reformists have made repeated overtures to mend relations, the U.S. government remains stuck in another era. Since 1996, the United States has all but prohibited American companies from investing in Iran. It has blocked Iran’s entrance into the World Trade Organization. And diplomatically, it has refused to act on Iranian President Mohammad Khatami’s requests for a new era in U.S.-Iranian relations.
Why should America care about Iran, and how its policies are affecting the country?
Because the Islamic Republic may be on the brink of a second revolution.
Economically, the country is deteriorating rapidly. Unemployment has skyrocketed to well above 20 percent, inflation is at 15 percent, and 40 percent of Iranians are living in relative or absolute poverty. Politically and socially, individual freedoms are not being granted quickly enough: boys and girls can’t socialize in public, singing and dancing are prohibited, and humiliating public lashings still take place in downtown Tehran. To make things worse, Iran’s population is extraordinarily young, with about half under the age of 18.
These are all ingredients for revolution. Some experts, such as Mehrangiz Kar, who visited the Yale Law School last semester, no longer ask if, but when.
And with conservatives holding the balance of power, they would probably emerge triumphant in the case of a political upheaval and oppress the reformists even more. Given Iran’s alleged arsenal of weapons of mass destruction — a point of concern in Tuesday’s speech — the implications for America and global terrorism could prove deadly. The long term solution to Bush’s concerns is a moderate, reformist Iranian government.
Why would normalizing relations help?
Symbolically, normalizing relations with Iran would be interpreted as an outstretched hand to the reformists, not conservatives, in Iran’s government. But more importantly, lifting the current sanctions, resuming trade, and allowing Iran into the WTO could turn the tide economically. Such actions could prevent Iranian youth from giving up on the reform movement and attempting to overthrow both it and the conservatives in one grand fit of rage. America must help remind Iranians that evolution, not revolution, is the answer to their problems.
Ironically, when I visited Iran last summer, most Iranians I talked to were rejoicing that George W. Bush had defeated Al Gore in last year’s election. His cozy relationship with oil companies, they reasoned, could lead him to revoke the current economic sanctions, which have hurt U.S. corporations like Chevron and Exxon Mobil. And, in fact, when a bill came before Congress last August to renew the sanctions for another five years, Bush pushed Congress to reduce the term to two.
But alas, it now appears that the Bush administration’s hawkish unilateralism may reign triumphant in defining U.S.-Iranian relations over the next few years.
Sahm Adrangi is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. He is an editorials editor for the Yale Daily News.