GREAT EXPECTATIONS: Democracy in Iran

Monday, April 28, 2003

It's been nearly twenty-five years since the shah of Iran was overthrown in a popular revolution. The ensuing American hostage crisis marked the beginning of an era of mutual hostility between Iran and the United States—Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini often called the United States "the Great Satan"; more recently President Bush placed Iran on the so-called axis of evil. But an increasingly visible democratic reform movement supported by young Iranians born after the revolution suggests that Iran may be entering a new era of change. Just how powerful is the reform movement in Iran? And what should the United States do, if anything, to help bring about a new Iran?

Recorded on Monday, April 28, 2003

Peter Robinson: Today on Uncommon Knowledge, the next Iranian revolution.

Announcer: Funding for this program is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation.

[Music]

Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge. I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today, the future of Iran. It's been almost a quarter of a century since the Shah was overthrown in a popular revolution. The hostage crisis soon after, marked a new era of hostility between Iran and the United States. The new Iranian leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini began referring to this country as the "Great Satan." More recently President Bush has returned the favor lumping Iran in the "axis of evil." Now though more than two-thirds of Iran's population of sixty million is twenty-five years old or younger. This new generation born since the revolution is now agitating for democratic reform. What are the prospects for democracy in Iran? What should the United States do, if anything, to promote it?

Joining us, three guests. Abbas Milani, a historian and political scientist is a fellow at the Hoover Institution. Guity Nashat is a professor of history at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Michael McFaul is a professor of political science at Stanford University.

Title: Laissez-Faire Diplomacy

Peter Robinson: Jahangir Amuzegar, Finance Minister for the Shah in the pre-1979 government of Iran, I quote: "The United States should refrain from both unsubstantiated accusations and implied threats against the Islamic Republic of Iran. Washington would be best served by letting the currently accelerating process of democratization run its course." Is that the right thing for the United States to do or the wrong thing? Abbas?

Abbas Milani: I would think that if it implies allowing the indigenous democracy in Iran take root, the very active democratic movement in Iran take its own course, I think that's a very wise choice.

Peter Robinson: You're with him?

Guity Nashat: I think I'm absolutely with him and I'm surprised he made such a statement. I would have thought he would be opposed to what's going on in Iran but I'm really very happy to hear he said that and I agree fully.

Peter Robinson: Mike McFaul?

Michael McFaul: Well, I agree but with one caveat, that in the margins, the United States can play an important role in fostering the right forces, the democratic forces in Iran. And we can also do very much harm to those same forces if we do the wrong policies. So to sit on our hands and to say our best policy is no policy, I think is naïve.

Guity Nashat: Mike, I think I really disagree with you because I think what it would do, it would only strengthen the hardliners in Iran if the U.S. tries to intervene in Iranian affairs. In fact, that's exactly what happened in 1980 when the U.S. encouraged--and other Western powers encouraged Iraq to invade Iran and it was one of the means by which the Khomeini regime was able to strengthen its hold in the country because it rallied the population to Khomeini's regime. And I think today it would even be worse because the democratic process in Iran has really taken a life of its own and I think it's better and it's really moving ahead.

Peter Robinson: You have now established the overall theme for this entire show. Let me start asking you a few particular questions. In his 2002 State of the Union address, President Bush labeled Iran together with North Korea and Iraq part of an "axis of evil." I will ask you in a moment whether he was right to do so but first, if you were putting the best construction on the President's statement that you could, how would you defend it? That is to say, what has Iran done or what is Iran doing that would justify placing it in the same category with North Korea and Iraq? Mike?

Michael McFaul: Well, he did so because those were the three states that he thinks have weapons of mass destruction, are on their way and harbor and support terrorism. Most certainly Iran by that definition would qualify. That's why they grouped them together. I think it was unfortunate turn of a phrase.

Peter Robinson: Right, right, we'll get to that in a moment, but do you both grant then that much at least is true?

Guity Nashat: Well, I'm not really sure that Iran at least until 2002 was at a stage where it would have deserved this title because by then Pakistan already had weapons of mass destruction and he didn't mention Pakistan. Therefore, I was unhappy to see the President put Iran on the same category as North Korea and Iraq.

Peter Robinson: Abbas?

Abbas Milani: I think there is another dimension to why the United States included Iran. Again, I'm not sure that that was a good formulation. I agree with Mike that…

Peter Robinson: I sense skepticism rampant here.

Abbas Milani: The third element other than the two that Mike referred to which has been a cause of serious concern to the U.S. Administration is Iran's role in the peace process, Iran's opposition to the peace process, Iran's opposition to the Oslo agreement, Iran's insistence that the peace process as it was going on is not to the interest of the Arab population. It's not to the interest of the Palestinians and Iran's support of Hamas and Hezbollah.

Guity Nashat: It's not really Iran's support of Hamas because Hamas is a Suni organization and it was Iran's support of Hezbollah in Lebanon but this really happened at least two decades ago and I think the information that the administration got of that point was a little bit outdated.

Peter Robinson: Next, understanding the revolution of 1979. Why was the Shah overthrown?

Title: Shah No No

Peter Robinson: 1941, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi becomes Shah. He spends three and a half decades doing what looks like to an American such as myself, like modernization, westernization. He's using oil revenues. He's putting up dams, hydroelectricity, power lines even into remote villages. It all looks good and then in 1979 in a popular revolution, this was not a coup staged by a small--this was a popular uprising, they threw him and all that he stood for out. And in his place you get Ayatollah Khomeini and a religious regime, which looks again to me as though it wants to take the country back to the Middle Ages. I cannot imagine why this revolution took place. You spent a little time in prison as a result of the revolution. Tell me what was going on.

Abbas Milani: Well, I think what was going on and that has nothing to do with me individually, I think what was happening in Iran at large is that the Shah began a process of reform. Some of the policies you are talking about fundamentally changed the fabric of the Iranian society. There was a middle class created, there was an educated urbanite class created and the Shah was under the false assumption and he is on record on that, that the economic prosperity of the country is going to obviate democracy. The Shah banked on buying the political acquiescence of this middle class and this intellectual class and it was proven wrong. The class became prosperous and the moment they could and Jimmy Carter helped by saying that the Shah has to become human rights. They rose against him and overthrew him and by…

Peter Robinson: But it almost sounds as though he created a class that objected to the regime of the Shah because it wasn't western or modern enough.

Abbas Milani: Wasn't democratic.

Peter Robinson: Wasn't democratic.

Guity Nashat: Okay, I think there was another element.

Peter Robinson: Yes?

Guity Nashat: One of the things that I think the Shah ignored and he wasn't even aware of, was the role that Islam has played in Iranian society for thirteen hundred years. And Islam developed institutions that influenced many of the Iranian institutions in urban society. And some of the reforms he was implementing seemed corrupting to the majority of the people who didn't become middle class. They were lower middle class and they felt threatened by what was happening to their families, they felt he was trying to corrupt their families, women and all kinds of things. So it was really the majority that, as you said, it was a popular revolution…

Peter Robinson: So he creates a middle class and loses their trust or their support because they want more democracy?

Guity Nashat: Right. But…

Peter Robinson: But meanwhile there's a more traditional aspect of society that feels threatened…

Guity Nashat: Absolutely. Threatened and they're the ones…

Peter Robinson: He's imposing modernity on them.

Guity Nashat: Absolutely.

Peter Robinson: So he loses.

Abbas Milani: But I have, once he finishes, I have a very different take on Islam and the Shah.

Peter Robinson: All right.

Michael McFaul: Well, I'm not an expert on Iran like our colleagues here but if you look at the revolution comparatively, I think it's important to remember one very critical thing, that now we know who wins, who takes over after the fall of the Shah, right? But at the moment of the revolution and I think if one can look at the Bolshevik Revolution this way and remember the February Revolution before that, look at the fall of the communist puppet regime in Afghanistan, you have a united front that are united against the Shah for all kinds of different reasons. Some are intellectuals. Some are this middle class. Some are these folks that want to go and then take it a different direction. And it was in the chaos that comes after that the collapse of the ancien regime. That word comes from the French Revolution, right? The moderates are there and there's a struggle for power and in this particular case, a particular extremist, in my view, wing won out, just like Lenin in February of 1917…

Peter Robinson: So instead of Robespierre, they end up with Khomeini?

Michael McFaul: Exactly.

Abbas Milani: I have a very different take than Guity...

Peter Robinson: Let's hear it. Let's hear it.

Abbas Milani: My take is that the Shah made, in fact, a great historic strategic mistake in the sense that he assumed that the clergy are his allies. The Shah had a very wrong sense of who his enemies are. He thought his primary enemies were the communists and then he thought that the middle class democratic forces were his enemies. So he united in fact with the bulk of the clergy. If you look at Iran, the number of mosques built in Iran, between 1970 to 1975 is unprecedented in modern history of Iran. This is a regime that is clamping down on the left; it is clamping down under democratic forces. It is clamping down to the national front. The only body of institutions that is allowed to thrive in Iran are the mosques.

Peter Robinson: So he tries to…

Abbas Milani: When the society goes through crisis, it's clear that these guys--these are the…

Guity Nashat: But the point is it's... that it was a state-run type of religion and I think many of the Ayatollahs and religious leaders were aware of that. And he started, for instance, a religious...what was it?

Abbas Milani: Core.

Guity Nashat: … religious core in order to teach his brand of Islam to a lot of rural population, to small town people in order to sever the control of the clergy over the masses of the population. And, of course, it backfired.

Peter Robinson: Let's take a look at Iran's next ruler, the Ayatollah Khomeini.

Title: He Hates Us, He Really Hates Us

Peter Robinson: Khomeini appears on the scene and what's striking again to me about Khomeini is that he is intensely anti-American from the get-go. What did we ever do to him? We're the Great Satan before we even know who he is, he's calling us the Great Satan. Why? Mike? Where does the anti-Americanism come from?

Michael McFaul: Well, he associated…

Peter Robinson: Why us?

Michael McFaul: …modernization and these trends that we've been talking about with the West and with the United States as the great enemy.

Peter Robinson: Because we were close to the Shah? Is that…

Michael McFaul: We were close to the Shah; we were close to these democratic ideals, the whole bundle of things. We were westernization and he was anti-westernization.

Guity Nashat: Well, I'm not really sure he was anti-westernization in the sense that yes, he was--he didn't want women for instance, to appear in miniskirts, not to cover their hair but he was not opposed to western technology. In fact, he was making use of it by producing tapes and sending them through using telephones. And, in fact, if you look at the Iranian constitution of 1979, you will see there are some articles that say it's the duty of the state to encourage scientific investigation, technological fields, etc.

Michael McFaul: And religion.

Guity Nashat: And religion, of course.

Michael McFaul: And that's anti-western.

Guity Nashat: Of course.

Michael McFaul: The separation of church and state which is the existence...

Abbas Milani: There's a more important thing.

Peter Robinson: What's that?

Abbas Milani: The clear link is that Khomeini rose to prominence in 1963 and that was when the United States, in fact, was--Defense Department insisted that if the United States is going to accept the Shah's request and send military advisors to Iran, they need to have what are called extra-territorial rights…

Guity Nashat: Capitulation treaties.

Abbas Milani: …when in Iran are called capitulation treaties, what they articulated as the Vienna Convention. According to this if the United States and the United States Army or anyone connected to them or their family commit a crime in Iran, they cannot be tried in Iranian court. Khomeini went on attack saying that--in a famous phrase he says that, if an American sergeant kills the Shah of Iran, we can't take him to court but if the Shah of Iran does the slightest thing to an American, they will take him out. Khomeini's prominence--before that Khomeini was a secondhand cleric.

Guity Nashat: That's very true. That's the beginning.

Peter Robinson: And you all agree that's a crucial moment?

Guity Nashat: That was the beginning, yes, of his…

Michael McFaul: A very important lesson for post-war Iraq right now.

Peter Robinson: From the history of the revolution to present day Iran and the movement for democratic reform.

Title: The Force Is With Us

Peter Robinson: Two-thirds of the population is under the age of twenty-five in Iran, the so-called Third Force. What does the Third Force want?

Abbas Milani: The Third Force wants what every youth wants in the world. They want jobs, they want entertainment, they want freedom, they want to be able to go into the streets and hold the hands of their beloved. They want what any educated youth of the world want. They are no different anywhere else. They are very wired. The Iranian youth are enormously connected to the Internet. Iran, after Israel, is on record as the most wired…

Guity Nashat: That's very true.

Abbas Milani: …country in the Middle East. They're online, on the net, they're surfing the net, they see American values, British values, French values and some mullah wants to tell them that if they want to hold the hand of a woman, they're going to get eighty whips. That doesn't work.

Peter Robinson: Okay so if you have two-thirds of the population under twenty-five…

Abbas Milani: …and jobs.

Peter Robinson: …and they're all on the Internet…

Guity Nashat: I think unemployment is the most important, yes.

Peter Robinson: …but all we have to do then for Iran, we don't have to call them the axis of evil or threaten them. All we have to do is wait. As this demographic bulge moves through, Iran will be transformed in a way that we would like, right?

Michael McFaul: Maybe.

Peter Robinson: Oh, back to the margins, back to the margins.

Michael McFaul: If you were to have lived in Poland as I did in the 1980s, you would have seen all these things, not the internet, but it was fiercely, fiercely anti-communist, anti-Soviet society from day one. We know that for a fact. And that regime lasted forty years. So don't get me wrong, I think Iran is a lot like Poland. But to say that we know…

Peter Robinson: But there were Soviet troops on the border.

Guity Nashat: Exactly. But Mike, what you're ignoring…

Michael McFaul: Who controls the guns right now in Iran? Who puts people in jail? Who just arrested pollsters, pollsters to tell us what we know, they're in jail today. They're not out there demonstrating.

Guity Nashat: But there is a very big difference. And the difference is that the Iranian Army--many people within the Army, many people within the clerical establishment are opposed to these policies and there is a fierce debate going on in Iran today between two different groups of clergy. The majority would like--and the reason why this condition is still enforced in Iran is because the constitution gives the spiritual leader this complete authority, that could have made Saddam Hussein happy, supreme leader. He has authority above the law.

Peter Robinson: The top office holder. Right

Guity Nashat: Absolutely. And this is really the struggle I think that's really essential that's going on in Iran even though…

Peter Robinson: It's a struggle for constitutional reform.

Guity Nashat: Constitutional reform…

Peter Robinson: To limit the leaders of the supreme leader or to redraft the entire…

Guity Nashat: No, no, to have an amendment to the constitution and to limit the authority of the spiritual leader. And this is coming from members of the clergy. And to me, this is really the important thing that's going on in Iran.

Peter Robinson: Okay, let me ask you--okay, hold on--hang on.

Abbas Milani: I think you have to...first of all, the reform movement is not united in what they want. Some of the reform movement including Khatami wants to essentially preserve…

Peter Robinson: Who is?

Abbas Milani: Who is the president.

Peter Robinson: Thank you.

Abbas Milani: Khatami is on record as wanting to preserve this system but make it a little more amenable to democracy. That's not going to work. This system is inherently anti-democratic.

Peter Robinson: Next topic, how should the United States respond to the reform process in Iran?

Title: Ch-Ch-Changes

Peter Robinson: Let me quote this man whose name I can't pronounce once again, Amuzegar?

Guity Nashat: Amuzegar.

Peter Robinson: Amuzegar: "Any U.S.," "Any U.S. strategy that even remotely raises the specter of foreign interference in Iran is doomed to fail." Now I quote McFaul: "The very existence of a battle between democratic and anti-democratic forces in Iran creates an opportunity for American officials to push the process in the right direction." Michael, you foreign interventionist you.

Michael McFaul: Well, two things. First of all, you can't have a policy of calling Iran the axis of evil, treating the place as a unitary actor and not recognize that there's this battle that we've been talking about. So at least as a minimum, we have to have a policy that has a little more sophisticated edges to it and that we recognize that our allies, in fact, are this third force and most of the people in Iran. Second, intervention--I don't know where you're quoting from, doesn't matter…

Peter Robinson: It's in my briefcase.

Michael McFaul: I was not talking about bringing in the Third Battalion. I'm talking about education; I'm talking about Internet sites that talk about democracy. And the notion that somehow the state should be sovereign and just because I happen to have a blue passport rather than some other color, do not have the right or ability or should if I believe in democracy, to interact with an individual who happens to live in Iran and have the same thoughts, I think is ludicrous. Our government unfortunately blocks some of the kind of interconnectivity that I can have with my colleagues…

Peter Robinson: We do?

Michael McFaul: Yes, we do.

Guity Nashat: Yeah, I think what the U.S. government is doing is by creating an embargo, economic embargo against Iran, it has kept Iran in a state of--the status quo is continuing.

Peter Robinson: Okay.

Guity Nashat: What Iran needs is to--or what the U.S. needs is to lift the embargo and to allow the private sector in Iran to bloom and to improve…

Peter Robinson: Okay. Now you let me…

Abbas Milani: But if you go back to your question…

Peter Robinson: Yes.

Abbas Milani: And I agree with Mike. The notion that the United States can play no role in Iran or in that region and completely leave Iran alone, I think is a very, first of all, dangerous proposition.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Abbas Milani: The United States is a major force in there--there are 250,000 American troops there. There are bases there.

Michael McFaul: On both sides. We're there.

Abbas Milani: You can't assume--I mean, this is an absolute utopian dream. And furthermore, it is to the detriment of the interest of the Iranian people and to the detriment of the interest of democracy in general.

Peter Robinson: Okay. Advise the President. Give him the top two things he ought to do here.

Abbas Milani: My advice would be what policy has worked in the past in this country, vis-à-vis Iran, is to defend democracy. Stand for democracy, defend democracy, do not negotiate with the people who do not represent the democratic constitutional. Do not negotiate, do not make a deal with Khomeini who is now out to make a deal with the United States because he feels threatened. That would be to the detriment of Iranian people. It would be to the detriment of the United States and it would be to the detriment of democracy. I am against U.S. forces going to Iran, as Mike says. There are some Iranians who are trying to get the United States to go in. I think they're very foolish. I think they're hurting Iran. But I also think that because of what happened in Iraq, the Iranian government released the thirteen Jews that it was holding. The last five…

Guity Nashat: Only five…

Abbas Milani: …the last five--no the…

Guity Nashat: The last five.

Abbas Milani: The last five.

Guity Nashat: Right, right.

Abbas Milani: They began releasing them as soon as United States began.

Peter Robinson: But isn't that an argument for pressure?

Abbas Milani: There should be pressure.

Peter Robinson: There's a quarter million troops there and suddenly they're responding. So…

Guity Nashat: But my point is that, yes, I do agree that we should have a consistent policy.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Guity Nashat: But we cannot go around and name countries that have, let's say dictatorships as axis of evil. Egypt is a much greater dictatorship than Iran, as is Saudi Arabia. We have good relations with both, so let's call them also axis of evil. Saudi Arabia is the first country that in terms of its financial support for terrorism, it's the most important country. Pakistan also…

Peter Robinson: So I see the inconsistencies but tell the President what he should do.

Guity Nashat: I would tell the President they should not intervene in Iranian affairs. They should allow this process that has been unleashed in Iran to take its own course and the fact that we are present in the neighborhood, in Afghanistan and Iran, will exert sufficient pressure on Iran to change on the hardliners. But I also would advocate the lifting of embargoes. Why? Because I believe if today the hardliners control 80% of Iran's economy, 80% of Iran's economy is in the public sector and it's the source of the power of the hardliners. If we lift the embargo and allow Iran, Iran's private sector to expand, I think this will undermine the control of the hardliners.

Peter Robinson: Okay. So stand for democracy. Lift the embargo. Do you buy that?

Michael McFaul: Absolutely.

Peter Robinson: Both of those.

Michael McFaul: But I would be more aggressive, frankly.

Guity Nashat : How could you be more aggressive?

Michael McFaul: Let me give you one example, okay.

Guity Nashat: Because you will discredit...

Michael McFaul: No, no, no. You…

Guity Nashat: ...the forces of change.

Michael McFaul: With all due respect because you know this country better than I do but it is quite arrogant of us to sit in Palo Alto and tell the people who are fighting on the front lines in Iran, what they can or cannot do. Let me give you one example. We have a thing called the National Endowment for Democracy, set up under Ronald Reagan. They give grants to democrats all over the world. We can't give grants to Iran because of our legislation right now because it's helping a regime that is considered part of the axis of evil.

Peter Robinson: Okay, that's stupid.

Michael McFaul: That to me--right. And then they put out the thing and then let the people of Iran apply it. If they want to apply--they're the ones that are going to jail, not you--not us.

Guity Nashat: Right.

Michael McFaul: We need to be aggressive in that kind of stuff. How many Iranian students are here? Next to none compared to the Russians and Ukrainians. That is a…

Abbas Milani: But they're the best of students.

Michael McFaul: Yes, and they are.

Abbas Milani: Systematically, they're some of the best students.

Peter Robinson: Time now for final predictions.

Title: Weapons of Mass Democracy

Peter Robinson: Five years from now, will Iran possess nuclear weapons? Abbas?

Abbas Milani: I cannot say absolutely yes or no. I know that they are on the path to trying to develop it but if my guestimate is correct, in five years Iran will be a democratic society and a democratic Iran…

Peter Robinson: That's the next question. Hold on you is answering two questions at once. What about nuclear weapons?

Guity Nashat: I'm not really sure they will because they have realized that hostility of America to their development of atomic weap--of…

Peter Robinson: Nuclear weapons.

Guity Nashat: …weapons of mass destruction, therefore, I doubt if they will do that. They may use it for peaceful purposes but not for war.

Peter Robinson: These are two fairly encouraging predictions. You'd go with that?

Michael McFaul: Well, it depends on your next question, which is about democracy.

Peter Robinson: Exactly.

Michael McFaul: Democracy, no weapons. No democracy, weapons most definitely.

Peter Robinson: Really?

Michael McFaul: Absolutely.

Peter Robinson: Okay. So then let's just go around the table. Five years from now, will Iran be significantly more democratic than it is today?

Abbas Milani: I think Iran will be significantly democratic and I 100% agree with Mike that the radicals have learned the lesson from Iraq. If they have a nuke, they will get treated like North Korea, differently than Saddam Hussein. If they stay in power, they are going to go full force trying to get a nuke and…

Peter Robinson: So there is a mad scramble on?

Abbas Milani: I think if the democracy does not win in Iran, that possibility--I mean if you put yourself in their position, that's the rational choice to make. I mean, if you want to make a rational prediction and put yourself in that shoe, that shoe which has always done what is required to survive, will see the writing on the wall.

Peter Robinson: Guity?

Guity Nashat: A democracy, yes.

Peter Robinson: And Mike?

Michael McFaul: Yes.

Peter Robinson: You think so too?

Michael McFaul: Hopefully. Hopefully.

Peter Robinson: Oh, hopefully but I mean, realistically what's your best…

Michael McFaul: I teach comparative democratization and I teach revolution…

Peter Robinson: Do you tilt one way or the other?

Michael McFaul: It's the most important country undergoing democratization in the world today.

Peter Robinson: All right. Thank you very much.

Peter Robinson: I'm Peter Robinson for Uncommon Knowledge. Thank you for joining us.