Accessibility links

Breaking News

Interview: Promoting Democracy In Iran Successfully

By Fatemeh Aman Milani says Iran has a stronger democratic tradition than anywhere else in the Middle East (Courtesy Photo) U.S. media and opinion makers have devoted much comment to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's proposal to provide $85 million in assistance to help promote democracy in Iran. One of these opinion makers is Dr. Abbas Milani, director of the Iranian Studies Program at Stanford University and co-director of the Iran Democracy Project at the Hoover Institution, who has spoken out about the U.S. government's proposal in articles published in "The Wall Street Journal" and elsewhere. In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL's Radio Farda, Milani discusses his views concerning the promotion of democracy in the Middle East and Iran.

Radio Farda: In your recent article with the interesting title of "Checking Account for Democracy," you welcomed the Bush administration's allocation of $85 million for the promotion of democracy in Iran. But in the article you don't sound very optimistic that this move will have a significant impact on the democracy movement in Iran. Why?

Abbas Milani: I think that if it's well spent -- in other words, if it is not squandered on things that cannot be done and it is not given to groups that cannot manage it wisely -- then it can be very effective, particularly if it is used primarily to create something like a surrogate radio and a surrogate television. Something that would be the equivalent of what an Iranian television and radio would have been, had Iran been a democratic society. I think, if Iran had such a media outlet a few years ago, for example, I think things would have been very different in Iran today. And I think they will be very different in a few years once such an institution is created with the help of this money.

Long Democratic Tradition

Radio Farda: Do you think the United States and the West have been successful at promoting democracy in the Middle East and in Iran? And if you think they have not been successful, what do you think is the reason?

Milani: The chance of promoting democracy, successfully, in Iran is greater than anywhere else in the Middle East for two very, very prominent reasons. One is, the Iranian society has an indigenous, powerful, now 100-year-old democratic movement. This is not something that has to be created ex nihilo, from nothing. This is something that is there; the United States doesn't have to create it.

Secondly, the United States faces in Iran a reality that is the opposite of every other Middle Eastern country with the exception of Israel, and that is that the government talks anti-American rhetoric, but the people, the street, is predominantly pro-American. What you have in the rest of the Middle East is that the government is trying to be, at least ostensibly are, pro-American, but the people, often influenced by advertisements in the media of those very countries, are anti-American. So in the case of Iran, you have a democratic movement that exists, that has made great strides in the past (it is now in a period of relative retreat because of the [former President Mohammad] Khatami defeat, the disappointment that came as a result of Khatami, but those forces there, they haven't gone away), and the population is predominantly pro-American. In other words, they will listen. It is not like they will not listen to something that is openly, transparently American.

Radio Farda: You said it is easy to promote democracy in Iran, but I also asked whether you think the United States has been successful in promoting democracy. If not, what has been at fault?

Milani: The problem in Iraq, the reason that democracy promotion in Iraq has not been successful is because in the case of Iraq there was not [an] indigenous democratic movement. The United States decided to invade Iraq, and that created a Pandora's box that some scholars had anticipated but many planners did not anticipate, in other words, the emergence of this kind of insurgency and all of the other things that have happened.

But at the same time, if you look at the Middle East today and compare it with 15 years ago, you, I think, have to admit that there are more democracies in the Middle East than there were. The Palestinians just had the freest elections in the history of probably any Arab country. In Lebanon, the people succeeded in pushing out Syria. There is a very viable democracy in Kurdistan, in the British part of Iraq. There is at least the possibility of democracy coming to Egypt; at least flickers of it are on the horizon, at least [Egyptian President] Hosni Mubarak knows the old trick of saying, "If you push me, you will get Islamic radicalism" is no longer enough to dissuade the U.S. from pushing for democracy. There have been failures in the other places, or small successes as in the case of Iraqi Kurdistan.

What has happened in Kurdistan is truly incredible. It's a very viable, democratic part of Iraq that thrives. But there, the U.S. had to face the problem that it was working in a milieu, in an atmosphere, which was very, very anti-American. And it had to face the reality that there wasn't much of a democratic movement in these countries to begin with.

The U.S. had to sort of force democracy on these societies, and that can't be done. You can't force societies to become democratic. Democracy needs a lot of things. It needs civil society, it needs a middle class, it needs a technocratic class, it needs a culture of tolerance. And these things are beginning to exist on a very extensive basis in Iran. In the case of Iran, I think if there was a television and radio station that was doing this kind of a promotion of democracy, I think it would be a very different story.

Helping Iranians Help Themselves

Radio Farda: You wrote that this help can be used by those who are denouncing violence in their fight for democracy in Iran. As you have indicated, U.S. financial support for Iran-based democrats is a sensitive issue. So how can these forces be helped by the U.S. without being hurt?

Milani: Fist of all, several things have to be very clear. One is that the U.S. is not looking for a [exiled Iraqi opposition leader Ahmad] Chalabi in Iran. Second, that the U.S. is not trying to decide who the next ruler of Iran will be. Third, that the U.S. will not support any group that has a history of terrorism, a history of violence, a history of oppression. Fourth, that the U.S. will not help movements that want to dismember Iran, that are trying to break Iran apart.

The U.S. could be tempted to do that, and it would be easy because there is a lot of national resentment among Kurds, among Turks. The U.S., I think, has to say clearly, categorically, unmistakably: "We won't do this. We won't support terrorists. We won't support anyone who is advocating the violent overthrow of the government. And we don't plan to force a solution on Iran."

The only thing that the U.S. should say it wants to do is to help the Iranians themselves in this process. That's a very crucial thing. That's a big difference between Iran and Iraq. In Iraq, the U.S. essentially went in, occupied the country, ran the country for a while, and then said, "OK, let's see if you can have a democratic government here." That's hard to get. But my suggestion is that that should be avoided in Iran, and a different path can be tried. And I think that if it is tried and if it is made clear that the U.S. respects the rights of Iranians to determine their own future, then you will get a different result, and you will get a good result.

Radio Farda: Regarding your suggestion of the creation of an American visa office in Tehran, how should we imagine this? How realistic is this idea?

Milani: Well, as I said there, I don't think the Islamic regime will allow it, but the U.S. should make the offer. It should be clear to the Iranians, who now are forced to go to Turkey and Dubai and Germany and to spend a lot of money and wait in a lot of lines and be humiliated to get a passport, that this is essentially the fault of the regime. It's the fault of Mr. [President Mahmud] Ahmadinejad's rhetoric.

It is crucial, I think, for the U.S. to separate the Iranian people from this regime, to speak to the Iranian people and say: "Look, we don't have any problem with you. We respect your right to develop a nuclear program within the existing laws. But the problem is with this regime, and if we don't give you visas, it's because the regime doesn't allow us to have a visa office there."

It must be made clear who is responsible for the problems that the people of Iran face. Because it has a monopoly on the media, the regime has very successfully told people a lot of stories. They have sold the nuclear issue as a David and Goliath story. America, they have tried to sell -- tried, they haven't been successful -- as being a bully, singling Iran out and denying Iran its rights. It must be made clear that it is the regime's irresponsible rhetoric and its action, its lying and betraying the trust of the Iranian people and of the global community, that has gotten Iran into the current impasse. It has to be made clear to the Iranian people that the U.S. is willing to work with them. A truly, editorially independent media would go a long way in doing that.

What Would Sanctions Mean?

What Would Sanctions Mean?

Economic sanctions could further undermine Iran's already shaky economy (Fars)

MOVING TOWARD SANCTIONS: If the United Nations Security Council imposes sanctions on Iran, domestic support for Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad will wane, according to ALEX VATANKA, Eurasia editor for Jane's Information Group.
Vatanka told a February 24 RFE/RL briefing that "economic sanctions will hurt the average Iranian" and, consequently, many "will blame the ruling clerics" for making life difficult and "impairing the country's long term development."
Vatanka said sanctions would be a serious challenge to the Iranian government. If harsh economic sanctions were imposed, Iran's poorest population will be hurt the hardest -- and might react "as they did in the 1970s and protest in the streets." Sanctions on travel, Vatanka said, would hurt a many Iranians because "Iran is a nation of small traders" who depend on the ability to travel to earn an income. According to Vatanka, unemployment in Iran is estimated at 30 percent, "so small trading is essential to survival." Although current U.S. sanctions "haven't worked," he said, "Iranians fear an oil embargo." He stressed that "oil revenues are a major part of the economy, so it is critical to look at this sector."
Should negotiations with the European Union and the UN fail, Vatanka believes that Iran would follow a "North Korea model," since Ahmadinejad's base of support among the "Islamist militias" has been "urging withdrawal from the NPT [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty]." The Iranian government's "tactic" so far, Vatanka said, is governed by the belief that "by shouting the loudest, you'll get concessions [from the West]."


Listen to the complete panel discussion (about 60 minutes):
Real Audio Windows Media

THE COMPLETE STORY: RFE/RL's coverage of the controversy surrounding Iran's nuclear program.


An annotated timeline of Iran's nuclear program.