April 2, 2015

For better US-Iran relations, the Iranian people are the key

2009-iranAmerican neoconservatives, Israeli hawks, and Arab dictators alike are haunted by the same nightmare: After a nuclear deal, the US and Iran will gravitate toward an unspoken alliance, after which the US will betray its security commitments to historical allies in the Middle East.

No such thing will happen. The US and Iran have many common interests in the region, and while there is a desire for increased collaboration, neither side is ready for an alliance, unspoken or otherwise.

The Iranians prefer to maintain their role as the world’s chief critics of US policy. Open alliance with Washington would be to Tehran’s disadvantage, the regime believes. On the US side, antipathy toward Iran runs deep within the federal government and legislative bodies, and political resistance to anything resembling formal partnership with a clerical regime in Tehran would be overwhelming.

But Iran is more than just a government. At some point, Washington needs to look past the Islamic Republic’s current political system, an toward its vibrant society. Indeed, beyond the politics of the two governments, all the ingredients for strong cooperation are present.

If America’s interest lies in a stable Middle East that rejects radicalism and chooses the path of moderation and integration with the rest of the global system, then America needs to look not towards governments, but societies in the region that have exhibited such maturity. In spite of the government of Iran, there are few societies in the Middle East as as promising as Iran.

Most of America’s traditional allies in the Middle East are governed by regimes that are autocratic yet more modern and progressive—in relative terms—than the societies they rule. This has been America’s dilemma in the Middle East. Were it to genuinely push for greater representation and democracy amongst its allies, the result would likely be the election of more radical politicians, and the pursuit of policies more incompatible with American values and interests.

Undoubtedly, the Arab dictators are not innocent in these matters. They have deliberately undermined moderate oppositional movements in order to portray themselves as the West’s only option against a radical Islamic takeover. The Arab Spring showed that they had largely succeeded in weakening all but the extreme organized movements in their societies.

In Iran, the situation is quite the opposite. While the government, over the last 35 years, has espoused various degrees of radicalism, the Iranian society is overwhelmingly moderate, educated and forward-looking; despite the existence of a small but highly vocal element of religious radicals.

Consider the following: According to UNICEF, adult literacy rates in Iran are one of the highest in the region, hovering around 85%. For the younger demographic, 15 to 24-years-old, literacy rates are near universal for both men and women. Primary school enrollment is at 99.9%.

What’s more, Iran boasts a largely urban population, with 69% living in cities, and with a cell phone penetration rate of an estimated 125%.

While women continue to face many unjust restrictions, one-third of doctors, 60% of civil servants, 60% of university students, and 80% of teachers in Iran are women. By contrast, in Saudi Arabia—the US’s longtime regional ally—the current debate is whether women should be permitted to drive cars.

Iran is certainly not a bastion of religious freedom, but it has a society with a long history of religious coexistence between Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Zoroastrians. Despite venomous relations between Iran and Israel in the past three decades, Iran remains the home of the second-largest Jewish community in the Middle East outside of Israel itself, after Turkey.

In Tehran alone, there are 12 active synagogues. Around another 50 active synagogues can be found in the rest of Iran. In fact, according to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), Iran is one of the least anti-Semitic, majority-Muslim countries in the world.

Compare that to Saudia Arabia. More than 30% of the population there are expatriates of various faiths. Yet, according to the CIA, “most forms of public religious expression inconsistent with the government-sanctioned interpretation of Sunni Islam are restricted; non-Muslims are not allowed to have Saudi citizenship, and non-Muslim places of worship are not permitted.”

Most notably, what sets Iran apart is the decisive role its society has played in its political evolution. Iran is not a liberal democracy, but it is an electoral state. The major shifts in Iran’s internal and external direction in the past 20 years have been a direct result of its presidential elections. From the opening to the West under reformist president Mohammad Khatami, to the confrontational direction of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his strengthening of the police state, to the moderate and pro-diplomacy course under current president Hassan Rouhani—all have reflected the ideals, to some extent, of the Iranian electorate.

It is a resilient electorate, too. Even when the Iranian people were beat down, as they were during 2009’s election—widely believed to have been fraudulent—they bounced back. They patiently resisted, and four years later, they went back to the ballot boxes—despite a deeply flawed voting system—and used their votes to change the course of the country, electing moderate Rouhani. Their participation in the elections was not an endorsement or legitimization of the regime; it was a concentrated effort to change the system from within.

Iranian society has grown up since the 1979 revolution. It has learned its lessons. Violent change rarely leads to the democracy people desire. Gradual, controllable reform—however slow and painful—simply has a far greater chance of true success. The populations who experienced the Arab Spring may be reaching similar conclusions now.

One of the biggest mistakes outside analysts have committed is to discount the power and maturity of Iranian society. That is why so many were taken by surprise by Rouhani’s election in 2013. Or why they thought that the pressure of sanctions would lead to mass demonstrations in Iran. Closer familiarity with Iranian society would have protected against such misjudgments.

Iran has changed dramatically over the course of the past three decades. Those changes have primarily been driven by pressures coming from inside, not abroad. It is these internal pressures from the Iranian people that is causing a convergence of values and interests between the United States and Iran. Once a nuclear deal has been struck, Iranian society is likely to be even bolder in its campaigns for change.

This is not an argument for the United States to drop its alliance with Saudi Arabia, or other governments in the region. It is simply a reminder that Iranian society need not be permanently, definitively opposed to American interests. Reduction of tensions and increased bilateral understanding between Washington and Tehran will lay the groundwork for the truest of all objectives: lasting peace.

This piece originally appeared in Quartz.

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