February 28, 2019

VALDETARO | The Door to Iranian Democracy Is Still Open

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Editor’s Note: This piece is part of a new dueling columns feature. In this feature, Michael Johns ’20 and Giancarlo Valdetaro ’21 debate, “Forty years after the Iranian Revolution, what posture should the U.S. take on the Islamic Republic?” Read the counterpart column here.

A nation of over 80 million people, Iran has been a belligerent boogeyman for U.S. politicians to rail against ever since the 1979 Islamic Revolution and ensuing Iran Hostage Crisis. In the four decades since, the response to this initial attack on U.S. citizens and its continuing rhetorical accompaniments has ranged from aiding Iraq in a war against their Farsi-speaking neighbors to sending humanitarian aid to those same neighbors in the wake of a December 2003 earthquake. Today, as President Trump meets in Vietnam for a summit with the totalitarian leader of North Korea, another oppressive regime posing a nuclear threat to the U.S. and its allies across the globe, he and the U.S. foreign policy establishment should recognize that protecting Americans and liberating Iranians are not mutually exclusive aims. In fact, by rejoining the Iran deal, the U.S. can not only reduce the threat of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon, but can drastically improve the chances of Iran’s population achieving the democracy they have so long deserved.

Before President Trump pulled out of the deal on May 8, 2018, the Iran deal exchanged relief from crippling sanctions for limitations on and enhanced scrutiny of Iran’s nuclear program. Per its conditions, the time it would take Iran to rush production of a nuclear weapon increased from a few months to a year. Although this may not seem like much, it not only gives time for preventative diplomacy to take place, but makes any military action a last resort, as opposed to the everyday consideration it was before the Iran deal. That said, the deal has flaws, namely the ten-year expiration of key provisions and few constraints on Iran’s non-nuclear efforts to influence the region.

However, not only could a time period of regularly verified cooperation be used to work towards a longer-lasting, more expansive agreement that addressed Iran’s regional power plays, but the positives of rejoining the deal far outweigh the negatives. In addition to reducing Iran’s nuclear weapons capabilities, the Iran deal bolsters the Islamic nation’s moderate and reformist opposition. After eight years of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s hard-line rule, Iran’s current president, Hassan Rouhani, was elected president in 2013, promising economic and social liberalization. Though he delivered on the latter, improving Iran’s economy has been difficult — even with the increased fiscal space from the nuclear deal — due to government incompetence and renewed U.S. sanctions. At the turn of 2017, frustration over Iran’s economic plight led to protests aimed not only at the conservative members of the political system whose corruption and graft most-deleteriously affected everyday Iranians, but at Mr. Rouhani as well.

With a coalition that is grateful for — but not satisfied by — the increased social freedoms Rouhani has delivered, U.S. re-entry into the nuclear deal could buoy hopes for a future Iranian democracy by lifting economic sanctions, thereby boosting Iran’s economy. This would not only improve the day-to-day lives of everyday Iranians, who are increasingly wary of all political leaders, but could help cleave traditionally conservative voters from their hard-line views on the U.S. Unlike in 2009, when the re-election of President Ahmadinejad was disputed by supporters of moderates and reformists mostly living in Iran’s big cities, the most recent round of protests occurred in rural areas that traditionally support Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini and his political allies. Were President Rouhani able to make life better for these Iranians, through a diplomatic agreement with the U.S. no less, their support for the theocratic faction of Iran’s government, which prevents candidates from running and leads a wave of arrests following electoral victories of reformists, might wane.

Even more important than these economic benefits, though, the U.S. re-joining the nuclear deal could help foster democracy in Iran by removing the U.S. as a foil for Iranian hard-liners to invoke whenever they wish to distract from their failures. After the U.S. overthrew Iran’s last legitimate democracy in 1953 — replacing it with a brutal, but U.S.-friendly and oil-rich, dictatorship — the sense of betrayal and anger over U.S. hypocrisy at the root of Iran’s anti-American rhetoric is justifiable. By leaving the nuclear deal after spending years negotiating it, trying to have its cake and eat it too, the U.S. fits the malevolent portrait that Iranian hard-liners have painted of it over their last four decades in power. Re-entering the deal means that the U.S. would fit that mold no longer.

Fortunately, unlike in some other non-democratic nations, Iran’s door to democracy is already open. Not only are there competitive, albeit constrained, elections, but reformists have been elected before and continue to be elected in large numbers. Furthermore, there have been times before when the Islamic Republic and the U.S. seemed close to negotiating terms that were more generous than those in the nuclear deal. However, as Monday’s resignation of Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif, the chief negotiator on the nuclear deal, after criticizing hard-liners in the country shows, political progress in Iran can be tenuous. Rejoining the nuclear deal is the best chance the U.S. has at encouraging further progress. The U.S. owes it to itself and the Iranian people to recognize this, and make sure that progress isn’t crushed by the door to democracy slamming shut.

Giancarlo Valdetaro is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].