September 26, 20012
Iran’s nuclear program is taking center stage in foreign policy discussions as we approach the presidential election. For the first time, a Western détente with a nuclear Iran is gaining acceptance among commentators in the United States. Similarly, détente seems to be the policy of choice for millions of Iranians inside the country and abroad.
Détente is a bitter pill to swallow for the West and for the democratic forces in Iran. It sentences Iranians to a life under an even more self-assured and entrenched Islamic Republic. Despite that, war is a less acceptable and far riskier prospect. The horrors of the Iran-Iraq War still haunt the Iranian people.
Those eight years of war were the most repressive period under the Islamic Republic. Iranians joyfully celebrated the 1989 cease-fire. Following the war, Iran remained free of bombings, explosions and other violence that engulfed Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The clerical regime remained repressive and brutal, yet residents of Tehran did not have to leave their homes for bomb shelters.
Iran has been insulated from the growing influence of pro-al Qaeda and other radical groups, and the sectarian conflicts that devastated countries in the region. While Iranians oppose the Islamic Republic and its suppression of basic human rights, they cherish life without car bombs and sectarian violence.
The past few years are ample evidence that war and violence have only radicalized the fundamentalist and anti-democratic groups, while marginalizing and weakening the secular and democratic forces in the Middle East. The recent anti-American protests in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere in the Muslim world are reminders of dangers of another military confrontation in the region. War will provide a new space of operation for jihadists. Radical Muslim groups would welcome a war with Iran. Détente is their enemy.
Détente also is a risky affair for the United States and other Western states that do not trust the Iranian regime and fear a nuclear Iran. The Western fears are, however, largely based on a mistaken understanding of the motives and dilemmas of the Iranian government. The Iranian regime is brutal and merciless in dealing with the people of Iran. It is, however, more rational than many believe.
Iran’s government has experienced important change in the past three decades. Gone are the days when the Islamic Republic was a consolidated ideological regime. The death of Ayatollah Khomeini and the end of war with Iraq began the process of shedding the regime’s ideological skin. Profit-making and rent-seeking have replaced the ideology of Islam in shaping the policies of the economic-military-industrial mafia that rules Iran.
Despite the public declarations by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the mullahs about Israel, the Iranian rulers are largely guided by an acutely economic-driven survival instinct.
Ahmadinejad’s statement on Monday that Israel would be “eliminated” was a well-calculated move to tap into widespread anger in Arab streets and assert Iran as the leader of the Muslim masses. It was anticipated. The rulers in Iran are, however, fully aware of the existential dangers of a confrontation with Israel and the West. They are brutal, but not suicidal.
Furthermore, Iran’s track record demonstrates the government is fully prepared to make deals with its “enemies” under suitable and mutually beneficial conditions. Remember Iran-Contra? Iranians also extended their helping hands to the Americans in the early days of war in Afghanistan.
Iran may or may not have the intention to build a bomb, but it is seeking the capability to do so. That is Iran’s ultimate bargaining chip, its rulers believe. The Iranian regime hopes to be accepted as a regional power and to negotiate with the West as an equal partner on matters of mutual interest. An Iran with nuclear capabilities, the government believes, will have more negotiating power. The Iranian regime does not seem prepared to retreat from this position, particularly under the threat of war.
With the specter of war looming, publicly opposing the government’s nuclear policy is not a possibility in Iran. The democratic forces in Iran rely on the American voters to help prevent another devastating conflict in the Middle East. Let’s use the upcoming election to campaign for peace. We can still prevent this looming war.