Friday, November 28, 2008

Democracy and Human Rights In Iran: What Role for the West?

House of Commons

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure for me to be with you this afternoon, and I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Henry Jackson Society in London as well as Gisela Stuart MP for helping to organize this meeting.

Let me start by saying that in my talk with you today, I wish to go beyond the designated issue of democracy and human rights in my country, and any role which the West might have in promoting them. This is because, democracy and human rights in Iran is today intricately tied with a number of other key issues such as nuclear proliferation, regional stability and finally, international peace and security. To be more specific, I wish to say that the threat that is posed to international security by the Islamic Republic of Iran, is precisely because of the fact that Iran is today governed by a brutal dictatorship, where the will of the majority is ignored and anyone who in any way challenges the decisions of the state are severely dealt with. It thus follows that the establishment of a democratic system of government in Iran that respects the human rights of its citizens will undoubtedly pave the way for removing Iran as a major source of international anxiety. The implications of such a transition are quite obvious for both the people of Iran as well as the wider international community. For the people of Iran, the establishment of a democratic government would mean that their country would cease being an international pariah. Moreover, it would mean that country’s vast resources would be mobilized for securing the future of the country by helping to cure its ailing economy instead of driving the nation to the brinks of an unwanted military confrontation with the international community over something ridiculous like uranium enrichment. Indeed a democratic government in Iran would invest in the people of Iran instead of investing in forces of instability and terror with whom they have bonded for promoting a militant anti-Western, and in particular, anti American agenda.

In my view, it thus follows that the West does have a role in seeing how this scenario develops. It can either stand aside or remain impervious to the plight of millions of my compatriots by trying to compromise with their oppressors or adopt a different, more ethical role of siding with them and helping them to attain their fundamental rights and basic freedoms.

Here, I wish to add that, in my view, there is no question that the prospect for change in the aftermath of the election victory of President Elect Barrack Obama, has already aroused a new atmosphere of great expectations on the part of people everywhere, including my homeland, who see his success as a new and promising catalyst for the construction of a new world order that is based on peace, freedom, justice and opportunity. Given his personal background, people – irrespective of their nationality or geographical circumstance – are hopeful that the new US president will be much more sensitive to the kind of problems and impediments which have held them back and compromised their honor and dignity at the same time.

The pertinent question, therefore, is whether such expectations are realistic or not? Another words, will it be business as usual where economic interest often trump human rights considerations or will we step into a new and different era with all its incumbent challenges?

Focusing on my country, it is fair to say that up until the last several weeks when world attention has been fixed on the ongoing international financial crisis, that Iran and Iran related issues – in one way or another – had consistently received a disproportionate share of attention in the world media. Iran’s obstinate disregard of numerous UN Security Council resolutions and various international warnings concerning its nuclear policy and ambitions has created a situation whereby the country has become increasingly isolated while creeping slowly to the edges of an unwanted military conflict. It is also true to say that while certain parties in the West have periodically responded to Iranian disregard for international pressures such as those demanded by the Security Council and others that were more diplomatically conveyed in the ‘5+1’ meetings, by insisting that “all options are on the table”, there is a general sense that warnings of this nature are more indicative of rising frustration rather than clear intent.

It is clear that so far, the ‘5+1’ policy in halting Iran’s uranium enrichment program has failed to achieve its objectives, since neither the promise of inducements nor the threat of punishments have been sufficient to convince the Islamic leaders to change direction. It is in finding itself in such a situation, when its repackaged incentive offer has been effectively turned down, and in circumstances when the ‘5+1’ have been unable to be more robust in imposing stricter sanctions against the clerical regime, that the debate regarding ‘cooperation or confrontation’ with Iran is once again being revived.

Now, when we speak of ‘cooperation or confrontation’, there is no question that everyone would prefer ‘cooperation’ to ‘confrontation’. The most obvious factor is whether it is possible to arrive at an acceptable ‘modus vivendi’ with Iran or not? Here, it is essential once again, to take note that in the case of Iran’s nuclear file, the West has been engaged in negotiations with Iran for over 5 years, where the Europeans in particular have gone to extreme lengths in order to arrive at some form of a compromise. Their failure is due to the fact that their offers of incentive have been insufficient to commit the Iranians to observing their ‘red-lines’.

Thus, in very simple terms, unless the US and the EU are willing to re-draw the very ‘red-lines’ that they have marked of their own accord, then prospects for cooperation would appear to be very dim. No doubt if the ‘5+1’ were willing to live with a nuclear Iran, it would inevitably lead to a major proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, making the region a greater powder keg than it already is, then I am sure that the current crises could be resolved ‘cooperatively’. A recent study produced by the Institute for Security Studies of the European Union makes specific recommendations to this effect. But this is not a formula that I would recommend.

Here, I wish to be very candid with you: I believe that while one must strive for making every effort to make cooperation work, one cannot avoid confrontation by behaving expediently or by compromising one’s own principles. I believe that the majority of honored guests here this afternoon are well familiar with the history of the 1930s when the will to cooperate in an attempt to avoid conflict, blinded responsible politicians and eventually forced them into a much more costly confrontation which they had tried so hard to avoid in the first place!

So what can be done or should be done? Will cooperation be the way forward or is there no choice other than confrontation?

Today, the diplomatic ‘buzz word’ seems to be ‘engagement’. The obvious inference from this is that the US, in particular, should no longer insist on any preconditions and be ready to open direct talks with Iran. Here, it must be reiterated that perhaps for more than two decades we had a reverse situation, where the US was willing to come to the table but it was the Islamic regime that had the preconditions.

It is interesting to point out that while Iran has been clamoring for some time for direct talks with the US, and as signs have appeared that moves towards that end are now being seriously contemplated by the new Obama administration, another spanner was recently thrown into this mind-boggling equation by one of Ahmadinejad’s close advisers in Teheran who said that Iran will only talk with “the US when it has left the Middle East and ended its support for the Zionist regime”!

Most proponents of this line of thinking – perhaps wishfully, nourish the prospect that once direct negotiation starts than all contentious issues that have led to an estrangement of relations between Iran and the US, which have also indirectly affected Iran-EU relations, may in time become resolved.

In this context, quite apart from issues of primary concern to a majority of Iranians who aspire to live in a society that is free and humane with all its incumbent paraphernalia, the Iranian regime would be expected to modify its behavior on such issues as its nuclear aspirations, active engagement in international terrorism and finally, its menacing and destabilizing activities in places like Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf region.

But, is this a realistic expectation, given the nature of the Islamic Republic and the fact that for the past 30 years, militant anti-Americanism across the board has been the very foundation of its foreign policy? I certainly hope that the next US administration would give proper consideration to such realities. Most importantly, I feel that everyone in the West and in particular the US, would have a much clearer picture of issues, if they made a serious attempt at seeing matters from the prism of the Islamic leadership in Iran and not just their own wishes and priorities. I accept that this is not an easy challenge, but it is crucial and until such time that an effort has been made in this direction, there is no reason to hope that future policy decisions will be any better than those made in the past 30 years.

Having said all that let me make it clear that I am strongly opposed to any form of military action against my country. But for diplomacy to succeed, the aims as well as the obstacles to any intended objective needs to be carefully assessed and above all understood. Moreover, it is imprudent and self defeating if the West was to constantly find itself in a position of having to re-draw its own red lines.

Here, it is also essential that the ideological divide that separates the Iranian regime from the Iranian people as well as the wider world be also taken into account.

I would like to elaborate this point by suggesting that a consequence of the Islamic regime’s estrangement with its own people who are without doubt its ‘Achilles’ Heel’ in the course of the last three decades, has been the main impetus behind what I call its policy of ‘entrenchment’ in the Middle East region and beyond. In other words, as the regime gradually lost its popularity and legitimacy at home, it felt the need to hold some cards outside Iran for the obvious reason of fending off external pressures that might threaten its very existence.

Now let me say a few words about matters inside Iran. Despite its seemingly confident and secure outlook, the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) is in fact more vulnerable and damage prone than ever before in its 29 years of existence. The effects of the UN Security Council sanctions have already affected the country’s economy by having a significant impact on the private sector, while the imposition of gasoline rationing as well as the recently introduced VAT charges, have resulted in huge public protests that have led to unexpected strikes and violence.

In previous years, the IRI has successfully been able to ‘ride through’ a number of serious crises, a factor that is a mark to their resilience as well as the support base on which their order was initially constructed. Nonetheless, the number of difficult circumstances which the regime has confronted in previous years have taken their toll. Moreover, the mass exodus of its most skilled and experienced entrepreneurs, managers, bureaucrats and educated elites have contributed greatly to a major mismanagement crisis across the board, resulting in a tremendous fall in the per capita income of all Iranians.

Today, the clerical regime’s support base is at best no more than 10-15% of our population. In times of emergency, such as election times and the like, using the resources of our country, they are able to mobilize another similar figure. What this means is that in the course of the last three decades, the regime has alienated the rest of the population and is thus fearful of any circumstance that might lead to the mobilization of those it can no longer persuade. Also, while Iran is perhaps the cradle of modern day ‘Islamic Fundamentalism’, it is an accepted fact that despite its general rhetoric, none of the regime’s sanctimonious pronouncements have any bearing on the conduct of every day life amongst the Iranian people. Indeed, there should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that, although a theocracy in name, Iran is today governed like most other secular dictatorships that the world has known, since people only obey the likes of Khamenei and Ahmadinejad, not because of their special relationship with the almighty, but simply out of fear or economic need.

This development is a natural consequence of successive years of failure by the regime to improve economic conditions, and to relax social and civil society demands in a milieu where 70% of the population is below the age of 30 and well versed with the desires and aspirations of their contemporaries in other parts of the world and in particular, the West.

In the sphere of foreign policy, because of its intransigence over its nuclear file, the IRI has never been under such international pressure since its very inception. In the past 12 months, a total of four UN Security Council Resolutions have warned and subsequently punished Iran for its continued defiance of the international will. Moreover, it is thought unlikely that Islamic Republic will ever accept any compromise involving a complete halt to its uranium enrichment program.

Iran’s current stand off with the international community is also exacerbated by other factors such as Iran’s continued reliance on resort to Terrorism – both direct and indirect – for the advancement of its foreign policy objectives which have further increased tensions with the US and its various allies in places like Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and Afghanistan.

In summary, for more than a year now, the Islamic Republic of Iran has been in the midst of two extraordinary and dangerous crises. First, the amount of international pressure on Iran because of its uncompromising stance over its nuclear agenda, and second, the country’s domestic crisis fueled mainly as a consequence of its faltering economy, have both been unprecedented. As we speak, the pressures from these quarters have not declined, and there are no immediate signs that this crisis will be coming to an end any time soon.

How this crisis comes to an end is, nevertheless, a matter of supreme importance not just to the Islamic leadership in that it can mean survival or the beginning of the end for them, but for the West, given that it now has the opportunity for tilting the balance in favor of forces of democracy, progress and human rights.

Seen from the stand point of the West, I should like to point out that in the course of the past 30 years, there have been a series of confusing signals which have simply complicated matters. Focusing in particular on the US, there is little wonder that rhetoric and posturing should have eclipsed meaningful policy based on reality. As a result, there have been great many vacillations over the years that have ranged from accommodation and cooperation to regime change. Perhaps what lies at the heart of this problem – something which I believe to be a especially central issue for the new US administration – is the need to come up with a clear and robust policy that is capable of dealing effectively with Iran.

From the perspective of the EU and next US administration, while any talk of regime change – something that in any case is only the business of the Iranian people – may be set aside, securing Iranian compliance or cooperation over a whole host of critical issues highlighted by the current nuclear impasse will remain a clear priority. Indeed, dealing with some of these critical problems is widely expected to be the first major foreign policy challenges of the new Obama administration.

Finally, I would like to leave you with this thought: In the last 30 years, since the advent of the Islamic regime in Iran, we have seen a sizable expansion in the number of highly destructive conflicts that have raged in the Middle East spanning from Afghanistan to the Eastern shores of the Mediterranean. As we speak, there are some unfinished conflicts that still continue to threaten the peace and stability of the region as well as the prospects of all future generations living in the Middle East.

What has happened in the last 30 years is history.

But looking to the future it is important to note that the Islamic regime, and the regional friends and allies it has been able to cultivate, have a vision of life and society that is in stark contrast with the majority of other regional governments and their allies which includes the EU and the US.

To move forward positively, it is crucial for the West not to once again indulge itself in tactics that have been tried and tested before, and seen to fail.

Therefore, bearing in mind all that has been said, and given the fact that we are living in an increasingly interdependent environment, it should be apparent that Without a creative new policy supported by robust diplomatic efforts that encompasses a role for the overwhelming majority of Iranians who do not share the visions and values of their current rulers, nothing will change. A policy of misplaced cooperation will be tantamount to capitulation, except for the fact that the ultimate cost of confrontation will most likely increase with time. The only meaningful policy would be to engage the Iranian people and invite them to be part of a new and imaginative policy which will guarantee Iran’s territorial integrity, freedom of choice and democratic expression plus a respect for individual human rights.

A Speech by Reza Pahlavi II

Reza Pahlavi's Speech at The House of Commons