November 18, 2013
A Horizon of Opportunity
By Nader Hashemi
Director, Center for Middle East Studies, Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver

As talks resume this week in an effort to diffuse the crisis over Iran’s nuclear program, hopes are high that the U.S.–Iran relationship will thaw for good. Analyst Nader Hashemi argues that the pro-democracy movement in Iran will also benefit from a more amiable relationship between the United States and Iran.

Last week in Geneva, the crisis over Iran’s nuclear program was nearly resolved. According to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, the United States and Iran “talked more in 30 hours than [they did] in those prior 30 years,” and were “extremely close” to reaching a deal.

This week, the parties return to the negotiating table. Much of the chasm that once separated the two sides has been bridged, and according to a senior U.S. official, this time a deal is “quite possible.” If an agreement can be reached, Iran’s nuclear program will be placed under international inspection and its nuclear ambitions will be significantly reduced. In exchange for these concessions, economic sanctions against Iran will gradually be lifted. This is a triumph for diplomacy and a moment for celebration. One of the most destabilizing world issues, which has been at the top of the international agenda for more than a decade, seems to be on its way to a peaceful resolution.

Much of the chasm that once separated the two sides has been bridged, and according to a senior U.S. official, this time a deal is “quite possible.”

There are obvious benefits that flow from a nuclear deal with Iran: another war in the Middle East will be averted, the danger of nuclear proliferation in the region will be reduced, and the security of Israel, notwithstanding the protests of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his supporters in Congress, will be advanced. One further benefit, which has not received adequate attention in the Western debate on Iran’s nuclear program, is that Iranian society – and particularly Iran’s beleaguered pro-democracy movement – will also be strengthened in the process.

The punitive sanctions placed on Iran since 2012 have devastated the Iranian economy. The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran reports that average Iranian citizens, not the ruling clerical elite or the Revolutionary Guards, have borne the brunt of these sanctions:

Iranians, especially those from the lower and middle echelons of society, are increasingly unable to maintain access to such basic rights as a balanced diet, medicine, employment, education, and healthcare. … The standard of living of all wage earners has plummeted and a rising number of unemployed individuals and their families living in the country’s urban centers are being pushed into poverty and malnutrition.

The core of Iran’s civil society and human rights movement has been deeply affected by these developments. A basic struggle for survival has taken precedence over political organizing and pro-democracy activism. For this reason, a broad coalition of Iranian pro-democracy activists both inside and outside of Iran recently wrote an open letter asking U.S. President Barack Obama to engage with Iran, and to “work towards the elimination of sanctions and the lowering of tensions between Iran and the United States.” The letter also expressed support for the 55 Iranian political prisoners who penned a separate letter to Obama complaining about the collective punishment Iranians were facing due to sanctions.

It is important that the West keep Iran’s pro-democracy movement in mind as it works to de-escalate tensions with Iran.

It is important that the West keep Iran’s pro-democracy movement in mind as it works to de-escalate tensions with Iran. While a nuclear deal is a critical first step, it is not enough on its own. The Iranian regime will continue to pose serious challenges to stability in the Middle East. The only way its behavior will substantively change is if a democratic transition takes place, and more responsible Iranian leaders assume power.

The prospects and preconditions for democracy within Iran look good over the long term. During the summer, for instance, we saw pro-democracy forces in Iran rally – despite severe state repression – to support Hassan Rouhani, the presidential candidate that Iranian hardliners despised the most. International policies that encourage a democratic transition in Iran, however, have so far been missing from the equation. In fact, Western policies of sanctions and military threats have actually strengthened the Iranian regime. A qualitative shift is long overdue. Western policies should place the question of democracy and human rights at the center of any future engagement with Tehran.

There is a long tradition of pro-democracy activism in Iran and significant gains have already been registered in recent years. Iranians can win their struggle against tyranny if Western policy is calibrated to support their efforts. The Iranian regime is most vulnerable not in the court of international public opinion, but in the eyes of its own youthful population, which yearns for political change. A new democracy-centered policy toward Iran is what is needed today.

Photo credit: Ebrahim Norozi/Associated Press

Nader HashemiNader Hashemi is the Director of the Center for Middle East Studies and an Associate Professor of Middle East and Islamic Politics at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. His newly released book is The Syria Dilemma (MIT Press, 2013).