Interview: Promoting Democracy In Iran Successfully
By Fatemeh Aman
U.S. media and opinion makers have
devoted much comment to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's proposal to
provide $85 million in assistance to help promote democracy in Iran. One of
these opinion makers is Dr. Abbas Milani, director of the Iranian Studies
Program at Stanford University and co-director of the Iran Democracy Project at
the Hoover Institution, who has spoken out about the U.S. government's proposal
in articles published in "The Wall Street Journal" and elsewhere. In an
exclusive interview with RFE/RL's Radio Farda, Milani discusses his views
concerning the promotion of democracy in the Middle East and
Radio Farda: In your
recent article with the interesting title of "Checking Account for Democracy,"
you welcomed the Bush administration's allocation of $85 million for the
promotion of democracy in Iran. But in the article you don't sound very
optimistic that this move will have a significant impact on the democracy
movement in Iran. Why?
Abbas Milani: I think that if it's well
spent -- in other words, if it is not squandered on things that cannot be done
and it is not given to groups that cannot manage it wisely -- then it can be
very effective, particularly if it is used primarily to create something like a
surrogate radio and a surrogate television. Something that would be the
equivalent of what an Iranian television and radio would have been, had Iran
been a democratic society. I think, if Iran had such a media outlet a few years
ago, for example, I think things would have been very different in Iran today.
And I think they will be very different in a few years once such an institution
is created with the help of this money.
Radio Farda: Do you think the United States and the
West have been successful at promoting democracy in the Middle East and in Iran?
And if you think they have not been successful, what do you think is the
Milani: The chance of promoting democracy, successfully,
in Iran is greater than anywhere else in the Middle East for two very, very
prominent reasons. One is, the Iranian society has an indigenous, powerful, now
100-year-old democratic movement. This is not something that has to be created
ex nihilo, from nothing. This is something that is there; the United States
doesn't have to create it.
Secondly, the United States faces in Iran a
reality that is the opposite of every other Middle Eastern country with the
exception of Israel, and that is that the government talks anti-American
rhetoric, but the people, the street, is predominantly pro-American. What you
have in the rest of the Middle East is that the government is trying to be, at
least ostensibly are, pro-American, but the people, often influenced by
advertisements in the media of those very countries, are anti-American. So in
the case of Iran, you have a democratic movement that exists, that has made
great strides in the past (it is now in a period of relative retreat because of
the [former President Mohammad] Khatami defeat, the disappointment that came as
a result of Khatami, but those forces there, they haven't gone away), and the
population is predominantly pro-American. In other words, they will listen. It
is not like they will not listen to something that is openly, transparently
Radio Farda: You said it is easy to promote democracy in
Iran, but I also asked whether you think the United States has been successful
in promoting democracy. If not, what has been at fault?
The problem in Iraq, the reason that democracy promotion in Iraq has not been
successful is because in the case of Iraq there was not [an] indigenous
democratic movement. The United States decided to invade Iraq, and that created
a Pandora's box that some scholars had anticipated but many planners did not
anticipate, in other words, the emergence of this kind of insurgency and all of
the other things that have happened.
But at the same time, if you look at
the Middle East today and compare it with 15 years ago, you, I think, have to
admit that there are more democracies in the Middle East than there were. The
Palestinians just had the freest elections in the history of probably any Arab
country. In Lebanon, the people succeeded in pushing out Syria. There is a very
viable democracy in Kurdistan, in the British part of Iraq. There is at least
the possibility of democracy coming to Egypt; at least flickers of it are on the
horizon, at least [Egyptian President] Hosni Mubarak knows the old trick of
saying, "If you push me, you will get Islamic radicalism" is no longer enough to
dissuade the U.S. from pushing for democracy. There have been failures in the
other places, or small successes as in the case of Iraqi Kurdistan.
has happened in Kurdistan is truly incredible. It's a very viable, democratic
part of Iraq that thrives. But there, the U.S. had to face the problem that it
was working in a milieu, in an atmosphere, which was very, very anti-American.
And it had to face the reality that there wasn't much of a democratic movement
in these countries to begin with.
The U.S. had to sort of force
democracy on these societies, and that can't be done. You can't force societies
to become democratic. Democracy needs a lot of things. It needs civil society,
it needs a middle class, it needs a technocratic class, it needs a culture of
tolerance. And these things are beginning to exist on a very extensive basis in
Iran. In the case of Iran, I think if there was a television and radio station
that was doing this kind of a promotion of democracy, I think it would be a very
Helping Iranians Help Themselves
Farda: You wrote that this help can be used by those who are denouncing
violence in their fight for democracy in Iran. As you have indicated, U.S.
financial support for Iran-based democrats is a sensitive issue. So how can
these forces be helped by the U.S. without being hurt?
Fist of all, several things have to be very clear. One is that the U.S. is not
looking for a [exiled Iraqi opposition leader Ahmad] Chalabi in Iran. Second,
that the U.S. is not trying to decide who the next ruler of Iran will be. Third,
that the U.S. will not support any group that has a history of terrorism, a
history of violence, a history of oppression. Fourth, that the U.S. will not
help movements that want to dismember Iran, that are trying to break Iran apart.
The U.S. could be tempted to do that, and it would be easy because there
is a lot of national resentment among Kurds, among Turks. The U.S., I think, has
to say clearly, categorically, unmistakably: "We won't do this. We won't support
terrorists. We won't support anyone who is advocating the violent overthrow of
the government. And we don't plan to force a solution on Iran."
thing that the U.S. should say it wants to do is to help the Iranians themselves
in this process. That's a very crucial thing. That's a big difference between
Iran and Iraq. In Iraq, the U.S. essentially went in, occupied the country, ran
the country for a while, and then said, "OK, let's see if you can have a
democratic government here." That's hard to get. But my suggestion is that that
should be avoided in Iran, and a different path can be tried. And I think that
if it is tried and if it is made clear that the U.S. respects the rights of
Iranians to determine their own future, then you will get a different result,
and you will get a good result.
Radio Farda: Regarding your
suggestion of the creation of an American visa office in Tehran, how should we
imagine this? How realistic is this idea?
Milani: Well, as I said
there, I don't think the Islamic regime will allow it, but the U.S. should make
the offer. It should be clear to the Iranians, who now are forced to go to
Turkey and Dubai and Germany and to spend a lot of money and wait in a lot of
lines and be humiliated to get a passport, that this is essentially the fault of
the regime. It's the fault of Mr. [President Mahmud] Ahmadinejad's
It is crucial, I think, for the U.S. to separate the Iranian
people from this regime, to speak to the Iranian people and say: "Look, we don't
have any problem with you. We respect your right to develop a nuclear program
within the existing laws. But the problem is with this regime, and if we don't
give you visas, it's because the regime doesn't allow us to have a visa office
It must be made clear who is responsible for the problems that
the people of Iran face. Because it has a monopoly on the media, the regime has
very successfully told people a lot of stories. They have sold the nuclear issue
as a David and Goliath story. America, they have tried to sell -- tried, they
haven't been successful -- as being a bully, singling Iran out and denying Iran
its rights. It must be made clear that it is the regime's irresponsible rhetoric
and its action, its lying and betraying the trust of the Iranian people and of
the global community, that has gotten Iran into the current impasse. It has to
be made clear to the Iranian people that the U.S. is willing to work with them.
A truly, editorially independent media would go a long way in doing
Copyright (c) 2006 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
... Payvand News - 4/12/06 ... --