The idea of installing a full scale democratic government in Iran is something that has undoubtedly crossed the mind of many prominent American politicians, but it has yet to come to fruition because of a number of reasons. For the most part, the promotion of democracy in the Middle East has been a well tried, but failed venture. While many nations in other parts of the world have been especially quick to pick up democracy, those people in Iran and other parts of the Middle East have not been so willing to embrace the idea yet.
This has occurred because of the fundamental problems that seem to get lost in translation when western nations try to impose a government on the people in the Middle East. In order for democracy to ever work in Iran or elsewhere in that area of the world, these basic, fundamental differences must be addressed appropriately and ultimately be bridged, so that a common accord can be reached in the best interests of the Iranian people.
The primary obstacles to democratic reform in Iran are many and they are tall obstacles. In short, these are basic problems that the people of Iran have with western governments and they are the sort of problems that will keep democracy from coming to Iran at this point. The main thing standing in the way is a difference in religious theory. Though democracy itself purports to support all religions and in effort to promote religious freedom, it is built upon Christian principles and has been a primarily Christian outfit since its inception.
When the founding fathers designed the documents that started the nation, they opened up their Bibles for consultation. This is not a fact that is lost on the Iranian people, nor is it lost on the Iranian government. According to NationMaster.com, the statistics on religion in Iran are staggering. According to that website, 98% of the people in Iran are practicing Muslims (NationMaster.com). This in itself is something that creates major issues with democracy and stands as a barrier in the way of every having an active democracy in that country. Of that 98% clip, more than 89% of the Muslims are Shi’a, which creates an added problem. That sect of Islam has been particularly harsh in regards to American policy and democracy.
In addition to the problem surrounding religion, there is a problem that exists over control of the country. The controlling party in Iran worked very hard to gain control of the country and they now have a system in place that rewards those who support them and cracks down on those that oppose them. This is done because the country is set up to allow this theocracy to have full and complete control over just about every aspect of the country, including the economy. Since their control is so widespread, there is lots of vested interest in keeping the controlling party in office. If they were to be booted out of office in favor of some new leaders, lots of angry people would be missing out on the benefits that they were used to receiving.
According to MapsoftheWorld.com, “The chief of the state is Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Hoseini-Khomeini. The head of the Iran government is President Mahmud Ahmadi-Nejad. The Cabinet consists of Council of Ministers selected by the president with legislative approval” (MapsoftheWorld.com). This alone shows the near complete control that the leader of the government has over the country. Though the head of the government is an elected official, there is little to suggest that any elections are conducted in a fair manner.
Though the government in Iran is technically considered a democracy because of the fact that they hold elections, one would be hard pressed to find anyone that would consider their system a clear representation of the people’s rights. A former American government official has even said in the last month that the democracy effort in Iran is one that will be tough to come by given the current state in the country and America’s current relationship with the leaders of that country. In a New York Sun article by Eli Lake, a former presidential assistant is quoted as saying, “There is not the expertise, there is not the energy for it. The Iran office is worried about the bilateral policy. I think they are not committed to this anymore” (Lake). If that quote is any indication, then the democracy effort in Iran has a tough future ahead of it.
Overcoming the barriers to democracy will not be easy in Iran, but they are doable with the right policy. One thing to consider is that the religious preferences of the Iranian people are longstanding and they are not likely to change any time in the near future. As such, Western nations must understand that they are going to be dealing with an Islamic nation and they must make allowances for that. Though pure democracy in an American sense will never come off as being an Islamic idea, the proponents of such an Iranian democracy movement must make sure to bridge the gap that exists within perception between the two nations.
They must paint democracy in its most positive light to the people of Iran, to make them understand that it is not something to be feared, but rather something to be embraced. If the basic differences in religious preference are going to be conquered, then democracy must appear to them as something that can be incorporated with their Islamic values. Having them adopt Judeo-Christian values is not an option, so if democracy is going to head to Iran, then it must be taken closer to their preferences.
As far as power is concerned, this looks like a problem that might not have a solution. Given the fact that the controlling party is not likely to give up any of their stake in the nation regardless of what the American government has to say, a new democratic creation must take this into account. Though there is no way to truly overcome this obstacle, some progress can be made by insuring that the people in control right now understand that they will not be thrown to the dogs in a new democracy program. They will still have the chance to be in power if they are elected fairly by the people of their country. This will not likely be enough to pacify those in power, but that might not be possible in the long run.
The primary supporters of democratic reform in Iran are mostly from Western nations and their interest is two fold. For American leaders, the establishment of democracy in Iran helps promote that sort of movement all over the world, and it helps to protect American interests abroad as much as possible. The hope of such a government would ultimately be to get rid of the tyrannical leader that runs that government. When tyrants are eliminated from office, the entire world is better off for it, according to American policy. According to a 2005 New York Times article, the American government is taking great measures to help this happen.
They are being helped by leaders in other democratic governments. In an article by Steven R. Weisman, it is stated, “The Bush administration is expanding efforts to influence Iran’s internal politics with aid for opposition and pro-democracy groups abroad and longer broadcasts criticizing the Iranian government, administration officials say” (Weisman). This widespread support from the American government has been continued, although it has been reformed since to meet its goals more effectively.
The main opponents of democratic reform in Iran are fairly predictable, given the current set of circumstances in that country. The controlling party that runs the government has no interest in changing their ways, as it was the old system that allowed them to gain power and influence. They are the most powerful and influential group standing in the way.
Almost as important in this stance against democracy are the religious leaders in Iran. They have a huge measure of control over the population since it is their job to give clarity on religious matters. Under the current theocracy, which is run with a great deal of religious emphasis, they have lots of control and economic swing in the country. This group is probably more important to influence, since it is their interpretation of the Islamic gospel that helps create the prevailing thought of the Iranian people. Given the fact that the deep rooted Christian values in democracy are no secret, it is highly unlikely that the Islamic leaders of Iran are going to relent on their position.
In order to influence these political leaders in Iran, there is only one real solution that the American government can use. Since economic sanctions and threats of war do not seem to be working, the U.S. government has to take the initiative to establish some rewards for the leaders if they were to go along with democracy. Economic rewards are very powerful bargaining tools, because the Iranian leaders can get rich if they play their cards right. If the Western governments made it clear that they would provide clear support to any democratic reform, it may influence the Iranian leaders to make some changes to their current working system.
Though the basic premise of democracy would indicate that any group should be allowed to jockey for position atop the government, Iran has to be handled somewhat differently. Given the previously mentioned statistics on religion in the country, it would be extremely unwise to allow any anti-Islamic groups to push for control of the nation. It would be unwise for a couple of different reasons. On one hand, they would have no chance of gaining control of the country and would therefore just be stirring the pot. This leads to the second conclusion, which indicates that such pot stirring would only have a negative impact on the reception of democracy. Since democracy has to be brought to Iran in conjunction with Islam, this is a recipe for disaster.
One thing that must be considered when a person thinks about American influence in Iran is what kind of broad impact it will have on a number of different people. If America and other western nations were to make a push for democracy in Iran, it might endanger those people in the country that are there in order to do other good in the country. According to an article in the Washington Post by Karl Vick and Daniel Finkel, “Prominent activists inside Iran say President Bush’s plan to spend tens of millions of dollars to promote democracy here is the kind of help they don’t need, warning that mere announcement of the U.S. program endangers human rights advocates by tainting them as American agents” (Vick, Finkel).
This means that the mere announcement of any such effort would immediately put people in danger within Iran. This is not important on the basis that it would endanger a few human rights workers. It is important on the basis that if such widespread distaste for America exists among the people, then there is virtually no chance of American-led policy to stick in the country.
Other factors must be considered, though. If America wants to keep Iran from becoming the next big Middle Eastern super power, then something must be a done. While the foreign policy of the United States should not include the right and prompting to go to war on a whim, it should help protect American interests. The United States has spent countless dollars and thousands of lives in establishing a semblance of normalcy in Iraq. According to some people, any action in Iran would destroy the work already done in its neighboring country.
A United Press International article by Claude Salhani reads, “However, any attack on Iran would reverse any gains made in Iraq. This point was repeated to the U.S. secretary of defense by various Gulf officials” (Salhani). The government of the United States has to be very careful in this case, as they are playing with fire, to an extent.
The only way that the American government should put dollars and effort forward in an attempt to reform Iran is if they have a clear idea of how to get things done. Any plan that is devoid of such a clear objective would fail miserably. The objectives must be to help end tyranny in Iran and to protect American interests on a security level. They must be handled diplomatically, as a military conflict in Iran at this time would be a recipe for disaster, given the nuclear implications that exist.
A Steven Erlanger article in the New York Times indicates the thinking of Israel on the matter of nuclear weapons in Iran. In his article, Erlanger writes, “Israel thinks that an American National Intelligence Estimate about Iran’s nuclear weapons program, published in an unclassified version last week, is unduly optimistic and focuses too narrowly on the last stage of weapons development – the fashioning of a bomb out of highly enriched uranium” (Erlanger). This means that some uncertainty exists over whether or not the country has any real, threatening weapons. If they were to possess advanced nuclear capability, then America and other nations must make sure to tread very lightly in enemy territory.
Erlanger, Steven. New York Times. Israelis Brief top U.S. Commander on Iran’s Nuclear Activities. 11 December 2007. http://www.boston.com/news/world/middleeast/articles/2007/12/11/israelis_brief_us_commander_on_irans_nuclear_activities/
Lake, Eli. The New York Sun. ‘This Pretty Much Kills the Iran Democracy Program’. 8 November 2007. < http://www.nysun.com/article/66065>
Maps of the World. Iran Government. http://www.mapsofworld.com/iran/about-iran/government.html
Nation Master. Iran: Religion. < http://www.nationmaster.com/country/ir-iran/rel-religion>
Salhani, Claude. United Press International. Analysis: Iran is Still a Threat for U.S. 10 December 2007. < http://www.upi.com/International_Security/Emerging_Threats/Analysis/2007/12/10/analysis_iran_is_still_a_threat_for_us/3136/>
Vick, Karl, & Finkel, David. Washington Post. U.S. Push for Democracy Could Backfire in Iran. 14 March 2006. < http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/03/13/AR2006031301761.html>
Weisman, Steven. The New York Times. U.S. Expands Aid to Iran’s Democracy Advocates Abroad. 29 May 2005. < http://www.nytimes.com/2005/05/29/international/middleeast/29iran.html>
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