Shortly after 9/11, Graham Fuller, former vice-chairman of the U.S. National Intelligence Council, wrote in Foreign Affairs (March/April 2002, 50) that “the real issue is not what Islam is, but what Muslims want.” He also noted that one can find democratic values in Islamic thought and that “it would be more natural and organic for the Muslim world to derive contemporary liberal practices from its own sources than to import them wholesale from foreign cultures.” A more cautious wording might have been ‘to derive whatever liberal practices it chose to select from its own sources. Either way, Fuller’s basic points resonate today in Iran.
The West would do well to keep its nose out of domestic Iranian affairs during this tense period of national introspection.
First, as Fuller pointed out, interference, even if “successful,” would be more likely to generate an artificial form of democracy at best, a stillborn political mutant. If that lesson was not learned after the endless regime changes in Saigon so long ago, then it should have been learned during the 20-year-long Israel occupation of Lebanon, not to mention the decade of Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
Second, the more likely outcome of Western interference will be to empower still further the extremists who, like many of their political counterparts in Western states, are frequently careerists who have little regard for their own people and are simply looking for justifications for their own personal power grab.
Third, given the horrifying failure of Western policy toward Islamic societies in recent years, there is little reason to imagine that Western interference could actually accomplish much good. Western arrogance in Iraq produced a nearly destroyed society, the death of a million people, a huge step backward into segregation, and some four million refugees. The long-term effects can only be guessed at. Western arrogance in Palestine has smashed that society beyond recognition and left 1.5 million people in a concentration camp under daily torture. One could continue with the examples of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon, and Somalia. Western leaders neither achieved security nor stable control nor justice. Western leaders are certainly not wise enough and sadly are hardly so morally motivated as to merit the faith of the Iranian people.
Yes, sad events are occurring in Iran, and decent people want to help, but the most effective way to do so is not preaching or insulting and is certainly not by provoking terrorism or manipulating elections or assassinating opponents. Few Americans would have appreciated such Iranian “help” during the trials of desegregation. Societies need to sort out their own problems.
What Washington can do is:
- stand ready for exchange of opinions with any Iranian figures willing to interact;
- hold the door open to real policy changes whenever Iran gets its house in order;
- firmly reject extremist calls from within the West to take advantage of current Iranian disorder;
- and take absolutely no step that could be interpreted by even the most conspiracy-minded radical as a threat.
The political struggle in Iran is not about the U.S., though it will certainly have implications for the U.S. Nor is it about Israel or nuclear policy. It is not primarily a struggle between the Islamic Republic and democracy either, though some Iranians on each side would vociferously disagree. For many important figures, the struggle may well simply be about power: as with all elites, everyone wants it. For broader social strata, the struggle seems to be about how best to tailor a uniquely Iranian form of government.