America and Europe should listen to a whispered message from Isfahan: Visiting Iran, I found a regime wedded to violence and a society eager for peaceful change. We must address both (Timothy Garton Ash, November 24, 2005, The Guardian)
If you see it at first hand, you will have no doubt that this is a very nasty and dangerous regime. I will never forget talking in Tehran to a student activist who had been confined and abused in the prison where Iranian-Canadian journalist Zahra Kazemi was beaten so severely that she later died of her wounds. Half the Iranian population are subjected to systematic curtailment of their liberty simply because they are women. Two homosexuals were recently executed. The backbone of the political system is still an ideological dictatorship with totalitarian aspirations: not communism, but Khomeinism. The Islamic republic’s new, ageing-revolutionary president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a subordinate but still important part of that power structure, has just revived Ayatollah Khomeini’s call to wipe Israel off the map. According to an official spokesman, some 50,000 Iranians have signed up in a recruitment drive for “martyrdom-seeking operations”. Elements connected to the regime have almost certainly supplied weapons across the frontier into southern Iraq, where they are used to kill British soldiers. And, yes, the mullahs probably are trying to get nuclear weapons.
So, as this argument about Iran develops, let’s have none of those confused and/or dishonest apologetics on the European left that, out of hostility to American policy, try to pretend that the other side (Pol Pot, Brezhnev, Saddam) is not half as bad as Washington says it is. Taking our lead from George Orwell, it’s entirely possibly to maintain that Saddam Hussein ran a brutal dictatorship and that the invasion of Iraq was the wrong way to remove him. Now it’s right to say that the Iranian mullahs run a very nasty regime and that it would be a huge mistake to bomb them.
For the second thing you find if you go there is that many Iranians, especially among the two-thirds of the population who are under 30, hate their regime much more than we do. Given time, and the right kind of support from the world’s democracies, they will eventually change it from within. But most of them think their country has as much right to civilian nuclear power as anyone else, and many feel it has a right to nuclear arms. These young Persians are pro-democracy and rather pro-American, but also fiercely patriotic. They have imbibed suspicion of the great powers – especially Britain and the United States – with their mother’s milk. A wrong move by the west could swing a lot of them back behind the state. “I love George Bush,” one young woman told me as we sat in the Tehran Kentucky Chicken restaurant, “but I would hate him if he bombed my country.” Or even if he pushed his European allies to impose stronger economic sanctions linked to the nuclear issue alone.
Our problem is that the nuclear clock and the democracy clock may be ticking at different speeds. To get to peaceful regime change from within could take at least a decade, although president Ahmadinejad is hastening that prospect as he sharpens the contradictions within the system. Meanwhile, the latest US intelligence assessment suggests that Iran is still a decade away from acquiring nuclear weapons. But significant, non-military action to prevent that outcome clearly has to come sooner; for as soon as dictators have nukes, you’re in a different game. Then, as we have seen with North Korea and Pakistan, they are treated with a respect they don’t deserve.
This is where we need to hear the other half of the message from my friend in Isfahan: stick together and be consistent. If Europe and America split over Iran, as we did over Iraq, we have not a snowball’s chance in hell of achieving our common goals. To be effective, Europe and America need the opposite of their traditional division of labour. Europe must be prepared to wave a big stick (the threat of economic sanctions, for it is Europe, not the US, that has the trade with Iran) and America a big carrot (the offer of a full “normalisation” of relations in return for Iranian restraint). But the old transatlantic west is not enough. Today’s nuclear diplomacy around Iran shows us that we already live in a multipolar world. Without the cooperation of Russia and China, little can be achieved.
Perhaps it’s as easy to differentiate us as Mr. Garton Ash makes it: to be a transnationalist is to be willing not to do the right thing if France, Germany, Russia or China opposes doing so.