The Case for ‘Active Neutrality’

America must not give the Iranian regime what it wants: confrontation.

Abolhassan Banisadr

Missiles are displayed during the inauguration ceremony of the Nasr 1 cruise missile production facility at an undisclosed location in Iran, on March 7. (Photo by Vahid Reza Alaei/AFP/Getty Images )

Missiles are displayed during the inauguration ceremony of the Nasr 1 cruise missile production facility at an undisclosed location in Iran, on March 7. (Photo by:Vahid Reza Alaei/​AFP/​Getty Images )

The best way to prevent the regime from building an atomic bomb is to encourage a home-grown democracy.

Political experts are flooding Western governments – primarily the United States – with advice on how to deal with Iran’s nuclear threat and the current political uprising. Some, including those on the American right, advocate adopting aggressive economic or even military policies. Others, including many reformers within Iran, advocate total noninterference.

Meanwhile, a broad-based revolutionary movement on the rise within Iran is trying to unseat an increasingly unpopular dictatorial regime. This movement aims to bring the social revolutions of 1905, 1951 and 1979 to a logical conclusion by establishing in Iran an independent democracy under which the attainment of social justice is the main object of socio-economic policies.

Today’s so-called Islamic Republic,” which is neither Islamic nor a republic, is fundamentally unable to achieve these goals. Eight years of the reformist president Mohammad Khatami, which only strengthened the power of the supreme leader; a gigantic electoral fraud last June; and the subsequent brutal crackdown on peaceful demonstrators have proven to the majority of Iranians that the current regime is structurally unable to reform itself. The new nonviolent movement in Iran wants free and honest elections, and a new constitution under which the clergy would have no power whatsoever and the state would be neutral and separated from religious beliefs.

Future U.S. foreign policy toward Iran needs to take into account both the roots of the widespread public discontent and the reasons why the Iranian regime attempts to divert and control the public by creating and exploiting a crisis mentality fueled by the fear of outside interference.

Until the 1979 revolution, the Shah of Iran organized and defined his domestic and international policies around his relationship with the Soviet Union and what he called International Communism.” When the power-oriented clergy tried to take control of the state after the Shah’s overthrow in January 1979, the United States became the principal foil of Iranian politics – so much so that the new leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, called the occupation of the American Embassy in November 1979 an even greater revolution than the first.

Since then, the regime has automatically blamed the United States for every bad event affecting Iran, including the eight-year war with Iraq, the economic sanctions and the country’s label as a sponsor of international terrorism. More recently it held the United States responsible for the uprising after the fraudulent election in June 2009, and blamed the United States and Israel for having plotted and carried out the assassination of outspoken nuclear physicist Ali Massoud Mohammadi in January 2010. Of course there is also the ongoing nuclear crisis,” one of many crises produced by the regime during the past three decades that have all served to maintain the state’s legitimacy in lieu of other internal bases of support. (From a military perspective, Iran’s nuclear program is self-defeating. It will force other countries in the region, many of which are unstable, to develop nuclear weapons that have no rational military function, given the proximity of any users to those they would intend to attack. The resulting arms race would inflate the military budgets of these countries, militarize the region even further, and send social and economic development spiraling backward.) The best way to prevent the regime from building an atomic bomb is to encourage a home-grown democracy.

Why has the Iranian regime turned the United States into such a defining factor in its internal politics, continually using it as a bogeyman to frighten the populace and beat down any movement that might threaten its own existence? The answer is that successive regimes have gradually destroyed nearly all the internal bases of despotic power: a traditional economy built on large landownership and the bazaars, the monarchy and, now, the clergy, which has been marginalized by the Revolutionary Guards. 

Under the Shah, the Pahlavi regime, for example, destroyed its own economic base by abolishing large landownership. The 1979 revolution in turn destroyed the country’s remaining source of political power by abolishing the monarchy. The revolution had aimed to replace these power structures with popularly elected, democratic authority, and it sought to end political domination by entrenched special interests. It also intended to not allow Iran to be dominated by outside powers, but rather to become truly independent. However, in a campaign to monopolize power shortly after the revolution, the clergy staged a coup against me – the first elected president of the new republic – and thus against the popular democracy wanted by the people.

Today the ongoing popular uprising has forced the Revolutionary Guards, the real driving force behind the regime, to move to the forefront and expose their true nature. They control most of the government, most of the parliament and a large section of the powerful judiciary. They also control more than 70 percent of the economy, which is failing, and they are the main source of the country’s corruption.

The ruling clergy, realizing that their legitimacy is dwindling, have for 30 years relied on the foreign policies of countries outside Iran to help sustain the regime. Iran has confronted the United States, has compromised with Japan and Europe, and has been submissive to Russia.

If it didn’t have these foreign relationships to play off against each other, the state – which is in fact, already partly broken due to the desertion of many of its clergy – could not continue to exist.

The threat from Obama

The confrontational policies of both the Bush administration and Israel were a heaven-sent gift to the regime, providing a short-term lifeline. President Barack Obama’s hands-off” Iran policies, however, have now seriously threatened the regime’s survival. If Obama goes one step further, to adopt a position of active neutrality,” and if Europe follows suit, the Iranian regime would lose the last remaining political leverage it gets from the American threat.” Iranians need the West to not interfere with their uprising by getting involved in more crisis-creating games that the Iranian regime, for its survival, could draw upon for legitimacy.

Being neutral” here does not mean remaining indifferent, but rather removing both military threats and economic sanctions. Being active,” on the other hand, means simultaneously protesting the regime’s violation of human rights; exposing the wealth that the most powerful members of the regime have transferred to Western banks and elsewhere; preventing the sale of equipment used for censorship and oppression in Iran; and, finally, paving the way for leaders of the Iranian regime to be tried for crimes against humanity in international courts of law.

Under such conditions, even if the regime continued to provide Russia and China with favorable contracts in return for political support, active neutrality” would help strengthen the motivation of civil society to oppose the regime. Indeed, already we are hearing previously unknown chants of death to Russia and China” in the streets.

The leaders of the Iranian regime and the Revolutionary Guards know that they must have international crises to defend the country against in order to survive. A policy of active neutrality” by the United States and its allies is the path forward for freedom in – and for the independence of – Iran. Without international crises and provocations from the United States, Iran’s ruling military-financial mafia will not last for long.

Abolhassan Banisadr, who lives in France, served as president of Iran from 1980 to 1981, when he was forced into exile by Ayatollah Khomeini.
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