Supporting Democracy by Standing Firm

The Futurist: What do you see as the best strategy the U.S. might employ to further the cause of human rights in Iran?

Rubin: First and foremost, the White House should use its bully pulpit. After this past summer's election protests erupted, the Obama administration muted its response, fearing that to throw support to the protestors might taint them. This is a valid concern, but there is no reason why the White House and the State Department can't speak up for broad principles, such as democracy, justice, free speech, and free association.

After the Berlin Wall fell, we discovered that Presidential rhetoric meant more to dissidents than we ever imagined. There's a tendency today to want to address human rights issues silently, but discreet diplomatic inquiries are rarely as effective as public support. Regimes prefer to murder in silence; when a dissident becomes a public symbol, not only does the cost associated with a dissident's imprisonment or murder increase, but the dissident's story can be a driving force in mobilizing public pressure, as it humanizes the abstract. We saw this in 1999, when Ahmad Batebi became a symbol of the student uprising when he appeared on the cover of the Economist holding a bloody shirt, and 16-year-old Neda, shot in the street by the paramilitary Basij, became a symbol of the situation in Iran in 2009.

There is no reason why the White House and the State Department can't speak up for broad principles, such as democracy, justice, free speech, and free association.

The U.S. government should take care against bestowing undue legitimacy upon the regime. When Iranians are taking to the streets in protest against not only the legitimacy of their post-election government, but also their system of government, the White House's reference to the Islamic Republic of Iran implies endorsement of the theocracy, and their efforts to engage a government which the Iranian electorate does not support also implies recognition. Instead, the White House and State Department might direct their comments to the Iranian public in general and, if necessary, simply refer to the 'Iranian government' or the 'regime,' as every president--whether Democrat or Republican--did until President Obama changed the formula.

Most controversially, it is important for the U.S. government to consider aid and assistance to Iranian civil society and independent media. For example, the State Department working through non-governmental intermediaries might assist programs which seek to document Iranian human rights abuses or help independent trade unions organize. Fears that U.S. funding might undercut the opposition and strengthen the regime are real, but misplaced. Opponents of civil society support argue that the presence of funding enables the Iranian government to taint all civil society work. The problem with this perspective, however, is that the Iranian regime always accuses its opponents of foreign connections regardless of U.S. action, so supporting civil society would not appreciably alter Iranian behavior. If fear of Iranian rhetoric toward its own internal opposition were to shape U.S. policy, then we'd also have to rule out dialogue, since Iranian security forces have taken to toward accusing any Iranian who engages with American institutions--Yale University and the Carnegie Endowment, for example--of treason.

The Futurist: What about in China, where the attendant economic risks from the Chinese sale of U.S. Treasuries are much greater?

Michael Rubin: U.S. support for human rights and free speech might antagonize the Chinese government a bit, but the chance that Beijing would respond in this fashion is slight to none. It's simply not in the interest of the Chinese government to sabotage the United States economy to that extent given the level of U.S.-Chinese trade. At the same time, turning a blind eye toward abuses in China also has some inherent, even if indirect, risk. The Chinese government has no incentive to reform and to correct government abuses against its citizenry. Economic disparities run deep from coast into heartland. Absent an outlet for dissent and a system which forces the government to be accountable to the people, there is an inherent risk of wildfire outbreaks of instability in China. Certainly, gentle U.S. prodding for democratization in China is in both our countries long-term interests.

The Futurist: Do you see the Iranian regime persisting in its present state until the year 2020? What might happen when it fades from existence?

Michael Rubin: If we take a snapshot of Iranian demography, it might look like the Islamic Republic is in trouble. The Iranian economy is stagnant, living standards are declining, and the regime can't provide enough work for young people finishing the university. Time is, unfortunately, working in the regime's favor. In the years immediately after the Islamic Revolution and Saddam Hussein's invasion of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini encouraged large families. The regime put up posters showing 'a good Islamic family' with a mother, a father, and six children. After the Iran-Iraq War ended in 1988, the Iranian government realized that it could not handle such a large population. Suddenly posters appeared depicting 'a good Islamic family' as having a mother, a father, and just two children. As Patrick Clawson, an economist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy points out, the Iran-Iraq war years' baby boomers are in their 20s, precisely the age of the protestors. In five years, however, the number of 20-somthings is going to decline while the current protestors are going to be in their 30s, and beginning to settle down with young families, their personal priorities elsewhere.

The regime is nervous, though. There is no question that the regime is unpopular across a broad cross-section of society. The evidence for this is not only anecdotal, but also quantitative. Using Persian speakers in Los Angeles, polling companies have surveyed Iranians by taking every telephone exchange in Tehran, and randomizing the last four numbers and conducting what, on the surface is an economic survey but which also provides insight into political altitudes. In September 2007, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps reorganized and implemented what its new commander, Mohammad Ali Jafari, called the mosaic doctrine. Rather than orient the IRGC to defend against foreign armies--as it had been from the days of the Iran-Iraq War--Jafari divided the IRGC into inwardly-oriented units, one for each province and two for Tehran. Jafari argued that internal unrest and the possibility of a velvet revolution posed more of a threat to the regime than foreign armies, a judgment validated by the June 2009 unrest.

The key issue in regime survival therefore lies with the loyalty of the Revolutionary Guards. It matters not if 90% of the Iranian people turn against the regime so long as the IRGC remains loyal to the Supreme Leader. Western politicians can hope for muddle-through reform, but ultimately change will come when the IRGC defects, much like regime change came to Romania after Nikolai Ceausescu's security forces switched sides. The Iranian regime is aware of this, and so IRGC members are seldom stationed in their home provinces minimizing the risk that units will refuse to fire on crowds which might contain family members, friends, or neighbors.

If the Islamic Republic does not fall, then the regime will have made a Faustian bargain. The IRGC will become a predominant force, dominating not only political life, but also economic and religious life. What we are now seeing is a slow, creeping coup d'état. The Islamic Republic is becoming a military dictatorship, albeit one with a religious patina.

The Futurist: Of all the trends playing in terms of human rights at this moment, from China to Iran to the United States, which ones concern you the most? Which make you the most hopeful?

Michael Rubin: What concerns me most is cultural relativism--the willingness of Western states to accept the arguments of oppressive regimes that Eastern cultures simply do not uphold the same values of individual rights and Western demands that they should is simply new age imperialism. We see this primarily with regard to women and women's rights.

Communication offers the most hope. From telegram to radio to television to fax to IM and mobile camera and twitter, technology is empowering citizens and preventing human rights abusers from acting with impunity.

The Futurist: Paint us a picture of democracy in the year 2020? What does the word mean? Has the world come to some agreement on it? Is there, on a whole, more of it than existed 10 years ago or less?

Michael Rubin: I'd define democracy not only as representative government accountable to the people, elections contested by political parties who have abandoned militias, and but also a proven record of peaceful transfers of power between government and opposition. I am an optimist and see the spread of democracy is inevitable. I also believe those who argue that certain cultures--Chinese or Arab, for example--are impervious to democracy are wrong. Here, Korea is instructive. Harry S Truman was lambasted for the Korean War and for attempts to bring democracy to South Korea. Critics said that democracy was alien to Korean culture, and it certainly was a process. But today, when we juxtapose North and South Korea, I doubt there are many people who do not believe the price was worth it. Taiwan, too, showed that democracy can thrive in Chinese culture and, while the Iraq war remains a polarizing debate, it is telling that ahead of the March 7 elections, no Iraqi knows who will lead their new government.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at AEI.

Photo Credit: CIA World Factbook

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