Research & Analysis

Reform Is Dead in Iran. Here’s How the U.S. Can Help.

DVdbidAVMAAas0x.jpg large Iranians are fed up with broken promises. But they need external support—even from Donald Trump.

By ALIREZA NADER

 

In a speech on Sunday titled “Supporting Iranian Voices,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told an audience of Iranian-Americans that “the Trump administration dreams the same dreams for the people of Iran as you do,” and announced an invigorated “diplomatic and financial pressure campaign to cut off the funds that the regime uses to enrich itself and support death and destruction.”

Pompeo’s speech has been the talk of the Iranian-American community, which may share the Trump administration’s revulsion for the brutal and decrepit Iranian regime, but is deeply divided over the real aims of the secretary of state’s new campaign.

While some Iranian-Americans and Iran pundits have characterized his speech as being part of a policy of “regime change,” many others view it as a good opportunity to support Iranians who are fighting for democracy in their country. But to judge the efficacy of U.S. policy, it’s important to know what’s happening within Iran and not just the Beltway. In reality, the U.S. has little do with events inside Iran—it’s brave Iranians who have engaged in nationwide protests and acts of civil disobedience against the Islamic Republic since December 2017. However, this doesn’t mean that Washington should be a bystander. Iranians need U.S. support more than ever—even if it’s coming from Donald Trump.

Iranians hoped for the reformation or evolution of the Islamic Republic for more than two decades. And many scholars and advocates in the West have vigorously defended the reformist agenda as the only solution for Iran’s long-suffering people. But the current Iranian uprising demonstrates the utter failure and rejection of the reformist agenda. Tens of thousands of Iranian demonstrators have risked life and limb to denounce not only the “hardliners” of the Iranian regime but the “moderates” or reformists as well. They have chanted not only “death to Khamenei,” but “moderates, hardliners, the game is over.” Some protesters have also called for the death of Iran’s supposedly “moderate” president, Hassan Rouhani.

After years of being promised reforms, Iranians now face a ravaged country on the verge of economic and environmental collapse. The reformists have not only failed to achieve any of their purported reforms, but have been actively complicit in the preservation of the Islamic Republic, one of the most repressive, corrupt, and anti-American regimes in the world. Iranians realize more than ever that the Islamic Republic, an ideologically totalitarian and politically absolutist system, cannot be reformed. Only a completely new political system defined by secularism and democracy can save their country from following the path of the many failed states that litter the Middle East’s increasingly bleak landscape.

Many Western pundits and analysts blame Iranian “hardliners” for Iran’s precipitous decline since the 1979 revolution. But reformist leaders such as former President Mohammad Khatami share a great deal of responsibility for Iran’s misery. Elected in 1997 and again in 2001, Khatami promised to “democratize” the Islamic Republic by creating greater space for political debate, easing media restrictions and courting foreign investments in the economy by “moderating” Iran’s policies on the regional and global stage. Iranians, having emerged from a tumultuous revolution and bloody eight year long war with Iraq, displayed enthusiastic support and hope for the relatively charming mid-ranking cleric.

In the early years, Khatami succeeded in creating a modest degree of social and economic freedom for Iranians. But he was and never has been willing to push the boundaries of the Islamic Republic he so cherishes. Faced with a conservative backlash, including murder of dissidents, Khatami chose to remain passive in the face of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s accumulation of power. Khatami also did little to challenge the Revolutionary Guards’ growing economic and political might, allowing Iran’s premier security force to become a major decision-maker in its own right. Disappointing his supporters, Khatami sided with the regime in its violent crackdown of the 1999 student protests. And while Khatami may have challenged his successor’s widely perceived fraudulent election in 2009, his opposition to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was due less to a desire for democracy rather than the need to protect his own faction’s grip on power and share of the country’s wealth.

Rouhani, as the heir to Khatami’s line of “moderation,” has managed to drive the fatal stake through reformism’s dying heart. Widely touted as a “moderate” in the West, Rouhani promised Iranians the moon by vowing to resolve the nuclear crisis. His signature achievement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or the Iran nuclear deal, was celebrated both in Tehran and Washington as not only preventing a potential military conflict, but also creating a more open and just society with greater economic opportunities for all Iranians. The reality was completely the opposite. It is true that remaining U.S. sanctions after the Iran nuclear deal prevented Iran from reaping the full benefits of the JCPOA. But the regime also received tens of billions of dollars in frozen assets that it used not to benefit regular Iranians, but to spend on foreign military adventures in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.

Khamenei, the Revolutionary Guards and dozens of unaccountable religious foundations were the major beneficiaries of the JCPOA rather than the struggling and destitute people of Iran. It is no surprise that the December uprising started after the Rouhani administration’s budget was publicized; it showed not a boost in domestic spending benefiting Iranians, but massive increases in funding for the Revolutionary Guards and foundations. In return, the regime’s spending on critical issues such as water shortages and air pollution were decreased. The result has been an explosion of hunger and thirst as millions of Iranians struggle to feed and clothe their families.

It’s easy to blame “hardliners” like Khamenei for Iran’s ills. But Khatami, Rouhani and the reformist movement deserve as much if not greater blame. They have promised reforms for more than 20 years without demonstrating any achievements; that’s damning enough. But their greatest crime has been to extend the life of the Islamic Republic at the expense of the Iranian people. And in reality, the top reformists have benefited from Iran’s ruling kleptocracy as much as Khamenei and the Guards. Many have become enormously wealthy and sent their children to live and study in the U.S., Europe and Canada while the vast majority of Iranians live under the crushing weight of repression, international isolation, sanctions brought about by the regime’s policies and Iran’s environmental destruction.

Khatami and Rouhani’s fraudulent presidencies show that the time for reforming the Islamic Republic is over. Only a secular, democratic and representative state that cares for its own people will save Iran from the abyss. America’s role as the world’s leading democracy makes it a natural partner for Iranians struggling against oppression. For both the Iranian people and U.S. policymakers, the reformist game that has sustained a bloodthirsty regime is finally over.

Original Article

Alireza Nader is a senior international policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

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