Skip to content
Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Will Washington Support Democracy in Iran?

Filed under: Iran, U.S. Policy
Publication: Jerusalem Issue Briefs

Vol. 4, No. 17    February 13, 2005

  • After a first term marked by schizophrenic Iran policy initiatives, the Bush White House will soon develop a coordinated policy to promote peaceful regime change in Iran. The Bush administration is heartened by the apparent success of the Iraqi election and believes that Iranians are ready to exert their democratic rights.

  • Bush policy is motivated by the grave and growing threat from the Islamic Republic’s nuclear weapons program, and the realization that neither Iran nor the European Union are sincere in preventing Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weaponry. The Islamic Republic’s potential threat to American security emanates from Tehran’s determination to develop satellite launching capability which could well substitute as an intercontinental ballistic missile delivery system as well as from the regime’s continued sponsorship of terrorists.

  • A new U.S. policy will also recognize that the dichotomy within Iran is not one of reformers versus hardliners within the Islamic Republic, but rather proponents of democracy versus proponents of theocracy. Even if Iranian acquisition of nuclear capability is inevitable, the threat comes from the nature of the regime rather than from the Iranian people.

  • As hardline ideologues consolidate power in Tehran, Iran will mark a number of important anniversaries which might spur ordinary people to agitate against their government and for democracy as they call for a new national referendum on the future of Iran.


A Stalemated Iran Policy

In his January 20, 2005, inaugural speech, President George W. Bush declared, “America will not pretend that jailed dissidents prefer their chains, or that women welcome humiliation and servitude.” Less than two weeks later, Bush argued in his State of the Union address that “the victory of freedom in Iraq will…inspire democratic reformers from Damascus to Tehran.” Such statements are not mere rhetoric, but mark a new willingness to advance democracy in Iran.

During Bush’s first term in office, the U.S. government lacked an Iran policy. The State Department, Pentagon, Central Intelligence Agency, and Treasury Department twice failed to reach consensus on a National Security Policy Directive. Neither then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice nor the President forced the issue. As a result, American policy was schizophrenic. While Bush labeled Iran as part of the “Axis of Evil” in his January 2002 State of the Union Address, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage described Iran as a “democracy.”1

With no clear White House policy direction, Senate Republicans likewise took contradictory positions. While Arlen Specter (Pennsylvania) dined with the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations,2 Sam Brownback (Kansas) introduced an Iran Freedom and Democracy Support Act which would have created a $50 million fund to support opposition satellite stations and civil society.

State Department lawyers, meanwhile, argued that non-interference clauses in the 1980 Algiers Accords, the agreement which had led to the release of the U.S. embassy hostages, prohibited funding of opposition media. Retired National Security Advisors, though, disputed the State Department’s line.3 In recent weeks, the White House legal office has opined that nothing in the Accords prevents assistance to Iranian democrats.

New National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley’s decision to remove Richard Haass prot?g? Meghan O’Sullivan from the Iran portfolio (she retains her position as senior director for Iraq at the National Security Council) also bodes well for a more activist policy, especially as the new National Security team again reviews Washington’s policy – or lack thereof – toward Tehran. O’Sullivan had long been both dismissive of Iranian dissidents and a proponent of engaging the Islamic Republic.


Why Now?

The Bush administration’s new focus on Iran is a reflection not only of the President’s sincere conviction that the Iranian people deserve freedom and liberty, but also of the belief that the United States cannot live with a nuclear Islamic Republic of Iran. While many European officials and American academics describe Iranian politicians like former president and current Expediency Council chairman ‘Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani as a pragmatist,4 U.S. policymakers do not dismiss his December 14, 2001, threats to initiate a nuclear first strike against Israel,5 nor do they dismiss as rhetoric banners reading “Israel must be uprooted and erased from history,” draped over medium-range Shihab-3 missiles in a September 22, 2003, military parade.6

The Islamic Republic’s potential threat to American security is just as serious, though, both because of Tehran’s determination to develop satellite launching capability which could well substitute as an intercontinental ballistic missile delivery system,7 and because of the regime’s continued sponsorship of terrorists. American officials continue to blame Iranian intelligence for planning the 1996 bombing of an American military barracks in Khobar, Saudi Arabia.8 The 9/11 Commission’s bipartisan intelligence review found that the Iranian regime lent passive support to many of the 9/11 hijackers, between eight and ten of whom transited Iran in the year before the attack.9 Washington also takes seriously reports that Iranian authorities have sheltered senior al-Qaeda figures in Revolutionary Guard bases near the Caspian town of Chalus.10

While some editorialists and politicians argue that Washington should support the diplomacy of the European Union troika of London, Paris and Berlin, many European diplomats and analysts privately acknowledge that they believe Tehran’s acquisition of a nuclear bomb to be inevitable, a tacit admission that European diplomacy is a charade. American officials may not be so blunt, but many believe their European counterparts care more about the preservation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty than they do about Iran going nuclear. If the European Union allows the Islamic Republic to negotiate acquisition of nuclear capability, then they need not admit the emptiness of the current non-proliferation regime.

Even if Iran’s acquisition of the bomb is inevitable, to American strategists, the question is not whether the United States can live with a nuclear Iran, but rather whether the United States can live with a nuclear Islamic Republic of Iran. To many Bush administration officials, the danger is not necessarily that the Islamic Republic would use its nuclear weapon against the United States, but rather that the feeling of immunity from retaliation that a nuclear capability might lend regime ideologues would lead to an increase in terrorism in the Middle East and Europe, and violent attempts to subvert Iraq and Afghanistan. Iranian authorities, for example, ignored numerous Turkish diplomatic demarches, and only scaled back support for Kurdistan Workers Party [PKK] terrorists operating in Turkey after the Turkish Air Force bombed the Iranian border town of Piranshahr.11 Had the Islamic Republic enjoyed a potential nuclear retaliation capability, Turkish authorities could likely have not forced an abandonment of Tehran’s PKK support. Meanwhile, American authorities are increasingly concerned by the resurgence of the Revolutionary Guards within the Islamic Republic’s political class. Revolutionary Guard influence has been most recently evidenced by their effective veto of Turkish commercial involvement in the communications sector and Tehran’s new airport.12

Such concerns – and the unwillingness to assume that regime ideologues will not try to act upon their deeply-held beliefs about the United States and Israel – are responsible for the current debate about the efficacy of military action. While targeted strikes on nuclear and ballistic missile sites might not eliminate the Islamic Republic’s capability, the question is whether they could delay Tehran’s nuclear ambitions beyond the lifespan of the Islamic Republic.


Are Iranians Ready for Democracy?

The best option from an American point of view would be a peaceful transition of power leading to an Iranian abandonment of the Islamic Republic’s more threatening convictions. The relevant question therefore becomes whether the Iranian people are ready for democracy and, if so, when they might rise up and demand real rather than cosmetic rights. No one in Washington seeks to use military force to oust the Iranian regime, and rumors that the U.S. government even considered lending support to the Mujahidin al-Khalq are without basis. Democracy advocates within the Bush administration are likely to ask whether they can take any actions which would catalyze the Iranian people’s ability to replicate last year’s peaceful revolutions in Georgia and the Ukraine.

Both anecdotal and statistical evidence indicate the Iranian people are ready for change. While some outside analysts continue to speak of a dichotomy between hardliners and reformers, most Iranians now accept that the political tension within Iran is between regime and dissident. On December 6, 2004, students heckled Mohammad Khatami, chanting “Shame on you” and “Where are your promised freedoms?”13

In August 2002, the Tarrance Group, a professional polling outfit, conducted a survey of Iranian public opinion. They randomized the last four digits of every Tehran telephone exchange, and surveyed residents rich and poor. Just 21 percent of the statistically-representative sample of more than 500 people said that the Guardian Council represented the will of the Iranian people, while only 19 percent supported a politically-active clergy. The poll also found significant economic malaise, perhaps motivating the disillusionment with their leadership. Only 16 percent felt that their economic situation had improved during the Khatami years, while 68 percent said their family’s financial situation had declined since the Islamic Revolution.14

A quarter century of theocracy has moderated the Iranian people. While studying in Iran in 1996 and 1999, many Iranians told me they supported Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini less out of an endorsement of his views than out of a reaction to the dictatorship of the Shah. While American and European intellectuals may criticize Bush’s “Axis of Evil” rhetoric as simplistic, the fact remains that there is a correlation between Bush’s moral clarity and the willingness of Iranians to take to the street, as they did en masse in July 1999,15 October 2001,16 November 2002,17 and July 2003,18 and at a number of more localized demonstrations.19


Historic Opportunity: The Call for a Referendum

Iranians, inheritors of a 2,500-year-old culture, are far more historically aware than many in the West. Recent democratic developments in Iran coincide with a number of symbolic anniversaries. December 2005 marks the hundredth anniversary of the start of Iran’s Constitutional Revolution when merchants, liberals, clergy, and nationalists rose up to demand basic rights in the face of an autocratic ruler. After a year of struggle, the Shah granted the Iranian people a constitution. In December 2006, Iranians may ask why their forefathers had rights today’s Iranians no longer enjoy.

On April 1, 2004, Iranians marked a more recent anniversary – the 25-year anniversary of Khomeini’s declaration of an Islamic Republic. On that day, Khomeini announced the results of a referendum asking a simple question: “Do you want an Islamic Republic.” Ninety-eight percent of Iranian voters said “Yes.” “By casting a decisive vote in favor of the Islamic Republic,” Khomeini told an enthusiastic crowd, “you have established a government of divine justice.” Increasingly, though, a growing and disparate number of Iranian groups are suggesting that Iran is ready for a new referendum.20 Many Iranians suggest a simple question, “Theocracy or democracy.” The Tarrance Group poll found that 71 percent of Iranians would favor such a poll.21 While it is not likely that the Islamic Republic’s leadership would ever consent to an internationally-supervised referendum – they understand the contempt with which most of their charges view them – such a referendum would better focus international attention on the fundamental issue of the Islamic Republic’s lack of legitimacy and moral bankruptcy.

Into this tinderbox was inserted the success of Iraq’s January 30, 2005, elections, that country’s first free poll in a half century. It is a juxtaposition Iranians – many of whom believe themselves to be culturally superior to their Arab neighbors – cannot miss. In June 2005, Iranians will march to the polls to elect a president. Under the terms of the Islamic Republic’s constitution, the new president will have only limited power and will remain subordinate to the unelected Supreme Leader, Ayatollah ‘Ali Khameini. While the unelected Guardian Council in Iran severely limits the choice of candidates in Iran, Iranians have already noted the full range of candidates allowed to compete in Iraq’s elections. Many European, American, and Arab commentators sought to correlate voter turnout with election legitimacy in Iraq. The same standards might be applied to Iran, where many Iranians may choose to stay home as Iranian pilgrims in Iraq estimated that 80 percent of their compatriots did during the February 2004 Majlis elections.

After four years of policy ambiguity, the Bush administration will finally make a concerted approach to change the status quo in Iran. European officials may calculate they can live with a nuclear Islamic Republic of Iran, but they are wrong. If the current regime goes nuclear, Iran will unleash a new and potentially devastating wave of terrorism which will end any hope for stabilization in Iraq and Afghanistan, and peace in the Middle East. The White House is right to pursue democratization as a solution. Europe would be wise to hope for its success because the alternative for Washington might not be acceptance of a nuclear Iran, but rather military action.


*     *     *


1. Robin Wright, “U.S. Now Views Iran in More Favorable Light; a Top Official Makes a Distinction between the regime in Tehran and those of fellow ‘axis of evil’ members North Korea and Iraq,” Los Angeles Times, February 14, 2003.
2. Robin Wright, “Activity Heats Up as U.S. and Iran Flirt with Closer Ties,” Washington Post, February 1, 2004.
3. Michael Ledeen, “Act on Iran,” Wall Street Journal, October 23, 2002.
4. Reuel Marc Gerecht, “Going Soft on Iran,” Weekly Standard, March 8, 2004.
5. Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran, December 14, 2001.
6. Ron Kampeas, “As Palestinian Picture Improves, Ominous Signs About Iranian Nukes,” Jewish Telegraphic Agency, November 22, 2004.
7. “Iranian ‘Sputnik’ Could be Trojan Horse for Tehran’s Ballistic Missile Program,” Aviation Week Group, November 28, 2004.
8. The 9-11 Commission Report, p. 60.
9. The 9-11 Commission Report, p. 240. Also see: “Iran’s Link to al-Qaeda: What the 9-11 Commission Found,” Middle East Quarterly (Fall 2004).
10. “Nearly 400 al-Qaeda members and other terror suspects in Iran,” Agence France Presse, July 15, 2004.
11. “Iran Accuses Turkish Jets of Bombing its Territory,” Associated Press, July 18, 1999.
12. Karl Vick, “Politics on Collision Course at Shuttered Iranian Airport,” Washington Post, August 10, 2004.
13. “Students Heckle Iranian President,” BBC News, December 6, 2004;
14. Public Opinion Survey in Iran, August 23-28, 2002, Tarrance Group.
15. “Fateful Moment in Iran,” New York Times, July 14, 1999.
16. “Tehran Gripped by Pro-Western Street Violence,” Independent, October 27, 2001.
17. “Iranian Student Protestors Call Referendum on Hard-Line Rulers,” New York Times, November 29, 2002.
18. “Student Leaders Seized by Vigilantes in Iran,” New York Times, July 10, 2003.
19. See reporting, for example, of the Student Movement Coordination Committee for Democracy in Iran,
20. Eli Lake, “Iranian Democrats Establish a United Front,” New York Sun, December 7, 2004.
21. Public Opinion Survey in Iran, August 23-28, 2002, Tarrance Group.


*     *     *

Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is editor of the Middle East Quarterly. He served as an Iran and Iraq staff advisor to the Office of the Secretary of Defense between 2002 and 2004.