America, Europe and the Challenge of Bringing Democracy to Iran

Philip H. Gordon
Philip H. Gordon Former Brookings Expert, Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy - Council on Foreign Relations

July 1, 2005

Iran poses more and greater challenges to the United States and Europe—and to the transatlantic relationship—than practically any other country in the world. Its suspected nuclear weapons program, if allowed to be brought to fruition, could directly threaten European and American security. Even short of that, an Iranian nuclear weapons capability could fatally damage the nuclear nonproliferation regime and lead other regional states—including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey—to rethink their own non-nuclear status. A nuclear Iran might also feel more confident in continuing to support regional terrorist movements like Hizbollah and Hamas, which is another way in which Iran threatens Western interests. Iran’s support for terrorism and opposition to Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts continue to make it harder to stabilize a region in which both America and Europe have fundamental strategic, economic and moral interests.

Iran’s ability to cause trouble for the West—and within the West—underscores why Europe and the United States have a stake in the democratic evolution of the Iranian political system. To be sure, even a democratic or liberal Iranian government would have national interests, historical grievances with the United States, nuclear ambitions, and differences with the state of Israel. But it would also provide a much better opportunity for resolving these differences, to say nothing of what such a change would do for the well-being of the Iranian people. A more democratic and liberal Iran that ended its support for terrorism and stopped undermining the Arab-Israeli peace process would immediately become a friend of both Europe and the United States. It would not necessarily foreswear nuclear weapons, but it would be more easily persuaded to do so with economic incentives, and less threatening even if it did procure such weapons. Trade and investment would pour into Iran, to the benefit of the Iranian people, while the West would have new and secure access to energy that would help reduce its dependence on countries like Saudi Arabia. It is hard to see how such a change in Iran’s government would not be positive either for the Iranian people or the West—only the Mullahs and their (diminishing number of) current supporters would lose.

The question, of course, is how to help Iran move in such a direction, and the answers are not obvious. Even if most evidence suggests the Iranian people want change, it is not clear how to support their efforts to achieve it. The hopes that the regime would reform from within, stimulated initially by the surprise election of Mohammed Khatami in 1997, have largely faded. Khatami has not turned out to be Gorbachev, or at least the clerical regime has not turned out to be the Brezhnev Politburo. Similarly, hopes that student protests of the early 2000s would produce change from outside the regime have also failed to pan out. Either the student movement proved too weak, or the regime itself proved too resilient, but there are few today who believe that Iran is on the verge of a revolution. The clerics having banned most of the possible presidential candidates from running in the June 17 elections, Iranians are faced with the choice of conservative or ultra-conservative candidates and nothing else.

The issue of helping to bring democracy to Iran is further complicated by the issue of the nuclear program. For even if the West knew how to go about democratization, that goal competes with the necessity of seeking to persuade the Iranian regime to abandon its nuclear aspirations. What to do, for example, if Iran’s condition for abandoning the nuclear fuel cycle—the only possible guarantee that it is not building nuclear weapons—is Western trade and investment, the delivery of which might provide a lifeline to an otherwise failing and unpopular regime? Should the West accept the deferral of its democratization goals in favor of dealing with the nuclear issue? If not, the risk is that the nuclear clock may be ticking faster than the democratization clock—in other words, by the time our efforts to promote a more liberal and democratic Iran succeed, as eventually they almost certainly will—it may be too late to prevent the nuclear proliferation.

Americans and Europeans do not see eye-to-eye on all these issues. Americans are certainly preoccupied with the Iranian nuclear issue, but they are doubtful a deal can really be struck that would guarantee and end to the Iranian nuclear program, and they are reluctant to reward Iran for bad behavior. Europeans also have concerns about Iran’s support for terrorism and opposition to peace with Israel, but they are skeptical about our ability to bring about regime transformation, and more willing to set those issues aside if a nuclear deal can be done. What is really needed is a common Western strategy that seeks both to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program without foregoing efforts to bring about political change in Iran.