US policy towards Iran must tread a fine line. The Bush administration is in danger of succumbing to wishful thinking by holding out hope that Iran's conservative leaders can be toppled by popular protests. Instead, Washington should engage Tehran, offering support that encourages the democratization of Iranian society.
Washington's desire to foment anti-conservative protests in Iran seems to have cooled in recent weeks. Nevertheless, the Bush administration's hostility towards Iran remains self-evident. Such hostility is potentially counterproductive to promoting regional stability.
While the student action in June was significant, its role in changing the political dynamics in Iran should not be exaggerated. A more nuanced understanding of what is happening in Iran today is needed to prevent the United States from taking steps that could actually damage democratization prospects in Iran.
The June protests can be considered a continuation of the 1999 student demonstrations, a seminal political moment that shook Iran. What began as student protests against privatizing higher education turned into a highly politicized call for democracy and freedom. Yet even if new protests erupt down the road, producing dramatic images beamed around the world, the Bush administration needs to understand the student movement's limitations.
The bottom line is that the student protests were not as widespread and vociferous as they were portrayed in media reports. To begin with, the students had little organization, no cohesive leadership structure, and lacked clearly defined objectives. In general, Iranian students have tended to react to government decisions or actions. They have usually not been proactive in shaping the public political agenda with a formal organization or a detailed agenda. Finally, conservative authorities took action to ensure that the student movement doesn't coalesce into a threat. Over 2,000 students, including most of the protest leaders, were jailed during the protests and their aftermath. Many remain imprisoned.
The fact that the student action did not foster broader protests is an important point. The lack of wider or visible participation is just one of several signs of the loss of public confidence in the once popular reform movement. Judging by the low turnout in the local elections of February 2003, Iranians have little or no faith in the movement's leadership, which has failed to fulfill bold promises of introducing the rule of law, democracy, and a free press. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The reform movement, led by President Mohammad Khatami, will now either have to become more energized in confronting conservative forces, or face becoming irrelevant.
Large numbers of Iranians have resisted getting involved because of a fundamental weariness and wariness about embracing radical ways to promote political change. The initial trauma and ongoing costs of the 1979 Islamic revolution have made most Iranians timid about participating in protests that might spark a second revolution or a counter-revolution. Most today distinctly prefer steady progress to revolution.
Rather than encourage student protests, it is far more important for Iran's democratization potential to assist the development of civil society, especially promoting a body of non-government institutions that give people in all democracies the opportunity to participate in the issues and decisions that most impact their lives. Iran today has a vacuum of these intermediary institutions, from trade unions and public interest groups to volunteer associations. This is the issue critical to Iran's political future. To a large extent, Iranian hardliners have managed to retain power by weakening or eliminating any institution that keeps open the channels of communication between state and society.
The Bush administration's response to the June proteststhrough its expression of support for the aspirations of the Iranian people and calling on them to take action--is insufficient and perhaps unhelpful. Any semblance of outside interference actually discredits the students and strengthens the hardliners' position. In addition, extremists from both right and left, and from inside and outside Iran, appear poised to try to utilize for their own political gain any tension that is generated by future protests.
Statements are no substitute for a comprehensive policy that addresses US concerns about conservative-controlled Iran. Those concerns have potentially serious consequences, including the development of weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, Iraq, and the Middle East peace process. At the same time, Iran's national security needs, regional role, and economic interests ought to be considered as factors in the geopolitical equation.
Ultimately, to address all these concerns, it might prove more prudent for Washington to adopt a policy that helps the Iranian people make progress in a long struggle for a democratic society. That struggle actually began with the Constitutional Rebellion a century ago.
Nasser Hadian is on the faculty in the Department of Political Science at the Tehran University and currently a Visiting Scholar at the Middle East Institute of Columbia University. Mehdi Semati is on the faculty in the Department of Speech Communication at Eastern Illinois University.