On January 5, a poignant audio message from a young woman in Iran was posted on YouTube. The sound of her voice in lyrical Farsi and the translated text captured the sadness, exuberance, and deep and enduring anger of the Iranian people towards their theocratic rulers.
She rejected Islamist government, oligarchic hoarding of Iranian power and wealth, and the utter disregard for the freedom of the Iranian people. She anticipated repression, the violent end of this round of popular protests, but vowed that the Iranian people would “never forget” and would press on in their quest for freedom.
Her message is reminiscent of the radio appeals of Hungarian patriots begging for western assistance in 1956 as the Soviets and Hungarian communists crushed them. But totalitarian government ill-fit the character of the Hungarian people, and now they are a free and prosperous nation. For like reason, it is plausible that Iran will also become free and probably, more prosperous and powerful than Hungary is today.
Possibilities for Democracy Depend on Local Culture
If different types of political regimes are plants that grow, the soil is the people, and different types of soil determine what kind of political regime is possible in a given nation. The rise, prosperity, or fall of a political regime depends upon the customs and temper of a people that have developed since time immemorial and are not easily changed.
This important insight was once commonplace when the classical analysis of political regimes was the starting point in understanding nations’ politics, but political science in its modern form no longer teaches our young citizenry in this way. This is why you will not find many journalists or analysts in the media or government who can convincingly explain the prospects for democracy abroad.
The cost of this change in education is apparent in the last 15 years of American foreign policy. The Bush administration expected Western-style democracy to immediately take hold in Iraq after it toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein. The Obama administration expected the same following popular unrest during the Arab Spring. Noble though the goals of those administrations were, an intelligent citizen informed by Bernard Lewis’s “What Went Wrong” and educated in regime analysis could have foreseen that efforts to establish stable democracies in place of removed Arab tyrannies would encounter profound difficulties.
In Iran the case is different. Iranians are a great people well prepared for successful self-government and boast one of the oldest and most refined cultures in human history. Unlike Sunni Islam, their version of Islam always recognized the separation of mosque and state, a tradition that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini struggled to reconcile with his goal of preserving Islamic purity in modernity. He finally abandoned the attempt, but that tradition is still remembered by Shiites and has shaped the political principles that they hold today.
Iranians Are Accustomed to Norms of a Free People
As American statesman James Madison observed, respect for religious liberty is the key to all liberties, and the Iranian people seem to be prepared to adopt this principle. Among Islamic peoples the Iranians are generally the least fundamentalist, the most highly educated, and more disposed to treat women equally. Iranian women are professors, lawyers, doctors, engineers, and in business.
The practice of some crucial democratic norms in Iran is 100 years old. Although Reza Shah forced the Iranian people to adopt western customs in the twentieth century, those customs have held. Although the ayatollahs established an Islamic Republic in 1979, the republican part was genuine. The all-powerful mullahs do superintend the government but to a considerable degree, their constitution has generally permitted the Iranian people to participate in political institutions.
In addition, the Iranian government encouraged childbirth after the Iran-Iraq War, with the result that Iran’s 80 million population is disproportionately young. Relative to other Islamic nations, literacy and university education is high. To put the present condition of the Iranian people in Tocquevillian terms, for almost 40 years the mullahs have given Iranians a taste and capacity for self-government but have hoarded ruling power, which the increasingly youthful, educated people now demand. Thus, the mullahs inadvertently have sown the seeds of their theocracy’s own destruction.
In short, democracy in Iran seems to be ripening, and only removing the mullahs stands in the way of its fruition. That revolution in Iranian government could change the world vastly for the better. Around the globe, the positive influence of a friendly, self-governing Iran would be substituted for the negative influence of hostile mullahs. The change is badly needed.
What Might Be Possible If Iranians Shift Their Government
Liberals are losing to fundamentalists in a pan-Islamic civil war. A free Iran in alliance with western democracies could change the strategic calculus in that global conflict and invigorate the liberal faction. Hezbollah would lose its patron of terrorism. Liberals in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq would be relieved of the armed forces and political pressure Tehran currently sends, and the path to stable democracies in all of those nations might re-open.
Friendly relations between Iran and India could become possible, and between them, they could squeeze Salafists in Afghanistan and Pakistan in a vice. Trade, entrepreneurship, and the arts would likely grow in a free Iran, strengthening its people and military, rendering them a more formidable adversary to Islamic radicalism.
A solution to the Iranian nuclear program could be reached. Israel would be safer. In general, the cause of liberty in the world is more likely to accrue gains from regime change in Iran than once anticipated from the issue of regime change in Iraq in 2003 or from the Arab Spring in 2011.
Most important of all, the Iranian people would finally regain possession of their liberty that we in the West believe all people have a right to enjoy. Western support, indifference, or opposition to this aim for which they are now bravely staking their lives is a grave moral question as well as one that involves our self-interest. Depending on our decision in 2018, we will pay for our answer, or reap the dividends in gratitude and friendship from a great nation for many years to come.