Along An Imaginary Axis: Iran from the Inside

In 2002, President Bush indicted Iran as a member of an "axis of evil." What I found in Iran during my ten-day visit with a Global Exchange delegation in April makes this pronouncement sound ridiculously foolish as well as just plain false.

I confess that I felt some anxiety flying into Tehran alone at 4 am on an American passport. However, my concerns quickly dissipated as I was overwhelmed by the number of people who wanted to grant me access to their world. American foreigners are a rare sight in Tehran, and I was greeted with great enthusiasm.

Every Iranian with whom I spoke had generous words for me and for my country. "We love America." "There isn’t any enemy between the Iranian people and the American people." I was invited into peoples’ homes for chai and conversation in every city I went. Iranians are a strikingly beautiful, curious, and open people.

Iran is also a demographically young country, with 70% of its population under the age of 30. "Do you have a Yahoo! email account?" was one of the most frequently asked questions. Iranians want to be connected to a world beyond their borders and practice their English. They are disenfranchised by a corrupt, hypocritical regime that the majority of the population cannot support and does not trust.

Many, although certainly not all, Iranians are pessimistic about Iran’s political and economic opportunities. Others think that reform is possible but that it will be gradual. Regardless of how long it takes, democracy cannot be imposed from the outside. It must come from within, and be a form consistent with Islam. Very few people with whom we spoke don’t want something more and better for their families and their country. They want economic progress and the liberalization of society. Most Iranians are living at or below poverty level, and many are underemployed. They seek peace, not war.

Of course, there is an enormous difference between the rulers and the people of Iran. There is also credible evidence that the Iranian government is pursuing a nuclear weapons program, although it insists that it is only interested in civilian nuclear power (which is legal under the provisions of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty).
However, some suspect nuclear activities have been discovered by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Iran wants nuclear weapons as a deterrent against the threats made by the US and Israel, and these concerns about future preemptive strikes by the US are founded in fact. The Bush administration has made it clear that it wants to pursue new nuclear weapons in the form of the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP) that could be used against a number of possible targets, including nuclear facilities in Iran. The hypocrisy of the Bush administration couldn’t be more transparent.

In response to Iran’s refusal to bend to the demands of the US or Europe to permanently cease its uranium enrichment programs, there have been rumblings of possible military strikes on suspected nuclear facilities in Iran by either the US or Israel. President Bush has said publicly that "all options are on the table" with respect to Iran.

The problem is that there are no options, given current US foreign policy.

If the US is serious about wanting to curb proliferation in Iran, it must actively work to support regional security measures and nuclear disarmament efforts in the Middle East, and remove the incentives for proliferation. The nuclear disarmament community needs to emphasize this demand and work to support leaders and policies focused on disarming Israel and creating blanket security and transparent inspection measures in the region. The UN resolution that ended the 1991 Gulf War explicitly called for a WMD-free Middle East. Where is the progress?

The US must also actively engage Iran. The EU-3 (Britain, France, and Germany) talks with Iran have been faltering in recent weeks, with Iranian officials threatening to resume certain nuclear activities that have been suspended since the Paris Agreement was reached last fall (in which Iran agreed to suspend its uranium enrichment activities). The EU-3 has been holding out economic incentives in exchange for Iran’s agreeing to give up uranium enrichment activities. The US has been standing over the shoulder of the EU-3 demanding complete and permanent cessation of Iran’s uranium enrichment programs. Or else.

Three successive US administrations’ obsession with Iraq, while neglecting the development of any real policy toward Iran, has left the US with very few levers to pull to try to roll back Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. China and Russia, and possibly European countries as well, are seen as an obstacle to the US bringing the issue of the Iranian nuclear program to the UN Security Council for possible sanctions.

Iran’s supposedly backward mullahs have very skillfully used their most valuable resource, oil and natural gas – the second largest known reserves of both in the world – to build strategic economic alliances with key countries in Europe and Asia. This is all the more impressive against the background of US policy, which has almost entirely been to attempt to isolate Iran since 1979.

We need a foreign policy that is based on the complexities, rather than a caricature, of Iran. We must keep in sight perspectives and values other than our own, and press for a multifaceted understanding of Iran, not demonization. And as I have mentioned, the Iranian people love and welcome Americans to their country. I recommend you visit – only 500 Americans currently make the trip each year.

Another world is possible. Another war is not.