Nader Hashemi’s article on U.S. Iran policy starts off with some sensible observations, but it also includes this proposal:
What is desperately needed today is a long-term strategy toward Iran and a new U.S. policy that focuses on the one area where the regime is at its most vulnerable—its internal legitimacy, purportedly derived from a democratic mandate.
A new U.S. policy that is anchored on the cornerstone of democracy is important for several reasons. First, after a democratic transition Iranian nuclear policy will substantially shift under new leadership. This remains the only way to ensure that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon. It is likely that a democratically elected government in Iran will move quickly to reduce regional tensions and alleviate the concerns of the international community.
The details of Hashemi’s new policy are actually quite reasonable. He argues that the central question in making Iran policy should be, “Will a forthcoming public statement, policy initiative or round of sanctions strengthen the Iranian regime or the opposition?” If Iran policy were made with that question in mind, the U.S. would abandon sanctions, pursue substantive diplomatic engagement, and our government would have nothing to do with anti-regime terrorist groups that the Iranian public despises. There would be no more thinly-veiled threats of military attack against Iran. If Washington adopted Hashemi’s proposal, U.S. policy towards Iran would improve dramatically, and conditions for Iran’s opposition would improve as well.
However, it seems to me that the policy’s goal is premised on some very questionable assumptions. If the current Iranian leadership has not decided to build nuclear weapons, but wishes to have the capacity to do so, how much a shift will there really be under a new leadership? Depending on how much influence entrenched military interests retain during any political transition, a formally democratic, civilian government may have no real choice about acquiring nuclear weapons. Will a democratic Iranian government be less inclined to pursue regional influence? The Turkish example suggests otherwise. A democratic government might be more inclined to acquire such weapons to demonstrate its willingness to secure Iranian interests and to satisfy domestic nationalist sentiment. Three of the last five states to acquire nuclear weapons have been democracies, and all three of these formally democratic nuclear-weapons states do not belong to the NPT. It is reassuring to think that “a democratically elected government in Iran will move quickly to reduce regional tensions and alleviate the concerns of the international community,” but why should we believe that is the case?
Eliminating sanctions and pursuing real engagement with Iran are good proposals that the U.S. should adopt in our own interest, and they would probably improve condition for the Iranian opposition over the medium to long-term, but we shouldn’t presume that Iran’s democratization is going to solve any of the outstanding issues between Western governments and Iran.