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What the West Owes the Iranian People

By Elahé Sharifpour-Hicks
Saturday, April 16, 2005; Page A19

Think back seven years to 1998, when the main hope for political reform in the broader Middle East was in Iran. A reform-minded cleric had swept aside the establishment's candidate in presidential elections, and his allies were about to make a similarly impressive showing in parliamentary elections. Independent newspapers and magazines were springing up, and the rigidities of authoritarian clerical rule were under attack by those espousing a liberal form of Islamic democracy.

Elsewhere in the region, prospects for reform seemed distinctly less promising. Turkey's military appeared to be intent on ensuring that a democratic Islamic party would never hold power in that secular republic, and the former mayor of Istanbul, said to be the most popular politician in the country, was in jail, his chances of high office apparently ended. Throughout the Arab world the rogues' gallery of dictatorial and authoritarian kings and presidents seemed secure.

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Things have changed. Prospects for reform throughout the broader Middle East seem much brighter virtually everywhere except in Iran. Not only have we seen impressive elections in Palestine and Iraq, but political reform is inching forward from Morocco to Saudi Arabia. In Turkey, that once-jailed politician, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is now prime minister and is presiding over wide-ranging constitutional reforms designed to ease that country's accession to the European Union.

Meanwhile, in Iran, President Mohammad Khatami's second and final term is petering out in failure and disillusionment. The reformist parliament elected with such hope in 1999 was voted out in 2004 on a wave of apathy. Stagnation, repression and government by lawless, unaccountable elites remain entrenched.

The reasons for the failure of Iran's reform movement will be debated by historians, but what is remarkable is the extent to which the West, the rhetoric of the Bush administration notwithstanding, appears prepared to acquiesce in Iran's slide into immovable authoritarianism, precisely the form of governance that Western leaders, led by the Bush administration, have identified as being conducive to the growth of terrorism elsewhere in the region.

Western leaders are not alone in having made this amoral choice. Leaders associated with the reform movement are on record as opposing U.S. criticism of the Iranian government's human rights practices, even as their own movement has perished from sustained repression.

More surprising is the stance of Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi, who wrote in the New York Times in February opposing U.S. pressure and speaking of the "framework of civil society" as the route to change in Iran. The problem with this approach is twofold. First, civil society in a vacuum cannot bring about political change. Without freely contested elections, a free press or an independent judiciary, the civil society movement, however strong its backers claim it to be, can have only marginal impact on political conditions. Second, civil society is simply not strong. It has no legal protection, and activists can be imprisoned at the whim of the authorities. Those who cross red lines by addressing taboo subjects are still treated arbitrarily and brutally by the authorities.

A call for an end to U.S. pressure means acquiescing to the status quo. The broader Middle East is showing ample evidence of the power of clear U.S. rhetoric in favor of freedom and democracy to bring about change. Even long-term strategic partners of the United States, such as Egypt, have felt the pressure and deemed it politic to respond. It seems odd that anyone in Iran who desires change would want this kind of pressure to stop. Apologists for the status quo are not representative of Iranians, who may have become disillusioned with powerless elected leaders, but who still yearn for democratic government.

The United States should make clear that it is ready to resume dialogue with the Iranian government on the full range of concerns between the two countries as soon as a government that is representative of the wishes of the Iranian people, freely expressed, is in power in Tehran. That does not include a retread version of former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, or any of his bloodstained acolytes, who seem likely to come to power after the presidential elections next month.

In the meantime the United States would do well to maintain its efforts to reach out to the Iranian people over the heads of their government. These efforts should include firm statements from President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, when appropriate, and a sustained commitment to broadcasting in Farsi about the obstacles to reform in the Islamic Republic and the progress being made by Iran's neighbors. Such a message will find an audience in Iran, and this time the hope for reform will not be stillborn.

The writer, who has worked with a number of human rights organizations, was a member of a 2004 Council on Foreign Relations task force on U.S.-Iran relations.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company