Commentary Navid Kermani

"This Rogue Is No Rogue – Because He's My Rogue"

It would be a disaster for Iran if Europe's policy of reconciliation with Tehran were to succeed, according to German-Iranian journalist and Islam expert Navid Kermani

photo: Markus Kirchgessner
Iran's reform policy has failed, but many of the country's youth consider themselves cosmopolitan, and the women have gained self-confidence

​​When Europe's foreign ministers want to ensure their place in the great scheme of world history they tend to talk these days about Iran. Our fingers are already touching, Joschka Fischer likes to say, for example, raising his eyebrows in respectful anticipation when he is asked about the status of nuclear negotiations with Tehran: now they only need to close in a handshake.

If this handshake succeeds, we are led to understand, the virtuous European Union will have shown the mighty United States that the way to make this world a safer place is through dialogue, not war.

But the administration of George W. Bush is evidently still holding the military option open. Are the roles thus once again as clearly assigned as they seemed to be at the beginning of the Iraq conflict, the only difference now being that the European angel of peace might this time be able to keep the American Rambo from running in shooting?

No, this kind of caricature, which once prevailed in European public opinion, was too self-righteous even during the crisis in Iraq. And now it verges on self-deception.

Europe failed to deal with the Iraq crises

The United States is not the only one at fault for what happened in Iraq. It is true that it launched a war justified by lies, without adequate planning or the resources needed not only to conquer a nation but also to administer it afterwards. But Europe also failed to deal effectively with the Iraq crisis.

European foreign policy, faced with widespread public opinion against war, was incapable of formulating any alternative to America's plans. If the United States had heeded Europe’s protests, Saddam Hussein would still be in power in Baghdad, and the United Nations embargo would still be leading to the deaths of thousands of Iraqi children each month.

Instead of condemning the United States for going to war against dictatorships, Europe would have done better to think about how to topple dictators without precipitating chaos in their countries.

Now the transatlantic opponents are claiming to have learned something from the disaster in Iraq. In the conflict over Iran's nuclear program, the European Union took the initiative early on in order to prevent military escalation. The United States in turn seems to have lost its zeal for unilateral campaigns.

Even if negotiations between Tehran and Brussels break down, the Bush administration will not immediately issue a call to arms, but will instead bring the case before the United Nations, which it just a short while ago dismissed as a coffee klatch.

Not only do governments on both sides of the Atlantic agree in their estimation of the present danger, there are also obvious efforts to coordinate any actions to be taken. This gives one renewed hope for the future of transatlantic relations. But it does not offer any hope for Iran.

Driving up the price

There, the reform process has long been blocked. Numerous members of the opposition have been imprisoned, the formerly lively press has been stifled, the courts have reinstituted stoning as a valid sentence.

The conservatives have forced their way back to a parliamentary majority. But in Europe, no once seems to have noticed. European foreign policy is still pretending that it’s important to protect the delicate green shoot of Iranian reform from being trampled by American boots.

True, it was once important to support the reforms in Iran. But if Europe simply continues its policy of rapprochement where no more reforms are in evidence, it will utterly forfeit its credibility.

In the course of its breakdown, the reform process robbed the regime of its last shreds of moral, theological or social grounding. The growing self-confidence of women, the worldliness of the youth, the trend toward more enlightened religious thinking and the secularization of the population can no longer be squelched by a tyrannical government.

But social tensions are growing just as rapidly – revolutionary Iran of all places already has one of the widest income gaps in the world. 40 percent of the population lives under the poverty line – and that's according to official estimates!

Further aggravating the situation are omnipresent corruption and epidemic drug use, to cite only two catchwords. It seems inconceivable that the present political system will be in a position to master the enormous domestic problems the land is facing, let alone the foreign policy challenges brought on by the latest developments in the Middle East.

And the regime knows it. More isolated from the people than ever before, the government's only chance of staying in power in the long term is at least to break out of its isolation from the outside world.

Reconciliation as a vital strategy

Reconciliation with the West – including the United States, whose embargo places a serious burden on the economy – is today a vital strategy for this Islamic republic. That's why Iran is carrying its flirtation with nuclear weapons so far: if it plays its cards right, it could just end up with its international reputation rehabilitated.

And how are the Europeans responding? By mindlessly following Tehran's lead like a donkey running after a carrot. They are trying to entice Iran to forego the development of an atomic bomb by promising political, economic and technological assistance.

And because Tehran has a realistic appraisal of the kind of panic unleashed in the West by the idea of Iran getting its hands on nuclear weapons, it is driving up the price by continually playing the uranium enrichment card or using other equally effective ploys.

The jackpot that Tehran intends to walk off with in the end is clear: the United States should also agree to the deal, guarantee the security of the regime and lift all sanctions. This explains why the Europeans are pleading with the Americans not to torpedo negotiations, that is to say: not to stand in the way of Iran being accepted by the Western community of nations.

No one in Europe dares to talk of the democratization of Iran, let alone of regime change. People favor instead the Gaddafi model for turning a rogue into a partner.

Europe seems to recall values like secularism, equal rights for women and human rights only when it comes to claiming that its own Muslim minority puts enlightened ideas at risk. When dealing with Muslim dictators, all of its missionary ambitions seem to be forgotten. Realpolitik apparently has to tolerate stonings.

In America, the neoconservatives have come to the realization that policies oriented only along one’s own interests can be self-damaging if these interests are defined only with a view to the short term. Certainly, the United States did not topple Saddam Hussein for humanitarian reasons.

And the call for democracy in Iran can be attributed just as little to a sudden empathy with a people that has suffered as few others under the effects of American foreign policy: from the CIA putsch against the elected minister president Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953, to the support of Iraq in its invasion of Iran in 1980, to the shooting down of an Iranian plane full of civilian passengers in 1988.

For the United States, it is a matter here of defending its own interests. And how could we expect it to be otherwise in world policy?

But the American project for a new order in the Middle East seems to offer much more hope for most Iranians today than the ostensibly altruistic policies of the Europeans.

The rogue that is no rogue, because he's my rogue

In the latter, namely, a monster is once again rearing its ugly head that once contributed decisively to the cataclysmic conditions in the Middle East that are again threatening the security of the West today: the rogue that is no rogue, because he's my rogue.

Whoever does not insist on a minimum level of common values, and is instead ready to close a pact with even the most sinister of political forces, need not act surprised when these forces one day end up turning on their benefactor. Whoever has no morals himself should not expect rogues to have any.

In the worst-case scenario, the Europeans will be successful in their cause. The Iranians will get the guarantees they want (and will nonetheless continue to work on their atomic bomb in secret). Iran will be admitted to the club of honorable nations, with the Americans giving their assent.

The regime will consolidate its forces—and will wind up further entrenched than it has ever been during the past decade. The ones who lose out are the Iranians. In the long run, however, they might manage to demonstrate once again just how dangerous this hypostasis of security policy really is. The current state of things in Iran cannot be upheld for long even with the help of Western cement.

Without political liberalization, there will be no stability in Iran. Chatami's reforms were an attempt to change the regime from within in order to salvage it. But those attempts failed, along with any hopes of ensuring the regime lasting survival. And the Iranians will not forget who held out those hopes the longest. War is not the way.

Liberation is not wrong

But liberation is not the wrong goal. Naturally, it will take patience to change the situation in Tehran. An invasion is unwarranted, however, and not only because it would provoke Iranian rearmament. Unlike in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, a widespread democratic awareness is already in evidence in Iran.

Ongoing debates in the universities and theological colleges there go even deeper than those in the Arab states with a more western orientation. Even if the steps are agonizingly small, they will eventually bring Iranian society to its goal of liberation. It must simply get its feet back on the ground of solid policy.

Therefore, it would already represent great progress if those reforms that have clear political majorities behind them could be carried forward; if those laws that apply in Iran itself would be enforced; if newspapers that still have their own editorial departments would be allowed to publish once again; and if the Guardian Council would allow independent candidates to run in the upcoming presidential election.

Even these seemingly moderate advances would take the wind out of the system's sails for the time being – pressure from within would see to that.

During the past two decades, the regime has only been able to uphold its strong front against the United States because relations with Europe offered compensation. If Europeans and Americans would now look at the security issue in the present-day political context, and would place priority on democratization as the focus of a common policy on Iran, the regime would be forced to make concessions.

Iran offers much more realistic prospects for—admittedly slow, but for that matter peaceful—transformation than Saddam's Iraq, or Syria or North Korea. If Europe insists on elevating the country to the status of world player, it should at least not hinder this process of change. Otherwise, some Iranians might wish to see the hand being outstretched by Europe wither away before it bridges the distance.

© Süddeutsche Zeitung/ 2005

Translation from German: Jennifer Taylor-Gaida
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