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A More Democratic And Free Iran

Guest Column Sina Kevin Nazemi

While the eyes of the American people have been focused on the presidential primary races, a far more pivotal election has gone on half a world away. On February 18th the voters of Iran took part in parliamentary elections, where they overwhelmingly ousted the traditional hardliners in favor of moderate reformers who have promised more political and social freedoms and have expressed interest in reestablishing ties with other countries, including the United States.

The voters of Iran, nearly eighty percent of whom participated in the election, have given the reformers a clear majority in the parliament. The vote marks a continuation of change towards a more democratized form of Islamic rule in Iran. In a landslide election in 1997, the voters of Iran elected current reform-minded President Mohammad Khatami, who has called for relations with other countries, democratic reforms, and human rights. Furthermore, Khatami has allowed the Iranian press more freedoms and put on trial right-wing vigilantes who under the old system saw themselves as above the law.

Since U.S.-Iran relations were severed after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the United States has placed economic sanctions on Iran prohibiting any economic relationship between Iran and U.S. companies and prohibiting export of Iranian goods to the United States.

I had the opportunity to visit Iran for the first time in nine years during IAP. The Iranian people are religious and proud of their culture, yet they are very receptive to outside influences. My cousins danced to the latest American hits sporting their Polo shirts with the same fervor as revelers at MIT fraternity parties. From doctors to businessmen to taxi drivers, people talked about their desire to reestablish direct economic and cultural exchanges with the West. Even the very conservative have become at the very least tolerant of Western influences.

While the masses support change, a group of powerful conservatives, led by Supreme Leader Aytollah Khamenei, remains as a roadblock. The conservatives want strict social regulations and limited interaction with foreign nations. These conservatives control Iran’s armed forces and public broadcasting. They also dominate the Guardian Council, which has the ability to filter candidates running for office and legislation passed by the parliament. The conservatives blame current economic hardships on the economic sanctions imposed by America and use the issue to change the subject when talk of internal reformation is brought up and to rally their troops. But even the conservatives have not been able to stand up completely against the move for change. Given the overwhelming number of reformists candidates running for parliament in the last election, the Guardian Council only restricted about 10 percent of candidates running for office, compared to the large percentages it had restricted in previous elections.

President Clinton has to decide today whether to renew economic sanctions against Iran. President Clinton should take a prudent step and relax the sanctions by allowing Iran to export pistachios and rugs, two of Iran’s largest exports. This good will gesture will not only pave the way for future American access to a geopolitically-strategic nation that is the second-leading exporter of oil, but it will also take away the America-bashing fuel that the conservatives use to rally their supporters and give reason for their supporters to instead support the reformers. The move can also serve as a precedent-setting case showing that America supports and wants democracies in the Middle East. Furthermore. The United States can use its amicable relationship with Iran to address concerns with Iran’s alleged support of terrorist groups, Iran’s military arsenal program, and Iran’s role in the Middle East process.

A small step by the Clinton Administration can go a long way and may lead to normalized relations with a country whose people have expressed a deep and overwhelming desire for change through the ballot box.

Sina Kevin Nazemi is a member of the Class of 2003.