Both the historic diplomatic accomplishments that took place this spring between Brazil, Turkey, and Iran and this summer’s imposition of strict economic sanctions upon the latter nation signal a dire need for a new diplomatic strategy between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The latest set of sanctions implemented this past June under UN Security Council Resolution 1929 were intended, as stated by the Council, to increase economic pressure on Iran based on the country’s failure to comply with previous proceedings in regards to its nuclear program and ongoing intentions for uranium enrichment. The restrictions include bans on supplying military equipment to the Islamic Republic, recommendations to inspect cargo to and from the nation for banned items, seizure and disposal of such items, prohibitions on financial institutions that may affect the progress of proliferation activities, heavy restrictions on fuel, and additional economic restrictions. Two of the ten non-permanent members of the Security Council voted against the resolution, concerned about the impact of heightened sanctions on future diplomatic efforts.
The Green Movement
The Iranian population today is largely composed of young citizens; experts estimate that over two-thirds of the population is under the age of thirty (one quarter alone from age 15 and younger). The majority of the population has grown up after the Revolution of 1979 and are highly skilled and urbanized. Constituting approximately 40 percent of the electorate, young Iranians have great potential political influence; whether or not they exercise this power by voting in the 2013 parliamentary elections will be an enlightening and — perhaps — empowering turning point for those they support. Following the disputed election of June 2009, youth activism reached nearly record levels and sparked huge protests, rallies, and dissent against the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The Iranian Green Movement, a massive body of discouragement of the current regime and intense dissent against the seemingly fixed election, played a large part in such activities. Protests in Tehran and across the country after the election have been estimated to be the largest seen in the country since the time of the Revolution, and featured angry protestors engaging in marches and civil unrest. The official stance from leaders of the Green Movement, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, was an plea to refrain from violence and to employ peaceful, legal means to enhance the organization’s political and social influence. The goal of the movement’s “Green Path of Hope” focuses on expanding existing pressures against the current regime into the social network, and conducting lawful and peaceful protests. These intentions were, unfortunately, hampered by scattered violence of the Iranian police towards protestors: including several arrests, many people detained, and 32 deaths at the hands of the regime’s forces.
Overall, Iranian citizens are well-educated, particularly in science and engineering, with women comprising over 50 percent of the nation’s university students. Due to trade restrictions and censorship, Iranians have embraced technology as the foremost means of communication and expression; an ever-expanding number of blogs and websites exist in Iranian cyberspace and engages communication both within the country and internationally. A great majority of the population is active on the Internet, with online chat forums, blog communities, and websites receiving vast numbers of daily visitors. As the number of frequent web users rapidly increases, the current regime has continued to exercise its influence by removing or blocking access to certain websites (certain dating websites, for instance, have experienced difficulty during the past year), hindered slightly by the sheer number of websites and traffic.
The highly technological nature of Iranian constituents, as well as the rising discontent with the current regime, points to the (albeit rather long-term) potential for an anti-theocratic governmental shift. In such a scenario, the political power of the voting population would continue to oppose the strict conservatism and harshness of Islamic law and the activities of the President and his supporters. Eventually, the sector of dissent would reach the point in which a less conservative or pro-democratic government would be voted into power (through a future election, or through internal disagreements within the ruling regime), forcing away the influence of conformist hardliners. Having spoken with journalists specializing in the development of Iranian politics, the prospect of such a shift seems possible over the course of several years; of course, it is difficult, given the current political climate, to predict a more exact timeline.
Still, resentment among the Iranian middle class is increasing. The weight of the imposition of economic sanctions has fallen hardest upon the middle class, without having such strong effects upon wealthier citizens and government officials. Speaking to journalists and educators with expertise and/or personal involvement in the region, it is clear that the majority of Iranian constituents (particularly university students) oppose the current regime but retain a sense of patriotism. The majority of citizens are disgusted by the brutality of the religious authorities, and the economic and social effects of the current policies.
Many middle and upper-middle class families retain economic ties with businesses and financial institutions that have been affected by the economic sanctions. The harsh regulations have made business dealings with Gulf Cooperation Council nations much more difficult (nations in the GCC include Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Yemen, Oman, Qatar, and Bahrain). Financial organizations in GCC countries suffer from pressure to work with Iranian banks and institutions; this strain is most acutely felt by businesses that only operate or deal with Iran. These conditions have led to the closing of many Iranian businesses (within the country and abroad) that lack the resources necessary to operate with nations other than the Islamic Republic, impacting broad swaths of the population.
Overall, the young population feels frustrated with and dissatisfied by the current regime, with a rising level of resentment based on this year’s sanctions. The middle and lower classes largely feel that the economic restrictions will not affect the wealthier factions, and that the burdens of the political struggles have fallen upon them. In short, young Iranians hope not for violence and war, but for a collapse of the religious regime (perhaps from within).
What can America do in the meantime? It is imperative that we do not destroy diplomatic lines and contacts between the United States and the Islamic Republic, removing preconditions and loopholes from confidence-building measures in order to begin building trust. Instead of applying blanketed sanctions that predominantly affect the average Iranian citizen, not the wealthy religious constituents that the UN’s P5 hopes to target, specific sanctions must be employed instead. These regulations must target civil rights issues, and apply focused pressure toward the current regime. This strategy will uphold the sentiments of the Iranian people while increasing opposition for the cruel theocratic hardliners in power. By applying strategic pressure, we can minimize resentment toward the United States, maintain diplomatic communication, and build trust between the Iranian and American peoples.
The question of trust is very much a critical one in this political and economic situation. The success of Brazilian and Turkish officials in securing a nuclear fuel swap agreement with Iran this May points to the necessity of building up a gradual collateral of trust and comprehensive diplomacy. To do this, we can follow the example of Turkey and Brazil. Diplomatic officials from both nations established relationships and communicated with a wide range of factions and institutions within the Islamic Republic, ranging from the Parliament of Iran and other legislative officials to the Supreme Leader and the President. By engaging many components of the Iranian government, Turkey and Brazil were able to build a foundation of communication and dialogue that ultimately resulted in the success of their diplomatic intentions and the possibility for positive negotiations in the future. In short, real diplomacy will be needed — rather than crippling the Iranian economy with overarching sanctions and standards.
The Obama Administration’s motivations for upholding the sanctions stem from fears of Iran developing nuclear weapons. While officials of the Islamic Republic maintain that their uranium enrichment is for non-military purposes, many nations remain cautious. However, the political climate in the Middle East precludes the conclusion that, if Iran acquires a nuclear weapon, they would not use it. But Western power in support of Israel and against its aggressors means Iran would be near-suicidal to embark on a path of nuclear warfare. As such, the injection of American trust into the diplomatic relationship of the United States and Iran may go a very long way to securing a better relationship between the two nations — a valuable commodity for the foreseeable future.
In The Tech’s political survey asked MIT students whether they felt it was more important to avoid a military conflict with Iran (even if it meant that the nation develops nuclear weapons) or prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons (even if it requires military action). Of the 2145 respondents, 1005 voted to avoid military conflict, 639 favored prevention of nuclear activity at the point of military action, 480 listed themselves as “unsure,” and 21 did not respond to this question. Based on the population of MIT students, this sampling presents the potential for the adoption of a diplomatic solution. It remains to be seen whether the international tide will match these sentiments, but for the sake of an intelligent diplomatic response to Iranian politics, it very well may be an optimal solution at this unstable time.