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What about democracy for Iran?

by Paul Goodman

Screen shot 2011-03-01 at 11.32.46 I don't believe that events in the Middle East have vindicated George Bush, prove the neo-cons right, or will roll a wave of democracy through the region.  They may - but it's simply too early to tell.  To say that western leaders should champion democracy in the region is easy.  To suggest how they should apply the principle to autocratic but friendly governments (such as Jordan, Morocco, Oman and, most tortuously of all, Saudi Arabia) is harder.

None the less, we can all surely agree that, in principle, western leaders should be trying to promote that bundle of free elections, the rule of law, the market economy, independent institutions and strong civil institutions that wrap together in the package called democracy.  When it comes to the Middle East, we tend at the moment to apply the ideal to Egypt, Tunisia and Libya - though, in the last case, we're more concerned about the moment about a possible civil war and humanitarian crisis.

Why aren't we applying it to Iran - where pro-democracy protests were greeted with tear gas yesterday?

The Government is watching events uncertain whether, in broad terms, they'll be no real change in the Middle East, a transition to liberal democracy, a movement towards Islamist states, or no consistent pattern.  So, in a mirror image of observation, is the Government of Iran - Ahmadinejad and the Ayatollahs.

They'll be doing so with a mix of hope and fear.  Just as Cameron moved in Egypt last week to help claim the fall of Mubarak for democracy, so the Iranian regime's trying to claim it for political Islam.  Khamenei said last week that the protest movements "are Islamic and must be consolidated".

The story that carried his comment pictured him sitting alongside a leading Britain-based Muslim Brotherhood activist, Kamal Helbawy.  It also reported anti-government protests in "almost every major Iranian city, including Isfahan, Shiraz, Tabriz, and Rasht".

In other words, a battle's being fought over the ownership of the protest movements - about the ideals they stand for.  Its outcome could help decide whether liberal democracy or radical Islamism win out.  David Cameron's well aware of this.  In Qatar last week, he cautiously ratcheted up the pressure on Tehran.

The Prime Minister called the Iranian regime "a pariah state", has instructed officials to try to create "a coalition of like-minded allies", and wants to join forces with the United States and France to step up sanctions.

He'll have been advised, though - as will Barak Obama - not to give the regime an excuse to blame the western powers for its troubles, and been told that it likes nothing better than publicity and attention, hoping that both will help it to win the heart of the "Arab street".  No doubt that's why it sent warships to the Suez Canal last week.

This is the same kind of advice that Reagan and Thatcher were given about the Soviet Union back in the 1970s and 80s.  The parallel isn't exact, of course.  The Soviets were an existential threat to our national security.  The Muslims who challenge it today are Wahabi Sunnis, not Iranian Shi'ites.

None the less, Iran's quest for nuclear weapons theatens the stability of a region on which the world is reliant for energy.  An nuclear Iran would mean, sooner rather than later, a nuclear Saudi Arabia.  The prospect of a region on which we depend for energy supplies being gripped by a nuclear arms race between unstable states is alarming.

The Reagan administration's record on Iran was murky - remember the arms-to-Iran row.  But the country's place in international affairs was very different from today.  America's main opponent was the Soviet Union.  And the Ayatollahs weren't moving towards the acquisition of nuclear weapons.

Which is why a modern Reagan wouldn't hesitate to denounce Iran as an "evil empire", and trumpet the virtues of liberal democracy.  He'd have the vision to see that the audience that matters isn't the Ayatollahs: it's the same Arab street (or in this case Iranian Street) that they're pitching to.

We don't know which way opinion in that street will move.  But we do know - fairly and squarely after the events of the last month - that there's real support for democracy and liberalisation in the Middle East.  Western statesmen should be trying to entrench it.

Despite the difficulties inherent in Cameron's tour, he did skilful work last week in crafting a foreign policy that avoids the extremes of neo-conservatism and passive isolationism.  However, Downing Street can only go so far in making the case for democracy, because the White House is the real "bully pulpit".

The problem here is that Barak Obama is no Ronald Reagan.  His response to the Iranian uprisings after Iran's 2009 Presidential election, with its fierce claims of ballot-rigging, was to do the best part of nothing.  His overtures to the Ayatollahs have been spurned.  His Cairo speech wasn't followed up.

I'm against liberal wars.  I don't want to see a repetition of the Bush/Blair Iraq experiment.  But in any event, I don't think that the Iraq invasion was what a Reagan-shaped foreign policy looks like.  Reagan tended to avoid direct intervention.  But he funded opposition parties, armed resistance groups, stepped up pressure.

Above all, he projected a sense not only of America but of the whole western enterprise - and of the idea of the march of progress.  He radiated a sense that its virtues and values would outlast the doctrine and tyranny of its opponents.

We're missing this self-confidence now, and badly.  Cameron isn't "the leader of the free world", and his priority must be reviving the economy (and getting a Conservative Government elected next time round).  But the western democracies have a leadership deficit.  When it comes to Iran, he should be helping to fill it.

This may be what Liam Fox is going on about.  True, the reports of a Cabinet disagreement between the Defence Secretary on the one hand, and Cameron and William Hague on the other, concentrate on the nuclear issue.  But if Fox is arguing that this is the moment for the West to take a lead, he's right.  It's time to turn up the heat on the Ayatollahs.


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