No diplomatic deal to solve the Iranian nuclear standoff will be possible if it doesn’t allow Tehran’s leadership to proclaim some measure of victory – most probably a recognition of Iran’s right to enrich uranium for civilian reactors. This creates a profound dilemma for the United States and other Western powers who deplore the Iranian regime’s repression of democracy and human rights.
Anything that benefits the Iranian regime must be bad, right? Wrong. A nuclear deal that averts war (which would cause even greater human suffering in Iran) need not betray Iranian democrats nor preclude U.S. advocacy of their cause.
Ronald Reagan and other U.S. presidents made arms control deals with the Soviet Union while still seeking an end to its totalitarian empire. So, too, Barack Obama or Mitt Romney could negotiate verifiable measures to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons without undermining Iranian human rights and democracy advocates.
The objective of negotiations is – as it was with the Soviets – to eliminate risks of nuclear proliferation and war in the wider Middle East. The United States and Iran can continue to denounce each other’s political systems, counter each other’s power projection in the region, and seek history’s vindication of the relative merits of each other’s cause, but within a framework that precludes terrorism and hot war.
Iranian democrats and human rights activists are long-suffering. After the United States and the United Kingdom overthrew nationalist Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953, Iranians experienced three decades of repressive rule under the U.S.-backed Shah. The 1979 revolution brought early hope, but the forces of democracy and modernity were soon crushed by acolytes of the Ayatollah Khomeini.
The presidential election of Mohammed Khatami in 1997 initially offered prospects of political reform and a reinvigoration of civil society, but again the reactionary theocrats and their praetorian Revolutionary Guard leaders reasserted themselves. The Green Movement that emerged after the rigged elections of 2009 inspired a new generation of Iranian liberals, but was unable to withstand the violent countermoves of the state.
Key leaders of the Iranian opposition are painfully wary of revolutionary discourse and violence. They know that democracy can’t be won by the point of a gun, whether their own or that of the United States.
In a 2011 report based on interviews with 35 leading Iranian human rights and democracy activists, the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran concluded: “civil society leaders overwhelmingly reflect the opinion that an attack on Iran, no matter how limited in scope, would have ruinous consequences for Iranian society by entrenching the authoritarian regime, intensifying human rights abuses and likely thwarting the democratic aspirations of a large portion of the populace.”