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Triggering the Next Iranian Revolution (Part I)

Will the U.S. strategy toward Iran reverse the fundamental changes already under way in the country?

March 14, 2007

Will the U.S. strategy toward Iran reverse the fundamental changes already under way in the country?

Four years ago, The Economist — the prestigious British-American weekly — “…supported America’s invasion of Iraq.” The paper recently wrote that it “…believed, erroneously, that Saddam Hussein was working to acquire nuclear weapons.”

Now, the same weekly says about Iran that “Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a populist president…” through “…his apocalyptic speeches convinced many people in Israel and America that the world is facing a new Hitler with genocidal intent.”

Whatever the demerits of Mr. Ahmadinejad, his inflammatory rhetoric alone is not reason enough to respond with war preparations.

That may be the fashion du jour in the White House and 10 Downing Street. The customarily accorded power of these two locales notwithstanding, the rest of the global community has a clear-cut message. It is a message that should resonate — since it represents 6.5 billion people and not just a few political leaders.

After all, the track record of British and U.S. leaders on contemporary matters of this nature — as evidenced in the attack of Iraq (and in great contrast to their proud and highly capable forbearers in office during the World Wars) — is highly suspect, if not downright disastrous.

So-called evidence furnished by them — at the expense of double-digit billions of dollars — proved to be wholly unreliable.

Even if Iran is now working on a nuclear weapon — and that is currently as much ‘proved’ as the assertion four years ago about Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction” — the country is a long way from getting close enough to possess it and to become a real threat to anybody — whether nearby or far away.

But my point is not to rehash the saga of the Iraq War. Rather, following my recent visits to Iran and my experience as a former reform leader in Eastern Central Europe during a time of true revolution and transformation — serving as Poland's Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister — I have come to one clear conclusion regarding the current U.S. strategy for Iran.

Assuming the possible U.S. air strike will attack certain facilities linked to Iran’s nuclear program, that measure will not deliver the revolution expected by the American “worriers.” It will only make the situation in that vital country much more complex and difficult to resolve.

What amazes me in reading U.S. newspaper headlines is that, while Iran is receiving much media attention these days, it primarily concerns the country’s nuclear aspirations — but not the issues that really matter on the ground in Iran itself.

As anybody who has visited the country knows full well, given all the socio-economic pressures — including a youth bubble and demographic and technological change — the mullahs' regime is facing tremendous internal pressures.

Having lived in Poland for most of my life, I vividly remember how events unfolded rapidly, even though the Polish people faced a seemingly hopeless situation. In my view, something similar to what happened in Poland in the 1980s could repeat itself in Iran as well.

Both are proud nations — and despite all their skills, achievements and history, they have had to contend with unfortunate constellations surrounding them, the manifestation of weaknesses at home at the worst possible moment, aggressive neighbors — and sheer bouts of bad luck.

When I went to Tehran, I also had this question in my mind: Why couldn't the Iranian people extricate themselves from their present, very suboptimal circumstances in terms of economic opportunity, freedom of speech and vital human rights just as we Poles have done?

From there, I slipped into my professional mindset and asked myself to imagine what “The Next Iranian Revolution” would look like. Surely, the 1979 version — despite the injustices perpetrated by the Shah — was not so much a revolution but a restoration, a significant move backward in time.

The economist in me can sense quite easily that — due to the demographic process and technological change already underway — that forward-looking revolution unlocking Iran's full potential is just around the corner.

Alas, an American intervention would only achieve one purpose — to postpone that critical event by years!

Why is it, I wonder, that some of today's leading U.S. politicians are so fixated on the nuclear weapons issue? Why do they not focus with at least equal zeal on triggering Iran's truly nuclear explosion — the power and potential innate to its people?

Remarkably, that — to me and, I assume, most foreigners admiring the historical contribution of the United States to human progress — is the essence of what the country stands for.

Too bad its current leadership so badly neglects America's own historic mission in the case of Iran. After all, it probably is the country that is most ripe for the application of that classic American medicine — of a powerful dose of economic opportunity and democratic spirit.

At the same time, we all know that Iran is neither an epitome of democracy — nor is it a part of any axis of evil. We would do well to remember that it does have a fine and functioning system of checks and balances, including the right to undertake votes of no-confidence in parliament against the sitting president — something that even the United States cannot claim for itself.

This nation of almost 70 million well-educated people is also a country of robust changes. Few people in the West realize one of the mullahs' biggest challenges: Two-thirds of the population is too young to remember the triumphant comeback of Ayatollah Khomeini 28 years ago.

Most of them are not really devoted to the orthodox Shia faith, regardless of what the flickering images on Western TV screens show after Friday prayers.

In my visits, I have found people to be open-minded, multicultural, pragmatic and looking both towards East and West. They are definitely not hostile to the West in general — or to the United States in particular.

In fact, according to a recent Gallup poll conducted in 27 mostly Muslim countries, only in Iran have sentiments toward the United States improved. The percentage of people with "unfavorable views" of the United States fell between 2001/2 and 2005/6 from 63% to 52% — while, for instance, it rose from 33% to 62% in Turkey.

Instead of inundating Iran with bombs — conventional, I hope, not nuclear — delivered by long-range airplanes, it would be much better to "bomb" with a steady flow of new ideas.

I found Iranians to have a big thirst for more insights into building a knowledge-based economy, free trade, civil society, the institutional foundations of an open economy and society, structural market reforms, privatization and the management of public finance.

Across the country — not only in Tehran — there is a tremendous thirst for precisely this kind of know-how. In particular, the younger generation — students, professionals, managers, businessmen, new staff in the central and local government, journalists — are all looking forward to learning much more from the outside word. And such knowledge should be delivered.

So, if we want to help the Iranians with their next, real revolution, we should resolve not to bomb them, but invite them — by the thousands! — to study at American and European universities.

Editor’s Note: You can read Part II here.