Gradually through the years, European and American foreign policies have managed to construct a Western vision of Iran that associated the country with the so-called “axis of evil” states and al-Qaeda. But the Iranian government actually desired cooperation with the U.S. on terrorism. However, the Bush administration did little to foster dialogue. As a result, hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected President in 2005, ushering in an era of renewed anti-Americanism.
Despite this unsavory situation, the history of Iran and its recent popular outcry still suggest that a diplomatic partnership can be established. Before developments can be made on this front, however, it is essential for the United States to understand that Iran knows what democracy is and that its people are able to convert to one.
For close to a century, the Middle East has been under constant foreign pressure. Iran’s oil resources, in particular, drove both foreign and domestic powers to gain as much authority in the country as possible. Yet, Iran seems to have developed a resource that goes far beyond the economic power of oil—people.
During the 20th century, as authority passed from Britain and Russia into the hands of the Iranian Shah, the Iranian population began to speak out. The Iranian people finally demanded a say in their government, and the government rightfully demanded a say in the allocation of the country’s resources. Since then, however, foreign infiltration, the Cold War, and internal military conflict encouraged the formation of a semi-authoritarian government and anti-Western sentiment. However, the Iranian people continually refuse to be silent—the struggle is not yet over.
Over the past few years, we have seen protests in major European cities by Iranian citizens. The Iranian embassy in London is now famous for being constantly under siege by Iranian immigrants. One year ago, a large rally was organized in the streets of Berlin to show solidarity with the Iranian people.
More importantly, however, after the controversial victory of Ahmadinejad in the 2009 elections, the people of Tehran began to protest. Iranian youth flooded the streets, clashed with the police, and chanted anti-government slogans for several days. Many lost their lives. The reason for the uprising was that the government had once again ignored their voices. Without wanting to mythicize the revolts, it is clear that the new generation is supported by a strong democratic history.
The Western response to Ahmadinejad’s autocratic regime has been sanctions, criticism, and judgment. The political authorities in America and Europe fail to understand the importance of pointing out that Iran’s problems go beyond Ahmadinejad. Iran itself is not evil. Iran has been a victim of past international relations, domestic autocracy, and popular suppression. Iran still has explosive democratic potential and active generational progress which must be recognized.
How do you think Ahmadinejad feels when Bill O’Reilly says on national television that “in a sane world every country would unite against Iran and blow it off the face of the Earth” since “that would be the sane thing to do?” Such a statement does not ultimately harm him. Iran has endless chances to kindle anti-American sentiment in the Middle East. It is because of chances like this that the Iranian population, in particular, the rebelling youth, is isolated. The Western world, which should be the main foreign promoter of democracy and cultural understanding, is now suggesting Iran should be destroyed. No one benefits from this situation. No one except for the Iranian regime.
American and European foreign policies should focus more on the difference between the oppressive regime and the thriving population. The West should emphasize a separation between Iranian authorities and Iranian popular sentiment. To continue with simplistic condemnations and sanctions is not an option. It is clear that there is potential for Iranian democracy to return in the future, and the West has the chance to play a fundamental role in the transformation. Perhaps, one day the Iranian state will represent the population and its rights rather than the current authority. In the meantime, awareness should be raised, and the people of Iran must be peacefully supported and understood.