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Views expressed by guest speakers do not necessarily express the views of BAIAD

Moving Iran towards Democracy
Renowned Iranian-American Scholar Discusses Options

Report by: Azadeh Malek
azadeh_m @ hotmail.com

Photos by: Mehdi Malek

San Jose, CA - September 22, 2005 -- In a program held by Bay Area Iranian-American Democrats (www.baiad.org), Reza Aslan, author of No god but God, argued that the U.S. has “miserably failed” in its strategy to deal with Iran’s clerical regime. According to Aslan, the U.S. method of sanctioning and isolating Iran has in fact made “the clerical regime stronger and the democratic opposition weaker”.

Aslan supported his assertion by highlighting inherent weaknesses in the isolation and sanctioning approach. U.S. sanctions are intended to pressure subject countries into compliance by crumbling their economy. In the case of Iran however, Aslan claims this economic damage has been offset by Iran’s trade relations with Russia, China and India. Furthermore, Iran’s isolation has allowed its government to “ward off any consequences from continuing human rights violations”. In addition, Iran has taken advantage of “forced containment in an unstable region to foster the clerical regime’s paranoia and to justify its repression of opposition and pursuit of nuclear weapons”.

Aslan refuted the effectiveness of two other approaches as well. The first is the notion of targeted military strikes, currently advocated by many in the pentagon. The belief is that bombing selected nuclear sights in Iran draws attention to the weaknesses of the clerical regime. Once this weakness is recognized, Iranians will rise up and tear down the system. According to Aslan, this method would not work because there is a “long and deep sense of nationalism” amongst Iranians that intensifies especially when there is foreign threat. An example of this is the Iran-Iraq war.

The second strategy, currently pursued by congress, is to continue to provide support to Iranian opposition groups. The problem lies in figuring out which groups to support and Aslan says assistance to some organizations makes matters even worse. One group for example is MEK, a “fanatical religious cult”, outlawed in Iran for their open support of Saddam Hussein. While at one point this group was on America’s terrorist watch, now, it has suddenly become “the most supported group of dissidents outside of Iran”. Other such groups are those running the satellite television programs. Their target is the youth living in Iran and their purpose is to ferment revolution. The problem however is that these stations have different agendas. A sense of competition for funds has “fostered animosity between them” according to Aslan, weakening their unified voice.

So how do we create a freer, more democratic Iran? Aslan believes that the only option left at this point is “to put aside our ideological differences and truly engage the Iranian government the same way we engaged the Soviets throughout the cold war”. The idea is to force Iran to become open to international communication by entering into inter-dependent trade relations, removing economic obstacles and abandoning isolation and sanctioning policies on Iran. The time for another revolution, according to him, “has come and gone and the clerics are now more entrenched and stronger than they have ever been”. The only solution for stability now, as Aslan sees it, is to do the exact opposite of isolation: it is to open up Iran to international relationships, dialog and observation.

About Reza Aslan:
Reza Aslan earned a Bachelor of Arts in Religion from Santa Clara University, a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard University, a Master of Fine Arts in Fiction from the University of Iowa, and is currently a Doctoral Candidate in History of Religions at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Until recently, he was both Visiting Assistant Professor of Islamic and Middle East Studies at the University of Iowa and the Truman Capote Fellow in Fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He has served as a legislative assistant for the Friends’ Committee on National Legislation in Washington D.C., and was elected president of Harvard’s Chapter of the World Conference on Religion and Peace, a United Nations Organization committed to solving religious conflicts throughout the world. His work has appeared in popular magazines and academic journals. Born in Iran, he now lives in Santa Barbara and New Orleans.


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Views expressed by guest speakers do not necessarily express the views of BAIAD