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4/27/15

Iran: How a Nuclear Deal Could Bring Democracy to Iran - by Peter Beinart

Last week, Akbar Ganji wrote one of the most important essays published since the signing of the framework nuclear deal with Iran earlier this month. It’s partly important because of who Ganji is. Imprisoned in 2001 for accusing Iranian officials of orchestrating the murder of government critics, he penned a manifesto from jail calling for Iran to replace theocracy with democracy. After being released and leaving Iran, he launched a hunger strike on behalf of Iranian political prisoners in 2009. He’s been called Iran’s “preeminent political dissident.”

But it’s also important because of what Ganji says. In the essay, he calls the framework deal “a great victory for Iran and Iranians, if we look at it from a democracy angle.” Why? Because “when a nation such as Iran is threatened by the US and Israel for over two decades, and suffers from the most crippling economic sanctions in history, democracy becomes an impossible dream for its people, who live instead in terror and fear of war.”

 If the United States and its allies “are truly interested in the development of democracy in Iran,” he continues, “they should set aside military threats and economic sanctions. Peace and economic well-being is directly linked with democracy.”

In those sentences, Ganji challenges one of the most damaging myths in modern American foreign policy: that via war and cold war, America promotes freedom.

As with so much else involving today’s GOP, that myth is connected to the myth of Ronald Reagan. As hawks tell it, Reagan entered the White House in 1981, built up the American military, sent arms to anti-communist rebels, refused to negotiate arms-control deals, called the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” and, presto, the Berlin Wall fell. It was America’s escalation of the Cold War that liberated Eastern Europe.

The lesson isn’t that American leaders should never criticize dictatorships. They should. But they should also remember that imposing sanctions and threatening war rarely strengthen human rights. It’s usually the reverse. First, threats of war make it easier for dictators to discredit their opponents. In Ganji’s words, “The Islamic Republic’s dictatorship used the threat of military action [from Israel and the United States] to increase its repression of the Iranian people, accusing the opposition of treason and being turncoats.” Second, sanctions tend to impoverish the very middle class best able to create and sustain democratic change.

Sometimes, as in apartheid South Africa, dissidents endorse sanctions anyway. But even in South Africa, Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress only endorsed sanctions aimed at improving human rights. Most of the sanctions imposed on Iran make no pretense of that; they’re simply designed to keep Iran from developing a nuclear bomb. Third, and most obviously, America’s wars themselves often threaten human rights.

In the midst of genocide, “humanitarian war,” coupled with diplomacy and long-term peacekeeping, can sometimes bring peace, as it did in Bosnia and Kosovo. But more often, bombing an oppressed people simply makes their plight worse. 

Read more: How a Nuclear Deal Could Bring Democracy to Iran - The Atlantic

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