This comment was published in The Washington Post on 12/11/ 2010
In one of Iran's great paradoxes, a nation in clutches of clerical despotism has given birth to the most intellectually vibrant democratic movement in the contemporary Middle East. The Green Movement, which traverses all of Iran's social classes, has reconceptualized the relationship between the public and the state, as well as religion and democracy. At its core, a movement that emphasizes the need for the public's consent, respect for global opinion and relaxation of onerous cultural restrictions is a denial of the politics of intolerance practiced by Iran's supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Despite repression, imprisonment and show trials, the Green Movement continues to thrive and is gradually pressing the society away from state control. The movement is better organized and commands a greater degree of popular support than comparable past political movements in Eastern Europe that - with the assistance of the West - eventually dislodged the intractable communist tyrannies from power. The scale of defections from the state and the disillusionment of many stalwarts of the revolution demonstrate how the Greens have succeeded in sapping the self-confidence and the legitimacy of the system.
As Washington assesses how to deal with Iran's nuclear challenge, it must widen its canvass and consider its approach to the slow, simmering political change unfolding there. Given the alienation of the population and the fragmentation of the elite, the regime will not be able to manage a succession crisis. For all his faults, Khamenei is the glue that keeps the Islamic Republic together. Should the elderly supreme leader pass from the scene, the system is too divided and lacks a sufficient social base to easily choose another successor. In the process of consolidating his power and ensuring the fraudulent election of his protege, Khamenei has all but ensured that his republic will not survive him. All this suggests that a transactional relationship with Iran whereby carrots and sticks are traded for modest nuclear concessions is unwise.
History has shown that human rights do contribute to dramatic political transformations. The Helsinki Accord of 1975 invigorated the moribund opposition groups behind the Iron Curtain and ensured a smooth transition to a post-communist reality. More so than arms races and arms control treaties, those accords defied the skeptics and cynics by contributing to the collapse of the mighty Soviet empire. An emphasis on human rights today can not only buttress the viability of the Green Movement but also socialize an important segment of the security services, clerical estate and intelligentsia to the norms to which a state must adhere in order to become a member of global society. The successor generation of Iranian leaders would then be more sensitive to their obligations to citizens and the international community. By linking its diplomacy to human rights behavior, the United States could mitigate Iran's nuclear ambitions and pave the way for a peaceful transition from clerical autocracy to a more responsible and humane government.