We cannot determine Middle East democracy

To view Iran's elections through the US prism of liberal democracy versus theocratic oppression misses the point
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The Independent Online

One of the most depressing effects of the invasion of Iraq is that it has made it almost impossible to discuss where we should now be going in the Middle East or Iraq without getting sucked straight back into the original argument as to whether we were right or wrong to go to war in the first place. For those who opposed the war, nothing good can be said to have come of it and for those who supported it, nothing bad.

One of the most depressing effects of the invasion of Iraq is that it has made it almost impossible to discuss where we should now be going in the Middle East or Iraq without getting sucked straight back into the original argument as to whether we were right or wrong to go to war in the first place. For those who opposed the war, nothing good can be said to have come of it and for those who supported it, nothing bad.

This is nonsensical.You cannot have an action so momentous as the invasion of another country by the world superpower without it having a huge impact on the region and the world. But then, as any study of history will tell you, developments tend to have their greatest impact where they operate on existing trends. Where their effects are novel the consequences tend to be largely unintended.

The most unintended consequence of the Iraqi invasion was that it broke the international cohesion that had developed in response to 11 September. In one sense this was in accord with a unilateralism which was clearly developing with the Bush administration before the Twin Towers. But in another way, the US determination to unseat Saddam was simply taken without regard, or much interest, in its consequences on European relations or Tony Blair's domestic difficulties. If one now wants to see George Bush unseated (and, more marginally, Tony Blair), it is not so much as a punishment for their past misdeeds but because a different government in America would make it that much easier to try to rebuild the global anti-terrorist alliance.

But it is in the Middle East that the consequences of the Iraq invasion are so unsettling and so much more difficult to assess. Washington invaded Iraq with a declared aim to remould the region and its politics. You would have to be obsessed by anti-Americanism not to accept that those politics are being changed. Tomorrow's parliamentary elections in Iran are taking place against a background where the talk of democracy, the frustration of the young with the old theocratic ways, the expectations for the future are all of an order quite different than the mood of a few years ago.

If the object of the Iraqi exercise was, as President Bush now insists, to encourage democracy in a region which had enjoyed precious little of it, then it is possible to argue that it is bringing results. Whether you take the tentative measures being made by the monarchical rulers of Morocco and the Gulf or the pressures for change and modernity in Saudi Arabia and Iran, the Middle East is changing, and US actions have a part in the process.

But then if you actually look at the specifics on the ground, the changes are far less clear-cut and optimistic. Iraq is hovering between a democracy which the Shias want and a civil war which the occupying powers, and the UN, fear. Iran's elections have been made a mockery of by the exclusion of 200 of the leading reformist candidates by the religious authorities.

No one looking at the calls for reform that are building up in Saudi Arabia and Egypt can be certain whether the popular mood will find expression in religious fundamentalism, as the mullahs of the slums seek, or liberal, free market democracy as Washington thinkers hope for. Nor can anyone sensibly predict whether the US is better influencing events with the threat of further force, the carrot of greater dialogue or whether it is best just keeping out of the way altogether.

Look at Iran, the most democratic and the most politically sophisticated state in the Middle East, for all the western assumptions that it is a theocratic tyranny. For years now it has been apparent that the younger generation has become disabused not just with the religious rules which control their lives but also with the compromised liberal parliamentary politics run by President Khatami. The system has failed to deliver jobs or freedom to a young population (half the population is under 25) eager for both.

For some time it has also been clear that the political leadership has wished to rejoin the world community and that even the religious heads have accepted the need to mend fences with the West, including the "Great Satan" America. Witness the approaches made by Tehran to Europe and indirectly to Washington, especially in the immediate aftermath of 11 September 2001, and the initial success of the European triumvirate of Britain, Germany and France in gaining co-operation over Iran's nuclear ambitions, and you could say (as Colin Powell does) that the way is now open to closer engagement.

Look on the other hand, as the conservatives in Washington do, to the more recent evidence that Tehran is still not coming clean on its nuclear plans and that the latest elections are deeply flawed, and you could argue that confrontation and international pressure is the best tactic.

In reality neither assumption is right. If you regard Iran in the same way that you might view any other medium-sized nation such as Japan or France, you can see that its main international thrust has been to become a regional power, and its major threat as it has seen it has come from hostile neighbours such as Iraq and Israel backed by a US whose president deliberately singled them out as a member of the "axis of evil".

In those terms, a huge opportunity was missed not to build on the country's desire to join in the anti-terrorist coalition post-11 September. Just as in Iraq, Iran wanted a change in regime in Afghanistan and it wanted to take a seat at the top table when the post-war decisions were made. In both cases it was kept out of it.

In that light, of course it is going to want to seek and keep an ability to develop nuclear weapons. Whether it actually wants to make them is another question. And, of course, it wants to continue a dialogue with the West as a parallel and possibly alternative way of ensuring its security. There's nothing peculiarly new or devious about the way it is behaving. Those have long been its considerations.

So with the issue of democracy. The balance of power within the Iranian regime has long been carefully balanced between conservatives, operating through the Guardian Council and the internal religious security apparatus, and the reformers operating through the political process and the traditional departments of state such as the Foreign Office and armed services.

Tomorrow's election is one further round in this struggle. But it is a round made more complicated not only by the exclusion of reformist candidates but also by the failure of President Khatami to sort out the economic problems facing the country. If the elections result - as seems likely - in a conservative victory on a very low turn-out, the reformers will only have themselves to blame. To view it through Washington's prism of liberal democracy versus theocratic oppression misses the point.

What the result ought to do, of course, is to give the West pause for thought. Iraq has shown clearly enough the dangers of outside intervention in the Middle East. Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt - all pose the same potential dangers. For a long century, the Middle East has suffered from the meddling of the West, always claiming that it is for the countries' own benefit. It has nearly always ended in misery for the populations and instability for the region. We can be interested observers of Iran's internal struggles. We can, and should, proclaim our belief in democracy. But we cannot determine the result. Nor should we try.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

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