Part I: Key Reflections on the Military Option – Page 3
Rejecting Human Rights and Democracy Rationales
Some who have threatened a military strike against Iran suggest that the Islamic Republic’s dismal human rights record and anti-democratic polices justify a more interventionist response by the United States. For example, US Senator Joseph Lieberman told the Council on Foreign Relations in September 2010 that the United States and its allies should pursue a “much more robust engagement and support for opposition forces inside Iran…helping the people of Iran overcome their government’s electronic monitoring and censorship, to secure the universal human rights with which all of us have been endowed by our creator.”7
Policymakers like Lieberman usually do not invoke the Iranian government’s human rights record and democratic repression as a justification for an attack per se, but use those issues to bolster more aggressive economic sanctions on Iran and other policies designed to put pressure on the regime. Nonetheless, it is important to recognize many of the strongest proponents for military force against Iran also continuously reference human rights abuses and democracy promotion in Iran. These calls for human rights promotion by advocates of the military option come partly from a hope that Iranians, discontent with their government, will overthrow the regime before the US has to intervene. Moreover, in the case of the US-led war on Iraq, the Baath regime’s violations of human rights were bundled with a range of other rationales to mobilize support for an invasion.
So, while Senator Lieberman demonstrated clear support for human rights and democracy in his 2010 speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, his speech’s primary emphasis was:
It is time for us to take steps that make clear that if diplomatic and economic strategies continue to fail to change Iran’s nuclear policies, a military strike is not just a remote possibility in the abstract, but a real and credible alternative policy that we, and our allies, are ready to exercise if necessary.8
Many Iranian civil society actors strongly believe that the United States and its allies will employ pro-human rights or democratization rationales, possibly even sincerely, to help strengthen the case for a strike on Iran. While many Iranian human rights defenders and civil society activists recognize the need for the international community to proactively support human rights in Iran, they often warn against coupling human rights promotion with calls for a military strike. Several of the Campaign’s interviewees rebuffed the idea that human rights or democratization rationales could justify a strike on Iran.
“As someone who is engaged in the protection and promotion of human rights, I don’t believe a military attack would resolve any of our current concerns,” said human rights lawyer Mohammad Dadkhah.
Student activist Pooya E. shared Dadkhah’s observations and said:
Even if we believe in the sincerity of right wing and pro-war elements in the West claiming to support democracy and human rights, we must realize that an attack will not lead to democratic changes. In general, any effect in Iran caused by foreign intervention will not be lasting in terms of leading to democracy or respect for human rights.
Environmental activist Shirin F. also stressed that:
Those [countries] who advocate war in today’s political climate, are those who consider themselves the flag bearers of democracy and human rights. What kind of human rights framework allows countries to decide war or peace for the people of another nation? They will cause war, then assign reconstruction budgets, build local armies, all for bringing peace to another nation. No lasting peace is achieved through foreign intervention.
Lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan
Mohammad Dadkhah, like many Iranians featured in this report, referred to recent US intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan when rejecting the notion that human rights motives could or should justify an attack. He concludes:
If we look at the experiences of countries such as Iraq or Afghanistan, or any other country where legitimate human rights concerns were exploited for justifying military intervention, we see that there is no peace in such countries. We must believe in the fact that our need is to promote dialogue and rational interactions to solve our problems. The bitter experience of war should not be repeated. We should learn our lessons and plan accordingly.
Author Lili Golestan shares Dadkhah’s concern and told the Campaign, “I don’t believe problems regarding Iran can be solved with a military attack at all. Look at Iraq. The United States wanted to solve its problems with war, but has that been achieved? Unfortunately, the United States has failed in this effort and regarding Iran, the military option must be completely discarded.”
Student activist Majid H. said that based on experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, he believes that any democratizing effect that could come from military intervention would not be worth the toll in terms of subsequent negative consequences. He explained that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan “not only did not achieve their stated goals, but resulted in further destruction. It is particularly heart-wrenching to witness the developments in Afghanistan. In Iraq, although the country was freed from [Saddam Hussein’s] dictatorship, following the American attack, the daily cost of it is not acceptable. Any rational mind would seek a less costly and surer way of achieving democracy.”
Only one interviewee, student activist Kamran L., sympathized with the idea that Western powers might feel obligated some time in the future to use military force against Iran to prevent human rights atrocities, as well as stopping Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon or destabilizing the region. He said:
At the point where the threat of Iran having nuclear weapons becomes very serious, or at the point when the Iranian regime commits human rights atrocities within its borders, or exerts negative influence in the region, at that point if all peaceful means to stop Iran fail, then a crippling attack with the permission of the UN and under the supervision of relevant international organizations, as a way to permanently end such problems, may be the last defensible option.
However, Kamran L. quickly concluded that such an action would be fruitless and ill-advised, and stressed:
However, right now it doesn’t seem, at least from the nuclear weapons perspective, that Iran’s nuclear activities pose an imminent threat. A limited strike will not resolve anything, rather it will start an era of intricate crisis and destruction. Iran’s response and retaliation would result in further conflict, instability, and war in the region, and ordinary Iranians will be the main victims of these conditions. In addition, a military strike would also likely result in Iran pulling out of the [Non-Proliferation Treaty] and speed up its nuclear program, which could make Iran into another North Korea or Iraq under Saddam, and that would truly be a disaster.
Democratization from Within
Many civil society actors interviewed in this report stressed the need for social change to come from within Iranian society. They argue that democracy and respect for human rights are only sustainable when emerging as a result of domestic efforts.
“An attack by foreign forces will harm everything. It is better that Iranians be allowed to solve their problems,” said Mohammad Maleki, former Chancellor of Tehran University. “They [the Iranian public] are well aware and conscious of what they need to do and there is no need for resorting to violence because it will not lead to any positive developments. If Iranians are seeking liberty, justice, and equality, they should develop their own means for achieving them.”
Fakhralsadat Mohtashamipour, who is serving a prison sentence at the time of writing, is a prominent reformist-activist and wife of the imprisoned reformist politician Mostafa Tajzadeh. She noted that, “When we have a democratic movement and the ability for mass participation to bring about positive change, then war is certainly not the answer.” Mohtashamipour added, “International actors should focus on negotiations and not military confrontation.”
Student activist Majid H. sees the historical movement for freedom and democracy in Iran at a critical juncture, arguing that a military strike would gamble away an opportunity. He explains:
Our people today are closer than ever in achieving historical goals such as a broad understanding of rights and freedoms, and an understanding that having opposing views is possible. Respect for one’s opinions and creed and tolerance of differences are concepts that are widely taking root among the young generation. This is providing the grounds for united actions to demand respect for these from the state too, such as in the form of protests in the last couple of years. It is a manifestation of a collective consciousness and spirit.
Having paid a heavy price standing up and fighting religious fundamentalism, reactionary thoughts, and monarchic dictatorship to reach this point, would it not be ironic to welcome war and provide further opportunity for enemies of human rights and democracy? To provide for an uncertain and complicated situation?
Filmmaker Kambozia Partovi believes that Iran, like Egypt during the recent Arab spring, has the potential to achieve democratization through internal development. He noted, “We must come to a common understanding ourselves [for achieving democracy] and believe in it. We will then find the way for it, like the people of Egypt and other places.”
Humanitarian, Economic, and Environmental Concerns
Several of the interviewees expressed serious concern that a US military strike on Iran will have ruinous humanitarian, economic, and environmental consequences. While in many ways these are common concerns about any military campaign, the anxieties of Iranians are particularly acute because of their experiences with the Iran-Iraq war. Having seen the death and destruction from that war, and the long road to economic recovery, makes many Iranians especially troubled by the prospect of another military conflict. Moreover, and most importantly from a US perspective, these concerns intensify objections to a US military strike in a manner that would translate into heightened rejection of the United States should it carry out a strike.
Religious scholar Ahmad Ghabel expressed the basic concern that civilian casualties are an inevitable outcome of any military attack and added that even the deaths of military personnel, most of whom are conscripts, would not be welcomed by most Iranians. He expressed that, “Bombs cannot always distinguish between military targets and the civilian population. Also, the military personnel are Iranians who have families. The fact that the government doesn’t treat its population well doesn’t justify foreigners dropping bombs.”
Shahram Mokri, a young Iranian filmmaker, explains how his experiences during the Iran-Iraq war contributed greatly to his deep concern over civilian casualties and his objection to another military conflict. He explains:
I was raised in the border city of Kermanshah, and I may have touched war closer than many other Iranians. I have seen how deep and destructive my generation’s fear of war is. My view of war is not a tourist’s view, nor an idealistic one. I didn’t read about war in magazines or watch it in films. I had to take shelter from bombs many times, my school was shut down because of it on many days, and I had a collection of shrapnel and missile pieces in my home. I say touching the war up close is a very terrifying thing, and I don’t wish it repeated.
Tahmineh Milani, internationally-recognized filmmaker and advocate of women’s rights, shared Mokri’s sentiment, explaining how the loss of loved ones suffered by Iranians during the Iran-Iraq war intensifies their antagonism to another military strike and a rejection of the country that would lead such a strike:
We must not forget that Iranians are nationalistic and will not give even one molecule of their soil to foreigners. I lost a brother to the Iraq war, something I have never talked about and no one knows about. He was a soldier doing his compulsory military service. He suffered spinal injuries during the war and was paralyzed for ten years, and then he died. My mother died the following year. What did they die for, really? Sometimes people lose their lives to natural catastrophes, but sometimes we throw bombs and kill people. But why? Foreign governments may see us as inconsequential, but they have no right to think this way. We are a decent and good nation.
Religious scholar Ahmad Ghabel also expressed similar concern about the destruction of Iran’s infrastructure during a bombing campaign. Recalling the experiences of the former Yugoslavia and Iraq, he said:
During all these wars the countries’ economic infrastructure and social services were destroyed. These are part of a nation’s backbone. If Iran cannot rebuild and restore its infrastructure for decades to come, it will obviously be a huge setback. I don’t think any rational mind would accept such an outcome.
Adding to the worries for casualties and destruction of infrastructure, student activist Kamran L. cautions against the likely health and environmental ramifications, which have been supported by studies such as a 2005 analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists.9 Kamran L. explains:
A military strike against Iran’s nuclear installations will have negative consequences both in the short and long term. One issue is the resulting environmental and safety disaster. Iran’s nuclear facilities contain radioactive materials and a military attack would result in the release of these dangerous materials throughout the region.
Several Iranians featured in this report warned of the disastrous economic outcome in the event of a military attack. For example, lawyer Kambiz Nowruzi said, “The economic structure will fall apart and poverty will become widespread; a crisis of security that will affect everyone. In one word, war will seriously endanger the entire Iranian society.”
Pooya E. added that “the economic impact of a war will be most felt by the middle class and the poor.”