In the opening scene of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly three men are facing each other. There is an enormous tension between them, but at this point we don’t know who is Good and who is Bad. We also don’t know who will shoot first. In today’s Middle East three men are facing each other as well.
They look a lot like the main characters in this western movie. They are machos, they are angry, they are not interested in each other en they carry weapons which they are quite willing to use. They are Bush, Ahmadinejad and Olmert. All three of them claim they are prepared to kill, albeit with the best intentions.
Bush wants to promote democracy and human rights using military force, Ahmadinejad wants to use armed resistance to defend Iranian national pride and Olmert wants to defend the Holy Land by terrorising the terrorists. Two of these three men have found each other: Bush and Olmert agree that the Iranian troublemaker Ahmadinejad should be punished. However, once again Iran has refused to cease its nuclear activities.
There is a long history of American involvement in Iran, in which economic interests and keeping political friends in power was always more important than the rules of democracy. The Iranians remember quite well that America played a part in the downfall of the liberal government in 1951 by funding gangs of thugs with $ 30,000. The fall of this government was a historic event, a political and intellectual wound that was reopened with every subsequent political crisis. The Iranians’ frustrations were increased by the American support for the shah’s reign of terror and the Islamic revolution that followed it.
In the 30 years since the Islamic revolution, relations between Iran and the United States have been very bad indeed. The American propaganda during this period did not contribute at all to the democratization of Iran, partly because it came from a former ally of the oppressor, but also because – in spite of all the talk about democracy – it effectively boiled down to the stereotyping and demonizing of Iran and the Iranians, instead of just the regime. The government of the relatively liberal prime minister Mohammed Khatami suggested in 1994 that America and Iran should improve their relationship, but president Clinton and his advisors were not prepared to do so, which meant that a historical opportunity was missed. The rise of Ahmadinejad was among other things a reaction to this humiliation. He has been using tough words and has taken a tough stand.
Just like its neighbours, Iran has always had the ambition to become a strong force within the region, among other things by developing nuclear energy. As a result of this, the preferred image of Iran in the eyes of America and Israel (as well as the eyes of Ahmadinejad himself) as a recalcitrant and dangerous country, that defies the United Nations and possibly wants to develop nuclear weapons, has persisted.
We now find ourselves in a cosmetic war that no one can win, because many things are not what they seem. Ahmadinejad’s government is under strong pressure from within to solve the economic and social problems of his country. Also, there is political pressure on the Iranian government to normalise foreign relations in order to serve Iranian interests abroad. Despite his harsh language, restoring contacts with the US is high on Ahmadinejad’s agenda, the first US Interests Section in Tehran were to open its doors under his regime!
There may be unrest within the country, but certain Arab countries are definitely not looking for trouble with Iran. Take the example of the great Saudi Arabia that seeks to distance itself from its ally America. One of the main problems between Washington and Riyadh concerns Iran. Riyadh does not approve of American attempts to isolate Iran and put pressure on the regime in Tehran. The Saudi government is also strongly against the use of military force by America or Israel to end the Iranian nuclear programme.
The Saudis realise that Iran is both an important regional power and an aggressive neighbour that won’t go away. Iran is much more capable of making life difficult for Saudi Arabia than the other way round. Therefore, the Saudi kingdom wants to have good relations with Iran. Foreign powers come and go, but Iran – with its 80 million inhabitants, almost four times the population of Saudi Arabia, will remain located at the Persian Gulf.
Furthermore, although the call for more democracy, more openness and more influence for the citizens of the Middle East is very weak at the moment, it nevertheless remains a constant factor that is slowly on the rise. Some of the organisations for civil rights embrace the concept of liberal democracy, just like an important group of intellectuals. However, so far their influence has been quite limited. In the Middle East liberal organisations have no organised support, which means that they hardly play a part in politics.
This is different for the Islamic political parties. These are strong, well organised and, surprisingly, they increasingly take part in elections and the political processes as a whole. A strange paradox has now emerged: the islamists are slowly starting to obey the democratic rules but western governments respond to this with undemocratic behaviour. The sanctions that were imposed by Europe and America when Hamas won the elections in Palestine illustrate this. As a result, the West’s credibility has suffered.
So democratization takes a different route in the Middle East and elections don’t always result in governments the West likes. If Europe and America want to make a positive contribution to democracy they will have to accept this and act accordingly. Instead of demonizing Iran, the options for dialogue should be explored. It is also important to appreciate the interests of countries that don’t want a head-on collision with Iran. Perhaps these countries could even help to improve relations between the West (including Israel) and Iran, through their own contacts with Tehran. Finally, it is important that the West accepts that democratization does not always follow the secular-liberal path. Sometimes there is a different track, which should be judged on its own merits. After all, a party like Hamas was democratically elected. Criticism might be appropriate, but sanctions are not. Not only are they undemocratic, they can also ruin the West’s image.
It is of the utmost importance that the United States abandon their traditional policy of military support for regimes that are favourable to them, and usually undemocratic. Not only has this policy all but destroyed the reputation of the United States, the peoples of the Middle East simply no longer accept it. The administration of George Bush has made the situation much worse than it already was and it will take a lot of time for America to regain some of its credibility. It is precisely for this reason that Europe must make a strong effort to bring about reform in the Middle East. The EU has always had a low-key approach when it comes to promoting democracy. Unlike the Americans the Europeans aim for dialogue, as well as cultural and economical exchange. It would be great if a new American administration were to use its power to further develop Europe’s low-key approach. Until then, we can only hope that none of the three machos in the Middle East will draw their weapons.