Wednesday, February 06, 2008


The Iran Democracy Project: Comparative Analysis of Democratization Process in Iran

Original Farsi document can be found on

Michael McFaul
Interviewed by: Soheila Vahdati

Michael McFaul, a professor of political science at Stanford University, is one of the directors of the Iran Democracy Project (IDP) at the Hoover Institute, along with Abbas Milani and Larry Diamond. “The Iran Democracy Project at the Hoover Institution was created to understand the process and prospects for democracy in Iran and the rest of the Middle East. The central goal is to help the West understand the complexities of the Muslim world, and to map out possible trajectories for transitions to democracy and free markets in the Middle East, beginning with Iran. The project also seeks to identify, analyze, and offer policy options on the existing obstacles to democratic transition and ways to remove them and to ensure that policy makers in Washington receive advice that is non-partisan and reliable.”*

McFaul is also the Deputy Director of Freeman Spogli Institute (FSI) for International Studies at Stanford University, and Director of the Center on Democracy, Development, and Rule of Law (CDDRL) at FSI, a Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He serves on the Board of Directors of the Eurasia Foundation, the Firebird Fund, Freedom House, the International Forum for Democratic Studies of the National Endowment for Democracy, and the International Research and Exchange Board (IREX). He has served as a consultant for numerous companies and government agencies. He has published several books and written extensively about the democratization of Russia, Ukraine, and the post-communism democratization process. (For more information, please visit:

His current focus is on democracy promotion and comparative democratization. He lives with his wife, who is an activist with defending the rights of women as working mothers, and their two young sons in the Bay Area.

Sidenote - When I told Mr. McFaul that my goal was providing information to the Iranian community about the IDP, I tried to explain the general suspicion of conspiracy that Iranians hold towards any institution that has ties to the White House. Mr. McFaul reacted defensively and mentioned that he was an academic who, unlike his colleagues, did not get paid a dime for his role in the IDP. In turn, I was surprised that this was new to a political expert on Iran. The interview went well, though, because we both appreciated the importance of putting an end to prejudgments and expectations, realizing it is the time for people from both the US and Iran to join forces for peace.

The following are the views expressed by Michael McFaul on issues related to Iran shared during an interview in December 2007.

Soheila Vahdati

How IDP Started

The Iran Democracy Project (IDP), which is based at the Hoover Institution, started about 4 years ago where we had this simple idea: there is a big debate in our country now about Iran and how to deal with Iran and many many issues that we deal with. We deliberately named it as we did because we want to remind people that in addition to the nuclear issue and the security problems the issue of what happens internally in Iran should be a part of this policy debate and importantly should be a part of our analysis about Iran.

I don’t consider myself an Iranian expert, but an eager student who has published a lot about it. But what I notice as an outsider to this debate when I compare it with the debate about democratization in the Soviet Union and Russia, is that we really lack deep expertise about Iran in the academy. There is not at every university a professor of Iranian studies in the same way that in every major university a professor of Russian studies, a professor of Chinese studies, a professor of Latin American studies. It is actually very rare that you have any tenured faculty members at any university who are experts on Iran. So, part of our mission was to fill that void and that is how we initially got started and then we invited Abbas Milani to come to Hoover, he was originally not here at the Stanford. He became a member of the Hoover institution and then he eventually independent member of our project. He became the director of Iranian studies here at Stanford.


We take no government funding, ever. Not a single dime. We have been approached by the US government many times to take their money; they asked us if we would consider applying for their funds and we have never done it, out of principle. My personal thinking is that it would not taint what we think or do, but because of Abbas’s better understanding of things inside Iran and Iranian diaspoara here in the United States, he has been militantly opposed to taking any money from the US government. We are one hundred percent privately funded both through foundations and individual funding as is the case with most think tanks in the country and Stanford. The budget is around half a million dollar a year. Our budget is public knowledge and its exact number and details can be accessed easily.

Not Some Right Wing Organization

Stanford University is a big entity that is not centralized. There is not one commander that tells people what to do here at the university. Here is a complex web and I have many affiliations with many different parts in Stanford University and Washington DC. I am a political science professor at Stanford University. That is my main academic job. I am also a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, which is a think tank affiliated with Stanford but autonomous; it is not a part of political science, whatsoever. I am also a senior fellow at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace based in Washington where I have been a fellow for 13 years. And I mention that because when people think conspiratorially think that Hoover, that some right wing organization and I just want to mention that I belong to both Hoover and Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. In addition, I am the director of the Center for Democracy and Rule of Law. This is also a research organization with some training capacity as well.

Three Tasks

IDP has three main tasks. First, we conduct our own research and we sponsor other people’s research. Currently, our main academic project is a book which will be a collection of essays written mostly by Iranians or Iranian-Americans, Iranian-British, etc. and it will be an academic book about the future democracy in Iran, looking at all dimensions of economy, civil society, opposition, religious debates, and the role of external actors, including the US, both positively and negatively in terms of influencing democratic change inside Iran. That is our main academic project and our resources are used to sponsor the research.

Second, we hold what we call policy round tables from time to time, sometimes out here, sometimes in Washington. When we do it in Washington, we generally invite a panel of speakers to discuss a very specific topic where we speak, but we also invite external experts to talk. We invite to those sessions a mix of journalists, people from the government, and people from the other think tanks in Washington. After the election of 2005, we had a special session on understanding the election.

Third, we try to publish pieces in more policy focused journals and newspapers. Our latest piece together collectively on Iran, called a Win-Win Strategy for Dealing with Iran, was in Washington Quarterly. It came out about a year ago and had some real resonance with some presidential candidates. We are happy about that. We publish in newspapers. Abbas Milani and I published a piece in Washington Post about dealing with Iran.

Training Political Activists

Another thing we do at the Center for Democracy and Rule of Law is training. We run a summer fellowship program where we bring political activists, economists, and lawyers from all over the world for a three week training session in August about democratization. Every year, we have a fellow from Iran in our program, but we also have people from Iraq, Egypt, China, Russia, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and the entire world where issues of democratization and market reform are prevalent.

A Bridge to Iranian Scholars

We had aspirations of being more of a bridge to Iranian scholars and three years ago we had a major conference here where we had over a dozen people from Iran. We had Akbar Ganji here as a visiting scholar from time to time. Recently, that part of our project has become more difficult to do because of the difficulties that people inside Iran face in getting visas and the complications of being associated with a western organization. And that is really regrettable.


In terms of openness, everything we write is open. Our events are open to the public. I would say frankly, in defense of Mr. Milani who runs it here, that we do more public events than most centers. His center particularly, Center of Iranian Studies, hold public programs on all aspects, not just politics, including religion and literature. Poets have been here reading their poems with translation. That is a lot of public service I think we are providing for free. Nobody is charged for coming to these events.

This is a university and we also have discussion among academics that are not public events and you cannot attend. With all due respect, you are not invited to my classes, either. This is the way that is at university and has nothing particularly to do with this project. That is the way all research groups are run, whether they work on tax policy, China, or Iran.

US Think Tanks on Iran

In terms of the institution that have lots of people that work on Iran, there is the American Enterprise Institute on the right that has several people that write about Iran. We tend to disagree with most of what they say, but they are players of the game. Council on Foreign Relations has two very prominent scholars, Ray Takeyh and Vali Nasr, both Iranian-Americans and I think they are very important in this policy think tank world. The Carnegi Endowment for International Peace has a project on the Middle East and their Iranian expert is Karim Sadjadpour, who is just a team of one. Brooklyn has Susan Maloney, married to Takeyh, who works on their Middle East program. She used to be in the Bush administration. There is Afshin Molavi at the New American Foundation. And there are various other academic individuals.

Available Data on Iran

You want to look at GDP of Iran, you go to IMF on the Internet and the data is there. Frankly, as a contributor to the debate, I am sometimes shocked by the analysis I read by so called experts on Iran when they say Iran is a poor country; Iran is not a poor country! Iran is a wealthy country in comparative context. I hear, “the Iranian economy is crashing,” and I say no, actually the Iranian economy is growing right now. We have pretty good data to support that. Maybe it is not as fast as needed with the growing population. You can see the GDP per capita; Iran is four times richer than China. And I access data that we have readily available.

Like all semi-autocratic countries, you can explain politics of Iran by the available data you have. During elections, in a more open society, it would have been really great to survey people and we would be able to run regressions and corss-path and show who voted for whom. Unfortunately, you don’t have that kind of data in Iran today. So you use other methods.

Information Resources

There is some data in Farsi. There is a lively press in Iran despite the situation there, there is the blog sphere with lots of data that come through. These are questions really for Abbas, not me. I am not a native speaker. In the writings that we do together, I should say, and we do quiet a lot of writing together, I rely on his judgment on those things.

To be clear, we don’t rely only on one person, as you can see in our edited volume which is to be published soon, we have dozens of colleagues, all of whom are native Farsi speakers scattered throughout the world. They are in London, Geneva, and Iran. There is not just one person that is participating in the project. In addition to Abbas Milani, we have another research colleague at IDP who is a native Farsi speaker. We would love to have more fellows and scholars here. We are raising funds precisely to hire an anthropologist.

Comparative Study of Transition

My contribution to the project is not that I have an advantage in terms of understanding the internal debate within Iran. I am a student of those, not a grand wise interpreter. My relative advantage is to put Iran in comparative context and to understand Iran compared to other transitions from authoritarian rule, and to compare Iran with other post-revolutionary countries. I consider Iran to be a post-revolutionary regime right now that has many characteristic familiar to me having studies the Bolshevik revolution, the Chinese revolution and the English revolution. That is the way I try to help understand Iran. And Iranian experts don’t like us. “Oh, Iran is a unique country, and there is no other country like it in the world,” they say. And by the way, that is what Russia experts say about Russia, China experts say about China, and Americans say about America. My job is to help put these into context.

Trip to Iran

I had a two week trip to Iran in October 2003 to attend a conference in Isfahan that was sponsored by the Institute for Political and International Studies of the Iranian foreign ministry. On the Western side, there was a a German foundation that brought in the outsiders. The conference was a part of the dialogue of civilization that Mr. Khatami at the time was campaigning for. The Iranian side was a mix of government officials and academics and on the foreigner side the largest group came from Germany, including several members of parliament and the former president of Germany who was the head of our delegation. There were also individual academics like myself from other major countries such as Russia, China, France, and Egypt.

Mossavian’s Arrest

There was a follow up meeting in Dubai two years later but that became more complicated because that was after Ahmadinejad’s election and he then took over IPIS. At the last minute, literally the day before the conference, the folks that were coming through IPIS channel all pulled out of the conference; they were told not to go. And so we did have some people from Iran there, but fewer and one of them was Mussavian who has been arrested. He used to be the ambassador to Germany and very close to Rafsanjani and worked with Rohani at the Center for Strategic Studies. Mussavian was accused lately of passing state secrets which is ironic to me because for many years he was part of the regime and part of the problem in terms of negotiating. He and Rohani were the two negotiators on the behalf of Iran in the EU3 negotiations for many years and I always thought of him as being somewhat of a hard-liner but compared to Mr. Ahmadinejad he looked a lot different.

I think the real issue is a fight on control over property. It has nothing to do with Allah and it has nothing to do with the revolution. These are two different factions within an autocratic regime and Rafsanjani and his group have control of all the property and the profits that are generated by that property and the new guard has come along around struggling to get a job and they want that property to be redistributed and this is a very familiar story to me. I have seen this in dozens of countries around the world.

Preconditions for Democracy

I don’t think there are any preconditions for a democratic change, and that we know from comparative analysis. The argument for 40 years ago was that you had to have modernization of your economy first, and then democratization. The comparative data has really shown that is not just true. The comparative data has also shown that once you have the transition to democracy -- by whatever form crisis, revolution, and whatever the motive -- that you are more likely to preserve democracy if your country is at a higher level of development, whereas if your country is at a lower level of development, the probability is lower to sustain democracy. If your look at Iran’s GDP per capita, or purchasing power per capita, it is well above the threshold. That means if there was a transition to democracy, it’s likely to be a sustainable democratic regime. It is not necessarily automatic, but the probability is higher for Iran than a poor country in the world.

Obstacles to Democracy

Again, in comparative perspective, what is unique about Iran compared to other semi-autocracies in the world is its constitution. For instance, look at some of those color revolutions: Serbia in 2000, Georgia in 2003, and the orange revolution of Ukraine in 2004. What is really interesting about change in all those countries is that they didn’t have to change the constitution to have democratic breakthrough and that was a big advantage they had. Iran has a big disadvantage in that there is no way you can have a real democracy in Iran without eliminating this clause in the constitution that makes the supreme leader the supreme leader. That is a highly undemocratic part of the Islamic republic constitution, and a big challenge. Because that means a democratic change in Iran, by definition, has to be extra-constitutional. Those are the transitions that are much more difficult.

There are factors I would add in terms of foreign policy. Having a hostile relationship with Iran helps the hard-liners inside Iran; it doesn’t help a democratic change.

It’s very difficult to think of a country in the last 40 years that went through a democratic transition where the United States was seeking to bring down the regime through sanctions and military force. That is not a standard change; the standard process of change is usually when a country is seeking to have a better relation with the west and integrating into the west. That is when things internally become more unstable.

The Soviet Union is an obvious example. During the heyday of the cold war and talk of the star war and the evil empire there was no talk of the change inside the Soviet Union. But when Mr. Gurbachov reached out to the west and the UN and tried to improve relations that created the permissive conditions for a change inside the Soviet Union. And I believe it would be the same in Iran.

A Division within the Regime

Political science is really bad at forecasting. I am nervous to see people doing it with confidence because we just don’t have the analytic tools, even when we have better data, to make those kinds of predictions. But we can talk about what would make the conditions permissive, what would help to bring that about in earlier way,

I think there will have to be a division internally within the regime. And that is what we see in other countries, a division within the regime, not just democrats.

A big mistake people make is focusing on the opposition which is a key component of a transition but it is never a sufficient condition for a democratic change. The standard path of democratization is a split within the old order, within the soft-liners and the hard-liners, as we call it. And I think we already see evidence of that inside Iran today.

Then, you see the role of the civil society and opposition partnering with the soft-liners within the old autocratic regime. Therefore, in terms of western policy, one should seek policies that help to exacerbate the tensions within the regime, between the soft-liners and hard-liners. I would say this is the view that both Larry Diamond and Abbas Milani hold with me as well. We have a rather radical view that is outside the conventional view about Iran. We think that the best way to bring that about is through diplomatic relations, lifting of the sanctions, as a way to exacerbate the tensions within the regime.

Current Iran-Policy Debates in the US

The traditional debate has been between the arm-controllers and the Bush administration. The arm controllers say we have to negotiate with Iran because of the nuclear weapons and we have to stop talking about the regime change; the threat of the Iranian nuclear weapon is so high we have to stop talking about the human rights and just talk about the nuclear enrichment. That is a very common view versus the hard-liners and the Bush administration who say, “We need a regime change, no matter what!” and they conclude we need to have greater sanctions, and some even say bomb Iran. Our view is different from both camps.

An Orthogonal View

Our view is orthogonal to that debate today. We say we only have a lasting stable relationship with Iran when it is a democratic Iran, and all this other stuff will only be temporary. But, ironically, the strategy helping a democratic Iran come about is not increased sanction and certainly is not bombing, which is the easiest and fastest way to consolidate hard-liner rule inside Iran. That has nothing to do with regime change, but is the opposite, that is regime consolidation. That is a giant mistake in the western press when they call the neo-cons the regime-changers and that is contradictory. You cannot describe them as one camp within the Bush administration because they are not. They are two different camps. We are for promoting democracy and the US security interest, but the way we think you can bring it about is, ironically, the strategy that the arm-controllers propose which is negotiation and opening up in a much wider way in terms of engaging the regime.

Reaching Out to the Media, Not the White House

If you go back earlier in the debate, we had a lot more access and interest in the Bush administration than we do now. In particular, after Bush won the 2nd term, and before Mr. Ahmadinejad won his election, there was a window there where our arguments were being debated within the administration at the highest level, all the way up to the president. This radical, new change in policy that we call beyond incrementalism was being debated. And there were hawks that did not support it, but it was a real debate inside the administration.

After Ahmadinejad was elected president, interest within the administration for all use waned considerably. We always said that if you are to have serious negotiations, you don’t have it with Ahmadinejad because he is not the main power holder within Iran and that is a misunderstanding on his side that we would negotiate with him.

After that, our focus really changed from trying to change Bush thinking on Iran to trying to prevent a military action against Iran which in our view would be disastrous for the US interest in the region and especially for democratic activists inside Iran. Rather than just talking to the people in the White House and the State Department, we put a lot of emphasis on the media, publishing articles that affect the media, and affect the debate within the campaign period in our country.

Impact on the US Policy Debate

I say we had some success in that and the fact that the debate about Iran in democratic party in particular became serious and Obama taking a very different view than Senator Clinton is a good sign. Whether we had anything to do with that or not, you’d be an idiot to take credit for that kind of things. But we are very happy to see that kind of debate is out there and our ideas which 2 or 3 years ago where considered radical or naïve by our critics from the right, telling us you don’t understand the Islamic republic and you are programmed by the propaganda, now is much more legitimate. That is progress, in my opinion.

National Intelligence Council (NIC) Report on Iran

The consequences of the recent NIC report are to reduce radically the probability of a military attack on Iran before the end of the Bush administration. I don’t think it means there is zero probability; some people have made a mistake in believing that. But I think it will make it a lot harder for them to make their case for why they would proceed. It is alleged that Mr. Tom Finger, the head of NIC, was against the kind of reporting that was done in the run up to the war in Iraq and wanted to make sure that they got the intelligence right.

It is important to understand that the report said nothing about discontinuing the enrichment program which is the hardest technological aspect of building a nuclear weapon.

Concern over Democracy in Other Countries?

Here at CDDLL we’re very much focused on other countries in the region. I myself just recently wrote an article about Morocco, it will be in the Journal of Democracy in January talking about how monarchies might be able to change. We have a couple of people that work on Pakistan, we had a scholar last spring that was a specialist on Saudi Arabia, who will be coming back again in the spring. We have a visitor from Morocco as a fellow in the center. And in our summer fellows program we bring democratic activists from Pakistan. We invited somebody from Saudi Arabia, by the way, who made it into the program but was unable to get a visa to come to our country. That was interesting. But we had people from Bahrain, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Mauritania, and Pakistan, including a a member of parliament from Pakistan. We have a kind of particular interest, I think, in Pakistan.

I may not have been writing about other countries as much as I have written about Iran. This is because Iran is the critical pivotal country in the Middle East, just like if you were studying Asia and not to study China would be a giant mistake and if you’re studying the former communist world Russia is the pivotal country. I actually think China, Russia and Iran have many similar attributes in terms of their relations with their neighbors and their relations with the United States. Those are the three, in my opinion, the three critical countries called for democratization.

Relation between Iran and Russia

I know the Russia side better than the Iranian side. When I was in Iran in 2003, talking to foreign policy officials about Russia, they said that neither side actually trusts each other in a deep way, but both sides need each other. The evolution of the relationship underscores that kind of schizophrenic relationship. Why has it taken so long, more than a decade, for Bushehr [nuclear plant].

The Russians are playing games with the Iranian regime, trying to keep relations with the West and, at the same time, keep their billion dollar contract with the Iranian government alive and well. That said, the decision to finally ship the fuel, which I think will happen sometime next October, was a big shock to the West. Most certainly the Bush administration did not expect this. They thought that they had figured out a way to stop that and Mr. Putin decided otherwise. He decided otherwise in part because they want to build more in Bushehr and they also want to sell more arms to the Iranian regime and it was made clear them that if they kept stalling on this, both of those contracts would be in jeopardy.

Two, Putin is in such an anti-American mood right that he is perfectly happy to take the criticism from the White House about doing this particular deal. Thrid, to the Russian’s credit, for years and years people said you can’t give the Iranians this technology because it’ll bleed into their weapons program and what we learned in 2002 was that it wasn’t Russian technology, it was Pakistani technology that was part of the clandestine program. The Russians, therefore, feel like they’re kind of off the hook in terms of being accused of being proliferators in dealing with Iran and decided to move forward.

The Role of China

China needs energy; Iran has energy. China doesn’t make conditions about regime type and I see this as the beginning of a long relationship. This is perhaps even a strategic reorientation of Iran, away from the West, that may happen irrespective of whether Iran is a democracy or not. Because of China’s energy needs, there is a national reason for that to happen.

In terms of the big picture, the way I see it is that the United States has threats form non-governmental organizations like Al Qaeda. The United States also has threats from collapsing and weak states. And then there is a third category of potential threats from countries with power that also are in an antagonistic relationship with the United States. And in that last category I put China, Iran, and Russia.

What those three countries have in common is they are all regional hegemons within their regions; they are the most powerful countries. Two, they are all countries that have aspirations for being bigger and more important than just a regional power, with varying degrees. Three, what unites them all is that they’re all autocracies; they are all countries with different kinds of regimes that have therefore a more complicated relationship with Western democracies. Now within that, there’s variation. Iran has the most antagonistic relationship with the United States. Russia would come in number two and China number three. There is something interesting about that list, too. If you think about which is the most integrated country in the West, I would say that China is number one, Russia is number two, and Iran is number three. If you compare those two lists, you will think that integration might make relations better; the most integrated is the least threatening and the least integrated is the most threatening. But for the next couple of decades, how to deal with these three countries will dominate US strategic thinking.

US-Iran Relationship Needed for Building Trust and Understanding

At the government level there is no trust at all on either side. At the societal level, in general, there is very little understanding because there is very little connection between our societies. I have only been to Iran once. When I was there, what was overwhelmingly obvious to me in my interactions with people was their genuine hospitality, interest and engaging with me. I was there with a very high level delegation of German parliamentarians and in many different settings the Iranians wanted to talk to me just because I was American. I mean I was a much junior person compared to my delegation but there was real interest in me as an American. I used to live in the Soviet Union and Poland during the communist period and it reminded me of being an American in the Soviet Union back in the communist days or in Poland in the 1980s where the rhetoric of the bilateral relationship was very hostile. At the personal level, people were falling over each other to try to talk to me and vice versa. I have been to 60 or 70 countries in the world and I would say one of the most pro-American places I have ever been is Iran.

When I say that to my American friends, they are shocked to hear that because for them the Iranians are the enemy. They are these religious zealots, these crazy people seeking to destroy Israel and on and on. That is just due to the lack of interaction between Iranian society and American society. In my opinion, it is just a failure to understand their intentions because you have no ability to interact with people which is one of the big reasons why I am such an advocate of more exchanges. People like me should be going to Iran every two months and we should have a thousand Iranian students studying in California not just a trickle that we have right now. And they shouldn’t just be engineers, by the way. It is great that we have them, but we should have people studying politics, economics, and history as well. And vice versa as well, we should have thousands of Americans in Iran to better understand Iranian society. I am a firm believer in that. It only helps the hawks in both countries to limit the contact because if you don’t have any contact with the person, then you can just imagine them to be the enemy that they are going to be which is exactly what was with the Soviet Union during the cold war. They were eight feet tall. They were these inhumane people, and that was exactly the rhetoric for people who had never been to the Soviet Union. But if you had been there, as I had, we couldn’t say that. It was silly. Now that is at the macro level.

Mistrust among Iranians in Diaspora

One other level of trust and distrust that I find as an outside observer to be also debilitating is between the Iranian-American and Iranian in general the Iranians in diasporas. You see a lot of divisions, a lot of “Oh, that person gets money from the mullahs,” and “Oh, that person gets money from the CIA!” I mean lots of innuendo arguments about who is corrupt and who is working for the Shah and who is working for the Islamic republic. I can’t tell you how many times people have told me, “oh, you can’t work with that academic, because they take money from the Islamic republic, and they’re corrupt!” As somebody who is not a member of that community but interacts with that community, I see this as very debilitating either as a unified lobby before the US government or as a coherent community to bring about change inside Iran.

It is something I have also seen in other immigrant American communities that way. But the more successful ones figure out a way to find unity of purpose. The Polish-American community, for instance, in the 80s, was extremely successful at both lobbying the US government and in providing support for the Polish people during the communist time there in a way that is worth studying and imitating because they were a very successful diaspora.

Whose Right to Sovereignty?

About three hundred years ago in Australia the principle of sovereignty was set up and the idea that if you are a country, then what happens inside your country is your own business. Then, over time, and especially in the 20th century, norms changed and we stopped assigning sovereignty to the state, at least in my opinion, and we started assigning sovereignty to the people. There was an initial hope in the early days of decolonization, especially after the WWII, to give people their sovereignty and to let people have their sovereignty out of the British Empire, French Empire, and Portuguese Empire. There was this notion that the promotion of sovereignty would actually be a promotion of people’s independence, but it did not. What it did lead to was a lot of leaders saying that they hold sovereignty on behalf of the people of country x, y, and z. For me, those governments are illegitimate and therefore it seems to me that if you really care about the sovereignty of Iranians, the promotion of sovereignty in Iran means the promotion of democracy in Iran and that’s the kind of philosophy behind this notion of work to help.

No License to Democracy

Also, I don’t actually believe that ideas are owned by any nation or any state. Ideas should travel freely throughout nation states, between California and Nevada, between the United States and Britain, and between Iran and Greece and Britain and California. People make these claims that by promoting that idea you are promoting American imperialism. By that standard, my kids here at Stanford couldn’t read Aristotle because he wasn’t an American, couldn’t read John Lock because he wasn’t an American as well, and couldn’t read Karl Marx because he also wasn’t an American. And that thinking is just anti-intellectual. There is just no intellectual way you can defend the notion that we should only teach ideas that were written by Americans and if we allow anybody else’s ideas that would be intruding on the sovereignty of the United States.

People in Iran should be able to read all these other folks around the world and choose their own government, of course. And if people vote to sustain a monarchy or a theocracy, I would have no objection to that. But the only way you know if the people want a theocracy or a monarchy or a fascist government is that they have a right to express that view in free and fair election. So, that is a bit of a paradox. Otherwise it is just some person claiming sovereignty in the name of the people without consulting the people.

I want to emphasize that this has nothing to do with the United States and American democracy. That is a mistake that our own administration, and most certainly the Bush administration, has made many to say, “Oh, they’re promoting American this and American that.” We did not invent democracy; we do not have a license on its monopoly. These are universal ideals. They don’t have a “Made in America” stamp on them. They came from other places. The US groups that advocate nonviolence civic resistance in Iran have been criticized. I say, why do you say that is an American thing, that’s Mahatma Gandhi. He never lived in America, he never had an American passport. I do not understand why they say propagating his ideas are somehow an American.

US Money for Propaganda

Iran spends hundreds of millions of dollars every year propagating its ideas abroad, all over the world, including this country. This nonviolence group has offices in New York and they do what they can to spread their ideas. Russia spends all kinds of money on this country doing that. Venezuela spends money on this country, Saudi Arabia, Japan, Taiwan, they all do it. This is the 21st century. It’s not just the United States. Mr. Chavez is providing assistance to the poor people of the Bronx. People only think that the Americans are involved in this. It is not true. It is very widespread. And I think its good, by the way. I am not opposed to this and think it is fantastic. The Hitachi foundation wants to set up an office here and promote their ideas. As long as they abide by the laws of the United States, I think it’s great.

The 75 million dollar US budget is not spent inside Iran. [Hence, not violating the Iranian law.] I was never a big fan the way that this US program was set up because there were a lot of flaws in it. In the article I wrote with Fukuyama we say that there should be a separation of these kinds of foundations as much as possible to get them away from the state department and the White House. There needs to be firewalls between them. It would be best for both the US and those that engage in taking the money from this group.

US National Interest

I disagree with those that say the United States does not have any right to promote democratic ideas. We have a national interest in promoting democracy. First, the job of elected officials in the United States government is to make us, the American citizens that voted for them, more secure. If you look at the 200 year history, you will find that every enemy of the United States has been a dictatorship. Every single country that has attacked us, or that we have had difficult threatening relations with, has been a dictatorship. That is not an accident in history, there’s a reason for that.


The coup against Mosaddeq was a giant strategic mistake. That had nothing to do with promoting democracy; that was promoting autocracy. A giant mistake, also, was supporting Saddam Hussein in the 80s in Iran Iraq war, as is supporting a number of dictators today in the world. It has maybe short term pay off, but is going to have a long term negative conflict. But it does not mean that because Mossadeq was overthrown by the coup I am not allowed to try to get ideas about democracy to people in Iran. I don’t see why because of some sin from 50 years ago that my government did, I didn’t do it and wasn’t even born then, why I am not allowed to speak to Iranian democrats. That is the logic I don’t get and I encounter exactly that kind of argument a lot in Iran.

Rapid Transformations

What is striking to me as somebody that studies democratization around the world is that often times change happens faster than you think. As result of our limitations, we assume the status quo. For the pessimist, I would say keep your mind open for possibilities for change because looking at the structural conditions, and these conditions can be measured, Iran looks like a country that is actually quite right for democratization. Iran has a much greater chance of democratization in the immediate future compared to a country like Saudi Arabia, as we talked before. There was a piece a couple of years ago I wrote in the Journal of Democracy called “Chinese Dreams and Persian Realities” about why Iran is not China and that is a good thing. But if you take that as a premise to be true, or at least as a hypothesis, then it compels us to challenge our conventional assumptions about how to promote change, especially, from the outside. That is, sometimes one has to radically change the strategy in order to help shake up things if you will, to help move things in ways that are unanticipated.

We all may get trapped in our kind of conventional mindsets. We have to be ready for rapid transformation.


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