Tehran — LOST IN THE international fury over Iran's partial restart of its nuclear energy program, and the deplorable statements by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad regarding Israel, has been the fact that respect for human rights and a democratic political system are the most effective deterrent against the threat that any aspiring nuclear power, including Iran, may pose to the world.
When the U.S. and its allies encouraged the shah in the 1970s to start Iran's nuclear energy program, they helped create the Frankenstein that has become so controversial today. If, instead, they had pressed the shah to undertake political reforms, respect human rights and release Iran's political prisoners, history could have been very different.
In the three decades since then, India, South Africa, North Korea, Israel and Pakistan have joined the nuclear club -- and most people would acknowledge that the democracies among them are viewed today as the least threatening. In the 1980s, South Africa's apartheid regime made several nuclear bombs, but the democratic government of Nelson Mandela dismantled them. India has a nuclear arsenal, but few perceive the world's largest democracy as a global threat. Nor is Israel considered likely to be the first in the Middle East to use nuclear weapons in a conflict.
But North Korea's nuclear program is a threat because its regime is secretive, its leader a recluse. The nuclear arsenal of Pakistan is dangerous because the military, which runs the country and is populated by Islamic extremists, helped create the Taliban and allowed Abdul Qadeer Khan to freely operate a nuclear supermarket.
Iran's nuclear program began accelerating around 1997 when the reform-minded Mohammad Khatami was elected president -- just as Iran was developing an independent press, and just before a reformist parliament was elected in 2000. The reformists supported the nuclear program but wanted it to be fully transparent and in compliance with Iran's international obligations. These were reassuring signs that it would not get out of control.
But instead of backing Iran's fledgling democratic movement, which would have led to nuclear transparency, the U.S. undercut it by demonizing Iran.
While Khatami proposed people-to-people dialogue between Americans and Iranians, Washington chose to block Iranian scholars, artists and authors from visiting the U.S. Although Khatami helped the U.S. in Afghanistan, President Bush designated Iran a member of the "axis of evil."
By 2003, when it became clear that Khatami's reforms had stalled, the world started paying closer attention to Iran's nuclear program. So, what had demonizing Iran achieved?
The U.S. will not solve the nuclear problem by threatening military strikes or by dragging Iran before the U.N. Security Council. Although a vast majority of Iranians despise the country's hard-liners and wish for their downfall, they also support its nuclear program because it has become a source of pride for an old nation with a glorious history.
A military attack would only inflame nationalist sentiments. Iran is not Iraq. Given Iranians' fierce nationalism and the Shiites' tradition of martyrdom, any military move would provoke a response that would engulf the entire region, resulting in countless deaths and a ruined economy not only for the region but for the world.
Imposing U.N. sanctions on Iran would also be counterproductive, prompting Tehran to leave the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and its "additional protocol." Is the world ready to live with such prospects?
So, what can the West do? Western nations should help the U.N. appoint a special human rights monitor for Iran. It would remind the General Assembly of Iran's human rights record annually, and strongly condemn it if the record keeps deteriorating. Contrary to the general perception, Iran's clerics are sensitive to outside criticism.
The World Bank should stop providing Iran with loans and, instead, work with nongovernmental organizations and the private sector to strengthen civil society. The West should support Iran's human-rights and democracy advocates, nominate jailed leaders for international awards and keep the cause in the public eye. Western nations should downgrade diplomatic relations if Iran continues violating basic human rights.
Iran is at least six to 10 years away from a nuclear bomb, by most estimates. The crisis is not even a crisis. There is ample time for political reform before Iran ever develops the bomb. Meanwhile, the West should permit Iran a limited uranium enrichment program (as allowed under the nonproliferation treaty) under strict safeguards by the International Atomic Energy Agency -- but only when Tehran undertakes meaningful reforms, including freeing political prisoners and holding free and fair elections.
Lastly, the U.S. and Iran should enter direct negotiations. It is simply absurd for the U.S. and the most important nation in the Middle East not to communicate directly. The Bush administration should not be seduced by exile groups with no support in Iran. Developing democracy is an internal affair.
Democracy, in the end, will provide the ultimate safeguard against nuclear disaster, because a truly democratic Iran, backed by a majority of Iranians, would feel secure enough not to pursue dangerous military adventures.