Empowering the Moderates in Iran

Today’s New York Times had a long OpEd by David Brooks that argued it is naive to negotiate with Iran. Brooks warns that, “It could be that Iranian leaders are as apocalyptically motivated, paranoid and dogmatically anti-American as their pronouncements suggest they are.” At least in my reading, Brooks implies that “could” should be replaced by “is.”

There certainly are “apocalyptically motivated, paranoid and dogmatically anti-American” individuals within the Iranian power structure. But no nation is a monolith, and Iran is no exception. Even Japan in the 1930s had its hawks and its doves. Surprisingly, Adm. Yamamoto was one of the less hawkish elements, and planned the Pearl Harbor attack reluctantly, in the belief that the United States had given Japan no other option by insisting on its humiliation – something the nation would not tolerate without a fight.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty provides a welcome breath of fresh air in its own coverage of Iran today. Its “Rohani Adviser Says Rights Violations Hurting Iran” post says:

Ali Yunesi, a senior adviser to Iran’s President Hassan Rohani and a former intelligence minister, has admitted that “many cases” of human rights violations are taking place in Iran’s courts and prisons, blaming them on extremists. …

In a February 26 interview with the semi-official ISNA news agency, Yunesi said that hard-liners are creating trouble for the Islamic republic and damaging the country’s reputation through their actions. 

“There are extremists who are under the control of nobody; many of them have infiltrated centers of power; they act as they wish, but of course the Islamic republic is [held responsible],” Yunesi said.

As an example, he cited the case of Zahra Kazemi, an Iranian-Canadian photojournalist who died in 2013 from a brain hemorrhage resulting from beatings after he was detained in front of Tehran’s Evin Prison and interrogated. …

“All documents are available about who did this,” Yunesi said, adding that some of those responsible for Kazemi’s death were punished.

“This [incident] was caused by someone’s own will and the Islamic republic continues to pay the price,” he said. …

Yunesi also said that the government remains faithful to its pledge to improve civil rights. … Yunesi indicated that Rohani’s administration will send a draft law on civil rights to the parliament, but added that he believes it unlikely that the conservative-dominated assembly will “tolerate and adopt” the government’s plan. 

Because Iran is not a monolith, we need to find ways to empower its more moderate elements. But our current confrontational approach bears a dangerous resemblance to the humiliating one we tried using on Japan in the 1930s. (Another of today’s RFE/RL posts stated that, “Rohani told the clerics Iran will not accept humiliation.”) It’s time to learn from our mistakes before we suffer a modern-day Pearl Harbor, far more devastating than 1941’s. Let’s stop trying to humiliate our adversaries and, instead, find ways to empower the moderate elements within those nations.

Martin Hellman

About Martin Hellman

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects the secure part of the Internet, such as electronic banking. But, since 1982, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic. My latest project is a book, co-written with my wife Dorothie, with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." It's on Amazon and a free PDF can be downloaded from its website: https://anewmap.com.
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5 Responses to Empowering the Moderates in Iran

  1. socialinform says:

    Great balanced post. I think there are two interesting things that you point out:
    1) you show that there are different fractions in Iran, and point out that Iran is not a monolith and moderate elements should be supported.
    2) that humilation policy is dangerous and can backfire (Japanese in the 30s and I would probably add Germans after WW I: versailles treaty).

    About the NYT article:
    Everyone knows that no sane country would actually use nuclear weapons (even Pakistan and North Korea have not done it), knowing that this would result in the destruction of your own country. Hence, a lot of people claim that Iranian leaders are crazy and not rational. These are attributes that people anyhow want to attach to their perceived enemies.
    Now in the case of Iran’s leadership this is definitely not true:


    Same applies to Iranians overall:

    The Iranian public is anyway a different story:

  2. Nuclear Risk says:

    Thanks for those links. I hadn’t been aware of the one headlined, “Iran’s president has more cabinet members with Ph.D. degrees from U.S. universities than Barack Obama does.” Both our demonization of Iran, and that nation’s government casting the US as “the Great Satan” are huge mistakes, with potentially devastating human consequences, But we only have control over our own mistakes, so let’s focus there – and empower the moderates in Iran by doing so!

    I created a post which includes key excerpts from The Atlantic article.

  3. socialinform says:

    You are welcome, here are some of the most successful articles on “The other Iran”:
    http://theotheriran.com/tag/top-posts/ (the two articles above are included in this list)

    Now to more political topics:

    Yes, both demonizations have to stop:

    I think everything started with the “hostage crisis” which was a big humiliation for the US and brought Iran in the headlines as an enemy. Now news agencies have not always new news to report on so this thing is still warmed up after 35 years.
    Iran on the other hand felt powerful having humiliated the US and wanted to play the world rebel, and started to overact the role.

    Since then a lot of things have changed in Iran, but the US has conserved its view of Iran over 35 years. Iran’s regime has come to conclusions that playing the rebel role brings no advantages, and that Muslim countries will not see Iran as the leader, but more from a sectarian viewpoint as the Shia enemy, even though Iran showed more empathy for Sunni Palestians than the Sunni monarchies. Iran has learned over the last years, that it looked for the wrong friends. On the other hand the regime has established traditions ( “Great Satan” ) that it thinks it cannot throw away without admitting failure, so once a year for the anniversary of the revolution people are imported to Tehran to shout the same old slogans for some money and food.

    After a possible deal Iran should get over this tradition, which is anyway not shared by most of the Iranians, and the US should open a new chapter in its relations with Iran.

    Thinking of the hostage crisis, it seems very much exaggerated that this event has produced such a longstanding anger:

    Iran is paying for the hostage crisis since 35 years, even though not a single American was harmed (no orange jumpsuits, no beating, no torture, just 52 Americans from the same embassy that organized the 1953 CIA coup hold under arrest), Iran even released 2 Americans with health problems.
    On the other side we have:
    – The 1953 CIA coup of the only democratic government in Iran’s history and reestablished a dictatorship
    – The killing of 290 Iranian civilians, when the US shot down a civilian Iranian Airliner
    – providing help to Saddam Hussein at a time where he was using chemical weapons against Iranians on a daily basis ( http://100wordz.wordpress.com/2013/08/27/cia-files-prove-america-helped-saddam-as-he-gassed-iran/ )
    – And suffering under sanctions (bank sanctions hindering trade and import of life saving medicine, food and plane parts costing lives)

    Now again Iran has to suffer until today (sanctions) because of something from more than 35 years ago,
    while Germany was part of the western world and got a lot of financial help (marshal plan)
    just few years after killing millions of Jews and Gypsies, and starting a war with dozens of millions of deads.

    There should be a deal and the sanctions should be lifted:
    The sanctions are inhumane:


    and made with bad intentions:



    and it is also better for the US:

    (The 100wordz links are all quotes and link to original articles in british or even Israeli media)

  4. Nuclear Risk says:

    Just to add a thought to what you said about “no beating, no torture” of the American Embassy hostages held by Iran. I know one of hostages personally and trust his objectivity – he bears no ill will to Iran in spite of his ordeal. But he told me that Iran’s claiming the hostages were treated well is not true. He told me about mock executions and more. He also told me that Iranians who claim the hostages were treated as guests probably cannot face the way their nation (or at least elements within it) broke one of their paramount rules that foreigners are always to be treated with dignity and as guests, even if there is conflict between them and Iran. (I may not have communicated that last thought exactly, but it’s the gist of what he told me.)

  5. zach says:

    What are your thoughts on the recent deal between Tehran and Washington?

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