Iran Scholar Doubts Effectiveness Of Sanctions

A year ago today, Iranians went to the polls. The disputed outcome pushed thousands of protesters into Tehran's streets which, in turn, sparked a violent crackdown by Iran's Revolutionary Guard. Guy Raz discusses the state of Iranian domestic politics, the strength of the regime and its nuclear ambitions with Reza Aslan, a contributing editor at The Daily Beast and professor at the University of California at Riverside.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

GUY RAZ, host:

On Friday, Iran's envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency said his country will not, even for a second, suspend its nuclear enrichment activities. And author Reza Aslan, an Iran scholar, says he doubts those U.N. sanctions will have any impact.

Dr. REZA ASLAN (Islamic Studies, University of California, Riverside; Columnist, The Daily Beast): This is now the fourth round of U.N. sanctions and the previous three rounds have done absolutely nothing whatsoever to change the behavior of the Iranian regime, whether it's with regard to their nuclear ambitions or anything else. And there's no reason to believe that this round will do the same.

What it will do, however, is continue to squeeze the Iranian economy, which will then force it to be much more reliant on the black market which is almost wholly controlled by Iran's revolutionary guard.

RAZ: I mean, what else, barring military action, can the Obama administration do to stop Iran's nuclear program?

Dr. ASLAN: Well, I think the first step to figuring out how to stop Iran's nuclear program is to figure out why they want the program to begin with. And no one has bothered to actually answer this question.

The fact of the matter is, is that despite its blustering and its overconfidence on the international stage, Iran does feel as though its security is under threat. It is literally surrounded by American troops. It is dealing with an Israeli government that has an untold number of nuclear weapons pointed at it directly.

And frankly, it's learned a valuable lesson from its fellow axis of evil members. One of them, Iraq, didn't have nuclear weapons; it was destroyed and occupied. The other, North Korea, did have nuclear weapons and we're still pouring tens of billions of dollars into that country trying to get them to talk to us about it.

RAZ: Let's make the assumption, fairly or unfairly, from the administration's point of view that a nuclear-armed Iran creates more instability in the Middle East. Is there a way to stop that? I mean, is there a way to stop that without U.N. sanctions and without military action?

Dr. ASLAN: Let's be perfectly honest for a moment. If Iran wants nuclear weapons, it's going to develop them and there's nothing anyone on earth can do to stop it. This is a real conundrum for the international community. And already, I think most Iran analysts are starting to change or flip the script, I should say, and start talking about how to deal with a nuclear-armed Iran instead of how to keep nuclear arms away from Iran.

RAZ: Now, a year ago, of course, Reza, Iranians went to the polls to elect a new government. We all know the outcome and the anti-Ahmadinejad protests that followed. Where is that movement today?

Dr. ASLAN: The movement is alive and well. That movement has been remarkably successful in the one goal that they all had in common with each other, which was to delegitimize the Iranian regime.

Really, the government is reeling at this point and has lost a great deal of its legitimacy with a vast majority of Iranians.

RAZ: But if it is regarded as a de-legitimate government, why is it still in power and why hasn't it been toppled?

Dr. ASLAN: Two words, the Revolutionary Guard. What we have been seeing in the last decade is a gradual militarization of Iranian politics, thanks to the rise of Iran's Revolutionary Guard. The Revolutionary Guard, of course, is this military intelligence security apparatus that runs most of the levers of government in Iran and is now in control of about a third of Iran's annual budget and, as I mentioned, almost all of the black market.

RAZ: If Iran is, in fact, controlled by the Revolutionary Guard, I mean, what can this sort of a popular movement actually do to break that hold on power?

Dr. ASLAN: If Iran descends into a full-scale military dictatorship, that is something that this population simply will not stand for. You're talking about a population that 70 percent under the age of 30, in which the literacy rate for women alone is 90 percent, a population that is politically sophisticated, technologically savvy, as we've seen, one that will not put up with a full-scale military dictatorship.

Now, the coda to this is what happens outside of Iran. If there is a military response by the United States or by Israel, then any hope of reform will certainly go away and Iranians will rally to their government in response to such an attack.

RAZ: Well, it sounds like your policy prescription, Reza Aslan, is not for the U.S. to engage the Ahmadinejad government diplomatically, but to simply wait them out.

Dr. ASLAN: Well, Guy, a tyrant stays in power by isolating his people. For three decades, we in the United States have done the tyrant's work for him when it comes to Iran. By maintaining Iran's international isolation and including these economic sanctions, we've allowed for the consolidation of power in the hands of the Revolutionary Guard, the guys with the guns and the money.

What we need to do is the exact opposite. We need to open up Iran, allow it to join the World Trade Organization, for instance, which would force it to undergo certain economic and political reforms that would be a watershed for Iran. This continued isolation is only going to create a government that's more paranoid and one in which power rests in the hands of fewer and fewer individuals.

RAZ: That's Reza Aslan. He's the author of "Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in the Globalized Age."

Reza Aslan, thank you so much.

Dr. ASLAN: My pleasure.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.