Oil squelches democracy in Mideast

October 22, 2002|By Thomas L. Friedman

WASHINGTON - A funny thing happened in Iran the other day.

The official Iranian news agency, IRNA, published a poll on Iranian attitudes toward America, conducted by Iran's National Institute for Research Studies and Opinion Polls. The poll asked 1,500 Iranians whether they favored opening talks with America, and 75 percent said "yes." More interesting, 46 percent said U.S. policies on Iran - which include an economic boycott and labeling Iran part of an "axis of evil" - were "to some extent correct."

Oops!

You can imagine what happened next. Iran's hard-liners shut down the polling institute and threatened the IRNA official who published the results. Never mind. The fact that the hard-liners had to do such a thing shows how out of touch they are with Iran's courageous mainstream.

I relate this incident because it is very useful in thinking about the task of democratic transition in the Middle East. The Arab and Muslim worlds today are largely dominated by autocratic regimes. If you want to know what it would look like for them to move from autocracy to democracy, check out Iran. In many countries it will involve an Iranian-like mixture of theocracy and democracy, in which the Islamists initially win power by the ballot box, but then can't deliver the jobs and rising living standards that their young people desire, so they come under popular pressure and can only hold on to power by force.

But eventually they will lose, because the young generation in Iran today knows two things: They've had enough democracy to know they want more of it, and they've had enough theocracy crammed down their throats to know they want less of it. Eventually, they will force a new balance in Iran, involving real democracy and an honored place for Islam, but not an imposed one.

But why is it taking so long? Why isn't Iran like Poland or Hungary after the fall of the Berlin Wall? And why might Iraq not be like them after the fall of Saddam Hussein? The answer is spelled O-I-L.

The transition from autocracy to real democracy in Iran is dragged out much longer than in Europe for many reasons, but the most important is because the hard-line mullahs control Iran's oil wealth. What that means is that they have a pool of money that they can use to monopolize all the instruments of coercion - the army, police and intelligence services. And their pool of money is not dependent on their opening Iran's economy or political system or being truly responsive to their people's aspirations.

Think of it like this: There are two ways for a government to get rich in the Middle East. One is by drilling a sand dune and the other is by drilling the talents, intelligence, creativity and energy of its men and women.

As long as the autocratic leaders of Iran, Iraq or Saudi Arabia can get rich by drilling their natural resources, they can stay in power a long, long time. All they have to do is capture control of the oil tap. Only when a government has to drill its human resources will it organize itself in a way that enables it to extract those talents - with modern education, open trade and freedom of thought, of scientific enquiry and of the press.

For all these reasons, if we really want to hasten the transition from autocracy to something more democratic in places like Iraq or Iran, the most important thing we can do is gradually, but steadily, bring down the price of oil - through conservation and alternative energies.

I know that Dick Cheney thinks conservation is for sissies. Real men send B-52s. But he's dead wrong. In the Middle East, conservation and alternative energies are strategic tools.

Ronald Reagan helped bring down the Soviet Union by using two tactics: He delegitimized the Soviets and he defueled them. He delegitimized them by branding the Soviet Union "the Evil Empire," and by exposing its youth to what was going on elsewhere in the world, and he defueled them by so outspending them on "star wars" that the Soviet Union went bankrupt. In the Middle East today, the Bush team is delegitimizing the worst regimes as an "axis of evil," but it is doing nothing to defuel them. Just the opposite. We refuel them with our big cars.

Which was the first and only real Arab democracy? Lebanon. Which Arab country had no oil? Lebanon. Which is the first Arab oil state to turn itself into a constitutional monarchy? Bahrain. Which is the first Arab oil state to run out of oil? Bahrain.

Ousting Mr. Hussein is necessary for promoting the spread of democracy in the Middle East, but it won't be sufficient, it won't stick, without the Mideast states kicking their oil dependency and without us kicking ours.

Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times. His column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays in The Sun.

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