Stanford's Abbas Milani: Democracy is solution to Iranian nuclear impasse

Noted Iranian expert and dissident insists, "The future belongs to Iranian youth, and they want democracy."

L.A. Cicero Abbas Milani

Abbas Milani

In 1977, Abbas Milani was ambushed by armed security forces and incarcerated as someone "detrimental to the security of the nation." Since then, he has become one of the leading international experts on Iran.

He is the Hamid and Christina Moghadam Director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University. He is also a research fellow and co-director of the Iran Democracy Project at the Hoover Institution.

A two-day nuclear summit of 47 nations is currently under way in Washington. The gathering – considered an unprecedented effort to mobilize global action – focuses on ways to keep nuclear weapon materials out of the wrong hands. Milani addressed Iran's nuclear capability, and its democracy movement, in an interview with the Stanford News Service.


U.S. leaders have spoken about the need to keep nuclear materials out of the wrong hands. But isn't the horse already out of the barn on this one? Especially as Iran plans to accelerate its uranium enrichment program.

The horse for Iran's nuclear program might well be out of the barn at least partially already, but the international community can – and hopefully will – still try to save and even strengthen the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and deter Iran from taking the last step in the process they have begun.

Iran is clearly determined to learn how to enrich uranium. They are also clearly working on mastering technologies that can help them deliver a nuclear warhead, should they develop one. It is my sense that they still have not made the decision to take that last step. They want to become a virtual nuclear state. In other words, in my view, they want to master the technology and be only a short step from having a bomb. The international community can still help dissuade or deter them from taking that last step.


Last week, the UN ambassadors of six world powers met in New York to discuss possible new sanctions against Iran. But won't any sanction agreements approved by Russia and China necessarily be pretty weak tea?

Clearly, the Iranian regime has in the past worked hard to have Russia and China defend its nuclear program and delay or defang any economic sanctions against Iran. They have signed multibillion-dollar oil and gas contracts with China as inducement; and they have signed lucrative contracts with Russians and all but given up on billions of dollars of Iran's potential oil and gas revenues in the Caspian Sea to "induce" the Russians for "protection." But the regime's behavior in the last few months – its erratic policies in its nuclear negotiations with the [UN] members, and in its brutal suppression of the democratic movement inside the country – has made it increasingly more difficult for even China and Russia to continue their public support for the clerical regime.

FutureAtlas Map of Iran with nuclear symbol

"We must recognize that the only real solution to Iran's nuclear problem is the advent of a democratic government in Iran," Abbas Milani said.

Moreover, in the last few months, Iranian democrats have publicly served notice to China and Russia that their continued support for the status quo will beget them the wrath of the people once the inevitable change to democracy comes to Iran.


Should Iran's leaders be treated like rational actors who would not actually use nuclear weapons? Is there a chance that they will share their technology with other extremist governments or terrorist organizations?

The Iranian regime is tactically rational and brilliant, strategically stupid and erratic. In their dealings with the world, they have been full of tactical guile and double-talk, and thus outmaneuvered the West. If the Obama administration develops a strategically coherent policy on Iran, it can avoid being tactically outmaneuvered by the regime.

As to their use of nuclear weapons, once and if they develop one, they are likely to be cautious in its use. They know full well the capacities of the U.S. and of Israel, and since they have been monomaniacal in their attempt to keep themselves in power, it is highly unlikely that they would jeopardize their hold on power simply by engaging in dangerous ploys like sharing nuclear technologies with terrorist or extremist groups.

The regime's behavior toward Hezbollah – a group they helped create, sustain, train and arm in Lebanon – is a good example of their cautious mischief. They have given Hezbollah just enough arms and missiles to make it a serious nuisance for Israel, yet at least so far they have not given the group many of the most sophisticated weapons in Iran's arsenal.


The United States has talked about sanctions, or some kind of consequences, again and again – and deadlines keep passing. Has the discussion gradually moved from stopping Iran from getting the bomb to how to deal with nuclear Iran?

Today, they have more than 6,000 centrifuges churning; they have the know-how to build a new, sophisticated class of centrifuges and they have the ability to enrich uranium. They are, according to the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency], already beyond the point of no return. Smart sanctions, aimed only at the companies belonging to the Revolutionary Guard, can slow down the regime's work in every domain, including the nuclear. More crucially, smart sanctions might debilitate the regime's ability to exercise more and more brutality.

We must recognize that the only real solution to Iran's nuclear problem is the advent of a democratic government in Iran. Iranian democrats are as weary of the regime's nuclear ambitions as the West. Any sanction that hurts this movement is, in the long run, counterproductive.


Is there something average Americans can do that would be even more effective than Facebook posts and Twitter feeds to bring the regime to its knees?

The nation of Iran can through acts of citizen diplomacy in America learn they are not alone in their fight for democracy. If every time Ahmadinejad came to New York, a million concerned citizens of the city demonstrated peacefully to protest his rigged "election," the arrest of hundreds of Iran's dissidents, his government's policies against Iranian women, Baha'is or Kurds, his anti-Semitism and his denial of the Holocaust, I doubt he would ever come back. Instead he gets the kind of rock-star treatment his narcissist personality seems to crave.


A less publicized issue: Iran tops the list of all countries in terms of brain drain, losing 150,000 to 180,000 of the best and the brightest annually.

A committee of this regime's own Majlis [Parliament] estimated that the total cost of the brain drain on Iran has been far greater than the total cost of the eight-year destructive war with Iraq.

The incredible financial, managerial, scientific and scholarly success of the Iranian diaspora is proof-positive of the lost opportunity Iran suffered when these hundreds of thousands of the best and brightest left the country.

A couple years ago, I realized that three of the students who in last few years had achieved the highest score in the country – in other words, the brightest student of each year from all over Iran – were students at Stanford University. A big gain for Stanford and a potential big loss for Iran.


Last August you were one of 100 reformist leaders tried, in absentia, for masterminding an "international conspiracy" to stage a revolution. Have these threats changed your life at all?

I have never felt under any threat in America. I think to succumb to such fears is to fall into the trap the regime has set for all in the diaspora. Not satisfied with exercising a reign of terror in Iran, they want to extend it to the free world; they want to intimidate the diaspora community into fear and submission.


Have recent events made you more pessimistic about the prospect of a new system in Iran?

Events in the last few months have only confirmed my belief in the inevitability of the democratic transition in Iran. The sources for this inevitability, and thus my optimism, are structural, rooted in the social, economic and political realities of Iran and the world.

The kind of bad news from Iran that can, and sometimes does, beget pessimism affects my mood and breaks my heart only momentarily. My mind and reason are full of nothing but strategic optimism. The future belongs to the Iranian youth, and they want democracy.

Cynthia Haven, Stanford News Service: (650) 724-6184,