The thesis that giving Iranian mullahs what they want in the hope that they might mend their ways has been tested numerous times and proven wrong. Pictured: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the State Department on August 2, 2021, in Washington, DC, after he spoke of a "collective response" to Iran. (Photo by Brendan /Pool/AFP via Getty Images)
Are economic relations and trade effective tools with which Western democracies could persuade totalitarian states to introduce reforms that could lead to democratization?
Hotly debated for decades, the question is back with a campaign by the usual suspects to encourage the Biden administration to give Iranian mullahs what they want in the hope that they might mend their ways. These days one reads op-eds and pseudo-research papers presenting Iran as "a potential market of $3 trillion" and the last missing piece in the great global market.
The thesis has been tested numerous times and proven wrong.
In the 1920s, as the Bolshevik regime in Russia was tightening its hold on the country with mass killings, several Americans and academics campaigned for the recognition of "the new reality" and the offering of a package of economic aid.
One American businessman of Ukrainian origin, Armand Hammer, felt so besotted by Lenin to say: "If he asked me to jump out of the window and kill myself, I would probably have done so."
Hammer, of course, didn't kill himself for Lenin and ended up making a bundle by smuggling oil from Russia in defiance of Western sanctions.
Nor was he alone in pursuing that, for him, profitable illusion.
In a long paper, Dana Durand, adviser to President Herbert Hoover, argued that "the quickest way to bring about the reforms we desire (in USSR) is by participating in investment and trade."
Durand's advice was taken and the US helped Josef Stalin out of the dire strait he had created for himself with hare-brained collectivization schemes. In 1933 the future "Uncle Joe" of President Franklin D Roosevelt publicly thanked the US for its timely aid. In the same spirit, after World War II, President Harry S Truman offered to extend the Marshall Plan to the USSR. Stalin politely declined.
The illusion was revived in a new format with George Kennan's famous "long telegram" that laid the groundwork for Henry Kissinger's infamous détente a generation later. The USSR was legitimized as a partner-cum rival in global leadership and received generous injections of credit by the "Earth-devouring Imperialism."
The USSR didn't become a democracy but, thanks to Western illusions and of "investment and trade" managed to delay its inevitable implosion by years if not decades.
Lenin and Stalin weren't the only 20th century despots to seduce some in Western democracies.
Benito Mussolini of Italy had his own American apologists and admirers, among them Walter Lippmann who, fearing "the inability of voters to grasp issues of modern governance", was attracted by Il Duce's "strong state" rhetoric.
Anne O'Hare McCormack, the New York Times correspondent in Rome, and Richard Washburn Child, US Ambassador to Italy, led a chorus of praise for Mussolini while some US universities included Giovanni Gentile's "The Ethical State" in the syllabus. Thousands of Italian-Americans even went to Spain to fight on General Francisco Franco's side, supported by Mussolini and Nazi Germany.
The next sanguinary despot to attract Western "usual suspects" was Adolf Hitler.
His American admirers and apologists included Henry Ford, Thomas Watson, the founder of IBM, and a family friend of the Roosevelts, President George W Bush's grand-dad Prescott Bush, and, for a while, the aviation hero Charles Lindbergh.
Mao Zedong, the reincarnation of Kublai Khan, was the next despot to seduce some in the West. Journalist Edgar Snow was among American intellectuals who presented "the Great Helmsman" as an Asian Messiah coming to save the downtrodden, thus deserving support including "investment and trade."
Decades later, that illusion found its bureaucratic echo in a report to President George W Bush by his Assistant Secretary of State Robert Zoellick, urging aid and trade to help Communist China reform and come out of poverty.
Bush fell for that narrative, also marketed by Kissinger as a paid lobbyist for Beijing.
What may happen to China next, no one knows. But one thing is clear. Zoellick's predictions proved wrong. Under President Xi Jinping, China is moving further away from democratization and casting itself as a rival if not adversary of the United States.
Iranian despot Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had his own American lobbyists. While he was putting hundreds to death in Tehran, Time Magazine in New York hailed him as "Gandhi of Islam". Young junior Senator for Delaware Joe Biden echoed President Jimmy Carter's wishful thinking about friendship with "a new Iran". National Security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski dreamt of an "Islamic Iran" as part of a "green belt of Islam" to cordon off the USSR which, being of Polish origin himself, he regarded as an abiding threat.
Henry Precht, head of Iran desk in the Carter administration, dubbed the Khomeinist regime as "a potential ally" because the ayatollah's first Cabinet included five men with US citizenship and/or "green card" residence permits.
Over the years, Khomeini's successors have enjoyed the support of American or US-based apologists, among them Noam Chomsky, George Soros, Richard Falk, Louis Farrakhan, Chuck Hagel, Oliver Stone, and Sean Penn.
In his time, Hitler used the German-American Bund (federation), financed by American businessmen, as his Trojan horse in the US. Mussolini had a surrogate in the Italian-American Organization. The US Communist Party played a similar role to the USSR. The Islamic Republic of Iran is using the same recipe through an Iranian-American political action group funded by American "well-wishers."
To a smaller extent, the policy of cuddling despots was used in relations with Muammar al-Khaddafi in Libya, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Hugo Chávez in Venezuela; and Manuel Noriega in Panama, until they misbehaved beyond limits tolerable even by Western "bleeding hearts." And let's not forget John Kerry's love and admiration for Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
Western beautification of ugly regimes has never led to a change of trajectory to join what Americans tout as "the democratic world." Regimes that oppress their people can never become trusted friends for anyone, let alone countries where power is based on at least some respect for human rights and government with some consent by the governed.
Next time anyone plays the tune "let's help mullahs reform", listen but remember Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler, Mao and others.
To be sure, in dealing with despotic regimes, the choice isn't between loving embrace and launching a shooting war. There are other choices, including "let them stew in their juice", or, at least don't help them get out of the hole they have dug for themselves.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987.
This article was originally published by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.