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Lessons from the Soviet Union?

by Ali Sarihan

Continuing our practice of featuring essays by graduate students on international affairs topics, the author of these comments posits that there are political, economic and social similarities in the former Soviet Union and present day fundamentalist Iran. These similarities may provide for conditions favorable to a purely diplomatic approach to Iran. Is his reliance on diplomacy alone a realistic or a Pollyannaish view of the capabilities of diplomacy to resolve disputes? –Ed.

I explore the possibility of a democratic Iran by comparing present day Iran to the former Soviet Union, which collapsed under pressure from the West, especially the United States.

The diplomatic resolution of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 is a great example of the successful application of diplomacy against the Soviet Union. The significance of that moment cannot be overstated. While using force could have destroyed the Communist empire sooner, the West would likely have suffered enormous economic, social, and political destruction as well. Western nations chose the proper option and used only diplomacy, with the United States taking the lead.

Several decades later, the collapse of the Soviet Union was another success for the West, particularly the United States. The unexpected results of Gorbachev’s economic, social and political reforms accelerated collapse of the Soviet Union. The West’s encouragement to Gorbachev’s reforms may have been the catalyst for the Soviet Union’s ultimate collapse. Moreover, the success came about through diplomacy rather than force. Although the United States accelerated the arms race as a means by which to bankrupt the Soviet economy, force was never used.

There are parallels between the Soviet Union and the current controversy about a nuclear Iran. If the United States and its Western allies use diplomatic means to force Iran to give up its nuclear energy program and to become more open, the world could witness a repeat of what happened to the Soviet Union. If the fear is that Iran could obtain nuclear weapons before a transition to democracy, one should remember that the Soviet Union obtained these weapons in 1948, and had them until the its collapse in 1991. The existence of those weapons did not prevent the Soviet Union’s transformation. Similarly Iran could be transformed into a democratic nation even if it develops nuclear weapons.

Political Similarities

“Radical” Regimes

The Soviet Union and the Islamic Republic of Iran share many similarities. Both emerged after revolutions. Both denounced democratic values and democratic political institutions. The Communist party governed the nation under strict centralist rules; they restricted citizens’ freedom of expression and forbade opposition. Similar circumstances exist in contemporary Iran. The Iranian Supreme Leader is the most powerful person in the country yet he is unelected. Moreover, the Supreme Leader appoints the commander of the armed forces, the members of National Security Council and the chief justice, among others. The same hegemonic power structure that governed the Soviet Union, governs the Islamic Republic of Iran. Thus, the Iranian government does not represent and reflect their citizens’ interests.

There is no religious freedom in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Prior to Gorbachev’s presidency of the Soviet Union, religious freedom was also restricted there. Moreover, in Iran departure from any elements of Islamic law is forbidden and illegal. The government has a firm policy and uses its military to crack down on religious dissent. In a similar, yet distinctly different fashion, the Soviet Union used the Red Army and the KGB to quell religious expression of any sort. The prohibition of many Western cultural exports, such as films and music, is central to the Iranian government maintaining strict control over its citizenry. They believe that Western cultural values can mobilize their citizens to struggle against the Iranian regime. The Soviet Union likewise prohibited access to many Western cultural attractions.

Fundamentalist regimes create an unsatisfied citizenry. The Soviet Union collapsed after Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika policies because these policies enabled more Soviet citizens to travel abroad and learn about and experience democratic Western values, such as freedom of speech. After that exposure, the central hegemonic and repressive communist government was unable to command the loyalty of its people.

The Islamic Republic of Iran’s future may be similar to the Soviet Union. The Iranian people’s education level is relatively high (77% of the population is literate).1Having been exposed to modern democratic values, educated people demand more democratic rights. And while there is no potent organized opposition in Iran, the 2009 Green Revolution, largely in protest to the 2009 Presidential election, demonstrates that there is a mass discontent that had gone unnoticed and unreported. Thus, a well-organized movement with an influential leader like Gorbachev within the ruling establishment could lead essential democratic changes within Iran’s current Islamic radical regime.

Western and especially a United States reliance on diplomatic pressure against Iran would likely result in a more democratic Iran in the future. On the other hand, the use of force rather than diplomacy would cause the Iranian people to rally around their government, strengthening the still fragile radical regime.

Relationship with the Western World

The Soviet Union’s forty-four year Cold War struggle with the West was preceded by a WWII alliance with both the United Kingdom and the United States. Likewise the West’s current contentious relationship with Iran is a shift from the allied partnership that the two shared for decades. In light of these historic examples, the fact that Iran has had a positive, productive relationship with the West in the past suggests that one could be reestablished now. There is a distinct possibility that Iran could form a partnership with the West along the lines of that suggested by Stephen Kinzer in his recent book Reset: Iran Turkey and America’s Future (Times Books, 2010). The building of mutual bridges between the West and Iran could help to bring about a democratic transformation in Iran. As we have seen in the example of the Soviet Union’s glasnost-openness, democratic changes can be adopted through contact with modern democratic states. Using diplomatic means to foster good future foreign relations could transform Iran in the same way these means brought down the Soviet Union.

Economic Similarities

Rich Energy Resources

Iran has one of the world’s richest energy reserves of natural gas and oil, ranking second in the world in natural gas supplies and third in oil reserves.2 3 In 2006, about 45 percent of Iran’s national income came from oil and natural gas revenues.4Similarly, the Soviet Union had large natural gas and oil resources. The Soviet Union was the world’s largest producer and second largest exporter of crude oil after Saudi Arabia.5

The fact that Iran has vast energy resources is important for the long-term stability of many nations, especially the European states and China. So a Western campaign against Iran could well find little or no support from other nations who rely on Iran for their energy and subsequent stability. On the other hand, diplomacy would satisfy Iran’s energy and trade allies and would not risk creating further instability in the Middle East.

Vulnerable Economic Structure

The Soviet Union’s military expansion resulted in its downfall. In the ashes of this economic ruin an older nation (Russia) was reborn around more democratic principles. Iran has a vulnerable economy. Iran too is an oil-dependent state and a significant energy exporter. This makes the country highly vulnerable to the volatility of international oil prices. Iran’s average annual real GDP growth rate decreased from 7.8 to 2.3 percent in 2008 because of the international oil and gas crisis.6 Because Iran spends a lot of money on its nuclear ambitions, its vulnerable economic framework cannot long withstand the huge spending necessary for a truly viable nuclear program.

Iran’s economic fragility, its dependence on oil exports and the fluctuating nature of international oil prices makes diplomacy the more promising means of resolving the nuclear issue.

Ethnic Diversity as a Social Similarity

During its existence, more than hundred different ethnic groups lived within the borders of the Soviet Union. The socialist superpower included 15 union republics, 20 autonomous republics, eight autonomous provinces, and 10 autonomous regions. In the 1980s, the Baltic, and East European republics began to demand economic and political autonomy. They rejected strict central communist control in favor of more democratic rights. There were strong moves toward secession with many groups breaking publicly with the Soviet Union. The ultimate results were new independent states and the end of the Soviet Union.

Currently Iran’s population is 65 percent Persians, 16 percent Azeri Turks, seven percent Kurds, six percent Lurs, two percent Arabs, two percent Baluchi, one percent Turkmen, one percent Turkic tribal groups such as the Qashqai, and less than one percent non-Persian, non-Turkic groups such as Armenians, Assyrians, and Georgians.7 Although the state religion in Iran is Shi’a Islam, the majority of Kurds, Baluchis and Turkmen are Sunni Muslims. This ethnic and religious diversity make Iran volatile. Iran’s borders with Azerbaijan, Turkey and Iraq make the country vulnerable to both religious and ethnic tensions. As an example to of Iran’s ethnic vulnerability, in 1946 Iranian Kurds established a the short-lived Republic of Mahabad in northwestern Iran as an independent state. Furthermore, (the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan) (PJAK) emerged as a Kurdish militant group to demand more political, social and economic rights for Iranian Kurds in 2005.

Ethnic diversity issues weaken a state confronting demands for economic, social and political reforms. The Soviet Union faced similar pressures and these pressures were instrumental in bringing about the reforms that tore at the heart of the system. A transformed Iran is possible if the country’s citizens demand democratic and political reforms. Glasnost and perestroika-type reforms in Iran could lead to the same type of transformation as occurred in Soviet Russia. These reforms, specific to the Soviet Union, encouraged subject states to declare their independence. While Iran does not have autonomous states within its borders like the Soviet Union, it does have a multiplicity of ethnic groups, many of which would revolt against the repressive regime at the first opportunity. Reform of any kind would render Iran a powder keg of democratic revolution.


The Soviet Union posed a threat to the United States and the Western world. The Soviet Union had nuclear weapons and a radical, strict and anti-western communist government controlled those weapons. Nevertheless, the United States and other Western states chose mainly diplomacy rather than force as a catalyst to end the totalitarian regime in the Soviet Union. A strong U. S. military and the threat of mutual nuclear annihilation certainly reinforced the role of diplomacy. The result was reemergence of a relatively democratic Russia and the return to some degree of partnership with the United States, one founded during wartime over six decades ago.


1. CIA World Factbook, 2002
2. http//
3.Department of Energy, Retrieved 23 January 2008
5. Hardt, John P., (ed.) Russia’s uncertain economic future: with a comprehensive subject index, Joint Economic Committee of the Congress of the United States, 2004, M.E. Sharp, pp. 233
6. Economic Intelligence Unit
7. Iranian Ethnic Groups,

Ali Sarihan
Ali Sarihan

Ali Sarihan is a graduate student of Comparative and International Affairs at Indiana University-Bloomington in the School Of Public and Environmental Affairs since 2009. He holds a Turkish Government fellowship and is news editor at the on-line journal The Washington Review of Turkish and Eurasian Affairs (


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