Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Dubchek, Solzhenitsyn, Gorbachev, ....Rouhani?

My senior thesis at Willamette University in 1960 studied the possibility of peaceful reform in a totalitarian country.  Inspired by the reform efforts of Nikita Khrushchev,  I studied reforms in three non-totalitarian countries---women suffrage in the U.S.,  repeal of the “corn laws” in England, and the freeing of the Russian serfs  in 1862.  Drawing conclusions about successful reform strategies,  I extrapolated them into the challenging circumstances facing reformers in the U.S.S.R. 

I concluded that two roads were open to a Soviet  reformer.  You could become a literary person, develop a reputation, and then gradually write more and more radical political commentaries, leaving censors wondering where to draw the line and force you to shut up.  Or you could join the Communist Party,  worm your way up to the top,  then pull out your horns and use the vast powers of the top leader to reform the system.

Years later,  my analysis was vindicated.  Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s literary career followed the first road, and was very successful until his criticisms went too far and Leonid Brezhnev deported him.  The second road was followed by Mr. Gorbachev, whose successful reforms brought in freedom of speech,  competitive elections, and détente with the U.S. but then resulted in the demise---relatively peaceful---of the U.S.S.R.  

Before Gorbachev, however,  the first example of  a road two reformer was Alexander Dubchek in Czechoslovakia, whose 1968 “Prague Spring” reforms were only halted when the Soviet Union invaded and threw Dubchek out. 

Of course when Gorbachev first came to power it was not obvious that he was a Soviet Dubchek.   It was only when Pravda,  the Communist Party newspaper which I read for 29 years,  printed a poem claiming censorship was un-Marxist that I realized that Gorbachev was a real reformer.  Not all American leaders were as quick to catch on, and many were horrified when President Reagan started the negotiations with Gorbachev which ended the Cold War.

This is all history,  but it may have great relevance to today.   The recently elected Iranian president,  Hasan Rouhani,  appears to be interested in improving relations with the United States, and serious negotiations have started.  However influential voices including Israeli leaders,  many U.S. politicians, and the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal,   have been condemning these negotiations.  They insist that Iran cannot reform, it cannot be trusted,  and that Rouhani is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.  

Of course they could be right about Rouhani.  Even  some of the Politburo members who made Gorbachev General Secretary expected him to continue the old Soviet policies.  Foreign minister Andrei Gromyko, who nominated him,  told the Politburo that Gorbachev had a nice smile but had teeth of iron.  Coming from Gromyko,  known to some as “old iron pants,”  this was intended as a compliment!  But Gorbachev turned out to be a real reformer.  And so might Rouhani, no matter what the intent of the leaders who propelled him to the Iranian presidency.

Since there is a chance that Rouhani,  like Gorbachev, is the real deal,  we ought to make an honest effort to negotiate with him, and we ought to presume that he is sincere until events prove otherwise. 

The U.S. should announce that if we reach an agreement and Israel tries to sabotage it by bombing Iran,  we will end all U.S. foreign aid to Israel.  There is too much at stake here to allow anybody, including the Israeli leader,  to stand in the way of testing Rouhani’s sincerity and political ability to make a reasonable deal

This piece has run in the Salem, Oregon Statesman-Journal and the Adrian, Michigan Daily Telegram. 

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