Nathan Brown and Amr Hamzawy elaborated on their article “Arab Spring Fever” and Suzanne Maloney presented her article “Fear in Loathing in Tehran” in a discussion of the state of political reform and democracy promotion in the Arab world and Iran.

Professor Brown outlined the motivation for the paper as the need to shift the democracy promotion debate from emphasizing the shortcomings of U.S. democracy building in certain regional flashpoints to understanding the evolving debate about democracy within the Arab world. This debate has focused on places like Iraq, a failed state where democracy faces the greatest obstacles. Change elsewhere is inhibited by regimes adept at manipulating the boundaries of dissent and insulating themselves from shocks. These regimes do, however, face real shocks with the problem of succession. With the groundwork better laid by better organized opposition, successions could become significant opportunities for greater opening.

Dr. Hamzawy followed up by describing a growing consensus over the need for gradual democratization amongst political actors in the region, including Islamists. There are currently three distinct regime situations in the region: failed state institutions, stable authoritarianism, and semi-authoritarianism. The greatest prospects for political opening are in the third category, encompassing Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Bahrain and Yemen. In Egypt, there were significant advances from 2002 to 2006 including the 2005 constitutional amendments and general liberalization of public space, but these advances have been compromised over the last two years as U.S. pressure for reform eased. In Morocco, there has been gradual reform, but no political breakthroughs.

Dr. Maloney confronted the dilemma of how the U.S. could promote democracy in Iran, concluding that the best action was to avoid direct, more politicized involvement. The goal of pressuring the regime through supporting opponents only makes persuading it to negotiate more difficult. Furthermore, democracy promotion initiatives in Iran must recognize that the regime is both well-entrenched and paranoid, and that the population is highly sensitive to outside interference. Iranian dissidents have emphasized that this assistance endangers people due to the regime’s paranoia, and that there is a lack of understanding of internal Iranian dynamics. Therefore, greater U.S. funding should not be directed to civil society groups.

In his discussion, Thomas Carothers reflected on the recent intense politicization of the analysis of Middle East politics, which has polarized and distorted the debate. He also raised two problematic assumptions that have informed the U.S. push for democracy in the Middle East: that the region is on the verge of significant change, and that the U.S. has great influence in determining its fate.

During the question and answer period, the issues of the prospect of Islamist electoral victories, U.S. influence on repression in Iran, tension between democracy promotion and national security interests, and U.S. legacy in Iran were discussed.