1) Women and minorities have it worse in Iran than almost anywhere.
Let's compare the countries in the region in regard to the situation of women:
In Saudi Arabia, women are not permitted to drive a car, and must follow a strict dress code. They may finally get the vote in Saudi in 2015. In parts of Afghanistan, a girl may be "traded" to settle an inter-family dispute. Women had no political rights in Bahrain until 2002. A seventh of Yemeni females are married by the age of fifteen. Only 18 percent of the seats in the Israeli parliament are held by women. In relatively enlightened Kuwait, women just got the right to obtain a passport without male permission the other day
While women have a long way to go in Iran, but the contrast is not as stark as many would have you believe. Over sixty percent of the university students in Iran are female. In Iran, women commonly retain their own surname when marrying. Women's participation in social movements has been dynamic and visible. They are continuing to fight for equality and protection under the law.
What about religious minorities? Is it the Shi'e way or the highway?
It is true that Iran is a center for Shi'e theology and faith-affiliated organizations, especially in the Holy City of Qom. But the situation of most religious minorties is hardly desperate. There are quite a few Sunni Muslims (about 10% of the population) in the southwestern part of the country. The law calls for designated seats for minorities in the Iranian parliament; allocated based on population, there are seats reserved for the 25,000-strong Jewish community, for 200,000 Assyrian or Armenian Christians and for the remaining 45,000 Zoroastrians. Mosques, churches and fire-temples operate in most large cities. Granted, the situation for Iran's Baha'i community of perhaps 350,000 is quite serious at times; hundreds have been killed or imprisoned for no rational cause.
2) Iranians hate America.
Though our governments seem to have trouble even agreeing on whether the sun is up or down, nearly all Iranians make a definite distinction between the Government of the United States and its policies, and their feelings about Americans and American culture.
Search for Common Ground released a poll in January 2007 that looked at opinions in our two countries, a project of the Program for International Policy Attitudes of the University of Maryland. In regard to a "Clash of Civilizations," although Iranians show substantial concern about the conflict between Islamic and Western cultures, a clear majority rejects the idea that it is inevitable…However, a substantially larger minority of Americans believe that it is. Interestingly, Iranians, like Americans, are concerned about terrorism and rejected Osama bin Laden overwhelmingly. Although a majority have positive views of Hamas and Hezbollah, Iranians overwhelmingly reject attacks intentionally aimed at civilians, including those targeting Americans. Americans concur, though the percentage of Iranians who reject such attacks is somewhat higher (!) than the percentage of Americans who do so. Most Americans agreed that US bases in the region are threatening to Iran. A clear majority of Americans have a negative view of the Iranian people.
Author Mark Bowden has written: ""Iranian true believers see the United States as The Great Satan, a "world-devouring," godless force bent on dismantling Islam and reducing their country to its former vassal status. Patriotic Americans see Iran as champion of the great backward movement of the twenty-first century, a powerful enemy of liberal western values, a sponsor of terror attacks, and increasingly as a direct mortal threat to Israel...Getting past these competing caricatures, both of which have elements of truth, will require skilled diplomacy."
Former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski a few years ago quoted a BBC poll of 28,000 people in 27 countries: Israel, Iran and the United States (in that order) were rated the states with “the most negative influence on the world."
3) Iran has an undemocratic system of government and dictatorial rule.
First, we should acknowledge that Iran twice tried to improve its situation in terms of governance. The 1906-11 Constitutional Revolution was neutered by the British and the Russians, and the freely-elected government of Mohamed Mossadegh was turned out by us Americans, using CIA operatives and a great deal of money, in favor or a harsh (if modernizing) monarchy. We should not then be surprised if Iranians are wary of Western offers of assistance with democratization.
The Islamic Revolution certainly did, by the time the dust had settled, consolidate power in the hands of quite illiberal clerics. Within the basic framework, though, a degree of democratic process takes place. When Khatami, with his reformist agenda, was elected president, it surprised many of those in power. When President Ahmadinezhad charts a policy change, there are checks and balances in the form of the Supreme Leader (himself chosen by the Assembly of Experts), and other organs of government either ratifying or vetoing his initiatives. There are a number of different political parties that differ on policy stances and priorities. Western-style democracy it is not. But members of the younger generation (over half the population) have their own ideas of electoral and intellectual freedom -- and nearly half-a-million blogs; time will tell how long the mullahs and ayatollahs hang on.
4) Iran is the leading purveyor of terror in the world.
On the "retail" side -- individual assassinations or executions -- Iran and Israel trade "hits" within their own countries, in Europe or elsewhere, and the United States uses rendition, while Iran uses kangaroo courts. On the "wholesale" side, Iran appears to have supported terrorist activity through surrogates such as Hezbollah, Hamas and insurgent elements in Iraq. But the numbers cannot compare with the statistics on civilians killed by U.S., NATO or Israeli rockets, drones or other weapons systems. Terrorism becomes partly a question of whose ox is gored -- or whose home is being demolished. Moreover, we have certainly aided violent insurgent groups when it suited out interests -- remember the Contras?
In the bloody Iran-Iraq War, it was Iraq that started it, and which used (US-supplied) weapons of mass destruction against population centers. Iran declined to do so, even as it fought for its life.
By they way, our country spends over three times as much (as a function of GDP) on arms than Iran, whose population is a only fifth of ours. We maintain military bases that literally encircle Iran (in Iraq, Turkey, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Oman, Uzbekistan and Kyrgystan), not to mention some thirty-seven warships (up to and including aircraft carriers) in and around the Strait of Howmuz. We have invaded three of those neighbors of Iran and bombarded locations in a fourth. And, it is only we who have ever actually used nuclear weapons against a civilian populace.
5) Iran has no right to develop nuclear materials.
We all wish that there could be total transparency on Iran's nuclear program. While it has had numerous inspections by IAEA personnel over the years, it has not always been candid and forthcoming about its activities, leaving a wide, shadowy area for speculation.
We should remember, however, that neither the United States nor Israel allow inspections of their own nuclear facilities by those international inspectors. (The United States considers itself exempt, as a "have" state under the NPT when it was instituted; Israel is not a signatory to the treaty at all and has not even formally admitted to having nuclear weapons.)
It is acknowledged by all that Iran does have the right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. All the question marks pertain to its alleged weaponizing intentions. The basic bargain of the NPT has always been: 1. Non-Nuclear-Weapon States agree to never acquire nuclear weapons, and in exchange are guaranteed access to civilian nuclear energy; and 2. Nuclear-Weapon-States agree to eliminate their arsenals. The United States still has 1,790 deployed strategic warheads, approximately 500 operational tactical weapons, and approximately 2,645 inactive warheads, to Iran's possible, eventual...one. Western estimates of how long it will take them to weaponize tends to be "two to three years" -- and has been for the past decade or more, as the doomsday clock keeps getting set back.
Many still do not know that the idea of a nuclear-powered Iran was first floated by the United States. Leigh Nusbaum ("In the Moment" webblog) noted recently that "It was a move in a nuclear chess game between [the United States and] the Soviet Union; they sent reactors to North Korea, Libya and Bulgaria, while the U.S. sent reactors to Pakistan, Iran and Columbia." Our two countries signed a nuclear cooperation agreement in 1957, and ten years later we supplied Iran with a five-megawatt light-water reactor and related laboratories; in 1974 the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran was established, with plans to generate 23,000 MW of power within 20 years and acquire a full nuclear fuel cycle; in 1975 an agreement was reached on construction of eight large nuclear power plants, to supply some 8,000 megawatts of power, at a cost of $15 billion. Iran has had to start rationing fuel in recent years; the "oil-rich" country must import some 15 million liters of gasoline a day (about $3 billion worth annually), even at the newly-reduced levels of consumption, because it lacks refining capabilities. Now, with the tightening sanctions, things are much more dire.
An opinion piece in the LA Times last month said:
"[T]his is starting to give me 2003 deja vu: Everyone knows the Iranians are building a bomb, just like everyone knew Saddam Hussein was pursuing a bomb...Except he wasn't...And even if the Iranians are, what makes everyone so sure they'd use it? If we went to war every time someone said something bellicose, we'd be going to war a lot -- uh, I mean a lot more...We didn't want the Soviet Union to get the bomb, but it did. We didn't want China to get the bomb, but it did. Ditto North Korea. And Pakistan...Each time, some argued -- as some, especially Israel, argue now about Iran -- that it would be Armageddon if the bad guys got the bomb...Well, the United States has lived for more than 60 years with thousands of nuclear warheads pointed at it...It's no picnic, but we're still here."