Rethinking Iran

by , June 15, 2009

However the aftermath of Friday’s presidential election in Iran turns out – and it will probably take more than a few days to see the immediate alignment of power and influence, and perhaps months for longer-term implications to play themselves outIran is likely to be somewhat different in the way it is ruled and how it interacts with the rest of the region and the world. At the same time, however, certain geopolitical realities will remain that a government (or new regime?) of any character will have to take into account.

Notice that I am speaking of Iran as if it is a relatively normal country that, because of the land it occupies and the character and composition of its neighbors, has certain opportunities and constraints that any ruling class has to deal with. This is not necessarily the consensus view among Americans or foreign-policy elites.

Shmuel Rosner explains in this piece that some Americans, represented recently by Mohsen Milani in this Foreign Affairs piece, believe that the major goal of Iran is "the survival of the Islamic Republic as it exists now" – to find a modus vivendi with its neighbors such that it can be assured that none have a reason to want to invade it or engage in too concerted a campaign of regime-change. It seems to follow from this view that the apparent desire of Iranians to acquire at least the ability to build nuclear weapons involves deterrence – Pakistan on one border and Israel within a missile’s throw on the other side have nuclear arsenals – and a defensive posture rather than an aggressive design.

The argument on the other side is that Iran still harbors regional hegemonic intentions, intentions to spread the Shia Islamist ideology that were certainly expressed in the early days following the Islamic Revolution and followed by some actions. The cultivation and subsidization of both Hamas, largely Sunni, and Hezbollah, Shia in confession, as well as heavy influence in Syria, is said to offer evidence for the view that far from just wanting to be secure and left alone, Iran seeks to gain influence in and perhaps dominate the region. If this leads to crushing Israel eventually, that would be icing on the cake, and that possibility is definitely something Israel, and by implication the United States, have reason to be actively concerned about.

Rosner identifies two sets of tensions in the way others see Iran – logical vs. unpredictable, and survival vs. hegemony. There are other ways to express the difficulties in explaining how various Americans see Iran. Many see it as an aggressively ideological state with a mission to spread its ideology and increase the power of Shia in the Muslim world, and they argue that no amount of talk or negotiation is likely to deter it from this path, that it will only use negotiations to seek advantages in carrying out this mission. Others argue that the regime may still talk the talk of regional hegemony, but that its interests are more workaday, that even subsidizing Hezbollah and Hamas can be explained as more defensive than offensive moves.

You could also say that there is a split between those who want to demonize the Iranian regime and those who prefer to analyze it. If the regime is irredeemably evil and always will be, then there’s little point in anything other than predominantly military deterrence and perhaps subversion through financing opposition movements and the like. If the regime calculates in a more realistic fashion, then we can do business – but we might have to conduct the kind of negotiations in which both sides get something they want but neither gets everything.

While acknowledging that the arguments on the other side are not all invented or spurious, I lean toward the pragmatic/realist understanding of the regime. As is the case in most countries, and as was illustrated by the intensive campaigning prior to the election, there seem to be differences among Iranians. Ahmadinejad certainly represents a persuasion that leans toward the aggressive side, and even if this election was stolen for him, a sizable number of the Iranian people seem to lean toward that side, or at least respond positively to hearing statements that most of the outside world would regard as unduly provocative.

As many have noted repeatedly, however, an Iranian president’s freedom of action is limited. The mullahs and ultimately Ayatollah Khamenei make the final decisions. If they rigged the election for Ahmadinejad, however clumsily, that suggests that they prefer him in power to former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, whom some ayatollahs seemed to regard as a threat to the nature of the regime itself. So far the mullahs have allowed Ahmadinejad to speak aggressively, but he hasn’t initiated new aggressive fronts. The relationships with Hamas, Hezbollah, and Syria were in place before he came to power, though he may have fortified them. And unless they think having a few nuclear weapons would create the conditions where a first strike would be advisable, development of a weapons program may not be inherently aggressive.

Here are the bare outlines of what I think would be a more fruitful U.S. strategy toward Iran, one that would seek to minimize U.S. exposure to aggressive activities and terrorist threats. A first step – controversial to be sure – would involve rethinking our attitude toward nuclear proliferation. The present policy and rhetoric reflect a belief that any expansion of the number of countries with nukes is inherently undesirable. But another school of thought, pioneered by the eminent political scientist Kenneth Waltz and expressed recently in this piece in the American Conservative magazine, argues that the only realistic use of nukes is as a deterrent and that countries that acquire them tend to behave more realistically and cautiously after they do so. In this view, Iran’s acquisition of a few nukes [.pdf] would not be cause for gnashing of teeth or preemptive bombing, but would create a new situation with the potential to make the region more stable.

Whether Iran eventually gets nukes is less important than understanding that even a new, perhaps even secular, regime in Iran will continue to seek them (the shah initiated the first nuclear weapons program). That might or might not lead to Saudi Arabia or Egypt beginning active weapons program – that’s possible, but not inevitable. They might just view the presence of Israeli and Pakistani nukes as deterrence enough.

Any Iranian regime will want at least some assurance that an Iraqi regime will not attack it in the near future. Iranian-Iraqi rivalries are centuries old, but it is possible that the two countries, both of which suffered grievously during the Iran-Iraq war (initiated by Iraq) of the 1980s, are not inclined at present to attack one another. The United States would do best to facilitate this by withdrawing its military forces from the region, making it clear that it can live with any outcome that does not lead to threats against the United States itself.

Withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq – promised now but with a fair amount of fudging about residual forces involved in "training" – should be followed by withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Afghanistan. Iran should then be invited to be an ally in the hunt for bin Laden and the neutralization of any al-Qaeda ability to conduct significant attacks not only on Iran but on the U.S. or Western Europe. Iran has no love for al-Qaeda and was cooperative and helpful behind the scenes in the early days of U.S. action in Afghanistan following 9/11.

A recent poll of Iranians showed that 70 percent would favor U.S. investment in Iran, and 69 percent favor a free-trade agreement between the U.S. and Iran. The level of education and technological aptitude among Iranians is reasonably high, and curiosity about the outside world is widespread. The goal of U.S. policy should be to turn Iran into – or recognize that to a great extent it already is – a "normal" country rather than a demonized pariah, mainly by treating it as normal already and encouraging it to become more so.

Most Iranians admire the U.S. as a country and a culture. The two countries have had mutually beneficial trade relationships in the past, and there’s no inherent reason – so long as we don’t take the rantings of a pip-squeak like Ahmadinejad too seriously as an existential threat in themselves – that they should have normal relations in the near future. An Iran involved in trade and cultural exchanges with the U.S. and Western Europe is likely to be less of a threat to the stability of the region than it is now.

If we can get beyond the mutual demonizing, leading by example, then much more fruitful and less threatening relations with Iran are possible, even if the country still has a regime that trends more toward Shariah law than Western-style parliamentary democracy. The question is whether we want to move in that direction or whether we cherish the confrontational stance (which does yield rewards in the form of patting ourselves on the back over our love for human rights and being seen as the essential counterbalance in the region) so much that we decline to move toward what many will deride as the naïve and weak – though others will call it cold-bloodedly realistic – policy of normalization.

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