Global Reform and How the US Hurts Itself

Two of the biggest international crises confronting the US today are Russia’s war in Ukraine and the comatose renegotiations of the nuclear agreement with Iran. From an American foreign policy perspective, nothing could be more desirable than reform in the leadership of those two countries. But both Russia and Iran have, in the past, offered the US the reform it desires. And in both cases, the US undermined those attempts and destroyed what it most desired.

Putin, until recently, was never anti-West. Richard Sakwa, Professor of Russian and European Politics at Kent, who has written extensively on Putin, has called Putin “the most European leader Russia has ever had.” Putin continued in a recent line of reformers who sought partnership in a "greater West" and who, Sakwa says, attempted “to forge a closer relationship with the European Union.” Stephen Cohen, who was Professor Emeritus of Russian studies and politics at Princeton, has pointed out that Putin “long pursued negotiations with the West over the objections of his own hardliners.”

It was not until 2012 that Putin accepted that the US would deny Russia a transformed international community that transcended hostile blocs and offer only a subordinate role as a defeated member of a US led unipolar world and left the reformist path.

But Putin was not the first Russian president to have his reformist path blocked by the US. Every president since the collapse of the Soviet Union had taken that path only to see it demolished by the US.

Reform of the sort that the US hoped for began with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. In 1990, Gorbachev was promised by the West that NATO would not expand east toward Russia’s borders. The breaking of that promise, according to Alexander Lukin in a 2000 essay entitled "NATO and Russia after the Kosovo Crisis," "delivered a serious blow to Russian reformers and supporters of democratization." Lukin argues that the demonstration that the West could not be negotiated with or partnered with "provided additional arguments to those communist and nationalist forces which maintain that the West has always been a hostile force and is trying to encircle Russia."

Gorbachev delivered the kind of reform the US ordered, and the US refused delivery.

Delivery was refused again when Boris Yeltsin obliged. Lukin says that, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, pro-Western reformers came to power in Moscow who "pursued a policy of close co-operation with the West." He explains that "They fulfilled Western recommendations and requests, both in foreign and domestic policy, in the anticipation of joining the Western family of nations." What they got in return was economic and political "catastrophe . . . [and] a scornful, almost colonial attitude on the part of the West towards Moscow." The reformers felt betrayed, and Moscow had to reorient its path.

Yeltsin and the reformists were betrayed by the US both economically and politically. Russian reformists trusted the US promise to help them transition to membership in the Western economy. That trust was brutally betrayed, and “some two-thirds of [Russia’s] people [were put] into poverty and misery," according to Cohen. The economic policies wrestled onto Russia by the US led to, what Cohen calls, "the near ruination of Russia." It was, in Cohen’s words, "the worst economic depression in peacetime,” featuring “mass poverty, plunging life expectancy, the fostering of an oligarchic financial elite, the plundering of Russia’s wealth, and more." By the time Putin came to power in 2000, Cohen says, "some 75% of Russians were living in poverty." That was the result of trusting the US to help transition Russia into the global economic community.

The reformers were betrayed not only in their attempts to westernize Russia’s economy but also in their attempts to join the community of democracies. The 1996 Russian election “is often considered the moment when Russian democracy died," Sakwa says. And it did not die of natural causes. The US killed it.

By 1996, Yeltsin’s approval rating had plunged to only 6%. But that did not stop him from winning the election. With direct support from the White House, American political consultants secretly assumed management of Yeltsin’s campaign. "Funded by the US government," Cohen reports, Americans "gave money to favored Russian politicians, instructed ministers, drafted legislation and presidential decrees, underwrote textbooks, and served at Yeltsin’s reelection headquarters in 1996." They even pressured an opposing candidate to drop out of the election. A massive US backed loan from the IMF was, as the New York Times reported, “expected to be helpful to President Boris N. Yeltsin in the presidential election in June." He did.

Gorbachev’s perestroyka put Russia on a path of reform. Yeltsin walked that path. But Lukin says that the US crushing of those "attempts at reform by Yeltsin’s pro-Western governments were the first serious blow for the ‘true believers’ in Western justice."

Broken promises made to Gorbachev about NATO expansion, US murdering of Russia’s attempt at economic and democratic reform, and the bombing of Yugoslavia without Security Council approval all combined to abort the very reform in Russia that the US said it wanted.

The US did the same thing in Iran. They called for reform and then discredited the very reformers they called for. A long line of Iranian presidents, including Hashemi Rafsanjani and Seyyed Mohammad Khatami, were elected as reformers who wanted to free Iran from international isolation by improving relations with the US. The foundation of their policy, Trita Parsi says in a recent interview, "was that much of Iran’s problems will be resolved if Iran can resolve its problems with the United States. To do so, it has to give something to get something. Everything is not America’s fault; Iran has also made many mistakes."

And that they did. Rafsanjani tried to give something to get something. He gave the US a promise that Iran would exert its regional influence and intervene to help win the release of American hostages being held in Lebanon. Iran wanted to get American acceptance of Iran as a regional power. So, they were willing to give the US the benefits of their being a regional power.

President H.W. Bush promised that Iran’s help would “be long remembered” and that, in return, Iran would get something because “goodwill begets goodwill.” But for forging the reformist path, Rafsanjani got nothing. Iran did what it promised to do; America did not do what it promised to do. Instead, Bush betrayed Rafsanjani and did nothing in return: the US sent word that Rafsanjani should expect no American reciprocation. Like in Russia, the reformists were discredited.

Rafsanjani would try to demonstrate the desired reform one more time. When Iraq invaded Kuwait, he kept Iran officially neutral. But the official neutrality was practical siding with the US. While Iran rejected Iraqi pleas for help on the grounds of that neutrality, they allowed the US to use Iranian airspace. Once again, though, Iranian reformers gave but did not get. Though Rafsanjani had hoped to end Iran’s international isolation by helping the Americans, when the US convened the Israeli-Palestinian Madrid Conference, they invited nearly every affected nation, including Israel, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, but snubbed Iran, perpetuating Iran’s international isolation even though they were demonstrating the reforms the US sought.

The next president of Iran, Seyyed Mohammad Khatami, kept the reformist dream alive. He tried to improve relations with the US by altering Iran’s past actions and giving something to the US. And Khatami gave a lot. He rejected terrorism; accepted a two-state solution, implicitly recognizing the State of Israel; aided the US in its fight against the Taliban and al-Qaeda; played a crucial role in setting up Afghanistan’s post-Taliban government and arrested hundreds of al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters who escaped across its borders.

After giving, the reformer got nothing. George W. Bush replied by putting Iran in the Axis of Evil. Khatami was stunned. The reformers were discredited.

But Iran was not done. In 2013, they elected another reformer, Hassan Rouhani, as president. Rouhani would place Iran’s future on the reformist promise that Iran could escape international isolation by improving relations with the US and the West by entering into negotiations with them.

The crippling blow to that promise would be dealt by Donald Trump. When Trump broke America’s promise and illegally pulled out of the JCPOA nuclear agreement, Rouhani and the moderates were discredited, and Iran’s hardliners, with their warnings that the US would repay what they received from Iran with nothing but broken promises, were vindicated.

The fatal blow was dealt by Biden. When Trump pulled the US out of the nuclear agreement, for the first full year, Iran remained in complete compliance. For a very long time after that, Iran stayed in the deal, gradually increasing its nuclear activity but staying in compliance because paragraph 36 of the JCPOA allows Iran to cease its commitments if another signatory ceases to honor its commitments. Even still, Iran made clear that all of its increased nuclear activity could be instantly reversed if the US came back to the deal. Iran was patiently waiting out Trump’s term in office with the reasonable expectation that Obama’s former Vice President would bring the US back into the deal the Obama administration signed.

When Biden delayed America’s return to the talks, refused to promise an end to sanctions, refused to delist Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from the US list of foreign terrorist organizations and threw up endless roadblocks, he put the return to the JCPOA into a coma and dealt the fatal blow to the reformists.

Trump crippled the reformists; Biden killed them. Parsi says that "the reformists were now completely delegitimized by not only Trump leaving the deal but by Biden not returning to it." The US demanded reform from Iran, but when Iran delivered, the US refused delivery and discredited the reformers.

In both Russia and Iran, US calls for reform were answered; in both Russia and Iran, the US discredited the reformers and killed the reforms.

Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.