Smarter Iran Policy Begins With New Attitude

Skill, patience, consistency, logic, and understanding go a long way toward the design of an effective foreign policy. These attributes – perhaps obvious but frequently in short supply among foreign policy decision-makers – build a much firmer policy foundation than rude and emotional outbursts, erratic challenges, public bullying, contemptuous disdain, or efforts to isolate and demonize. With a new administration in place, now is the time to ask if U.S. policy can shift from viewing Iran as an “ultra-nationalistic, theologically conservative, politically radical Shi’ite” state to designing a foreign policy based on skill, patience, consistency, logic, and understanding.

Despite the many emotional and poorly reasoned public claims to the contrary, it isn’t obvious that Washington needs to “do” anything at all about Iran. Iran certainly isn’t threatening the national security of the U.S. homeland. Iran does, however, resist Washington’s desires and does challenge its goals in the region. If Washington perceives Iranian foreign policy as a problem requiring resolution, solutions are well within its grasp without recourse to knee-jerk hostility or a war of aggression.

Aside from outright fear of “the Iranian threat,” other explanations for Washington’s hostile attitude toward Iran are possible, of course. It may be that Washington perceives Iran has neither the intent nor the capability for dangerous offensive action, and simply finds empty rhetoric a useful tactic for distracting the world from other American plans. Although the game of getting people excited about an imaginary danger can easily backfire, politicians have tried it before and will do so again. Or it may be that Washington will be satisfied with nothing less than control over Iran’s hydrocarbon resources and the elimination of any regional resistance to Israeli military dominance. Certainly, there continues to be significant sentiment along these lines among neocons who either want to control global oil supplies or put extremist Greater Israel dreams ahead of U.S. national security.

If such calculations have seized the imagination of Washington decision-makers, then the tensions will continue, along with their associated consequences. Ahmadinejad and other Iranian "neocon" war-generation politicians, such as Iran’s former Revolutionary Guards chief and presidential candidate Mohsen Rezai, will play the “American threat” to the hilt to gain votes in Iran’s June 12 presidential election; both the Iranian “neocons” and the Shi’ite revolutionary old guard (led by Supreme Leader Khamenei) will continue to use the “American threat” to strengthen their control at the expense of Iranian moderates. Israeli expansionists will continue terrifying both Israelis and Americans with their descriptions of “Iranian Nazis” as a cover not only for their absorption of the West Bank and destruction of Palestinian society, but also for whatever further expansionist ambitions they may have. On both sides, the ignorant will point with fear to the remarks of hypocritical leaders to justify calls for extremist measures, such as “preventive” war.

The longer the situation endures, the greater the probability of someone somewhere either miscalculating and slipping into a war by mistake or being provoked by a third party, whether it’s Israel maneuvering the U.S. into eliminating its main adversary or a Sunni jihadist group trying to get the U.S. bogged down in yet another Mideast war. Even if such dangers are avoided, the longer the situation continues, the more an unnecessary confrontation caused by inept politicians will become viewed as the natural and inevitable baggage of a battle to the death.

However, if Washington decisionmakers in fact perceive the Iranian regime as posing a problem to be solved, they possess a full bag of low-risk tools for tackling the job.

What Drives Iran?

The first hint is contained in the long-winded phrase “anti-Western, ultra-nationalist, theological conservative, politically radical Shi’ite.” Before trying to defeat the enemy, it’s wise to figure out who the enemy is. An adversary will become an enemy when so defined: Treat an adversary as an enemy, and the adversary will respond in kind, thereby “proving” the “truth” of your original error.

We can assume that all Iranians love their country and want to see their society continue to exist, but beyond that, the 70 million people of this nation caught between the 19th and 21st centuries constitute a collection of highly disparate groups, few of which started out “anti-Western.” It’s the long, sorry history of Western interference in Iran’s internal affairs that is responsible for Iranian “anti-Western” feeling; it isn’t opposition to the West. Indeed, many parts of Iranian society have long been attracted to Western ideals of civil liberties and democracy. A desire to protect oneself – to protect moral values or territorial integrity or independence – isn’t the same as being “anti-Western.” In simple terms, to oppose Western interference is not to oppose the West.

The details are complicated, but the bottom line is not: Washington can begin the long road of eliminating Iranian “anti-Western” sentiments simply by ending its bullying rhetorical tone, treating Iran with respect, and recognizing the right of Iran to be held only to the same standards as other countries. Secretary of State Clinton’s May 20 remarks about the danger that deliverable Iranian nuclear arms might "spark" an arms race and Adm. Mullen’s statement the next day that "Iran getting a nuclear weapon is calamitous" illustrate how hesitant the Obama administration is to defy Israeli zealots in order to walk that road.

The ultra-nationalist component in Iran may prove to be much harder to deal with, but the first step is to recognize that this component doesn’t equate to “Iran.” Whatever the strength of ultra-nationalism in Iran, it derives most recently from Iran’s desperate defense against Saddam Hussein (and his former U.S., Russian, Arab, and European allies) and is strengthened by every insult, every application of pressure, every demand for “preconditions before negotiations,” and every insistence that Iran obey rules to which it never agreed and which no other country is required to obey. Those Iranians desiring pragmatic economic development or the strengthening of civil liberties have no ground to stand on in the domestic Iranian political debate as long as Iran is besieged; they’re in the same position, only worse, that like-minded Americans were in on the eve of the U.S. attack on Iraq. To speak out is to risk denunciation as “traitors.” And in Iran, those accused of treachery by the regime risk not just political marginalization but death. The world may have to endure Iranian ultra-nationalism until that generation ages, but the world does not have to go out of its way to empower that ultra-nationalism.

As for the Shi’ite component, Washington decisionmakers felt it was worth spending a trillion dollars to install a Shi’ite regime in Baghdad, so Washington can evidently live with Shi’ite governments. In addition, Shi’ite regimes constitute a valuable bulwark against Sunni Salafi jihadism. To know that a particular regime is Shi’ite doesn’t say much about whether or not it can find common ground with the West.

Even to know that it’s “theologically conservative” says little. We may, for example, find the attitudes toward women of theologically conservative Shi’ites hard to stomach, but our own treatment of women has undergone a revolutionary shift over the past century; if we see ourselves as leaders, it does not follow that we can always insist that others obey our own timetable. Moreover, every major religion on earth today encompasses highly discomforting contention between its conservative and liberal wings. Such moral debates are important and a valid issue to be considered during foreign policy formulation, but they should not be confused with decisions about war and peace.

The first step in resolving the problem of Iran is thus to recognize that Iran, like other countries, is composed of many communities.

Needed: A New Attitude

The second step in building a new policy is to take responsibility for the implications of our own behavior. The image of Iran as a monster about to break its chains is a myth: Iran has no massive military thirsting for action. Iran is no Hitler salivating over Ukrainian wheat and Caucasian oil. Iran is frustrated by its marginalization and is rising, but it isn’t the classic over-armed outsider about to upset the world order by conquering its neighbors. The more recent activities of the Revolutionary Guard alleged by Washington to have occurred in Iraq were primarily an effort to support cultural allies against foreign occupiers. Their secondary purpose, of enhancing Iran’s influence, was no doubt also important, but that is a common goal of states, a far cry from trying to upset the world order.

The “threat” from Iran is of a different order: it’s a threat to specific U.S. policies. And there are an infinite number of ways to modify policies. Even under the Bush administration, blinded though it was by its hubris and determination to expand its archipelago of offensive military bases throughout the hydrocarbon-rich regions of the Mideast and Central Asia, U.S. policy was constantly undergoing modification – go after bin Laden, then shift to Iraq; cut troops a bit, then surge; talk to Sadr, then attack him; bomb Sunni cities, then pay off the Sunnis to stop shooting at us.

The way forward comes in two parts: context and tactics. A new context requires the U.S. to treat Iran with respect and admit that U.S. policies play a role in generating Iranian attitudes toward the U.S. Obama’s reference to the Islamic Republic in his Nowruz greeting may have been a step in the direction of respect, but the boorish behavior of Western diplomats who walked out of Ahmadinejad’s speech at Durban II was not. Once the U.S. has created that fundamentally new political context, then the most promising tactical approach will be to identify the specific areas of discord and launch a joint search for common ground. A non-professional could be forgiven for responding, “Well, duh! If it were that simple, wouldn’t our leaders have done this years ago?”

One might think so, but policies get put on the back burner in this busy world, and they get captured by special interests. It’s so much easier to just reiterate the “common knowledge.” Moreover, the truth is that both Iran and the U.S. have occasionally made efforts to resolve bilateral issues, but always without doing so on a foundation of respect, without putting the specific initiative in a context of the overall relationship, and without staying the course long enough to convince the other side of the initiator’s sincerity. As a result, the receiving side has typically turned its back. For example Iran, at the start of the Islamic Revolution, when Washington’s position was still in flux, gave up an opportunity by backing the activists who kidnapped the American embassy personnel. On the U.S. side, Bush’s egregiously insulting 2003 “axis of evil” speech equating Iran with its despised enemy Saddam, coming on the heels of Tehran’s assistance in forming a pro-U.S. government in newly conquered Afghanistan, is the most obvious recent example of turning one’s back on an opportunity.

Despite these shortcomings on both sides, there is ground for practical, tolerable compromise. Looking rationally at the areas of policy conflict clarifies the basis for a solution.

Policy Conflicts

Occupying Iraq

It’s the extreme nature of the Bush administration’s Iraq policy that opened wide the door to Iranian emergence onto the regional stage. Seemingly permanent U.S. military occupation of Iraq combined with brutal repression of Iraqi national resistance frightened Iranians on security grounds and horrified Iranians on cultural grounds (just as a brutal Iranian or Chinese or Russian occupation of Canada would horrify Americans).

The bizarre decision to insist on putting the struggle against bin Laden into the background in order to invade Iraq, followed by the subsequent massive program of military base construction, certainly gave all regional patriots good reason to feel threatened. To turn the situation on its head and claim that resistance by those patriots constituted a “threat” to the U.S. would be analogous to a burglar justifying his crimes by claiming he is “threatened” by door locks. The locks do not threaten the burglar; they threaten his policy of burglarizing. All he need do is change his policy.

And that is precisely what Obama promised to do in the campaign, by calling for a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. However, Obama’s February withdrawal announcement was ambiguous, leaving vague the status of the final 50,000 soldiers, not to mention the 100,000-odd mercenaries, the string of bases, and Persian Gulf naval forces. A clear U.S. policy of achieving genuine withdrawal from Iraq would pave the way for new cooperative relations between the U.S. and Iran. What, for example, might Iran do to facilitate peace in Iraq in return for some agreement on turning all the huge, city-like U.S. military bases over to the Iraqis as, say, residential areas for returning refugees?

Nuclear Discrimination

In a world that has lived with nuclear weapons for half a century, where the Islamic bomb has existed for a generation, and where Israel has carte blanche to stockpile nuclear weapons endlessly, ordering Iran to submit to discriminatory rules that apply to no other nation is not a viable or defensible policy. The fact that Iran, unlike Israel, is a member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and thus has the legal right to nuclear technology for peaceful purposes only strengthens Iran’s case that it’s being discriminated against. The legal argument centers around whether or not Iran has sufficiently demonstrated that its program is indeed for peaceful purposes. The policy itself proves that Washington will not tolerate Iranian independence, thus stiffening Iran’s determination to acquire the magic nuclear shield.

Instead, a policy based on reason and principle is required. The obvious principle is the vision of a nuclear weapon-free Mideast; a lesser principle is nuclear inspections according to some common set of rules for the whole Mideast. Both these principles are fully in accord with the West’s own long-standing efforts to create an international non-proliferation regime. The problem with the West’s policy toward Iranian nuclear capabilities is that it obviously violates the West’s own overall policy toward global proliferation.

As for a policy based on reason, the American challenge is to convince Iran and the rest of the world that having nuclear weapons is more dangerous than not having them. Any number of inducements, from public security guarantees to technology assistance, could be devised to put teeth in such a policy. Giving nuclear technology to nuclear powers India and Israel while denying Iran the “right” even to do research is exactly the wrong approach: it rewards nuclear rogue states and teaches everyone the lesson that only nuclear powers will be allowed to pursue an independent foreign policy.

Instability in the Levant

If Washington sees Iranian “meddling” in the Levant as a problem, Washington possesses all the levers to remove Iran’s opportunity, which is the direct result of the extreme bias in Washington’s attitude toward Israel that has developed over the last generation.

The first opportunity Washington has handed Iran is the lack of progress toward justice for Palestinians. With Israel’s continued collective punishment of the Gazan population following its recent attack and its continued expansion of illegal settlements in the West Bank, this statement hardly needs further elucidation. Provide Palestinians with some support, and they will not need to turn to Iran. Stop exploiting Gaza as a laboratory for testing hypotheses about global affairs, recognize that Gazans are humans, insist on the end to a policy of collective punishment, and either accept Hamas rule or offer Gazans a positive choice – not the imposition by PLO thugs of a different set of Palestinian guns but governance that will give them hope.

The second opportunity Washington has handed Iran is its support for a Lebanese regime that offers nothing to the poor Lebanese Shi’ite farmers. Despite Washington’s neglect, under the leadership of Hezbollah – Lebanon’s most modern political party – the political prospects of Lebanon’s Shi’ite poor (though perhaps not of its northern Sunni poor) are getting brighter. Indeed, Hezbollah now has a real shot at winning the next election and forming Lebanon’s new government. Washington needs to devise a policy that will encourage Hezbollah’s slow transformation into a democratic political actor and encourage Beirut under whatever administration to provide good governance to all its citizens. Biden’s threat to punish Lebanon if Hezbollah wins, which constitutes clear interference in Lebanon’s election and implicitly condemns Hezbollah to permanent marginalization, is exactly the wrong approach.

The third opportunity Washington has handed Iran in the Levant is Syria, still waiting after all these decades to get back its Golan Heights and to be engaged. It’s hard to imagine anything that could have played into Ahmadinejad’s hands more than Israel’s attack on Syria’s alleged nuclear installation even after Syria withdrew from Lebanon and took steps to reduce the flow of jihadists into Iraq.

Regime-Change in Iran

Washington’s aspirations to replace Iran’s regime with a lackey who would effectively subordinate Iran to the U.S. not only provokes the resistance of Iran’s current regime but also empowers it domestically by making it the symbol of Iranian nationalism. Whatever the attitude of Iranians toward the U.S., a U.S.-sponsored regime-change would remind them all too much of the days of the shah. Iranians who might prefer to cooperate with the U.S. in order to promote democracy or for economic benefits would be likely to put these goals aside in favor of a united national front. Just as a U.S. policy of colonizing Iraq would empower Iran in Iraq, a U.S. policy of Iranian regime-change and subordination of Iran would empower the current Iranian regime domestically.

Options for Washington

Reducing the U.S. Footprint

Although Obama may be speaking of U.S. troop reductions in Iraq, many contradictory signs, from the size of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad to the string of U.S. bases in the Iraqi countryside and the huge U.S. mercenary forces, suggest the U.S. plans to stay. Moreover, if U.S. troops simply move from Iran’s western border (i.e., Iraq) to its eastern border (i.e., Afghanistan), Iranian suspicions about American intentions will hardly be mollified.

A dialogue with Iran about security throughout Iran’s neighborhood is called for. The point in proposing such a dialogue – and the point would need significant substantive support by American deeds – should be to pave the way for reducing the American footprint. Such a dialogue could be defined to include military issues, terrorism, and narcotics smuggling. The military component needs to include both practical steps to demonstrate a U.S. pullback from Iraq that will leave Iraq free to make its own political decisions and the question of how Tehran might help negotiate common ground with some of the Afghan or Pakistani insurgent groups. The discussion of terrorism must include actions taken against Tehran by dissident groups and Baluchi violence that spills across the Iranian-Pakistani border. Terminating whatever support Washington may be giving to the Mujahedin-e Khalq, an anti-Tehran insurgent/terrorist group, would be another way for the United States to signal its sincerity at low cost.

Demonstrating Evenhandedness

To the degree that Washington can demonstrate evenhandedness in its ties to Mideast states, it will strengthen its own bargaining position and empower bureaucratic factions throughout the region that advocate compromise with the U.S. The public bragging by Israeli officials that they control U.S. foreign policy damages U.S. security by limiting its options. Steps such as the recent establishment of a U.S.-Israeli working group on Iran only serve to buttress Israeli claims and undermine U.S. efforts to achieve a breakthrough in relations with Iran.

Mideast Nuclear Security

The West has been striving to gain global acceptance for a set of non-proliferation principles for decades. Applying these principles to the Mideast might open doors to a slow, careful set of practical steps forward toward the eventual denuclearization of the region. Having once enunciated a historic principle implying that Iran and Israel (as well as the rest of the region’s states) should be held to the same nuclear standards, a logical next step might be either a call for all regional states to accept international inspections or a regional conference to lay out special inspection standards to be introduced to the region over some period of time. Teeth could be added to the new policy in any number of ways, such as by making U.S. military aid dependent upon acceptance. Incentives could similarly be added – for example, the U.S. could provide a guarantee that no non-nuclear state would suffer a nuclear attack.

Security for All in the Levant

In the case of security in the Levant, the key principle is that security must be mutual. Security must cover economic as well as military security. To demand security for Israel while Israeli fighter jets are violating Lebanon’s international borders and bombing Syrian installations and Sudanese arms convoys in Syria with impunity, or while the population of Gaza is being subjected to economic warfare, is a non-starter. The security dialogue also needs to encompass all actors and social groups. As long as rockets fall on Israeli settlements, Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon are being attacked, or any other group is being left out, the security of all will be endangered.

Among the multitude of steps forward that could be taken once the principle of “security for all” is enunciated are the following: a call for a return of the strategically meaningless Shebaa Farms, now under Israeli occupation, to Lebanon; a meeting with all Lebanese parties and Israel to develop a set of rules guaranteeing respect for Lebanese territorial sovereignty; and, official recognition that Israel broke its own promises after signing the summer 2008 cease-fire with Hamas and a Washington statement that all parties are expected to adhere to the letter of any agreement they sign, followed by inviting Hamas to the negotiating table.

As for Palestine, the current Israeli policy is radicalizing its enemies, driving the people into the radicals’ arms, and humiliating those Palestinians who are most willing to accept Israeli rules. This is a fundamentally illogical approach. Either provide good governance for the people of Gaza, or accept Hamas as that government and enable it to govern well by ensuring it access to food, energy, and finances. Either support a new Palestinian election and live with the results, or stop humiliating Abbas.

Within the context of these initial and temporary steps, perhaps an appeal to the Israeli people to accept that living within their legal 1967 borders and accepting the idea that justice for Palestinians is the only road to peace will fall on open ears. The process of resolving the issue of “security for all” in the Levant would automatically address concerns about Iran’s rising appeal to the disadvantaged of that region, remove the purpose of Israeli threats against Iran, and facilitate a sharing of regional power between Iran and Israel (not to mention others).

Regime-Change From Within

Rather than regime-change through external pressures, a more subtle and measured policy that treats the Iranian state with respect might give Iranians concerned about economics and civil liberties more freedom of movement. An American apology for the 1953 CIA-sponsored coup against Mossadegh and the condemnation of violence by anti-regime elements would be good initial steps. Focusing the U.S. role on offering an example would facilitate progress on all the other issues.

In sum, Washington has hardly begun to move the wealth of policy levers at its disposal for resolving in mutually beneficial ways the challenges posed by Iran. By trimming its own sails a bit and substituting skill, patience, consistency, logic, and understanding for military force, Washington can achieve much while minimizing both risk and expense.

This article is a modified and updated version of William deB. Mills, “Managing the Iranian Challenge,” (Washington, D.C.: Foreign Policy in Focus, April 8, 2009).

Author: William deB. Mills

Dr. William deB. Mills is a Foreign Policy in Focus contributor and an American political scientist specializing in the future of the global political system.