Overhauling U.S. Policy on Iran

Iran is ripe for transition. Sanctions will not get the job done. It's time for an entirely new U.S. policy.

It is time to acknowledge a painful truth about U.S.-Iran relations—Iran will eventually become a nuclear power, and there is nothing the West can do to stop it. No credible military option exists, notwithstanding the bravado from Republican Party presidential candidates, nor will economic sanctions or political ostracism force the Iranian regime to change course. Given this reality, a new U.S. policy towards Iran is desperately needed, and the democratic revolutions in other parts of the Middle East suggest a way forward.

For more than thirty years, Iran has been sanctioned by the United States and its allies in one form or another. Yet there is little evidence that sanctions have actually changed the behavior of the Iranian regime. For nearly ten years, the focus of international sanctions has been Iran’s controversial nuclear program. Yet economic sanctions have done little to compel Iran to re-examine its nuclear policy. As the recent IAEA report has revealed, Iran has accelerated its nuclear ambitions rather than curtailing them. This should come as no surprise: the Iranian regime views an advanced nuclear program as key to regime survival and as a frontline defense against external attack. This point was specifically mentioned by Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei in March 2011, when he chided Qaddafi for giving concessions to the West over Libya’s nuclear program. According to Khamenei, Qaddafi’s fall served to vindicate Iran’s uncompromising position on that issue.

Furthermore, after a recent visit to Iran Fareed Zakaria confirmed what Iran experts have known for a long time: Western sanctions have strengthened the clerical regime and weakened the middle class and civil society. What is desperately needed today is a long-term strategy toward Iran and a new U.S. policy that focuses on the one area where the regime is at its most vulnerable—its internal legitimacy, purportedly derived from a democratic mandate.

A new U.S. policy that is anchored on the cornerstone of democracy is important for several reasons. First, after a democratic transition Iranian nuclear policy will substantially shift under new leadership. This remains the only way to ensure that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon. It is likely that a democratically elected government in Iran will move quickly to reduce regional tensions and alleviate the concerns of the international community.

Secondly, the Arab Spring has significantly altered the political and moral landscape of the Middle East. A new global spotlight has been focused on the region that exposes dictatorships while simultaneously giving voice to opposition movements. Iran’s ruling clerics are deeply worried about this development. They are in the awkward position of paying lip service to democratic revolts in the Arab world while cracking down on identical protests at home (while clandestinely supporting the crushing of protests in Syria).

After the ouster of Mubarak in February, the contagion of the Arab Spring was quick to reach Iran. Tens of thousands responded to a call by Iran’s opposition Green Movement for a solidarity rally with Tunisia and Egypt. While the rally was brutally crushed and the leaders of the opposition placed under house arrest, deep discontent and hunger for democracy remain widespread.

At the moment, Iran ranks near the top of the world in the number of imprisoned journalists and intellectuals. Censorship is pervasive, and the regime spends considerable resources to block the free flow of information. What Iran’s ruling oligarchy fears most is a free exchange of ideas and an open public debate about Iran’s domestic and foreign policy—specifically, the role of religion in politics and the state of human rights in the country. The regime fears such a debate because it knows it will lose. That is why it is forced to manufacture lies such as the one Ahmadinejad recently told Fareed Zakaria: “There are no political prisoners in Iran.”

Furthermore, the fraudulent 2009 presidential elections considerably narrowed the support base of the ruling regime. This partly explains why large segments of the economy have been turned over to the Revolutionary Guards, who increasingly are dominating political life as well. Currently, Iran is engulfed in an embezzlement scandal involving several leading banks. Two of the key figures at the heart of this story have fled to Canada, and Ahmadinejad’s government has been implicated.

Elite factional rivalries between supporters of the president and the supreme leader continue to shake public confidence in the ruling elites, specifically among conservative segments of society that previously were devoutly loyal.

Last month, Ali Khamenei dropped a bombshell. He suggested that Iran might move from a presidential to a parliamentary system of government. While this was presented as an innocent choice between different forms of democratic rule, it reveals the continuous de-democratization of Iranian politics and the regime’s fear of its own population, thereby necessitating the need to tightly limit and control national elections.

In short, the prospects for democracy in Iran look good over the long term. The key social-science indicators suggest as much. But as we have learned from the Arab Spring, there is no exact formula to predict when an authoritarian regime may crumble. One size does not fit all when it comes to the strength and durability of authoritarian regimes versus democratic opposition groups. What has been missing from this equation is a suitable international context that enhances the prospect of democracy in Iran. A qualitative shift in U.S. policy can help facilitate this.