Iranian Options

September 1, 2003 Topic: Security Regions: Persian GulfMiddle East

Iranian Options

Mini Teaser: Neither containment nor regime change are optimal policies to pursue vis-à-vis Iran. The time is right for the United States to cut a deal.

by Author(s): Ray Takeyh

MUCH HAS changed in the Middle East during the past year. Saddam's tyranny has finally been displaced, and even the most recalcitrant Arab despots are speaking the language of political reform. In the midst of these cataclysmic changes, the one state in the region whose priorities and policies appear constant is the Islamic Republic of Iran. On the surface, the clerical state seems committed to its course of confrontation with the United States and to its defiance of international norms on issues such as terrorism and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

The remarkable events of the recent past, however, have had a subtle yet perceptible impact on Tehran's international orientation, opening the possibility for a new approach to the United States and the enveloping regional order. Throughout the late 1990s, despite the assumption of the presidency by the reformist Muhammad Khatami, factional politics, competing centers of power and the legacy of the revolution obstructed Iran's uneasy transition from a revisionist to a pragmatic state. Too often, national interests were sacrificed at the altar of revolutionary dogma.

However, the exigencies of the post-Iraq war period and the massive projection of U.S. power on Iran's periphery have finally shattered old taboos and engendered a new consensus behind a foreign policy of moderation. For the first time, the clerical estate is willing to reach an accommodation with the United States on a range of thorny issues--including the future of Iraq, the structure of Persian Gulf security and even nuclear weapons. Paradoxically, it took the arrival of the hawkish Bush Administration and its wars in the Middle East to finally press Tehran toward a more judicious suppression of its retrograde revolutionary impulses. Unlike previous U.S. administrations, if the Bush team seeks a meaningful diplomatic dialogue with Iran, it will soon find a relatively reasonable interlocutor.

The Arc of Iranian Foreign Policy

SINCE THE Islamic Republic's inception in 1979, Iran's international orientation has undergone a steady yet halting march toward pragmatism. For Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the republic, the export of the revolution overrode the demands of Iranian national interest and the restrictions of statecraft. The Grand Ayatollah saw himself as acting not on behalf of a state, but the entire Islamic community. He therefore felt limited compunction about interfering in the internal affairs of sovereign regional states. Iran would continuously sacrifice its tangible interests in order to foment uprisings in the Gulf sheikdoms, intensify Palestinian rejectionism and provoke unneeded confrontations with the United States. International isolation, economic hardship and a devastating eight-year war with Iraq were the sole byproducts of Khomeini's divisive diplomacy.

Khomeini's passing in 1989 inevitably led to a reassessment of Iran's foreign relations, as the task of reconstruction after the Iran-Iraq War necessitated coming to terms with the international community. However, the continued primacy of revolutionary passions prevented a fundamental break with the past. The substantive revision of Iran's orientation had to await the ascendance of moderate cleric Muhammad Khatami to the presidency in 1997. Although Khatami and his reformist allies failed to usher in a liberalized theocracy, they did set the stage for Iran's integration into the international community and generated an internal coalition dedicated to the notion that Iran could not remain beleaguered and isolated in an interconnected global order.

The reformist foreign policy focused on expansion of trade, cooperative security measures and diplomatic dialogue as a means of advancing Iran's interests and projecting its influence. Along these lines, Iran normalized relations with the Gulf states and the European Union and resisted the temptation of exporting its Islamist message to the contested lands of Central Asia.

Ideological dogma and the propagation of revolutionary Islam were not only inconsistent with the reformist perspective, but also had a limited utility in the age of globalization. Khatami captured this sentiment by noting, "Foreign policy does not mean guns and rifles, but utilizing all legitimate international means to convince others."

Khatami's important accomplishments, however, were qualified. Policies on key issues such as Iran's hostility to the United States and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process continued to derive from a self-defeating ideological calculus. Confident of their ideological verities and secure in their confrontational posture, Khomeini's remaining disciples--particularly the Spiritual Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei--employed their impressive institutional powers to undermine initiatives designed to lessen tensions with the "Great Satan." Beyond ideological rigidity, Iran's factional politics held foreign policy issues hostage to the domestic political stalemate. The conservatives, mindful of the enormous popular credit that reformers would reap should they succeed in normalizing ties with Washington, systematically subverted all such efforts. Through much of the late 1990s, Iran was a perplexing state whose foreign policy was driven by a contradictory mixture of revolutionary convictions and practical considerations. The Islamic Republic had reached an impasse.

The reactionary elements of the Iranian state could afford their confrontational ideology, as the benefits garnered by such militancy outweighed the costs. The American colossus was too distant, its leaders too fickle and its struggles against terrorism more symbolic than real. The Bush Administration, however, with its expansive vision for the Middle East and its military displacement of two recalcitrant regimes, has now confronted the Iranian Right with realities it can no longer ignore and responsibilities it can no longer evade. Although some within the conservative bloc, such as the head of the Guardian Council, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannait, continue to acclaim the virtues of defiance and militancy, an important and influential segment of the Right has defected to the reformist foreign policy fine.

The first fracture in the conservative wall of solidarity appeared as the U.S. military campaign in Iraq gained momentum and achieved its objectives much faster than the masters of Tehran anticipated. As a conservative politician noted, "The fact that Saddam was toppled in 21 days is something that should concern all the countries in the region." The powerful head of the Expediency Council, Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, soon led the chorus by insisting,

We have lost opportunities in the past. We
have made inappropriate measures or never
made any measures. And we have delayed
making decisions. Our ideology is flexible. We
can choose expediency on the basis of Islam.

Rafsanjani went so far as to claim that relations with the United States should be extricated from the clerical state's political rivalries and be decided by a popular referendum. The traditionally obstructionist and rigid Khamenei seemed to have grasped the urgency of the times and the dangers that Iran's previous path now entailed, noting, "The Islamic Republic will not subject or push the country to war with anybody."

A powerful coalition of reformers and conservatives is coalescing around the understanding that, in the altered regional landscape, Iran must come to terms with the United States on issues of common concern. Although Iran's domestic political scene is still too fragile and contested for a grand deal, it is suitable for a series of narrowly defined arrangements over specific subjects. The stability of both postwar Iraq and the larger Persian Gulf region are objectives the two powers share and on which they can cooperate within a negotiated framework. Even on the issue of nuclear weapons, Iran's perspective and commitment is far from immutable, and adroit U.S. diplomacy can still empower those within Tehran's ruling oligarchy who seek to remain within the confines of their anti-proliferation commitments. Such a negotiation process can, in fact, presage a larger dialogue encompassing such provocative issues as normalized ties with the United States and lessened Iranian hostility to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. More than two decades after the Islamic Revolution, Iran may finally be evolving into a "normal" state dedicated to regional stability.

Persian Gulf Security and Iraq

FROM IRAN'S perspective, the Persian Gulf is the most important strategic arena, for it constitutes the most suitable link to the international petroleum market. Iran's vital economic and security objectives have led successive regimes in Tehran to seek predominance in the Gulf. However, having perceived that the demise of Saddam portends new strategic alignments, the clerical state now appears prepared to revise its previous stance. Iran seems poised to accept a regional security framework that not only avoids confrontation with the United States but may even accommodate the American presence.

In the late 1990s, Iran's policy toward the Persian Gulf underwent one of its most fundamental transformations. During the early stages of the revolution, Iran sought to assert its interests by subverting its neighbors and calling on opposition groups to emulate Iran's model and overthrow their regimes. For the sheikdoms, Iran was a threat to fend off, a rival to balance and an ideological alternative to negate. The solid support of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) for Saddam's war against Iran and their close security collaboration with the United States testify to the drawbacks of Tehran's subversive policies. Khatami's tenure introduced far-reaching changes in Iran's approach, for the reformist regime appreciated the fact that Iran's strategic and economic interests could best be achieved through a policy of detente. Khatami's "Good Neighbor" policy led not just to the restoration of diplomatic and economic ties, but also to the initiation of security and intelligence cooperation between the erstwhile nemeses. After decades of being scorned and subverted by Iran, the Gulf states breathed easier: the Islamic Republic finally recognized their legitimacy and domestic authority.

The second aspect of Khatami's détente policy was even more dramatic, as it constitutes a pronounced alteration of Iran's strategic perspective. Unlike his predecessors, Khatami no longer insisted that improving relations with the GCC states is contingent on the severance of their defense ties to the United States. Although Iran still maintains that the stability of the Gulf can best be realized through an indigenous alliance network, that stance is largely rhetorical and no longer guides Tehran's practical policy. The fact that Iran was inclined to normalize relations with the GCC states despite their flourishing links to the United States is an indication that Tehran is willing to live in a Gulf whose balance of power is determined by America. Indeed, Iran is gradually moving toward further modification of its posture and signaling a propensity to coexist with the United States in a sub-regional security structure. An America whose power is regulated by a regional network is certainly more preferable to Iran than one that exercises its influence in a seemingly arbitrary and unpredictable manner.

A similar pattern of grudging accommodation to the United States is beginning to color Iran's approach to postwar Iraq. The theocratic regime welcomed the demise of its historic foe but had deep reservations about the encroaching U.S. presence. Tehran had initially hoped that a quick military victory would lead to a UN occupation, obviating the need for a substantial U.S. presence. However, the firm American commitment to the reconstitution of Iraq and the sizeable U.S. military contingent has evaporated such hopes and generated a new set of concerns in Tehran. Will the United States employ Iraq as its proxy in the Gulf, reviving its 1970s policy of empowering a friendly local regime to enforce its dictates? Will the United States and a prospective Iraqi regime devise a regional security alignment designed to marginalize and pressure Iran? All these issues hover over Tehran's strategic planning, as the United States militarily occupies yet another bordering country.

SINCE THE beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Bush Administration has periodically complained of the bewildering pattern of cooperation and confrontation that constitutes Iranian policy. Initially, Iran maintained strict neutrality and even pledged to assist U.S. pilots in distress. Upon completion of the military phase, however, Tehran began infiltrating men and supplies into Iraq, leading many in Washington to perceive this as yet another indication of Iranian mischief. Yet there is an alternative explanation for their actions: In an atmosphere of strategic ambiguity, in which Iran is unsure and unaware of U.S. plans, it is attempting to influence modestly an arena of critical importance to its stability. As such, Iran's promotion of its Shi'a allies, such as the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution, is not so much a gesture of solidarity with its co-religionists as a way of ensuring that a future Iraqi government features voices willing to engage with Iran. Tehran has no illusions about the Iraqi Shi'a community subordinating its communal interests to Iran's prerogatives; it merely hopes that promotion of the Shi'a parties will provide it with suitable interlocutors. It is important to note that Iran's policy toward Iraq, as elsewhere in the Gulf, is now predicated on carefully calibrated calculations of national interest, as opposed to a messianic mission of exporting the revolution. As such, Iran can still be a constructive, albeit feisty, actor in the unfolding drama of postwar Iraq.

In recent months, Tehran has been sending subtle signs to the United States that it is hoping to avoid conflict over Iraq. Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi has dismissed the notion that Iran will seek to export its revolution to the chaotic scene in Iraq, noting, "No Iranian official has suggested the formation of an Iranian-style government in Iraq." The influential conservative politician, Muhammad Javad Larijani, has gone even further than Kharrazi, claming, "Iran's experience is not possible to be duplicated in Iraq." The most significant point to take from Iran's declarations is their understanding that developments in Iraq should not lead to military clashes with the United States. The powerful Secretary of Iran's National Security Council, Hasan Rowhani, was insistent on this point: "Tehran does not want confrontation and friction with America over Iraq." The Iranian state finds itself in the difficult position of seeking to advance its objectives in the context of tense U.S.-Iranian relations. A more concerted dialogue, in which Washington can engage Iran and assure it that its legitimate interests will be taken into account, can go a long way to dispel Iranian suspicion and misbehavior.

Given the apparently durable U.S. presence in the Gulf and Iran's emerging pragmatic proclivities, the Bush team is in a unique position to construct a regional framework that would ensure the long-term stability of this critical area. Since the collapse of the British imperium, the United States has experimented with a variety of policies to stabilize the Gulf, ranging from promoting the Shah of Iran to the dual containment of both Iran and Iraq. But all these policies failed, as regional rivalries, tensions and conflicts granted the Gulf the dubious distinction of being one of the most dangerous and unpredictable strategic environments in the world. It is time for the United States to borrow a page from its European experience and seek to construct a security structure in the Gulf that encompasses all the region's powerbrokers, including Iraq and Iran.

Such a network can evolve gradually, beginning with confidence-building measures and arms control compacts and eventually evolving into a full-scale security system that resembles institutions such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Under the auspices of such a regional organization, the local states can gradually extend the scope of their cooperation and devise common markets and free trade zones. Such interlocking security and economic arrangements will give Iran, historically a revisionist state, a stake in upholding a status quo that it now finds compatible with its national interests. Indeed, an American policy that seeks to mollify Iran's concerns can have a salutary impact on Tehran's objectionable policies, such as its drive for nuclear weapons and sponsorship of terrorism.

Iran and the Bomb

NO OTHER issue has disturbed the Bush Administration, and indeed the entire international community, more that Iran's desire for nuclear weapons. The largely completed Bushehr plant, the extensive uranium enrichment facilities in Natanz and a similarly advanced uranium conversion plant in Esfahan indicate that Iran is coming perilously close to a fully-functioning, indigenous nuclear weapons capability. But all is not lost, for influential voices in Tehran are calling for restraint and sensing that possession of such weapons will ill-serve Iran's core interests in the new Middle East. A more imaginative U.S. policy can still make a meaningful impression on Iran's deliberations and empower those factions that seek to remain within the confines of Iran's non-proliferation commitments.

Iran's nuclear calculations are not derived from revolutionary designs but from a desire to craft a viable deterrent capability against a range of evolving threats. Foremost on that list was Saddam's Iraq, which had employed chemical weapons against both Iran's cities and civilians. Given the demise of Saddam, however, America has emerged as Iran's foremost strategic challenge and the primary motivation behind its nuclear weapons program. The Bush Administration's "axis of evil" rhetoric and its imperious doctrine of pre-emptive force as a tool of counter-proliferation and regime change has further intensified Iran's quest for a nuclear deterrent. A range of figures, both reformers and conservatives, have actively touted possession of nuclear weapons as the only way to deter an encroaching American superpower. As the reformist politician Mostafa Tajzadeh noted, "It's basically a matter of equilibrium. If I don't have them, I don't have security." Denoting the diverse coalition behind such a program, archconservative commentator Amir Mohebian ironically echoed Tajzadeh, castigating the perceived double standard of the United States: "The Americans say, in order to preserve the peace for my children, I should have nuclear weapons and you should not have them." On the surface, it appears that Iran has made its decision and is firmly committed to an accelerated path to nuclear arms.

The emerging Iranian pragmatic instinct, however, has even begun to erode the evident consensus behind the nuclear program. An influential segment of the theocratic oligarchy insists that acquisition of such weapons will only accentuate Iran's strategic vulnerabilities and destroy its carefully cultivated security and economic ties with the Gulf states and the European Union. Iran's Defense Minister, Ali Shamkhani, has acknowledged such dire possibilities. "The existence of nuclear weapons will turn us into a threat that could be exploited in a dangerous way to harm our relations with the countries of the region", he said. Indeed, a weapon designed to enhance Iran's position could lead to its isolation, as the Gulf states are likely to cement further ties with Washington as a means of counter-balancing a nuclear-armed Iran. Moreover, the economic cost of crossing the nuclear threshold is likely to be considerable, as the European Union would certainly impose rigorous sanctions to punish Iran's transgression. At a time when Iran is in dire need of foreign investments, such a move would jeopardize not just the regime's economic plans but potentially the entire edifice of the Islamic Republic. As President Khatami's chief advisor on nuclear issues, Gholamreza Aghazadeh, has acknowledged: "Peace and stability cannot be achieved by means of nuclear weapons."

Given that much of Iran's nuclear program is being driven by the need to deter the United States, the Bush Administration has the opportunity to defuse another proliferation crisis in the Middle East by alleviating Tehran's anxieties. By tempering its rhetoric and assuring Iran that its concerns will be taken into account in Iraq and the Gulf, Washington can empower the internal factions that insist Iran's interests will best be served by upholding its non-proliferation commitments. An Iran that is integrated into a regional security framework and derives benefits from such an arrangement is more prone to dispense with its nuclear arms than a beleaguered Iran under constant U.S. pressure.

The Peace Process and Terrorism

AMONG THE most entrenched Iranian positions is its relentless hostility to Israel and the diplomatic efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Iran's approach is still largely conditioned by an ideology that perceives Israel as a usurper of sacred Islamic lands and a pernicious agent of Western imperialism. For Ayatollah Khamenei, Israel remains "the universally recognized enemy of Islam and Muslims." Iran's incendiary rhetoric has been buttressed by action--Tehran is a generous benefactor to Palestinian rejectionist forces and terrorist organizations. Since the inception of the Islamic Republic, Iran has defied the laws of international politics by pursuing an irrational policy toward the peace process that has subordinated its practical interest to ideological imperatives.

As with most aspects of Iran's policy, however, competing interests are beginning to erode Tehran's militancy. Iran's rhetoric may still be laced with invectives against the peace process, but in practice the clerical state is unwilling to obstruct a peace treaty that enjoys the support of the Palestinians and Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Should a regional consensus for peace with Israel evolve, Iran will reluctantly accept that determination. "We do not intend to impose our views on others or stand in their way", said Khatami. The recent Palestinian acceptance of the roadmap was treated with surprising equanimity in Tehran: witness Foreign Ministry spokesmen Hamid Reza Asefi's insistence that Iran "will in no way interfere with the decisions of the Palestinian groups. We respect all decisions taken by the majority of the Palestinians." Whatever its ideological dispositions, Iran is increasingly recognizing that its interests in the Middle East and its relations with Arab states outweigh a lonely struggle against a peace process that is buttressed by a regional consensus.

Beyond the intricacies of the peace process, the price of supporting forces such as Hizballah is gradually becoming too costly for the theocratic state in the age of America's war on terrorism. While Iran's sustained support for rejectionist forces garnered it much popularity in the region in the past, such conduct today makes it a possible target of U.S. retaliation. In an ironic twist of events, Iranian leaders who previously sought to instigate violence by Hizballah are now urging it to behave with restraint. In his May trip to Lebanon, Khatami pointedly echoed this theme:

We know full well that the enemies of peace
and freedom in our region are trying to
expand the cycle of tension. We appeal to
Lebanon, as a country and society, to be cautious
of this danger.

The guardians of the theocracy are beginning to discern that tempering their approach to the peace process is a policy that Iran may soon find to be in its interest.

In a similar vein, the Iranian officialdom is recognizing the high price of dealing with Al-Qaeda. There have long been credible reports suggesting that senior members of Al-Qaeda have taken refuge in Iran, with possible assistance from elements within the regime. It is not hard to believe that members of the Iranian Right and the Revolutionary Guards would do so, for they sympathize both with Al-Qaeda's ideology and its methods. In fact, in a remarkable move, Iran's Intelligence Minister, Ali Yunesi, acknowledged that Tehran was holding both "small and big-time elements of Al-Qaeda." Such "big-time" members include Saif al-Adel, Al-Qaeda's security chief, and Suleiman Abu Geith, its spokesman. That the intelligence ministry, which is currently controlled by reformers, has now apparently apprehended such figures indicates that the central government is finally reigning in radical elements in the Revolutionary Guards and preventing their freelance engagement in terrorism. The Iranian regime is beginning to appreciate that such conduct presently entails an unacceptable risk.

Although many aspects of Iran's foreign policy have altered, on the surface its approach to the peace process and terrorism nevertheless seems least affected by pragmatism and compromise. However, given the Bush Administration's determined war on terrorism and its willingness to displace objectionable regimes, Iran's theocracy faces pressures it increasingly can no longer tolerate, forcing it toward some modification of its dogmatic stance. If the Bush team can complement its successful hawkish policies with a greater propensity to engage Iran on its core issues of concern, it may be able to deter Tehran effectively from its pernicious policy of employing terror to obstruct peace between Israel and its neighbors. The recent pattern of Iran's international policy, whether on nuclear weapons or the future of Iraq, demonstrates that its belligerence is not absolute and can be affected by a range of competing factors. A U.S. policy that combines relentless opposition to terrorism with a willingness to engage Iran can go a long way toward extricating the Islamic Republic from the Israeli-Palestinian arena, which in turn, will improve the possibility of a solution dramatically.

OVER THE past two decades, Iran has been undergoing a transition from a revolutionary state determined to overhaul the regional order into a conventional power basing its policies on national interest calculations. However, the ideological legacy of the revolution and the domestic political impasse of the last few years have obstructed the reformers' efforts to fully come to terms with the international community. On a range of issues such as sponsorship of terrorism and relations with the United States, Iran's hostility seemed intact and its policies congealed in the past. But post-September 11 developments have jolted the Iranian leadership, forcing it to contemplate not just an adjustment of its policies but a significant shift in its prevailing paradigms. An influential conservative faction is joining with the reformers to call for an accommodation of Iran's newest neighbor, the United States. At a time when the United States is occupying two bordering countries and is widely discussing the transformation of the entire Middle East, Iranian leaders are beginning to appreciate that they can no longer afford ideological crusades.

The Bush Administration finally has an opportunity to arrive at the modus vivendi with Iran that has eluded previous U.S. administrations. Instead of seeking to undermine the Iranian regime, Washington should capitalize on its emerging pragmatic tendencies and reach a settlement with the theocracy on issues of common concern. The Iranian regime is not a loose cannon, as was Saddam Hussein's Iraq; it is a state with competing internal dynamics that can be prudently managed in the direction of gradual reform. Inciting the country toward a second revolution, with all the unintended consequences that would accompany it, is in no one's national interest. A concerted effort to develop a regional order designed to integrate all the Gulf states into a security structure can not only stabilize the entire region but also provide a platform for negotiated restrictions on Iran's nuclear research program. Indeed, a greater degree of dialogue between Washington and Tehran can have a positive impact on the theocracy's approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As the United States contemplates the future of the Middle East, it is best to reciprocate Iranian pragmatism with a measure of U.S. flexibility.

Ray Takeyh is a Professor and Director of Studies at Near East and South Asia Center for Strategic Studies, National Defense University. The views expressed herein are the author's own.

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