A New Approach to Tehran

A New Approach to Tehran

Ratchet up war talk. Forget regime change. How Washington can disarm Tehran without firing a single shot.


A shrine at the mausoleum of Khawji Rabie to an Iranian soldier killed in the Iran-Iraq War.Several years ago, I spent three days in Isfahan, Iran, at a conference organized by the reformers at the Center for Dialogue among Civilizations. Asked to visit the rest of the country, I met with Iranians in Qom, Shiraz, Kashan and Tehran. What struck me most were the little shrines I saw all over the country at the sides of the road and at the entrances and exits of towns and villages. They are dedicated to Iranians—about five hundred thousand—who died young during the eight-year war with Iraq. Pointing to these shrines, my hosts bemoaned their losses the way Germans talk about WWII and the Nazi era: as traumatic experiences that have shaped their psyche and whose repetition they are keen to avoid at almost any cost. The Iranians I met—granted, a few years back, in 2002—were very war allergic.

I leave it to psychiatrists to decide whether the recent bellicose talk of those in power—threats to close the Strait of Hormuz and remarks by Ayatollah Khomeini that Iran would “support and help any nations, any groups” fighting against Israel—is merely brave talk to cover up weak knees or the talk of a minority not backed up by a war-weary majority.


The fact that every time the U.S. ratchets up its threats to use force, the Iranian government calls for negotiations (as has happened again recently) suggests to me that little has changed on this account. True, these offers to negotiate may be merely stalling tactics. However, they show that at least the mere threat of an attack commands the attention of Iran’s government, and judging by the run from the rial, its people.

Carry a Big Stick

Once, when the Iranian government felt espiecially threatened, it made an offer that was very favorable to the West. The time was mid-2003, a point at which the United States showed its military might by easily disposing of Saddam’s army in weeks, and with few casualties—a feat Iran could not accomplish after fighting him for eight years. The fact that the Bush administration openly listed Iran as one of the three members of the Axis of Evil and otherwise indicated that it could be subject to military attacks alarmed Tehran. (Similar developments led Qaddafi to give up his program of WMD development in Libya.) In response, Iran sent the U.S. government a proposal in May 2003 that called for a comprehensive dialogue between the two countries that would address Iran’s nuclear program, among other issues. Several observers considered this proposal to be the blueprint for a “grand bargain.” Flynt Leverett, former Middle East director for the National Security Council, compared it to the diplomatic communications between Beijing and the Washington that paved the way for the opening of relations with China during the Nixon administration. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof called the document “astonishing” and said it offered “a real hope for peace.”

The Bush administration rejected the proposal. The president believed that negotiating would give credibility to what he considered a fundamentally illegitimate regime, and he wanted to pursue a policy of regime change. The administration’s official response was to criticize the Swiss ambassador (who had acted as the intermediary in passing the Iranian proposal to Washington) for overstepping his authority. U.S. intelligence, however, shows that Iran nevertheless halted its nuclear program later in 2003 and kept it on ice until 2005, when the United States’ mounting troubles in Iraq re-emboldened Iran.

There are two lessons here: Nothing is more likely to bring Iran to the negotiating table, not to win time but for a true give-and-take, than if the United States and its allies seem willing to make good on their repeated declarations that all options are on the table—that is, if serious preparations for a military strike take place. Second, such pressures, combined with sanctions and diplomacy, are much more likely to succeed if limited to demands to change behavior (halt the program to build nuclear arms or open up to sufficient inspections to prove that no such program is taking place) than if Washington and its allies insist on regime change.

Those in power in Iran can live without nuclear arms if they are granted what they seem to want most: a nonaggression pact with the United States. But leaders in Tehran are unlikely to engage in negotiations with anyone seeking to remove them from power. Like other elites, officials in the Iranian government (at least several of the major factions) are willing to make concessions if they help them to hold on to power—but not if, despite what they promise, they will still be kicked out. In their view, regime change means not only that they are going to lose power—at best, live in exile, if not be killed or jailed—but also that the form of government and way of life they believe in, just as Americans believe in theirs, will be toppled. In short, seeking to make Iran abide by its international obligations under the nonproliferation treaty is more likely to succeed that seeking to replace those in power.

A Young Iran

The reformers I talked to indicated that while they are anticlerical, they consider themselves Iranian patriots and will keep the nuclear program going if and when they are in change of the government. Ergo, counting on the protest movements to win (not likely) and end the military nuclear program (very unlikely) is not a realistic course.

In any case, trying to undermine the Iranian theocracy is not necessary, as the mullah regime—much more than in several other Muslims countries—is being undermined by the young people acting primarily through culture rather than politics. Thus while there are strong pro-sharia majorities in Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, I was struck by the empty mosques and the poorly attended Friday prayers I saw in Iran. Indeed, several of the mosques have been turned to other usages, including changing at least one to an election headquarters. There seem to be many more young people who would like to feel free—to hold hands and kiss in public, use makeup, push back their headscarves, import porn from Turkey and enjoy alcohol—than those willing to join street protests.

I was hence not surprised when the leaders of the reform stressed that they opposed the clergy and the imposition of religion but not an Islamic republic. The line I heard most often was, “Let there be no compulsion in religion,” quoted from the Koran. The reformers explained that they work toward a day in which all will seek to pray, but no one will be made to pray. I see no reason their position should give the United States any grief. In fact, Washington should extend its support beyond secular-liberal groups, as it is reportedly doing in Egypt, to all moderate Muslim groups.

Iran can be disarmed, most likely without firing a shot, once it becomes clear that the West means business—but only if the goal is disarmament and not regime change. The Iranians themselves will have to work out whatever regime change is called for there. It is unlikely to look like the United States, but it can still be one that Americans can learn to respect and live with.

Amitai Etzioni served as a senior advisor to the Carter White House; taught at Columbia University, Harvard, and The University of California at Berkeley; and is a university professor and professor of international relations at The George Washington University.

Image: A. Davey