What Washington Doesn't Get about Iran
Policymakers fail to grasp how Tehran's political system operates.
Obscured by the drama of America’s presidential campaign, one major foreign policy issue—the future direction of the U.S. approach to Iran—is at a crossroads. President Obama stood before world leaders at the UN General Assembly in September 2013 and stated, “If we can resolve the issue of Iran’s nuclear program, that can serve as a major step down a long road towards a different relationship, one based on mutual interests and mutual respect.” Yet in the aftermath of the July 2015 nuclear accord, statements by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Iranian actions have provided little indication that U.S.-Iran relations are moving in a direction more respectful of American interests.
“It is now clear,” writes UAE Ambassador to the United States Yousef al-Otaiba, “that one year since the framework for the deal was agreed upon, Iran sees it as an opportunity to increase hostilities in the region.” Internally, executions of prisoners is at a twenty-year high. Still, the occasion of national elections in February for Iran’s parliament and Assembly of Experts—like the June 2013 election of President Hassan Rouhani—generated widespread commentary by policy experts in the United States that a process of meaningful change was at hand, as “reform” candidates outpolled their hard-line opponents in Tehran.
Testifying before the Senate on April 5, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Shannon asserted that “the extent to which reformers. . . swept the board” in polling for parliamentary seats in Tehran “highlights the fact that President Rouhani, and his intent on opening Iran to the world and addressing the fundamental stumbling blocks, has resonated in a positive way.” Under Secretary Shannon cited the difficulty in determining the impact of these electoral results on “how Iran behaves strategically” because, as he explained, Iran is “a mix of conflictive entities and groups, with hard-liners aligning themselves both with religious. . . and security leadership to prevent reformists from moving too fast, too far.” Part of the supreme leader’s work, said Mr. Shannon, “is to balance forces inside of Iran.”
Factionalism and jockeying for influence and position occur quite naturally in leadership ranks of democracies and dictatorships alike, including Iran. The key question Under Secretary Shannon could not answer definitively is whether regime politics would ever allow for real change in Iran’s “strategic” behavior. His remarks, however, reflected a long-standing belief by policymakers and advisors that the clerical circle in power since the 1979 revolution is capable of empowering political stewards who are inclined to reform Iran and fulfill President Obama’s hopeful vision, reciprocating his administration’s solicitude and forbearance toward Tehran.
Decades of Chasing the Elusive Promise of Reform
U.S. policymakers have experienced cycles of hope and disappointment with Tehran. After being singed by scandal in the mid-1980s, when President Reagan’s arms-for-hostages dealings were exposed, U.S. officials anticipated positive change in Iran when Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani gained the presidency in 1990 with the promise of rebuilding an economy weakened after eight years of war with Iraq. However, terror attacks in Germany and Argentina ensued, along with assassinations of exiled regime opponents, tied directly to Rafsanjani and Khamenei. The June 25, 1996, bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia killed nineteen U.S. airmen, as the Clinton administration maintained a “dual containment” approach toward both Iran and Iraq, backed by mounting sanctions.
When Mohammad Khatami took office as president in 1997 and proposed a “Dialogue of Civilizations,” again Washington judged that he was a reasonable interlocutor signaling a departure from Iran’s pattern of repression at home and terrorism abroad. The wave of domestic oppression that followed, including what came to be known as the “chain murders” of dissidents by Iran’s intelligence ministry, appeared to many as a hard-line reaction to Khatami’s agenda; nevertheless, for the Iranian people, hopes for reform under Khatami gave way to “fears of darker times ahead.”
Not even the fact that Iran’s nuclear program advanced dramatically in secret under President Khatami would shake Washington’s durable conviction that progressive elements within the Tehran ruling elite might one day ascend to power, as keen to see Iran adhere to international norms and uphold universal rights as are Western governments and citizens.
Listening to most Iran analysts at policy gatherings in Washington, two themes will be apparent. First, any mention of Iran’s status as the leading state sponsor of terrorism, its domestic human rights abuses or the destructive activities of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), including its elite Quds Force, will be at once acknowledged and dismissed with a figurative hand-wave. This is old news; Iran has for years been sanctioned over it. Since there is no new story here, only unenlightened warmongers would harp on these aspects of Iranian affairs which, while condemnable, only stifle consideration of the possibilities for U.S. policy with Iran looking forward.
Second, the topic that animates the policy cognoscenti, and comports with the aspirations of the Obama White House, is the dynamic ebb-and-flow of political factions competing within Iranian leadership circles: “principlists” versus “reformers,” “conservatives” versus “moderates,” the hard-line Khamenei group versus the Rafsanjani group that seeks to integrate Iran more with the outside world. At a time when America’s own presidential election process has featured candidates channeling popular discontent toward the country’s political and economic elites, media coverage of Iran’s most recent elections—encouraged by the administration’s own rhetoric—has amplified the theme of grassroots rebellion at the polls. Given the lack of details reported about Iran’s managed electoral process, the average American would be forgiven for assuming that 79 million Iranian citizens were freely exercising popular sovereignty.
Iran’s wrongful behavior, other than actions seen as possible violations of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), is reported, but not debated, as the policy community seems devoid of confidence that it could constructively influence the regime organs overseeing terrorism, paramilitary operations, judicial abuse, monopoly control of economic and financial assets, restraints on journalism, communications monitoring and censorship, arms trafficking to violent nonstate actors, propaganda and intelligence deception operations. This drumbeat of undesirable Iranian actions, now well into its fourth decade, has continued unabated despite the nuclear deal. Yet much more attention is paid to President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, the lead figures in Tehran’s diplomatic overture to the West, because they are perceived as agents of hoped-for change that might, at long last, end the negative drumbeat.
Is the administration’s hope justified or misplaced? Granted that factions rise and fall inside Iran’s clerical elite, the implications of these dynamics, like so much of Iran’s post-1979 history, offer reasonable grounds for debate. Debate is needed, as President Obama presented his diplomatic project with Iran last year as a fait accompli, accusing any detractors of courting war. Is it impolitic to suggest that neither Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei nor former president Rafsanjani would press their rival tendencies within the governing structure to the point of empowering other political forces and destabilizing the regime’s collective hold on power in Iran? Where has the case been made that clerical “reformers” will effect strategically significant change?
The central policy issue—how meaningful change in Iran can occur—has not been seriously explored. The administration’s and its supporters’ energies have largely been directed toward defending the JCPOA against political critics whose knowledge of Iranian affairs they regard as inferior. A top advisor to President Obama has recently admitted that the administration’s narrative “of a new political reality in Iran, which came about because of elections that brought moderates to power in that country. . . was largely manufactured for the purpose for [sic] selling the deal.”
Nevertheless, by underscoring reformist challenges to the conservative order and touting electoral “upsets,” policy experts are acknowledging differences within the regime, and tensions between government and governed in Iran. What direction and scenario should the United States wish to see unfold from here? With the U.S. presidency transitioning in 2017, a proper understanding of the Tehran regime’s challenges, priorities and choices is needed now as the predicate to a realistic, principled and forward-looking “post-JCPOA” Iran policy.
Overlooked Clues from the Regime’s History
Americans of a certain age are familiar with scenes reported from Iran since 1979, where crowds gathered to chant “Death to America”; news in recent years has signaled the existence of dissent against the status quo, manifested in the rise and suppression of the Green uprising during the June 2009 elections, and the popular demonstrations against election fraud that followed, during which twenty-six-year-old philosophy student Neda Agha-Soltan was shot to death in the streets of Tehran by regime enforcers. But the reality behind these and other political events merits closer examination.
In a system where political authority is permanent and nonnegotiable, the narrative of both current and past events is vigilantly managed by the rulers, as an essential tool of regime survival. What with Foreign Minister Zarif’s artful appeals to Western opinion in which he proclaims Iran’s peaceful intent and devotion to international law, and laments its unfair victimization by “threats, sanctions and demonization” by the United States in particular, one can only imagine what effect thirty-seven years of managed media have had on the population, the penetration of internet and satellite television notwithstanding.