Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei (AP)"[T]here are a variety of reasons why ... dialogue may not initially bear fruit. Nonetheless, this is not an argument against engagement. On the contrary, an outright rejection of a U.S. overture would prove costly for Iran’s leadership."
For the better part of three decades, U.S. policy toward Iran has largely focused on punitive measures aimed at weakening the Iranian regime and limiting its regional influence. It is high time to concede such an approach has failed to achieve its bottom line: Iran’s regional influence is greater today than ever, and hard-liners have a virtual monopoly over power in Tehran.
In charting a new strategy, the Obama administration must first attempt to clarify a seemingly facile but fundamental question: Why does Iran behave the way it does? Is Iranian foreign policy rooted in an immutable ideological opposition to the United States, or is Iranian behavior a function of punitive U.S. policies? Could a different U.S. approach beget a more conciliatory Iranian response? The only way to test these hypotheses is via direct dialogue. Below are six prescriptions the next U.S. administration should take into account when thinking about how to approach Tehran:
1. Build confidence on issues of common interest
Building confidence with Iran will be easier if efforts initially concentrate on areas of shared interest, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, rather than those of little or no common interest, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the nuclear issue. Constructive discussions in Baghdad and Kabul could have a positive spillover on the nuclear dispute. If indeed Iran’s nuclear ambitions reflect a sense of insecurity vis-a-vis the United States, building cooperation and goodwill in Iraq and Afghanistan could set a new tone and context for the relationship, which could allay Tehran’s threat perception and compel its leaders to reassess their nuclear approach.
2. Understand where power lies
No major decisions can be taken in Tehran without the consent of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In theoretical terms he holds constitutional authority over the main levers of state, namely the judiciary, military and media. In practical terms the country’s most important institutions—the Revolutionary Guards, Guardian Council, presidency, and parliament—are currently led by individuals who were either directly appointed by Khamenei or unfailingly obsequious to him.
Successful engagement with Iran will require a direct channel of communication with the Leader’s office—such as former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati, one of Khamenei’s chief foreign policy advisers—or, ideally, with the leader himself. After three decades of being immersed in a “death to America” culture, it may not be possible for Khamenei to reinvent himself at age 69. But if there’s one thing that is tried and true, it’s that an engagement approach toward Iran that aims to ignore, bypass or undermine Khamenei is guaranteed to fail.
3. Speak softly
While threatening violence against Iran has become a way for U.S. politicians to appear tough on national security, such rhetoric has empowered Tehran’s hard-liners and enhanced Iran’s stature on the streets of Cairo, Ramallah and Jakarta as the Muslim world’s only brave, anti-imperialist nation that speaks truth to power. Additionally, when oil prices jump with each threat against Iran, Iran’s nuclear program and its financial patronage of Hezbollah and Hamas become more affordable.
While the Iranian government is certainly complicit in engaging in bellicose rhetoric, the United States should not take its behavioral cues from an insecure, repressive and undemocratic regime. Instead of reciprocating threats and name calling, the next U.S. administration should project the dignity and poise of a superpower. A hostile rhetorical line allows Iran’s leadership to paint the United States as an aggressor—both internationally and domestically.
4. Don’t let the spoilers set the tenor
Small but powerful cliques—both within Iran and among Iran’s Arab allies—have entrenched economic and political interests in preventing U.S.-Iranian reconciliation. Domestically, these actors—including powerful septuagenarian clergymen and nouveau riche Revolutionary Guardsmen—recognize that improved Iranian ties with Washington would induce political and economic reforms and competition and undermine the quasi-monopolies they enjoy in isolation. Among Iran’s Arab allies such as Hezbollah and Hamas, the prospect of U.S.-Iranian accommodation could mean an end to their primary source of funding.
For this reason, when and if a serious dialogue commences, the spoilers will likely attempt to torpedo it. Their tactics will vary. They may issue belligerent rhetoric or target U.S. soldiers and interests in Iraq or Afghanistan. Though staying the course in tough diplomacy with Iran will require heavy expenditures of both personal leadership and political capital, if Washington pulls back from confidence building with Tehran in retaliation for an egregious act committed by the spoilers, they will have achieved their goal.
5. Maintain an international approach
Like Iraq under Saddam Hussein, Tehran is highly adept at identifying and exploiting rifts in the international community, and diplomatic efforts to check Iran’s nuclear ambitions will unravel if key countries approach Iran with competing redlines. A common approach by the European Union and the United States is absolutely imperative.
Uniting China and Russia behind the U.S. position will prove more difficult given divergent national interests, though Moscow certainly has an interest in avoiding a nuclear-armed Iran within missile range. A more robust U.S. effort at direct dialogue with Tehran will send the signal to Brussels, Moscow and Beijing that Washington is serious about reaching a diplomatic resolution to this dispute, which should strengthen the health of the coalition.
6. Get the Timing Right
Washington should refrain from making any grand overtures to Tehran that could redeem Ahmadinejad’s leadership and increase his popularity ahead of the country’s June 2009 presidential elections. Since assuming office in August 2005, Ahmadinejad has used his influence to amplify objectionable Iranian foreign practices while curtailing domestic political and social freedoms and flagrantly disregarding human rights; his continued presence could serve as an insurmountable obstacle to confidence building with the United States.
But just as his election in 2005 shocked seasoned observers, his defeat in 2009 is certainly a possibility. Given his considerable mismanagement of the economy, it will be difficult for him to run on the platform of economic justice and populism that got him elected in 2005. As such, it is better for Washington to begin with cautious, limited engagement with Tehran until June 2009, when Iran’s domestic situation will be clearer.
One week after President-elect Obama is inaugurated, the Iranian revolution will mark its thirtieth anniversary. Given three decades of compounded mistrust and ill will, the results of any process of U.S.-Iran engagement will not be quick; such antagonism will not melt away after one, two or even many meetings. While the initial pace will likely be painfully slow—as each side ascertains whether the other truly has good intentions—no realistic alternative would serve U.S. national security imperatives on issues ranging from Iraq, Afghanistan, nuclear proliferation, energy security and terrorism.
Given the potentially enormous implications that a changed relationship with Washington would have for the Islamic Republic’s future, however, there are a variety of reasons why even a sincere, sustained U.S. attempt at dialogue may not initially bear fruit. Nonetheless, this is not an argument against engagement. On the contrary, an outright rejection of a U.S. overture would prove costly for Iran’s leadership.
Behind the scenes, a sizable portion of the country’s political and military elite recognizes that the “death to America” culture of 1979 is obsolete today. Together with Iran’s disillusioned population, they know the country will never be able to fulfill its enormous potential as long as its relationship with the United States remains adversarial.
During the Bush administration, many Iranians came to believe it was the United States, not Iran, which opposed an improvement in relations. When and if it becomes evident that a small clique of hard-liners in Tehran is the chief impediment, internal political and popular opposition could build and potentially large, unpredictable cleavages could be created within the Iranian political system. In essence, the Obama administration may well have the unique task of simultaneously creating unity in the United States and divisions in Iran.