The National Intelligence Estimate released December 3 reports Iran abandoned its nuclear weapons program in 2003, pulling the US back from the Bush Administration’s plans for war. In an essay published November 19, Trita Parsi outlined the steps toward a sane relationship between the US and Iran.
Iran will be the top foreign policy challenge for the United States in the coming years. The Bush Administration’s policy (insistence on zero enrichment of uranium, regime change and isolation of Iran) and the policy of the radicals around President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (unlimited civilian nuclear capability, selective inspections and replacing the United States as the region’s dominant power) have set the two countries on a collision course. Yet the mere retirement of George W. Bush’s neocons or Ahmadinejad’s radicals may not be sufficient to avoid the disaster of war.
The ill-informed foreign policy debate on Iran contributes to a paradigm of enmity between the United States and Iran, which limits the foreign policy options of future US administrations to various forms of confrontation while excluding more constructive approaches. These policies of collision are in no small part born of the erroneous assumptions we adopted about Iran back in the days when we could afford to ignore that country. But as America sinks deeper into the Iraqi quicksand, remaining in the dark about the realities of Iran and the actual policies of its decision-makers is no longer an option.
A successful policy on Iran must begin by reassessing some basic assumptions:
1. Iran is ripe for regime change.
Not true. Although the ruling clergy in Iran are very unpopular, they are not going anywhere anytime soon. (A distinction obviously needs to be made here between the electoral survival of the Ahmadinejad government and the survival of the system as a whole.) The Iranian people certainly deserve a better government–one that provides Iran’s youthful population with a better economic future and respects human rights–but the current choice Iranians face is not between Islamic tyranny and democratic freedom. It is between chaos and stability. The increased tensions with the United States over the past year have only strengthened the government’s hold on power by limiting the space for prodemocracy activists (much as the 9/11 attacks paved the way for the passing of the Patriot Act and the weakening of Americans’ civil rights). Whatever we think of the clergy in Tehran, we cannot afford wishful thinking about their imminent departure.
2. Iran is irrational and cannot be deterred.
Not true. Iran’s foreign policy behavior is highly problematic for the United States, but a careful study of Iran’s actions–not just its rhetoric–reveals systematic, pragmatic and cautious maneuvering toward a set goal: decontainment and the re-emergence of Iran as a pre-eminent power in the Middle East. Iran often conceals its real objectives behind layers of ideological rhetoric, with the aim of confusing potential enemies and making its policies more attractive to the Muslim nations it seeks to lead. At times it even simulates irrationality as an instrument of deterrence, the calculation being that enemies will be more reluctant to attack Iran if Tehran’s response can’t be predicted and won’t follow a straight cost-benefit analysis. (Richard Nixon used the same strategy during the cold war, in what he called the “madman theory”; he sought to deter the Soviets by making them think he was slightly mad and unpredictable.) In reality, the United States–and Israel–have a long history of deterring Iran. During the Lebanon war of 2006, Israel signaled Tehran’s leaders that it would retaliate against Iran if Hezbollah struck Tel Aviv with long-distance missiles. Tehran got the message. Despite many promises by Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah to hit Israel if the Jewish state continued the bombardment of Lebanon, Iran prevented Hezbollah from using its long-range missiles. Deterrence worked, and an uncontrollable escalation of the war was avoided.