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.