US Foreign Policy

The Need to Rethink US Policy towards Iran

in Program

This commentary appeared in the Daily Star on April 18, 2006.

The second Bush administration has been particularly busy with Iran policy, putting in motion a number of initiatives that contrast in style with its earlier policies. The bottom line? Success is unlikely; the administration’s determination to take a morally pure stance on a regime it finds distasteful undermines its ability to build strong alliances, forge an international consensus, and promote peaceful democratic change in a country of strategic consequence.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has nudged Iran policy from the absolutes of the “Axis of Evil” designation toward marginally more realistic partial engagement, albeit solely over Iraq. She more actively supported European diplomacy to resolve the nuclear issue, as long as this negotiation process was in play, and therefore enjoyed more support from Europe when it was time to discuss how to respond to the Iranian nuclear program at the United Nations Security Council.

On promoting regime change, the Bush administration has fallen back on a longer-term approach of supporting civil society forces rather than engaging in a head-on confrontation that could entail military action. A military component of the policy, should there be one, is more likely to focus on derailing Iran’s nuclear program than on toppling the regime.

All of these elements suggest a gradual easing of the paralysis inherent in a rigidly ideological approach to Iran that characterized the early years of the Bush presidency. At the time the administration offered much fiery rhetoric, but little in the way of meaningful transactions. The current attitude is, on balance, better than what existed before, but it still falls short of a policy that is likely to achieve tangible success. Why is that?

First, there is still conceptual confusion as to whether the nuclear issue trumps all other issues. If it does, then the other measures – trying to engage with Iran over Iraq, for example – send confusing signals that the Iranians are sure to misinterpret. If there is an overriding strategic goal, both clarity and consistency would help. But no one is sure if Iran’s nuclear activities are at a critical threshold or not. The judgment that Iran may be years away from production of weapons-grade fuel has clouded consensus over the timing of international efforts to dissuade the Iranians.

Second, sanctions fatigue and the aftermath of the Iraq war make UN action difficult, risking isolating the United States more than Iran. The international community is truly not persuaded that sanctions ever achieve the desired goals, and “smart” sanctions may have little effect on an insular, provincial community of clerical leaders who don’t care about traveling abroad, or whose assets are not in Swiss bank accounts. What worked in the Balkans may not work in Iran. Even American friends at the UN fear that talk of sanctions is a means of moving beyond sanctions.

Third, democracy promotion through aid to dissidents and media may have helped anti-communists in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, but public announcement of aid to Iranian democrats would surely create more trouble for them than advantages. The discretion of U.S. funding in the 1950s and 1960s cannot be duplicated in an age of transparency and global media. Iran’s dissidents could come to great harm even if facing mere allegations of taking American aid. While harsh treatment of opposition forces may validate claims about the true nature of Iran’s government, Iranian reformers are already in a sorry state, and could be deterred or even radicalized by a naive American program gone awry.

Alternatively, American officials may prefer to spend the money on controversial “migr” Iranian organizations, which could generate more embarrassment for the U.S. government, and convince more Iranians that Washington could not possibly have their best interests in mind.

Fourth, talking to Iranians about Iraq is a good idea, and would have been a better idea earlier. Three years ago, it could have made a difference in terms of Iraqi stability. At this stage, with Iraq bruised, an American-Iranian dialogue runs the risk of insulting the Iraqis, associating the U.S. with the region’s predators, and diminishing Iraqi perceptions of American power and purpose. On balance, it is worth a try if focused on clear messages to the violent forces inside Iraq, but it cannot be the platform for a breakthrough in relations between Washington and Tehran.

In the long run, the way to promote peaceful change in Iran is to actually be there, with a diplomatic presence, with cultural contact, and with tough words for government actions the U.S. finds unacceptable. For the Americans to lob morally satisfying grenades from a distance will mean rarely hitting the mark inside Iran, while only deepening the mullahs’ sense of grievance. The U.S. believed the Soviet system would fall of its own internal contradictions, so it supported civil society even while conducting business with the regime. If Washington understands, as Rice now claims it does, that change will take time in the region, why not begin building the infrastructure for a more normal relationship? If the U.S. continues to shun Iran as the latter develops into a more formidable regional power, it makes the choices for Arab and other regional partners more difficult. As a result, the Bush administration will have little to show for eight years of a “tough” policy on Iran.

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