Iran remains a dilemma (as well as an enigma) for the West. Much of its leadership clings to the revolutionary oratory that helped overthrow the Shah, but three decades of revolutionary rule has produced in its society little progress but much discontent. Iran is nation blessed with a glorious past, significant resources, an educated population, and a strategic location. The fact that it hasn’t managed to exploit these benefits to create a more prosperous and influential nation speaks volumes about how Iran’s theocracy is working. In an insightful article, op-ed columnist Roger Cohen discusses Iran and its future [“Reading Khamenei in Tehran,” New York Times, 19 February 2009]. Cohen writes:
“No Iranian puzzle frustrates America and its allies as much as how to reach Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader who sets the country’s direction. When I asked one veteran Iran hand how old Khamenei is, the answer was: “Not old enough.” Years of probing have failed to unearth a conduit to the man with the white beard and outsized glasses whose image, often smiling, dots the billboards of Tehran. The guy’s a mystery. Solving it lies at the heart of the Iranian challenge facing President Obama because although Khamenei’s authority is not absolute, his veto power is.”
If Khamenei has little love for the United States, it’s because America was the Shah’s closest ally and Khamenei was imprisoned and tortured under the Shah. And then, of course, there’s the fact that President Bush, names Iran as part of his Axis of Evil. At the age of 70, Khamenei is the single most powerful figure in Iranian politics.
“He’s led Iran for two decades, since the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. His vast authority includes the right to name the heads of the elite Republican Guards, the armed forces, the judiciary and state television. He has indirect power to vet parliamentary candidates. Yet he cloaks his absolutism in the mild garb of the arbiter. Under the system known as ‘Velayat-e-faqih,’ or the guardianship of the religious jurist, an idea developed by Khomeini to justify the clergy assuming political power, Khamenei is virtually assured of ruling for life. Short of the reappearance of the ‘hidden imam,’ not spotted since his disappearance in the 9th century, his earthly deputy presides as custodian of the Islamic Revolution. To many Iranians, this setup represents the core betrayal of the revolution, whatever the elements of democracy — including a June presidential election — that have emerged around the Constitution’s incorporation of the contested idea of a God-given guide. To many western officials — enamored or unhappy by turns with various more colorful figures than Khamenei, and casting around for the real center of power in Iran’s labyrinth of the democratic and the deified — the system is equally maddening. But it’s not about to change. On the contrary, I’d say the central Iranian political phenomenon of recent years has been the reinforcement of Khamenei. How to engage with Iran begins and ends with him.”
You hear or read little about the Ayatollah in the media. More often the man making headlines is Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the former mayor of Tehran who is often portrayed as a madman. He has claimed the Holocaust never happened, has called for Israel to be wiped off the map, and has asserted that there are no homosexuals living in Iran. He is, however, a clever politician and he has tied his fortunes to Khamenei’s.
“The favoring of the Revolutionary Guards under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has strengthened an institution beholden to Khamenei. The reformist wave has ebbed.”
Cohen’s point is that if you want to know in which direction Iran is heading look at what Khamenei says, not what Ahmadinejad says.
“[Khamenei’s] attacks on ‘the arrogant powers’ — read the United States — have been buttressed by the hubris of the Bush administration. His passionate support for the Palestinian cause has resonated, most recently because of the Gaza debacle. Even his attempts to align the Islamic Revolution with the world’s disinherited against U.S. ‘economic dominance’ have been comforted by the travails of global capitalism. So what does this astute man want? What will he give? Khamenei said last year: ‘Undoubtedly, the day the relations with America prove beneficial for the Iranian nation, I will be the first one to approve of that.’ This suggests dogma does not preclude movement.”
If that statement provides an opening for the United States, it also begs a number of questions. What should America’s endgame look like? What kind of compromise is the U.S. willing to make with Iran? What interests do the two nations have in common? Cohen first examines Khamenei’s goals.
“Khamenei sees his primary task as safeguarding a revolution whose core values include independence, cultural and scientific self-sufficiency, the global revitalization of Islam as a guiding body of law, and social justice. He believes America demands ‘submission and surrender to its hegemony.'”
The only quibble I might have with Cohen is that I don’t believe that Iran sees itself as the guardian of global Islam but rather as the protector of the Shi’ite sect. Such a role explains its particular interest in the affairs of Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Lebanon and other countries with a significant Shi’ite population. Cohen addresses each of Khamenei’s objectives (and how he believes the Obama administration should adapt to them) beginning with Khamenei’s role as protector of the revolution.
“Given these convictions, the United States must embark on a visionary change of direction. Obama must assure Khamenei that not only has America abandoned the goal of regime change, it sees Iran as a central player in regional stability. That deals with the independence obsession.”
My colleague Tom Barnett has insisted that the U.S. missed a golden opportunity to strike a grand bargain with Iran right after 9/11. The two places into which the U.S. was about to commit troops, Afghanistan and Iraq, were governed by regimes that were also adversaries of Iran. Co-opting Iranian support, Tom argues, would have helped in both conflicts. As it turned out, the U.S. pursued a course that advanced Iranian foreign policy objectives but received nothing in return. As Tom writes in his new book, Great Powers: America and the World After Bush:
“By chasing the dream of America’s primacy while denying Iran’s regional version, Bush-Cheney stalled their own grand strategy of reshaping the Middle East.”
Cohen’s next point is much more controversial.
“Obama must abandon military threats to Iran’s nuclear program in favor of an approach recognizing the country’s inevitable mastery of the nuclear fuel cycle, while securing verifiable conditions that ensure such mastery is not diverted to bomb manufacturing. That addresses Iran’s intellectual pride (as well as the fact that the neighborhood includes the nuclear-armed powers of Israel, Pakistan and India).”
Tom’s arguments go further and are, therefore, even more controversial. Tom believes that Iran will not only master “the nuclear fuel cycle,” but develop the bomb as well. He believes that welcoming Iran into the nuclear club will permit the West to exact concessions from Iran (some of which Cohen discusses later). About Iran’s acquiring the bomb, Tom writes (again from Great Powers):
“Will anything change when Iran’s Shia bomb squares off against Pakistan’s Sunni bomb or Israel’s Jewish bomb? Objectively no, although in its numerical infancy, Tehran’s initial nuclear capability will make a tempting target for a nervous Tel Aviv and a trigger-happy Washington. Since conventional invasion is unthinkable following America’s difficulties in far smaller Iraq, and because conventional bombing alone can’t rid Iran of its nuclear capabilities, both Israel and the U.S. face an equally unthinkable choice: going nuclear to prevent Iran’s nuclear capability. … Whether we care to admit it or not, Iran’s already achieved a sloppy, asymmetrical form of deterrence. Tehran doesn’t need to field nuclear weapons to maintain this deterrence. … Here’s the larger point: in combination with its growing energy connectivity eastward, Tehran is making a back door bid for being considered ‘in the club’ of great powers for whom great power-on-great power war is no longer an option. I believe, given Asia’s rising energy requirements, Iran has effectively succeeded in this quest, whether or not we choose to recognize it. But I believe that admitting Iran into these ranks will be a good thing. … Would a nuclear Iran pass a weapon to terrorists? For most people, that’s the big question. The history on proliferation says that undeclared states are your problem, not recognized ones, which, in effect, got what they wanted from other great powers—the recognition of fellow great-power status that rules out invasive war by others. … [Iran’s price for joining the nuclear club would be] having to recognize Israel. … [It would also] achieve its primary goal in pursuing a nuclear capacity—namely, America’s promise not to engage in forcible regime change in Tehran. Since that goal will effectively be achieved by Tehran’s looming nuclear capacity, anyway, then we’re heading into a different dynamic: simultaneously creating a stable nuclear stand-off between Israel and Iran, a dyad that quickly becomes a triad if Saudi Arabia decides that Arab Sunnis need their own nuclear champion to balance the Persian Shia.”
Cohen agrees with Tom that the Obama administration must think about striking a bargain with Iran — one that includes an official recognition of Israel. Cohen continues:
“[President Obama] must redirect U.S. policy toward Israel-Palestine to make Hamas-Fatah reconciliation a core American objective, recognize that the ‘terrorist’ label is an inadequate description of the broad movements that are Hamas and Hezbollah and end the Israel-can-do-no-wrong policy that sabotages a two-state solution. This would allow Khamenei to claim that his demands for Palestinian justice — as the self-styled leader of the world’s Muslims — have been heard. In return, Iran must accept the two-state solution backed by the Arab League (Khamenei has said ‘the fate of Palestine should be determined by the Palestinian people’). It must reciprocate American movement on Hamas and Hezbollah by ending its military, but not political, support for them. It must back U.S. efforts to stabilize Iraq and Afghanistan. It must improve its poor human-rights record. And, to show goodwill, it must hit the pause button on the centrifuges once high-level talks with America begin.”
With so many challenges facing the Obama administration, pursuing a new foreign policy with Iran, like the one recommended by Cohen and Tom, may prove difficult. It would require bipartisan support and as the vote on the stimulus package demonstrated, there isn’t much bipartisanism in Washington. Cohen, like Tom, however senses that the timing may be right for such a new approach.
“Khamenei is not irrational. Social justice is the fourth pillar of the revolution. He has said, ‘What Islam pursues is economic development and prosperity for all social strata.’ Yet Iran is a profoundly unequal society. With oil prices at around $35 a barrel, that won’t change without creating more wealth in ways that only engagement with the West can bring.”
I know from my time spent in Iraq that Iranian businessmen are eager for more connectivity to the global economy. They have listened to my pitch about Enterra Solutions’ Development-in-a-Box™ offering and they would have signed up on the spot had legal considerations not stood in the way. Like it or not, Iran is going to play a significant, continuing leadership role in the Middle East. There is common ground to be found, but the path that leads to it remains covered in brambles.