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Containing Iran

How is current U.S. policy toward Iran fundamentally flawed?

May 31, 2007

How is current U.S. policy toward Iran fundamentally flawed?

The great tragedy in the recent deterioration in relations between Iran and the West — stemming principally from Iran’s nuclear activities — is that Iran, perhaps more than any other Middle Eastern country apart from Israel, has the potential to be a force for Western democratic values.

Culturally, many in the population, especially among the young, are strongly pro-Western.

There is probably no Middle Eastern country in which there is less interest or investment by the population (as distinct from the present leadership) in the Palestinian-Israel conflict — not least because the majority of the population are far-away Persians rather than neighboring Arabs who feel they share the humiliation of defeat and loss with Palestinians.

Iran is already more democratic than many of its neighbors, despite its ugly, oppressive features and structures. It also has the largest Jewish population in the Middle East outside Israel — about 25,000, with 20 synagogues in Tehran and a constitutional guarantee of a Jewish MP.

Failures of U.S. policy

Unfortunately, U.S. policy toward Iran since the Eisenhower-era deposition of democratically elected Prime Minister Mosaddeq has served to stymie democracy in the country. This continues to be the case today, given the Bush Administration’s saber rattling over Iran’s nuclear activities and refusal to pursue the path of containment that led to the West’s Cold War victory.

This is particularly evident in the Bush Administration’s decision to include Iran in their “Axis of Evil” (along with Iraq and North Korea). It exhibited a frighteningly poor grasp of Iranian politics, in which conservative mullahs had been on the defensive since the reformist Mohammad Khatami’s election to the presidency in 1997.

There were good reasons for thinking their influence was in decline. Khatami was reelected in June of 2001. Iran is a country with a decidedly pro-Western young population.

Its politics is marked by competing power centers and intense political factionalism. Apart from the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, foreign policy is influenced by the elected president, the National Security Council, the Council of Guardians and the Expediency Council.

The latter was created in 1989 to resolve interagency disputes — by its very existence an illustration of the pluralization of politics within the regime.

Balancing Ahmadinejad

Even in 2006 there was evidence of competition within the regime over its nuclear policy. In June of 2006 Khamenei created a new Strategic Council for Foreign Relations, to which he appointed political figures who had been associated with the reformist Khatami era.

This suggested an agenda to diminish, or at least counterbalance, hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s rogue pronouncements on international affairs.

The specter of nuclear proliferation is always troubling, and there is no reason to believe Iranian claims that its uranium enrichment program is restricted to peaceful purposes.

Indeed, there is evidence that the Iranians have frequently engaged in “delay, prevarication and dissimulation” in negotiations over their nuclear agenda. But such tactics scarcely distinguish them from the Soviets, against whom containment was successfully practiced.

In any case, Iran is no better positioned than was Iraq to deploy nuclear weapons for anything other than defensive purposes. Even in that case it would have to be a tactic of absolute last resort, since provoking a nuclear response from Israel or the United States would for all practical purposes leave them without a country.

It is not surprising, therefore, that several commentators have argued that containing a nuclear-armed Iran is a less frightening prospect than an invasion orchestrated by the Bush Administration.

Pluralism and competition

Herding Iranians into Huntington’s clash-of-civilizations dystopia, which the Bush Administration has done at every turn, is the height of folly. Benign neglect would be a vastly more efficacious policy.

Just as George Kennan, the architect of the U.S. policy of containing communism, recognized that pluralism and competition within the communist world would work to the advantage of the democratic West, we should recognize today that pluralism and competition within the Islamic world — and, indeed, within the Shiite Islamic world — can be expected to do the same.

Iran does not and cannot threaten the United States with nuclear weapons. We need to keep our guard up to ensure that this remains the case.

Beyond this, the United States should support the democratic forces that emerge in Iran when we can, and leave it alone when we cannot.

Adapted from CONTAINMENT: REBUILDING A STRATEGY AGAINST GLOBAL TERROR by Ian Shapiro. Copyright 2007. Reprinted with permission of Princeton University Press.