News Fighting Proliferation

Chapter 13

The Stalemate in US-Iran Relations

Gary Sick

Talking about what the United States should do about its Iran policy without asking what Iran should do about its US policy is an exercise in futility. In this case, it really does take two to tango. Unfortunately, neither Iran nor the US is even close to the dance floor, let alone an embrace, however tentative it might be.

The simple fact is that the US is unlikely to consider doing anything toward Iran beyond plotting to make life more difficult for that country. Iran will respond to this in its time- tested way—shouting revolutionary slogans, commemorating the dates of its most famous victories over the US, and chanting “Death to America” on all public occasions.

The US and Iran are in a mutual propaganda trap. Each of us demonizes the other. In fact, this process has become something of a cottage industry in both countries.

In the US, we have resorted to what might be called policy by thesaurus. US officials and those people who wish to jump on the bandwagon have standard names for Iran: outlaw state, rogue state, backlash state (whatever that is). There should be a prize for this name-calling process. Why not demon or villain or fiend or renegade or maverick or heretic or misfit?

We repeat these formulas in the same rote fashion as Iranians intone the “Great Satan” formula. A recent visitor to Iran noted that the dutiful chants of “Death to America” at a public meeting had an eye-glazing quality. “When we chant ‘Death to America,’” one 21-year-old student said later, “it’s supposed to mean American policies and not the American people. But I’d like to see America for myself, away from all this bombardment of propaganda.”

In reality, most Iranians are woefully uninformed about the United States, relying on a mixture of official propaganda and soap operas. They will soon lose the soap operas when their satellite dishes are taken away from them. I don’t know if that is a net gain or loss for their ability to understand what is going on in this country and its society.

Similarly, in the US, we mostly hear the official mantra— rogue, outlaw, backlash. The media repeats all of this and amplifies the noise. However, when the media takes the effort to send a correspondent to Iran—which several major news organizations have done recently—the stories that come out reflect a much more complex reality than the one-dimensional reporting of the administration and its acolytes.

These stories do not make Iran out to be a pretty place. It is not a pretty place. But the complex picture of Iran 17 years after the revolution is blurred and obscured by the mindless repetition of the thesaurus.

We are trapped in a 1979 time warp. Both the US and Iran conduct their official discourse as if nothing had happened in the last 17 years. The effect is bad information, bad policy, and an escalating cycle of hostility. One of the results of shouting past each other is that any genuine offer of dialogue, which typically is offered in a lower tone of voice, will be drowned out by the megaphones chanting the latest mantra.

I wish to examine here what the US might do to improve its policy toward Iran. This question is really hypothetical. I detect no willingness even to consider changes except to seek new rhetoric to condemn Iran or the adoption of policies intended to punish it—but which are more likely to have the effect of shooting ourselves in the foot. Iran is marginally more interested in a dialogue than is Washington but remains unwilling to take the kind of dramatic steps that would be required to break the present cycle. So I see little or no chance that we are going to see any breakthroughs in US-Iran policy in the near term, barring some remarkable and unanticipated change in attitude on one side or the other.

Under these circumstances, perhaps the most interesting question is, Would we have anything to talk about if we decided to talk? The answer is definitely yes. Iran is the largest country in the Gulf, with the most people and longest coastline. It is not going away. The US is the predominant military and political power in the region, and it will probably remain so for many years to come. Iran and the US have major interests in the region; some of those conflict, but others are shared. We are not lacking for things to talk about. But let’s be more specific.

The first benefit, which probably would have to precede even an agreement to talk, would be a lowering of the propaganda noise on both sides. That is a necessary precondition for achieving anything more substantive, and it is the most obvious obstacle to any progress at the present time.

Second, if the two sides chose to have a dialogue, after what might be an initial face-to-face shouting match, each side would have to begin to establish priorities—to define exactly what it would like to achieve with the other. That in itself would be a useful exercise.

Today Iran routinely denounces the US as the “world-devouring arrogance”—a catchy phrase that it often combines with a call for US withdrawal from the Persian Gulf. That isn’t much of a negotiating agenda. If real talks materialized, Iran would have to consider what it might realistically expect to achieve.

Negotiating a reduction in US military presence in the Gulf, for example, might be possible—perhaps in return for an agreement on Iran’s part not to acquire certain long-range military systems that are seen as particularly threatening to US and Arab regional interests. Such a bargain could serve the interests of both parties: (1) US military downsizing may soon generate nearly irresistible pressures for the US to reduce its active military presence in the Gulf, even without such a bargain; (2) on the other hand, Iran is barely able to find the hard currency to pay for the long-range systems it is trying to buy from Russia and others.

Present US policy calls for Iran to change its behavior in six different areas (active opposition to the peace process, fishing in troubled water in other countries, terrorism, purchases of conventional arms, acquisition of weapons of mass destruction, and human rights). If the Iranians were miraculously to comply, our policy statements mention no benefits that they could anticipate as a result of their newfound enlightenment.

Assuming a dialogue were to begin, the US would have to (1) define more clearly which of these behaviors are more important, (2) offer a more precise definition of what we would expect from Iran, and (3) give some indication of what we might be prepared to offer in return. Let us examine a few concrete examples.

Iran is attempting to acquire an infrastructure of equipment and expertise that could be used for the development of nuclear weapons. Although great differences exist in the estimates about just how close Iran may be to achieving that objective, most of us Americans can agree that preventing this from happening is very much in our interest.

Ideally, we would like to see Iran denounce nuclear activities of all kinds. In reality, we might have to settle for something less. A realistic negotiating objective might incorporate the following elements: (1) Iran contracts to return all irradiated fuel to the original suppliers for treatment or disposal; (2) Iran renounces acquisition of reprocessing and uranium-enhancement technology beyond the laboratory level; (3) in return, the US agrees to withdraw its opposition to the sale of light water reactors; (4) both sides reaffirm their adherence to the provisions of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), including intrusive inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA); and (5) the US and other suppliers maintain their embargo on the sale to Iran of equipment and materiel associated with the development of a nuclear weapons program but permit international loans and credits for the development of other sources of power (e.g., hydroelectric).

This negotiating scenario could be expanded to cover many of the issues that bedevil US-Iran relations. For example, concrete proposals could be explored on Iran’s policies toward the peace process, on terrorism, and on other key matters.

Frankly, elaborating such a negotiating strategy hardly seems worth the time and effort when there is no apparent will in either Iran or the US to pursue it. At this stage, such efforts amount to little more than wishful thinking.

However, the present policies of both Iran and the US also amount to little more than wishful thinking. Iran is guilty of wishful thinking if it believes that the US can be driven from the Gulf by rhetorical denunciations and periodic attempts to drive wedges between the US and its Arab allies in the Gulf region. Much less can Iran expect to position itself militarily—even if it vigorously pursues the nuclear option—to frighten the US away from its doorstep.

Similarly, the US is deluding itself by believing it can single-handedly isolate Iran or even—in the romantic notions of some observers—bring down the present regime. Ferment is indeed present in Iran today, but that ferment is due to its own internal dynamic—not to anything we have done or not done.

The revolution is over, and the fiery slogans have a hollow ring. Khomeini said the revolution was not about the price of melons, but it turns out that it is! The demonstrations in Iran are not about clerical rule or a return to the monarchy or even about democracy and human rights. They are about quality of life, drinking water, inflation, housing, and jobs. The demonstrations are serious—not because they threaten to overturn the government but because they force the government to confront its failure to keep promises and to deal with fundamental economic issues.

Some very serious antiregime demonstrations going on in the Gulf today do have the possibility of undermining an existing government. However, those riots are not in Iran—they are in Bahrain, where a low-level rebellion has been under way since December 1994.

In Iran, two processes of change are under way, both of which are extremely important to US interests. The first is domestic. An intellectual ferment is afoot in Iran that some of the participants refer to as a reform movement. A new generation of Iranian scholars and intellectuals is asking questions about the present political system. Writers are openly challenging the concept of clerical rule, and some are even calling openly for the mullahs to return to the mosque. Unlike most other countries in the Middle East, these individuals are permitted to travel abroad, to meet with their counterparts from other countries—including the United States—and to express their views in scholarly meetings. The political system in Iran tolerates this activity, but it is worth noting that boycott bills pending in the US House and Senate would not. Instead, they would make it a crime for Americans to have any dealings with Iranians for any reason whatsoever.

The second process under way is the emergence of a new nationalism in Iranian foreign policy. In the early 1980s, Iran thought it could transform the entire world in its own image. Those days are over. The ideological fever has subsided, and Iran has begun to recognize that it must coexist with the rest of the world.

Curiously, this recognition has taken the form of returning to the plans and strategies of the shah’s era. The best example is the purchase of submarines. President Hashemi Rafsanjani addressed Iran’s motivations in a press conference in January 1993:

The purchase of submarines goes back to before the revolution. It has nothing to do with this period. Before the revolution, the previous regime purchased a number of submarines from Germany and America, and they had started to build bases for them. With the revolution, Germany and America stopped the contracts and our claim is still outstanding. After the revolution, we proceeded along the same line, except through Russia.

The same thing is true of Iran’s policies on nuclear proliferation at the United Nations, where its spokesman proudly proclaims that “Iran was the first country to propose a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East,” which of course refers to the shah’s proposal in 1974. The fact that an Iranian says this without blushing is something quite new. Making such a statement would have been impossible a few years ago. This new sense of nationalism and pursuit of Iran’s national interests without regard to ideology or even to religion is also visible in its reaction to Russia’s suppression of the Muslims in Chechnya and to Iran’s mediation attempts in Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in Central Asia.

This change does not make Iran any less dangerous or more reassuring to its neighbors. On the contrary, most of the Gulf states had problems and concerns with Iran when it was under the shah.

The point, however, is that Iran today is becoming increasingly aware of its long-term national interests and the need to subordinate ideological objectives to those interests. As a consequence, dealing with Iran as a more conventional state is becoming possible.

Iran today is less of a threat to its neighbors and to the international system than the Iran of 1979. Ideologically, much of the early boisterousness of the revolution was eroded by war, the relentless pressure of economic realities, and the unforgiving demands of governing a large country with severe problems. Today, Iran is much less likely to undertake adventurous and costly interventions in the affairs of its neighbors than it was in the 1980s.

Even if Iran wanted to interfere regionally, its capabilities are substantially reduced. Iran is still a power to be reckoned with in the Gulf, but its economic and military strength relative to its neighbors is an order of magnitude lower than it was in prerevolutionary days. It has not lost the capacity to do mischief, but it is likely to do so with much greater caution and with a greater awareness of the potential costs than was the case immediately after the revolution.

These basic trends are largely overlooked in the US, partly because we are preoccupied with reciting our current mantra but also because Iran perpetuates the myth of a rampaging, ideologically crazy state. In a telling moment of candor, Rafsanjani described the dilemma. In one of his weekly public addresses, he complained that Iran always seems to be blamed for any radical activity anywhere in the world: “Everywhere there is a movement, the name of Islam and Iran is mentioned. The enemies even mention Iran’s name where Iran is not present. . . . In many events we really are not involved; yet, they point to Iran.”

Then he paused for a moment and added, “Of course we accept it and take pride in the fact that the root of all this lies in the Islamic revolution. Iran is the mother of Islamic nations.”

So I have no good news to offer. One cautionary remark is in order. Two cardinal tests should be applied to any foreign policy initiative: (1) Does it do more harm than good? (2) Does the policy have a realistic prospect of accomplishing its intended objective?

As they are presently being conducted, both US and Iranian policies fail both of those tests. Surely we can do better.