by Rasmus Christian Elling
The following is a slightly modified manuscript for my talk at the seminar ‘How Will the Next President Change US Policy in The Middle East?’ at The University of Copenhagen, October 22, 2008. Apart from myself, Sasha Polakow-Suransky (Associate Editor, Foreign Affairs), Sune Haugbolle (Associate Professor, Uni. of Copenhagen) and Bjoern Moeller (Senior Researcher, DIIS) participated.
Of course, we all know how the US elections turned out, and the ‘if’ part of this writing is now only of historic interest. Nonetheless, I hope that the glimpses of optimism in this piece – and in so many other op-eds written these days – will not one day be regarded as historical naivety.
What effect will the US presidential elections have on Iran-US relations?
First of all, we need to discuss what kind of change is actually conceivable. If you look at this question from a perspective of whether or not Iran will be ‘contained’, back down from its nuclear program and renounce its regional ambitions – then the US elections will probably not change anything. Iran will continue to have a nuclear energy program and not much can change that; furthermore, one might argue, Iran is in its good right to have such a program. Iran has accepted treaties and protocols that countries armed with nuclear weapons like Israel and Pakistan have never signed. And even though there are still many critical questions and even though there have been signs that the Iranians, at least until 2003, ran a covert arms program, the basic fact will not change: Iran is entitled to a nuclear program and the broad Iranian populace supports what is seen not only as a natural right but a question of national sovereignty.
I think that the most sensible thing we can hope for is to reach an agreement with the Iranians that clearly respect this right at the same time as maintaining and expanding IAEA access to the Iranian sites in question. In other words, the best we can hope for in this regard is to reach an agreeable level of transparency: to be able to monitor Iranian nuclear activities and thus hopefully prevent a conversion of the civil program to a military one.
This is not a defeatist view – this is a realist view. It is an acknowledgment of the fact that economic sanctions so far have not worked sufficiently. It is recognition of the fact that Chinese and Russian interests in Iran are not lessening– they’re expanding; and that we cannot expect Moscow and Beijing to support tougher sanctions on such a vital trading partner. It is recognition of the fact that a US military intervention – whether a limited air strike or a regular invasion – is now virtually out of question. Even if it was to drum up a minimum of international support, the US does not have the resources to achieve its goals in Iran by military power. The sense of patriotism that permeates an Iranian population, which sees itself as having 2,500 years of continuous history as an independent nation-state, means that whether or not the majority is dissatisfied with the current rulers, they would rally behind the government if the country were attacked. Furthermore, American forces are already tied up in two major armed conflicts that have stretched US resources to its limits.
Thus, to sum up: even though the next US president will probably not, at least on the rhetorical level, take the option completely off the table, military intervention should be out of the question; in their current form, sanctions will not work; and most importantly: none of these will change the ambitions of the Iranian government – or the view of the broad populace. Again, this is not an apologetic view: I personally think nuclear technology is potentially dangerous and problematic, whether in the hands of Iranians, Indians, Americans or Swedes. No doubt it is dangerous in Iranian hands too. However, I guess everybody here can agree on an answer if we were to choose between a completely opaque and secretive Iranian nuclear program and a relatively transparent one.
Yet, I think there is some reason to be fairly optimistic. There is no doubt that any president of the United States is constrained by pressure from interest groups and that no one – neither Obama nor McCain – could move swiftly towards a solution on the Iran issue. There is no doubt that any US politician is extremely wary of appearing too appeasing or too ‘soft’ when it comes to the question of Iran’s nuclear program. However, there is a slight chance that a moderate and sensible president – if he was to be supported or allowed at home by his constituencies, the congress and other key entities – might just be able to lead the way towards dialogue. A pragmatic and prudent president might, for example, follow up on Condoleeza Rice’s recently floated idea of re-opening a diplomatic mission to Tehran, 30 years after Islamists occupied the US embassy. And that would truly, in my opinion, change the picture.
But then again, I feel I have to be optimistic. Because the alternative to dialogue is that nothing will change: Iran will continue a secretive path towards nuclear goals, the Islamist rulers will continue supporting anti-American forces in the region and Ahmadinejad will continue his ludicrous statements about Israel. Psychological warfare and tension-creating propaganda will continue to flow thick from both sides and nobody will benefit. Instead of bringing in Iran as a potentially constructive discussion-partner and maybe even a beneficial working partner in, say, rebuilding and stabilizing Afghanistan and Iraq, hostile relations will result in more and bloodier proxy conflicts. And yes, uncontained, that might eventually lead to a direct confrontation that will have catastrophic repercussions for the world economy, for regional security and for innocent civilians all over the world – and in Iran in particular.
How about the Iranians? I think it is time to correct certain views. First of all, Iranians are not suicidal fanatics and they are not ruled by a small cult of messianic maniacs, the way some would like us to think; Iran is governed by many different and competing centers of power; there are rational voices both within the ruling elite and in the opposition; secondly, Iran will not start a nuclear war – indeed Iran has never threatened to do so; and, thirdly, despite layers of ideological rhetoric, the Iranians have for many years put the global mission of Khomeini’s revolution after national interests when shaping their foreign policy. Thus, there have been many signs – in particular during the pro-reformist presidency of Khatami, but also during the presidency of Ahmadinejad – that the Iranians are sincerely interested in dialogue and direct negotiations with the US. Let us for example not forget that the real leader in Iran – Grand Ayatollah ‘Ali Khamene‘i – in 2003 allegedly proposed to drop support for Islamist terror groups and to provide full transparency of Iran’s nuclear program in return for US disbanding Mujahedin-e Khalq and accepting Iranian nuclear ambitions. Let us not forget the numerous attempts at positive engagement, bilateral cooperation and good will gestures during the presidencies of Rafsanjani and Khatami. And let us not forget that the beef, to use a colloquialism, is between the political rulers of Tehran and Washington, not the people; and that caught in between as a hostage there is a young and vibrant generation of Iranians longing for freedom, progress and equality.
Even if we choose to see the road to rapprochement as a cynical plot conceived in Tehran and aimed at portraying US as defeated and forced to sit at the table with the Iranians – it might not be such a bad thing after all. It might, as pessimists will claim, give an immediate triumphal effect for Ahmadinejad on the domestic scene: i.e., that he was the one who was able to finally force the Great Satan to recognize Iranian ambitions. However, just like Ahmadinejad’s other rash statements and overconfident maneuvers, it will certainly backfire. Direct dialogue with the archenemy will alienate radical anti-Western forces in Iran and open the way for more far-reaching demands of rapprochement from the opposition and the broad populace; it will open the stored-up hopes for re-joining the global community and liberate Iran from its status as a pariah. Combined with dwindling oil prices, the Iranian government will eventually be forced to talk to and work out a sort of understanding with the US and Europe. And all this can lead the way to a broad bargain that includes mutual recognition of ambitions and goals, talks on the region in general and finally – and what should be the most import goal – talks on the deplorable situation of human rights and the lack of democracy in Iran. One could indeed argue that this is a good chance to do what Nixon did with China in the early 70s and a good chance to get an even better deal than the US recently got with North Korea.
However, I think that the US should not ‘settle’ for that. Indeed, an Iran-US rapprochement could be a constructive move towards adjusting the US to the slowly but surely emerging multi-polar world and its limited horizon of US options. This is a world in which you cannot introduce democracy and human rights at gunpoint and in which wholesale enforcements of cultural norms and across-the-board manipulation of internal affairs in sovereign states is no longer the accepted way ahead. It might be a hard pill to swallow – but it may also be a good chance for America to re-discover and re-invent itself and its role in the world.
Such a move requires that the next US president stop doing Iranian hardliners the huge favor of presenting America as their biggest existential threat. If the US were to drop its thinly veiled threats of regime change it would not only strip the Iranian leaders of their number one claim to legitimacy; it would also leave the Islamic Republic with one main enemy: itself. The Iranian people has more than one hundred years of democratic struggle on its CV and the Iranian people will change the authoritarian system when internal circumstances and conditions allow them to. Right now, one of the biggest reasons for the militarization of Iranian politics is the threat from Washington. It is giving the current Iranian rulers an opportunity to clamp down on advocates of human rights, the women’s movement, the student movement, the workers movement, regime-critical journalists and proponents of ethnic and religious minority rights. Without foreign intervention and without a foreign bogeyman, Iran will be left alone with its mounting economical catastrophe, severe factional infighting and 30-40 million discontented young Iranians. Indeed, Tehran will have more than enough on its hands and Iranian rulers will eventually be forced to reform the system and accept constitutional and democratic changes along the lines of what Iranians themselves define as proper for their own future. It is actually quite straightforward: instead of presenting itself as a threat, the US should again become a source of inspiration.
So, in that sense, this is a crucial moment in US-Middle East history. If a moderate and dialogue-seeking politician with an understanding of the challenges of the new world and with a renewed respect and consideration for rival states and their populations is elected, I dare say that conditions for improving US-Iran relations will be in place. Of course, we should remain perfectly aware that it takes much more than willingness to talk in order to ameliorate US-Iran relations. In the last 30 years since the Iranian occupation of the US embassy and in the last 55 years since the CIA-sponsored overthrow of the Iranian Prime Minister Mosaddeq, many wounds have been inflicted on both sides, and it will take much more than diplomatic talks to patch them up. The road to dialogue, rapprochement and normalization will be beset by criticism and attempts to hinder progress from hard-liners on both sides, by frustrating stalemates and by much uncertainty. We might even see an escalation in the war of words before it gets better. However, dialogue will be worth it.
Last but not least, I would like to repeat that the ultimate goal with a US-Iran dialogue should be to enhance world security, to promote democratic values, to improve the lives of civilians and to protect human rights. In other words, the ultimate goal should not be to bring Iranian oil and gas back on the world market – it should be to help the Iranian people, the Middle East, the World and the role of US within it.
So, it goes without saying that it takes more than a new President to better relations – a change in attitude and policy is needed. However, with this reality check in place, I must say that I cannot help being optimistic. Even though the road ahead is extremely difficult and can be full of ugly surprises, this might actually be the window of opportunity that moderates and progressives on both sides have been hoping for. Let’s hope it is.