The Iran Puzzle

For nearly three decades, the enmity between the United States and Iran has been an established fact of Middle East politics. At various times, both countries have attempted to transcend their animosity and arrive at mutually acceptable compacts. However, there was never any urgency in either Washington or Tehran for a bold movement forward. In a peculiar sense, the domestic politics in both countries made continuation of their managed hostilities an acceptable alternative to the precarious task of revising relations.

Today, the altered political landscape of the Middle East and Iran's accelerating nuclear program make such caution irresponsible if not reckless. The reality is that the civil wars in Iraq and Lebanon cannot be resolved, and the stability of the Persian Gulf cannot be ensured, without Iran's constructive participation.

Yet the Islamic Republic of Iran -- with its penchant for terrorism and its determination to acquire an advanced nuclear capability and play an increasingly assertive regional role -- still confounds the United States. In official Washington, the essential objectives and interests of Tehran remain a mystery. Is Iran still a revolutionary state or just another medium-sized power seeking to project its influence in its immediate neighborhood? Are the growling mullahs determined to impose their theocratic template on an unwilling Middle East, or can there be an accommodation between the United States and Iran?

Contrary to the presumptions of the right-wing press and the Bush White House, the Islamic Republic is a unique political system. Iran differs dramatically from its Arab neighbors: Its institutions, elections, and political factions are relevant and wield considerable influence over the government's course of action. Debates rage within the parliament and the bureaucracy, in the seminaries and the street, among media outlets and academics. Far from being a stagnant totalitarian state, Iran is home to a competitive political culture whose personalities routinely jockey for influence and power. The Islamic Republic is a place where the president does not dominate the decision-making process, the legislature does not yield to the executive, unelected clerics impose checks on the polity, and the public is not excluded from the deliberations of the state. Deriding its elections and caricaturing its politicians may be easy, but outside of Israel and Turkey, Iran is the only place in the Middle East where politics matters.

Similarly, America's characterization of Iran as a militant state determined to subvert its neighbors and export its revolution is also exaggerated and flawed. Throughout the tenure of the Islamic Republic, there have been periods when ideology displaced moderation, when national interests have been sacrificed at the altar of Islamic radicalism. The 1980s represent the high point of revolutionary activism, when war with Iraq and conflict with the United States were the pillars of Iran's international relations. The founder of the world's first modern theocracy, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei, did not see himself as simply the head of a state but as the leader of an entire community of believers. His was to be a "revolution without borders," seeking to emancipate Islam's realm from the transgressions of American imperialism and Israeli Zionism. Such ideas managed only to produce a prolonged and devastating war, international ostracism, and a self-defeating isolation. In a sense, Iran's revolutionary idealism died in the same place America's grandiose pretensions faded away: on the battlefields of Iraq.

Khomenei's more subdued successors gradually came to appreciate the failure of his mission and the costs it imposed on their beleaguered nation. In the 1990s, a fundamental shift occurred in Iran's international orientation, enshrining national-interest calculations as the defining factor in the country's approach to the world. By cultivating favorable relations with key global powers such as Russia and China, and normalizing ties with regional actors such as Saudi Arabia, Iran sought to project its influence through a more subtle manner.

However, the Islamic Republic has yet to follow the typical trajectory of a once-revolutionary state: the complete relinquishing of its radical patrimony for more mundane considerations. To the contrary, Iran continues to stridently oppose the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and to support a struggle against Israel that expresses itself through terrorism.

The rise of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, his fiery rhetoric, and his disgraceful denials of the Holocaust have led to the perception that Iran is a messianic state seeking to deliberately provoke conflict in order to realize scriptural predictions. Yet Iran is no longer committed to refashioning regional norms in its image. Ahmadinejad's incendiary pronouncements notwithstanding, Iran's rulers have finally confined their Islamist imagination within their borders. The transformations that the nation has undergone in the decades since Khomenei, its competing centers of influence, and the power of the elders of the revolution (such as the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) all impose serious checks on Ahmadinejad's designs. Iran's reactionary president may share Khomenei's strident ideological imperatives, but he has neither the power nor the authority to impose such a vision on his country.

Today, the theocratic regime's struggle to define a coherent foreign policy is taking shape not just in a changing Iran but in a changed Middle East. Four years after the U.S.–led invasion of Iraq, Iran has emerged as the principal, if not the only, beneficiary of the Bush administration's hubris and misjudgments. The displacement of Saddam Hussein's regime and the ascendance of Shia parties in Iraq have paved the way for Iran's hegemonic claims. After decades of having its national aspirations thwarted by Western empires and Sunni states, Iran is poised to emerge as the preeminent power in the Persian Gulf.

The debates now engulfing the theocratic state reflect this altered status: The guardians of the theocracy no longer fear prospects of "regime change" orchestrated from Washington, or even military retribution for their nuclear defiance. The questions preoccupying Tehran are how it should consolidate its sphere of influence and whether it can emerge as a regional hegemon in defiance of or accommodation with the United States.

Beyond the glare of political posturing and hostile rhetoric, the opportunities and challenges presented by the U.S. invasion of Iraq have forced Iran to make momentous decisions. For the first time since the shah fell, the regime has accepted the necessity of a more rational relationship with the United States. In August 2006, in its official response to the U.S.–European package deal, Iran issued one of its most important, if underreported, declarations. In a document that enjoys the approbation of Khamenei and all the factions and personalities within the regime, Tehran stressed its readiness for "long-term cooperation in security, economic and political and energy areas in order to achieve sustainable security in the region." In a pointed reference to Washington, the document stressed that "to resolve the issues at hand in a sustainable manner, there would be no alternative except to recognize and remove the underlying roots and causes that have led the two sides to the current complicated positions."

After decades of demonizing Washington, Tehran finally conceded that a less-contentious relationship with the United States is the most suitable manner of securing its national aspirations.


How, then, should the United States approach an enduring foe that suddenly displays signs of flexibility?

The White House routinely proclaims, of course, that all options are on the table, a reminder to Tehran of U.S. military power. Such gestures of bellicosity would be more convincing if the United States had not lost the war in Iraq and were not desperately searching for a graceful exit out of its Arab predicament. Moreover, successful U.S. air strikes on Iran would depend on almost perfect intelligence -- a threat that Tehran, given the recent record of U.S. intelligence services in the Middle East, cannot take seriously. As with any determined proliferator, moreover, Iran has duplicated, concealed, and dispersed its nuclear program to ensure that it survives a concerted military attack.

Of late, however, the belligerent White House rhetoric conceals a subtle shift in Washington's perspective, with diplomacy largely displacing force as the preferred means of resolving disputes. The September 11 tragedies initially jolted the Bush administration as it sought to revise, if not discard, the traditional American reliance on diplomacy and deterrence to deal with threats. The character of adversarial regimes -- as opposed to their actual conduct -- would determine the degree of American antagonism. Under this framework, despotic regimes would inevitably seek and use weapons of mass destruction, promote terrorism, menace their neighbors, and plot against American interests. Iran was a threat not only because of its nuclear ambitions but also because it oppressed its citizens. Such a recalcitrant regime could be neither contained nor deterred, leaving regime change as the only viable option.

Then came the U.S. defeat in Iraq and the ascendance of more measured and pragmatic officials in both the State and Defense departments. As the discredited cohort of neoconservatives gradually migrated back to the American Enterprise Institute, a hesitant administration was left with a new set of challenges. Suddenly, during the second Bush administration, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and newly arrived Defense Secretary Robert Gates began talking the language of multilateralism and proclaiming the necessity of diplomacy. The hawks in the vice president's office may still cherish the dreams of military retribution against the recalcitrant mullahs, but Rice has pointedly called for "a change in regime behavior" -- not a change in the regime itself. In a dramatic swing of the pendulum, America today seems willing to negotiate with Iran on all relevant issues.

However, the acrimony of the past few years cannot be resolved by a mere declaration that the United States is ready to meet with Iran. The administration has not undertaken the necessary confidence-building measures that must precede a dialogue with Tehran -- such as the unilateral actions to demonstrate seriousness of purpose undertaken by the Nixon administration prior to embarking on its secret diplomatic outreach to Beijing. As part of a similar campaign, the United States must be prepared to end its provocative naval maneuvers off Iran's coast, shelve its policy of pressuring Europeans to disinvest from Iran, and put an end to its hopeless democracy-promotion plan that provides $75 million to discredited exiles.

Today, normalization of relations as a means of regulating Iranian power is not the most viable option; it is the only realistic one. The United States is not inexperienced in dealing with assertive regional states; its handling of China offers some useful lessons. Given the power and influence of such ancient and self-confident civilizations, the notions of isolation and containment have limited utility. However, through the adroit use of diplomatic relations, economic engagement, and strategic dialogue, Washington may be able to create an environment in which Iran would see it in its interest to adhere to higher standards of behavior. In essence, a new situation would be created whereby instead of America coercing Iran into compliance, the Islamic Republic would want to be contained.

What's needed now are negotiations on how to proceed with normalizing diplomatic and economic relations. As part of such a dialogue, an entire range of U.S.–Iranian disputes can be considered. From the American perspective, Iran's nuclear infractions, its support for terrorism, and its behavior in Iraq would be the most salient issues. The Iranian regime has its own set of grievances over economic sanctions and attempts to marginalize its regional influence.

On the nuclear issue, however, the Libya option of complete dismantlement of the apparatus is unrealistic. Yet through a rigorous verification process involving the permanent presence of inspectors and snap examination of facilities without notice, the international community could be assured that Iran's nuclear technologies are not being misused for military purposes. At a time when Iran's nuclear program is increasingly enmeshed in the country's sense of national identity, the task at hand is to devise a plan whereby Tehran can have access to nuclear material without presenting a proliferation concern.

Secondly, the stability and success of the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad is in the interest of both Iran and the United States, and should provide them with ample incentive for tempering Iraq's sectarian conflict. Unlike the Sunni regimes, Iran's leaders appreciate that their objectives next door can best be achieved through the unfolding democratic process that is bound to empower the Shia majority, rather than through violence and insurgency. In a more cooperative framework, Iran can assist the United States in reconstruction of Iraq and rein in unruly Shia militias and politicians such as Muqtada al-Sadr.

One of the thorniest issues would be to divest Iran from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its attachment to Hezbollah. Iran's commitment to militant groups opposing Israel may seem immutable. However, Iran has never been provided with an opportunity to mend ties with the United States. That possibility may just offer Iran important incentives to temper its pernicious behavior toward Israel -- behavior that has never served its core national interests anyway.

In the end, the best manner of extracting Iran from the Arab-Israeli arena is for the United States and the key Arab states to launch a concerted diplomatic effort to resolve the remaining differences between Israel and both its Palestinian and Syrian neighbors. Should there be an accord that satisfies Israel's security imperatives, Palestinian nationalist mandates, and Syria's territorial desires, Iran would have no choice but to divest itself from its radical brethren. A peace treaty negotiated by the United States, embraced by the Palestinians, and buttressed by a regional consensus would finally press Iran to terminate its self-defeating belligerence toward the Jewish state. If Iran's opposition to Israel and its penchant for terrorism become moot issues, then normalization has a better prospect of success in both Tehran and Washington.

As part of the new paradigm, the United States would have to alter both the style and substance of its policy. A changed U.S. policy must begin with an official acceptance of the authority of the Islamic Revolution. The United States must be prepared to ease its economic sanctions, which have undoubtedly imposed a cost on Iran. This would provide Iran access to the lucrative American market and also make it a more attractive place for international investors concerned about financing projects in a country in America's crosshairs.

The normalization of relations between the two states need not come at the cost of abandoning American idealism, however. As in the Helsinki Accords, U.S. recognition of Iran's legitimacy should entail a pledge from Tehran to observe international standards of human rights. Incorporating human-rights demands in the larger package of normalization would do much more to push Iran toward political tolerance than lofty speeches from Washington coupled with aid to hopeless exiles.

In the midst of the chaos of the Middle East, Iran's recalcitrant theocracy has finally appreciated the need for a more rational relationship with the United States. The question now is whether Washington is ready to reciprocate and take an important step toward ending one of its longest feuds and stabilizing one of the world's most volatile regions.