Ray Takeyh. Foreign Affairs. Volume 86, Issue 2. March/April 2007.
A Rising Star
Over five years after the Bush administration vowed to transform the Middle East, the region is indeed profoundly different. Washington’s misadventures in Iraq, the humbling of Israeli power in Lebanon, the rise of the once-marginalized Shiites, and the ascendance of Islamist parties have pushed the Middle East to the brink of chaos.
In the midst of the mess stands the Islamic Republic of Iran. Its regime has not only survived the U.S. onslaught but also managed to enhance Iran’s influence in the region. Iran now lies at the center of the Middle East’s major problems—from the civil wars unfolding in Iraq and Lebanon to the security challenge of the Persian Gulf—and it is hard to imagine any of them being resolved without Tehran’s cooperation. Meanwhile, Tehran’s power is being steadily enhanced by its nuclear program, which progresses unhindered despite regular protests from the international community.
This last development has put Washington in a bind. Ever since the revolution that toppled the shah in 1979, the United States has pursued a series of incoherent policies toward Tehran. At various points, it has tried to topple the regime—even, on occasion, threatening military action. At others, it has sought to hold talks on a limited set of issues. Throughout, it has worked to box in Iran and to limit its influence in the region. But none of these approaches has worked, especially not containment, which is still the strategy of choice in the Iran policy debate.
If it hopes to tame Iran, the United States must rethink its strategy from the ground up. The Islamic Republic is not going away anytime soon, and its growing regional influence cannot be limited. Washington must eschew superficially appealing military options, the prospect of conditional talks, and its policy of containing Iran in favor of a new policy of Detente. In particular, it should offer pragmatists in Tehran a chance to resume diplomatic and economic relations. Thus armed with the prospect of a new relationship with the United States, the pragmatists would be in a position to sideline the radicals in Tehran and try to tip the balance of power in their own favor. The sooner Washington recognizes these truths and finally normalizes relations with its most enduring Middle Eastern foe, the better.
No Good Options
When discussing Iran, President George W. Bush commonly insists that “all options are on the table”—a not-so-subtle reminder that Washington might use force against Tehran if all else fails. This threat overlooks the fact that the United States has no realistic military option against Iran. To protect its nuclear facilities from possible U.S. strikes, Iran has dispersed them throughout the country and placed them deep underground. Any U.S. attack would thus have to overcome both intelligence-related challenges (how to find the sites) and thorny logistical ones (how to hit them). (As the Iraq debacle has shown, U.S. intelligence is not always as reliable as it should be.) And even a successful military attack would not end the mullahs’ nuclear ambitions; it would only motivate them to rebuild the destroyed facilities, and to do so with even less regard for Iran’s treaty obligations.
What about holding a conditional dialogue, like the one proposed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice? In May 2006, Rice seemed to take a major step forward when she announced that the United States would be willing to participate in multilateral talks with Iran over the nuclear question if Iran suspended its uranium-enrichment activities. But the statement miscast the dispute between the United States and Iran as a simple problem of disarmament. In fact, the political and strategic differences between the two countries run much deeper—and require a far more comprehensive approach.
Given these unpalatable realities, many U.S. policymakers have begun to gravitate toward what they see as the least objectionable option: containment. Their hope is that the systematic application of diplomatic pressure and economic sanctions will counter Tehran’s nefarious designs in the short term and eventually usher in a new Iranian government more democratic and more amenable to U.S. interests.
The idea of containing Iran is not new; in one form or another, it has been the de facto policy of the United States since the inception of the Islamic Republic, and it has enjoyed broad bipartisan support in Washington. Yet to endorse it in good conscience today, one must answer important questions: Can a state that projects its influence through indirect means, such as supporting terrorism, financing proxies, and associating with foreign Shiite parties, truly be contained? Will other states in the region be willing to help the United States isolate Iran?
Were Washington to rationally consider its alternatives, it would quickly realize that the answer to these questions is no. But U.S. policy has long been dominated by a visceral suspicion of Tehran. During the heady days that followed the 1979 revolution, Iran’s Islamist rage appeared awesome and dangerously expansive. The ruling clerical elite viewed Iran’s borders as relics of a discredited past and seemed committed to exporting the revolution. The regional order, however, proved more durable than the mullahs had expected, and most of Iran’s revolutionary dreams perished on the battlefields of Iraq in the 1980s. The costly war with Baghdad forced the clerical elite to realize the limits of its power and the impracticality of its ambitions. Tehran persisted with its universalist rhetoric, but its foreign policy became quite pragmatic. Still, a perception of Iran as a destabilizing force congealed in the U.S. imagination and has endured ever since, even though Iran stopped being a revisionist state long ago and has now become a medium-sized power seeking regional preeminence. Containment, in other words, ceased to be appropriate a while back because Iran stopped being a revolutionary state bent on forcibly exporting its model of government.
In fact, containment never worked—and it has even less of a chance of working in the future. Its failures have been well documented in yearly reports by the State Department, which detail Iran’s ongoing support for terrorism and warn of advances in its nuclear program. Sanctions and other forms of U.S. pressure have failed to prevent Iranian misbehavior. Worse, the Bush administration has taken steps recently that make containment an even less effective policy. Washington’s ill-advised invasion of Iraq has benefited Iran by empowering local Shiite parties sympathetic to Tehran. Long gone are the days when a powerful, Sunni-dominated Iraq could function as a counterweight to Shiite power in Iran. Iraq’s Shiites are hardly homogeneous, but the leading Shiite parties in power in Baghdad—Dawa and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq—have intimate ties to Tehran. This does not mean that Iraq’s new leaders are willing to subordinate their interests to those of Iran, but they are unlikely to confront the Islamic Republic at the behest of Washington.
Nor is any other country in the Middle East likely to stand up to Iran today. A long tradition of purchasing security from the British Empire and then from the United States historically offered the Arab sheikdoms of the Persian Gulf a degree of independence vis-a-vis their powerful Persian neighbor. But the Bush administration’s impetuous behavior and its inability to pacify Iraq have shattered local confidence in U.S. capabilities. Widespread anti-Americanism has made it harder for governments in the region to cooperate with Washington or to allow U.S. forces on their soil. The United States may be able to keep offshore naval forces and modest bases in reliable states such as Kuwait, but it is unlikely to have a significant presence in the region, as it is too unpopular with the masses and seems too erratic to the elites. Many Persian Gulf states now have more confidence in Iran’s motivations than in the United States’ destabilizing designs. And so as Iran’s power increases, the local sheikdoms are likely to opt for accommodating Tehran rather than confronting it.
The international community has also seemed relatively indifferent to Iran’s actions. Over the past year, the Bush administration has scored a number of procedural points against Tehran: for example, at Washington’s insistence, the UN Security Council has censured Iran and urged suspension of its nuclear program. Despite such symbolic successes, however, few great powers now support the imposition of strenuous sanctions on the Islamic Republic. This is not because the French are pusillanimous or the Russians are unprincipled but because Washington’s allies do not agree that Iran poses a major and urgent threat. For them, Iran’s nuclear ambitions and even its penchant for terrorism are disturbing but manageable challenges that can be addressed without resorting to military force or coercive economic measures. During the early days of the Cold War, the United States was able to garner support for containing the Soviet Union because most of its European partners were as concerned about the Soviets as it was. Not so with Iran today; with the exception of Israel, few of the United States’ friends seem very worried.
An Affair to Remember
In order to develop a smarter Iran policy, U.S. leaders must first accept certain distasteful facts—such as Iran’s ascendance as a regional power and the endurance of its regime—and then ask how these can be accommodated. Despite its incendiary rhetoric and flamboyant claims, the Islamic Republic is not Nazi Germany. It is an opportunistic power seeking to assert predominance in its immediate neighborhood without recourse to war. Acknowledging that Iran is a rising power, the United States should open talks with a view to creating a framework to regulate Iran’s influence, displaying a willingness to coexist with Iran while limiting its excesses. In other words, Washington should embrace a policy of Detente.
As far-fetched as this call may seem, the United States does have experience dealing with seemingly intractable powers. In the late 1960s, as the U.S. presence in Asia was waning, China began to flex its muscles in its neighborhood. President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, his national security adviser, did not respond by denying the reality of Chinese power. They started talking to Beijing, soon winning China’s assistance in ending the Vietnam War and in stabilizing East Asia. Similarly, the Nixon administration’s Detente policy toward the Soviet Union succeeded not only in averting conflict with Moscow but also in gaining its cooperation on critical arms control issues.
It is not entirely clear whether Iran would be as willing a negotiating partner today as China and the Soviet Union once were. But there is reason to hope so. Recent developments in the Middle East and Iran’s own internal convulsions have placed Tehran at a critical juncture: Iran’s emergence as the most powerful state in the Persian Gulf means that Tehran might finally alter its relationship with its great nemesis; it must move toward either coexistence or confrontation with the United States.
Throughout previous attempts at negotiations with Washington, the Iranian government had favored comprehensive talks over discussions of a single issue. In its latest response to the joint offer by the United States and the European Union last summer, 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 and long-term energy security.” It also argued that “to resolve the issue 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 position.”
Getting past this “complicated position” may require Washington to pay closer attention to recent changes in Tehran. Iran’s need for a foreign policy better adapted to changes in the Middle East, the regime’s perennial factionalism, and, perhaps most significant, the rise of a new generation of leaders in Tehran have sparked important internal debates within the regime. If the United States plays its cards right, it could become an important arbiter in those deliberations.
Westerners tend to see Iran’s domestic politics as a contest between hard-liners and pragmatists. Jockeying by the former president, Hashemi Rafsanjani, and the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, along with the periodic ebbs and flows of the reform movement, have long preoccupied foreigners hoping to nudge Iranian politics toward democratization. But these observers have failed to realize that the old model of liberals versus conservatives no longer holds. The Iranian regime is in the process of transforming itself, under the influence of a rising group of young conservatives. The elders of the revolution still retain ultimate authority, but they are increasingly reacting to initiatives launched by their more assertive disciples. There no longer is a main fault line running between the left and the right; today, fissures in Tehran run between the old and the young—and among the young of the new right.
Unlike their predecessors during 1980s, these new leaders—even the provocative Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—have refrained from denouncing and plotting the overthrow of the monarchies of the Persian Gulf and the pro-Western regimes in Egypt and Jordan; they are more concerned with these states’ external relations than with their internal composition. They have also refrained from exporting the Iranian Revolution to the fertile grounds of Iraq. Anticipating opposition to such attempts from senior Iraqi Shiite clerics and politicians, Iranian officials have preferred to focus on more practical concerns. Although they want a sympathetic and accommodating neighbor, they have no illusions that Iraqi Shiites would yield to Tehran’s mandates. They continue to support Shiite parties in Iraq not because they wish to install an Iranian puppet or proxy there but because they hope to prevent the rise of another hostile Sunni-dominated regime.
This is not to suggest that the new right is not seeking meaningful changes in Iran’s international relations. But the debates gripping Tehran today focus on how the regime can consolidate its sphere of influence and best exploit its status as an emerging regional hegemon. The displacement of the Taliban in Afghanistan and of Saddam Hussein, as well as the United States’ entanglement in Iraq, have led callow reactionaries in Iran to perceive unique opportunities for their country’s ascendance. Iran now sees itself as the indispensable nation in the Middle East.
Divided We Stand
As is customary for any leading faction in Iranian politics, however, the new right is itself fractured. And one of the matters that divide it is whether Iran’s interests are best served by coexisting with the United States or by defying it. On one end of the spectrum are the radicals, whose most prominent exponent is President Ahmadinejad but who also include individuals in other critical posts, such as Morteza Rezai, the deputy commander of the Revolutionary Guards, and Mojtaba Hashemi Samareh, the deputy minister of the interior. Drawing their strength from the Revolutionary Guards (particularly its intelligence apparatus), the Basij paramilitary force, and groups such as the Alliance of the Developers of Islamic Iran and the Islamic Association of Engineers, the radicals cannot be easily ignored. Although many senior members of the clergy dismiss Ahmadinejad’s religious pretensions, he has won the support of a narrow segment of the clerical class, especially the arch reactionary Ayatollah Muhammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, a spiritual guide to many young reactionaries.
The formative political experience of many of these radicals was not the 1979 revolution but the war against Iraq in the 1980s, which left them disdainful of the United States and the international community and obsessed with self-reliance. According to these veterans, the war showed that Iran’s interests cannot be safeguarded by adhering to international treaties or appealing to Western opinion. In particular, Ahmadinejad and his allies see the United States as “the Great Satan,” a source of cultural contamination and a rapacious capitalist power that exploits indigenous resources. In their view, the United States has caused all of Iran’s misfortunes, from the shah’s regime to the country’s invasion by Iraq under Saddam. But they also see the United States as a declining power. General Hussein Salami, a commander of the Revolutionary Guards, said in March 2006, “We have assessed the ultimate power of global arrogance, and on this basis there is nothing to worry about.”
Despite his deep religious convictions, Ahmadinejad is not a messianist seeking to usher in a new world order; he is a canny manipulator trying to rouse public indignation in a chaotic neighborhood. He understands that the carnage in Iraq, the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and the inability of Arab rulers to stand up to Washington have created intense anti-Americanism throughout the Middle East and that there is growing popular hunger for a leader willing to stand up to Israel and the United States. And he very much wants to be that leader. To that end, he has used incendiary rhetoric about the Holocaust and Israel, support for Hezbollah, and appeals to Muslim solidarity to overcome sectarian divides, turning his Shiite Persian country into an object of admiration even for Sunni Arabs.
Understandably, too, Ahmadinejad and his allies view the acquisition of nuclear weapons as critical to consolidating Iran’s position and helping the country eclipse U.S. influence in the region—a prize worth suffering pain and sanctions to achieve. Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi has declared that task a “great divine test,” and the newspaper Kayhan, a mouthpiece of the extreme right, has argued that the “knowledge and ability to make nuclear weapons” are “necessary in preparation for the next phase” on “the future battlefield.” Given their distrust of Washington, the hard-liners assume that the United States’ objections to their nuclear ambitions have less to do with countering proliferation than with exploiting the issue to enlist the support of U.S. allies against Iran. As Ahmadinejad has put it, “If this problem is resolved, then [the Americans] will bring up the issue of human rights. If the human rights issue is resolved, then they will probably bring up the issue of animal rights.”
Ahmadinejad’s antics have succeeded in turning him into an object of international attention over the last two years, making it easy for outside observers to overlook the emergence of another important camp within Iran’s new right. This group, while also conservative, tends to stress Iranian nationalism over Islamic identity and pragmatism over ideology. Among the leaders of the group are Ali Larijani, the head of the Supreme National Security Council; Abbas Mohtaj, the commander of Iran’s navy; and Ezzatollah Zarghami, the head of the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting—all nationalists who, like the radicals, were shaped by the Iran-Iraq War but who drew different conclusions from it. During the 1990s, as reformers took over many of Iran’s state institutions, these conservatives retreated into research centers, particularly Imam Hussein University, to reassess Iran’s international relations. Judging by their writings and speeches, they seem to have concluded both that the end of the Cold War and Iran’s unique geographic location made it a natural regional power and that Iran’s progress had been thwarted by the regime’s ideological excesses and its unnecessarily hostile approach to the West. The only way for Iran to realize its potential, they argued, was for it to behave more judiciously, and that meant limiting some expressions of its influence, acceding to certain international norms, and negotiating mutually acceptable compacts with its adversaries. In the last two years, many members of this pragmatic faction have risen to influence within the Supreme National Security Council, the intelligence community, and the military. Using their links to traditional clerical networks and their intimate ties to the supreme leader, they are trying to wrest control of Iran’s international relations from the militants. The real significance of Iran’s municipal elections in December 2006, in which Ahmadinejad’s camp scored disappointing results, lay not so much in the revival of the reform movement as in the fact that many younger conservatives who are uneasy about Ahmadinejad’s policies did well.
Nothing divides the two groups of the new right more than their attitude toward the United States. The pragmatists argue that Iran’s predominance cannot be guaranteed without a more rational relationship with Washington. In an interview in late 2005, Larijani said, “We may be sure that the Americans are our enemies,” but “working with the enemy is part of the work of politics.” He added, “The strategy of curbing and reducing disruptions and normalizing relations is itself beneficial in the long term.” Like the hawks, Larijani and his allies argue that the U.S. presence in the Middle East is bound to diminish, but, unlike the hawks, they worry that it could continue to block Tehran’s resurgence. In their view, smoothing relations with the United States would pave the way for Iran to increase its influence in the region.
The moderates agree with the radicals that to enhance its influence Iran needs a nuclear weapons capability. As the deputy head of the Supreme National Security Council, Ali Hosseinitash, has noted, “The nuclear program is an opportunity for us to make endeavors to acquire a strategic position and consolidate our national identity.” But the moderates also believe in restraint. They advocate continued adherence to Iran’s obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and stress the importance of offering confidence-building measures to the international community. They hope that by improving Tehran’s relationship with Washington they can assuage U.S. concerns about Iran’s nuclear development without having to abandon the program.
Hovering over this debate is the indecisive supreme leader, who so far has tentatively supported the pragmatists’ drive for negotiations with the United States. On the one hand, Khamenei, a stern ideologue suspicious of the United States, seems to endorse Ahmadinejad’s fiery denunciations of the West and his assertive Islamism. Khamenei has deficient religious credentials—his lack of erudition places him at a disadvantage in the hierarchical clerical estate—and that weakness has forced him to rely on reactionary elements to bolster his power; it would be difficult for him to rein in the determined Ahmadinejad. On the other hand, Khamenei’s relationship with the hard-liners has always been uneasy, as they have doubted his resolution during times of crisis. In order to survive the treacherous politics of the Islamic Republic, Khamenei has balanced different factions without unduly empowering any one of them.
So far, the pragmatists have managed to nudge Khamenei toward accepting potential negotiations with the United States over issues of mutual concern. But Iran’s political landscape is changing rapidly. The United States’ declining fortunes in Iraq, Hezbollah’s touted victory against Israel last summer, and the success of Ahmadinejad’s defiant nuclear diplomacy seem to prove right those who call for confrontation. The supreme leader, who is generally prone to indecision, now seems disinclined to settle the internal debates in Tehran in a conclusive manner.
The United Way
The most effective way for Washington to resolve this uncertainty in its favor would be to practice more imaginative diplomacy. That would require more than a policy shift; it would require a paradigm shift. Guided by the notion of containment, U.S. policymakers have long seen the normalization of relations as the end result of a long process of negotiations. But with a new policy of engagement, normalization would have to be the starting point of talks; it would then facilitate discussions on issues such as nuclear weapons and terrorism. A strategy that seeks to create a web of mutually reinforcing security and economic arrangements has the best chance of tying Iran to the status quo in the region. In essence, a new situation would be created in which Tehran’s relationship with Washington would be more valuable to the regime than either its ties to Hezbollah or its pursuit of nuclear arms.
To provoke such a change, Washington must strengthen the hands of the pragmatists in Tehran by offering Iran relief from sanctions and diplomatic relations. Washington’s recognition of Iran’s regional status and deepened economic ties with the West might finally enable the pragmatists to push Khamenei to marginalize the radicals who insist that only confrontation with the United States can allow Iran to achieve its national objectives.
As the United States reconsiders its Iran policy, it should dispense with the notion of offering Tehran security guarantees. It is conventional, even routine, in Washington policy circles to suggest that the Iran conundrum can be resolved only if the Bush administration pledges not to attack Iran. This argument reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of how the Islamic Republic perceives its power and its place in the Middle East today. The guardians of the theocratic regime do not fear the United States; they do not relate to the international community from a position of strategic vulnerability. Tehran now seeks not assurances against U.S. military strikes but an acknowledgment of its status and influence.
The United States does need to make important changes to its approach to Iran, however, in terms of both substance and style. Given the theocratic nature of the Iranian regime and its paranoia, Washington will have to adapt its rhetoric. U.S. officials can no longer denounce Iran as an “outpost of tyranny” or the “central banker of terrorism” in one breath and propose negotiations in the next. Like all regimes born of revolution, Tehran insists that the international community not just recognize its interests but also legitimize its power. Iran’s theocrats are in no way unique; remember that for decades the Soviets demanded that the United States officially acknowledge postwar demarcations of Eastern Europe. A new U.S. policy toward Iran will have to officially recognize the authority of the Islamic Republic.
In this spirit, Washington must abandon its hopeless policy of regime change, including its paltry award of $75 million to Iranian exiles and for broadcasts into Iran. For one thing, such idealism is misplaced. Unlike Eastern Europe in the 1980s, Iran simply does not have a cohesive opposition movement willing to take direction and funding from the United States. For another, calls for regime change are counterproductive. Washington’s fulminations and its provision of aid to the (nonexistent) democratic opposition have convinced many Iranian hard-liners that Washington’s offer to negotiate is an attempt to undermine the regime in Tehran. Thus, any effort by moderates to engage with the United States is routinely denounced as a concession to the Great Satan’s subversive ploys. Iran will certainly change, but on its own terms and at its own pace. The United States has an interest in promoting a more tolerant government in Tehran, but it will not help itself by broadcasting tall tales from Iranian exiles or with Bush’s appeals to an indifferent Iranian populace. Integrating Iran into the world economy and global society would do far more to accelerate its democratic transformation.
Rules of Engagement
The best way toward an effective, engaged relationship with Iran is for Washington to open direct negotiations on issues of critical importance, along four separate tracks. Since the purpose of the talks would be to normalize relations, the first track should deal with setting a timetable for resuming a diplomatic relationship, gradually phasing out U.S. sanctions, and returning Iran’s frozen assets. Holding out meaningful incentives such as these would go a long way toward facilitating productive discussions on more difficult issues and would likely enhance goodwill toward the United States among the Iranian public.
Given the progress of Iran’s nuclear program, this issue deserves priority in second-track talks. The notion that the Islamic Republic will follow the Libyan model and completely dismantle its nuclear infrastructure is not tenable. The task of negotiators working on this issue would be to devise measures that Tehran could take to win back the trust of the international community, such as submitting to a rigorous inspection regime to show that its nuclear program is not being diverted for military purposes. Iran should be granted its NPT rights to develop a limited capability to enrich uranium; in turn, however, it should have to submit to verification procedures such as snap inspections, allow the permanent presence of personnel from the International Atomic Energy Agency, and make full disclosures about its previous activities. Iran’s ultimate goal may be to produce nuclear weapons. But the case of Iraq demonstrates that an exacting verification process backed by the international community can obstruct such ambitions.
Negotiations on a third track should focus on Iraq. In light of the Baker-Hamilton report, many Washington policymakers and pundits have been busy offering reasons why Iran will not be helpful. But many of these arguments are fallacious. The first myth is the notion that Tehran would prefer to see U.S. troops remain and die in Iraq since mounting casualties will deter the United States from embarking on another misadventure. In fact, after nearly four years of an inconclusive war, Iranian officials believe that the United States’ imperial ambitions have been sufficiently deflated—that the giant requires no further bleeding. The second myth holds that gaining Iran’s cooperation would require shelving UN sanctions against its nuclear program. But such reasoning presupposes that there is a robust UN process that needs to be retarded, which is inaccurate. And unlike their U.S. counterparts, Iranian leaders perceive little connection between their Iraq policy and their nuclear policy. The prevailing consensus within Tehran today is that the U.S. occupation in Iraq prevents measurable political progress there and that the only way Iraq can be stabilized is by gradually removing U.S. forces.
Whatever the perceptions and motivations of Tehran, its influence in Iraq makes it an indispensable partner. Although Iran has been busy enhancing the fortunes of its Iraqi Shiite allies and arming their militias, and Washington has responded with recriminations, the two governments have many objectives in common. Tehran, like Washington, is interested in defusing the ongoing civil war and maintaining Iraq’s unity. The Iranian ruling elite also appreciates that the most suitable way to realize its aims is through elections, which are bound to further empower the majority Shiite community. A functioning Iraqi state would facilitate the departure of U.S. forces, neutralize the insurgency, and incorporate moderate Sunnis into the governing order—all goals that serve the interests of both Iran and the United States.
Instead of bemoaning Iran’s influence in Iraq, U.S. policymakers should focus on the challenge of managing that power constructively. Once Iran’s legitimate influence is recognized and a framework for harmonizing the two countries’ policies is established, it may be easier for Washington to make demands of Tehran. Washington would be in a better position to pressure Tehran, for example, to temper the Iraqi Shiites’ secessionist tendencies and rein in recalcitrant actors such as the Shiite militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr. Moreover, Iran today is one of Iraq’s largest trading partners. The United States should further facilitate such trade because it helps stabilize southern Iraq. The sooner Washington realizes that Tehran can play a useful role in Iraq, the sooner it may be able to prevent the fragmentation of Iraq and the further destabilization of the Persian Gulf.
The fourth—and thorniest—set of negotiations would have to focus on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which Tehran has steadfastly opposed, often by supporting terrorism. Tehran’s antagonism toward Israel is based on its Islamist ideology, which denies the legitimacy of the Zionist enterprise. Iran’s support for Hezbollah and Hamas gives Tehran a voice in an area beyond its military reach. With Hezbollah emerging triumphant and more popular than ever from its conflict with Israel last summer, Iran’s resolution has stiffened further. Washington will need to change that posture. If Iran and the United States attempt to normalize their relationship, then, for the first time, Tehran’s belligerence toward Israel could lead to its losing real benefits.
A careful look at Iran’s history reveals that its behavior can change for the better. In the 1990s, for instance, the right incentives persuaded Tehran to stop assassinating Iranian dissidents in Europe and supporting certain terrorist activities in the Persian Gulf. In 1997, a German court convicted Iranian government agents of murdering Kurdish opposition leaders in a restaurant in Berlin five years earlier, leading European governments to withdraw their emissaries from Tehran and impose restrictions on trade. The Islamic Republic quickly abandoned the practice of targeting dissidents in exile. In a similar vein, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states agreed to normalize relations with Iran in the 1990s only if it stopped supporting radical elements within these states. In this case, too, the strategic advantages of Detente convinced Tehran to change its ways.
Washington should apply those lessons now. As the United States and Iran attempt to resolve their differences, a natural momentum is likely to push Tehran away from its opposition to the Middle East peace process and its reliance on terrorism. That shift should be helped along with diplomatic and economic inducements. The point would be not to persuade Tehran to abandon Hezbollah, for example, but to pressure Tehran so that it, in turn, can persuade Hezbollah to play a constructive role in Lebanese politics and stop attacking Israel.
For nearly three decades, high emotions and irresponsible rhetoric have obstructed the development of a rational relationship between the United States and Iran. Too often, pragmatism has been sacrificed at the altar of ideology, and common interests have been obscured by convoluted historical grievances. Today, however, there exists in Iran at least one powerful faction—the pragmatists among the new right—willing to consider accommodation with Washington. Should Washington reciprocate by devising a comprehensive strategy of Detente, it might be possible for Iran and the United States to finally overcome their mutual hostility.
A new paradigm cannot preclude tension, or even conflict, but it could persuade Tehran that its interests would be best served if it voluntarily restrained its radical tendencies. Iran will remain a problem for the United States for the foreseeable future; the question is how best to manage its complexities and contradictions. An offer by the United States to normalize relations and start talks on all outstanding issues between the two states would give Iran a chance to choose whether it wants to be a nation defending legitimate imperatives or one guided by self-defeating delusions. And for the first time in decades, there is an indication that Iran may opt for the former.