A clear long-term policy towards Iran is more important than the Iran Deal
The nuclear issue is only one component of a greater conflict between Iran and the West. The Islamic Republic of Iran’s leadership is opposed to Western ideals as well as American hegemony. Perhaps more than any other state, Iran funds and supports terror groups, intentionally threatening Western and global interests with violence. The status quo is unacceptable; the West must not let Iran (or other states) sponsor terrorism, especially terrorism that disrupts Western geopolitical interests.
While the political establishment and the media are fighting over the JCPOA’s particulars, a long term strategy for dealing with Iran is lacking, and potentially just as troublesome. Though there appear to be several distinct possibilities, there is no real discussion on this matter. The options include; forced regime change, self-democratization, or a non-interventionist hands-off ‘laissez faire’ approach.
Another, more complex approach, would be to continue working with Iran in some areas of mutual concern (ISIS), while opposing Iran in other areas (Yemen). Despite some merits, this approach is reactive and therefore is not a solid, long-term strategy. It fails to address the disruptive anti-Western nature of the Iranian regime; a threat the West cannot afford to ignore indefinitely.
Iran’s ruling apparatus is overwhelmingly comprised of conservative anti-Western males opposed to compromise with the West. Recently, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei again expressed his forceful opposition to the United States. This hostility will persist as long as the conservative factions retain power.
When any part of Iran’s leadership takes a leftward turn, hardliners block attempted reforms.
There are two prominent examples of this reactionary response.
Reformist Mohammad Khatami was president of Iran for 8 years in the late 1990s and early 2000s, winning both elections in surprising landslides. However, he was hampered by entrenched conservative institutions, and was unable to affect substantive reform.
Ayatollah Montazeri, the former deputy Supreme Leader, expressed dissatisfaction with the inflexibility of Ayatollah Khomeini’s state and its refusal to consider reform. Despite his formidable religious credentials and acceptance of Khomeini’s grand vision for an Islamic State run by theologians, Montazeri was removed from his position and confined to house arrest for most of President Khatami’s two terms.
It is reasonable to argue that current president Hassan Rouhani is hindered by a similar quagmire, though if the results of the the March 2016 elections go his way, the President has some room to maneuver.
Iran’s ruling establishment is unwilling to consider reform, so what happens next? The relationship between Iran and the West cannot continue as is; the West will not tolerate Iran’s support for terror and other disruptive practices indefinitely.
United States has meddled in Iranian affairs in the past, so any explicit statements about regime change (no matter the context) are dangerous. After the stolen presidential election of 2009, President Obama was heavily criticized for his decision to not publicly support the Green Movement. Much of this criticism was blind to the fact that any degree of support from the ‘Great Satan’ would irreparably damage the integrity of the movement, and paint it as a part of a greater foreign conspiracy. In fact, hardliners in Iran claimed that this was the case.
At the same time political sensitivities have not limited hawks from expressing anti-Iranian sentiments or interfering with the administration’s policies as evidenced by the open letter to Khamenei from Tom Cotton and other Republican senators.
Popular among libertarians and anti-imperialists, a strict non-interventionist role is unrealistic and ignores American (and Western) interests in preserving order and maintaining the status quo. Whether we like it or not, the global economy is dependent on a stabilizing force, and the United States is the state most capable of enforcing global hegemony.
Hawks commonly argue for increased sanctions and pressure until the Iranians capitulate completely. This type of external pressure does have the potential to damage a state, but over the years Iran has learned how to work around sanctions, and receives support from countries antagonistic to the West including Russia and China. While not anti-Western like Russia and China, the Non-Aligned Movement (which Iran is currently the president of) provides Iran another option for evading economic hardship.
Economic sanctions are capable of changing Iran’s behavior, but there is a limit to what they can do. It is near impossible to accurately gauge the power of sanctions, and therefore difficult to know exactly how they may be applied most effectively.
The nuclear-related sanctions were effective because a broad coalition was formed. A similarly comprehensive international effort would need to be created for economic sanctions with an end-goal of regime change. This will not happen.
Another regime change option, a full-scale military invasion would require a massive number of troops, and would unimaginably destabilize the region even further. Recent regional examples show the impracticality and unpredictability of this type of action.
Iran has long been the playground of global powers. At the same time, despite a demographically diverse population, it has managed to maintain a strong national identity. History tells us that an external threat is more likely to increase support for the Iranian state than foment unrest.
Supporting democratic institutions in Iran is also a daunting prospect. Too much, and Iranians will perceive foreign interference. Too little, and the conservative factions will even further solidify their control of the government.
There are many Iranians that are unhappy with the direction the Iranian government is driving the country (evidenced by the 1999 student protests, as well as the 2009 and 2013 presidential elections); considering this, a shift leftwards is not inconceivable. At the same time, reformist and pragmatist groups need room to operate.
The Islamic Republic has the ability to accommodate reformists and adapt to reflect the will of the people. A distinguishing characteristic of Iran’s official religion (Twelver Shi’a Islam) is Ijtihad — religious scholars reinterpreting Islam. While the ruling structure of the Islamic Republic is very conservative at the moment, one would think that this characteristic gives it the capability to change despite how entrenched the conservative structures are.
Iran’s confrontational attitude towards the West is unacceptable in the long run. Policy needs to be created and implemented. Even if the United States adopts an outwardly neutral stance, a serious discussion should be taking place about the future of the United States in the region and how Iran fits into these plans. How can Iran be dealt with and what are the implications of our actions in the short and in the long term?
The Iranian parliament (Majles) is scheduled to hold elections in March 2016. For the first time this election coincides with the election for the Assembly of Experts, a body tasked with voting on a replacement if the Supreme Leader dies or needs to be replaced. Both institutions are quite conservative, yet have at least some capability to turn in favor of the reformists and/or pragmatists. Last week, the grandson of Ayatollah Khomeini, considered a reformist, signaled his intentions to run for the Assembly of Experts.
The Iran Deal has put the hardliners in Iran under pressure. They need a comeback and to secure a conservative Majles and Assembly of Experts to prevent Rouhani from enacting reforms. The Reformists and Pragmatists are empowered by the potential success of the Iran Deal and have the initiative.
Both Iran Deal critics and proponents have an obligation to look at the big picture and determine what we want and how we are going to get there. Who will be empowered by our actions, and not only in the short-term. Is there hope for diplomacy? How does this deal factor into long-term strategy?
The forced regime change camp needs to identify exactly how they wish this regime change to occur, whether they wish to put economic pressure or whether they will resort to full-scale war to achieve their end-goal.
The diplomacy and self-democratization camp as well needs to do much more in explaining how they expect Iran to change, how these changes will be encouraged, and how this will be accepted by the Iranian public.
The non-interventionists need to reconcile American hegemony with Iran’s regional ambitions and explain how the conflict is not serious, and existential from the Iranian regime’s side.
While most agree that the United States and Iran are engaged in a serious ideological conflict, the long-term implications of this conflict are mostly ignored. It is by no means the most serious problem facing the United States and the West, but a blind focus on the microcosm that is the nuclear issue does no favors. While the Obama administration has tried to ‘pivot’ towards Asia, the reality is that the Middle East remains restive and the problems there will not simply disappear. Something has to be done so that Iran changes its disruptive, violent behavior. To do this, a clear and reasonable proactive policy to achieve these changes must be created and implemented.