A Reset for Iran and the United States
Why an Unpopular Approach Is Washington’s Best Option
By Hamid Biglari
It remains conventional wisdom in many U.S. foreign policy circles that Iran’s government is ineluctably hostile to U.S. interests by virtue of its ideology and thus is impervious to conciliation. According to this school of thought, there are few differences among the competing forces in Iranian politics, and the labels of “moderate” and “hard-line” used by some Western observers are misplaced. Since anyone standing for election must be approved by Iran’s Guardian Council, an unelected body of Shiite jurists, all candidates must support the fundamental revolutionary tenets of the Islamic Republic. Measured by a properly balanced political scale, all Iranian politicians are therefore hard-liners, and the government is monolithic. As such, this thinking runs, Iran’s presidential elections are less an expression of popular will than a mechanism for the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to rotate power among loyalists while maintaining control.
Proponents of this line of thinking point to the record of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate who overwhelmingly won reelection to a second term in May. Rouhani’s first term, they note, brought few improvements to domestic human rights conditions, nor did it appear to moderate Iran’s foreign policies. They point to Iran’s support for the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, for Hezbollah in Lebanon, for Houthi forces in Yemen, and for Shiite militias in Iraq, as well as to Tehran’s provocation of U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf. They point to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp’s (IRGC) continued development of medium-range ballistic missile technology as evidence of the offensive threat that Iran poses to Israel and the region. And they note some Iranian officials’ bellicose rhetoric against Israel and the United States. These facts, it is commonly argued, show that Iran is not ready for responsible international engagement.
American expectations about the pace of change in Iran need to be tempered.
Current U.S. policy is therefore built around containing and isolating Iran, using a Sunni cordon sanitaire centered on Saudi Arabia, and a variety of U.S.-led economic and military sanctions. A number of influential observers and officials have also recently expressed at least implicit support for regime change, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who stated in Senate testimony in June that, although Iran policy is still under review, the United States would work with Iranian opposition forces “towards the peaceful transition of that government.” Based on this thinking, the more isolated Iran becomes and the more tightly it is squeezed politically and economically, the more likely Iran’s regime is to capitulate to Western interests or transform its approach to governance.
There are elements of truth that support the conventional wisdom about the nature of Iran’s government. However, the reality of Iran’s character four decades after its 1979 revolution is more nuanced than the charges leveled against it suggest. As has been the case in many other postrevolutionary states, Tehran’s earlier zeal to export its cause across the region is waning, even if it has not come to an end.
Broadly speaking, the United States will have three options with respect to Iran in the years ahead. The first is to try to contain the country through intensified U.S.-led sanctions and a coalition of regional states led by Saudi Arabia (and separately, Israel). The second option, which is not mutually exclusive to the first, is to seek regime change. The third is to use a variety of behavior-driven inducements to preserve the regional balance of power through détente. The third option is politically unpopular in the United States, would take much longer than the others to show its effects, and would be considerably more difficult to execute. It also offers the best combination of risks and rewards for the United States.