Every American president since the Islamic Revolution has been unable to deal successfully with the question of Iran

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US-Iran in the Future: Favoring Engagement over Confrontation

By Julio Espinoza

Ali M. Ansari wrote that “every American president since the Islamic Revolution has been unable to deal successfully with the question of Iran”1 and it is true that Washington just don’t know how exactly to understand Teheran and deal with it. After the Clinton-Khatami Administrations’ period of engagement, the George W. Bush-Ahmadinejad Administrations transformed the policy options from diplomacy to military options.

Why is Iran now pursuing an anti-West foreign policy if the Khatami administration was fostering concepts of democracy, human rights and dialog of civilizations? One reason to understand Iran’s confrontational behavior is the hydrocarbon revenues and the anti-Iranian discourse in Washington DC. Teheran is playing with the cards of high prices in oil and gas due to huge oil and gas reserves, the second only after Saudi Arabia. The anti-Iranian discourse in the US media, think tanks, universities and government comes in part from the Israeli lobby that has been hijacking US foreign policy decision making over the last years.

What happened to Iran and the US so that that Washington and Teheran are no longer in the process of easing the relation? What happened is that two ideological Administrations came to office and wasted the efforts of their pragmatist predecessors. On the American side 9-11 changed the national security strategy and the foreign policy discourse. Also the Bush-Sharon Administrations worked together in the same sense of expanding the Israeli national interests and protecting it from its historical enemies (Syria, Iraq and Iran). The US confronting foreign policy exacerbated anti-American sentiments in all over Middle East especially in Iran. The reformist Khatami Administration step down for the more nationalistic and revisionist Ahmadinejad Administration that pursues an anti-American and Israeli discourse.

The US has no clear foreign policy towards Iran a generation after the Islamic Revolution and there is no clear progress when it comes to fostering the American national interests in the Middle East. Since the Revolution US-Iranian relations have been hostile. At least the Reagan, George H. Bush and Clinton Administration did not engaged Iran in a hatred discourse as the George Bush Administration did, because under the George W. Bush Administration: “Iran is not simply a problem, it is the problem. It’s not just a member of the Axis of Evil, but the founding member, the chief sponsor of state terrorism, or to use a more recent characterization, the central banker for terrorism.”2

Under the George W. Bush Administration, the US eroded its changes to raise the political dialog and cooperation with the moderate Khatami Administration. The Bush Administration hard line foreign policy towards Iran since 2002 has helped to shrink the ability of the modernist to foster democracy and transparency in Iran.

Prior to President Bush’s January 2002 State of the Union address, radical Islamists in Iran were under tremendous political pressure… In the wake of their stunning electoral defeats in 1997-2001, the radicals had made significant political concessions —including the relaxation of efforts to impose radical Islamist social and cultural mores, the toleration of civil society activism, public political debate and criticism and the opening up of topics such as gender right, corruption, political intimidation and repression.3

President Khatami offered condolences to the US for the terrorist attacks of 9-11 which was followed by a wave of pro-Americanism in Teheran. President Khatami even declared that there were no barriers to cultural and trade relations with the US and even proposed the so called dialog of civilizations. The US and the world could not take advantage of the reformism of president Khatami. Instead the Bush Administration fostered the arrival of anti-American Islamist to Teheran. Hard core Islamist in Teheran, like the Supreme Leader Khamenei, rejected the idea of normal relations with the US.

Nationalism and revisionism are clear in Iranian politics since early 2000’s. They are like the Russian nationalist of the Putin and Medvedev Administrations, because they also see the world with some sort of paranoia. They see Iran surrounded by enemies (Iraq, the Arab states of the Persian Gulf which host several US military basis, Pakistan for conducting anti-Iranian activities in Afghanistan, the former Soviet republics of Central Asia that are a source of instability, Israel and the US for their anti-Iranian and anti-Muslim alliance). Iran pursues a self-sufficiency policy in the energy and military sectors and see it self as a hegemon in the Persian Gulf and a guarantor of Shii Islam. For those reasons Iran pursues the modernization of the military forces and also the acquisition of nuclear capabilities for deterrence purposes.

US foreign policy discourse has, such as labeling Iran as part of the Axis of Evil and choosing confrontation over cooperation when dealing with the Iranian nuclear program, have provided radical Islamists with legitimacy and leverage against the moderate Islamists. “By increasing its pressure on Iran to the point where all factions of the Iranian regime perceive an immediate national security threat, the [George W.] Bush Administration has facilitated the reversal of the modernist and the seizing of Iran’s domestic and foreign policy by the radicals and anti-Westerner forcers in Teheran.”4 The Bush assumption was that Washington was not to be blackmail by any rogue state. The nuclear issue is a clear example of Washington losing opportunities to come to terms with Teheran for not being able to offer carrots and sticks at the same time.

It is common place to argue that Republicans are hawks and that Democrats are doves when it comes to foreign policy. The latest Republican Administration (George W. Bush) isolated the US from the Muslim world and specially alienated Washington from Teheran. What are President Obama’s options to deal with Iran in order to downsize Iran’s anti-systemic role, diplomacy over sanctions and military intervention?

The Obama Administration has a legitimate advantage over the Bush Administration: President Obama breaks all the stereotypes of the anti-US discourse in Teheran. Barak Hussein Obama being a black son of an immigrant and having two Muslim names is a very difficult target for the label of a Christian white American on a crusade against Islam.5 Also the Obama Administration has regained some sort of world legitimacy that the Bush Administration had lost. There fore President Obama must normalize relations with Iran as follows:

  1. Ending sanctions: US could continue containing Iran by means of sanctions (embargoes on trade and military equipment, penalties for those companies doing business with Iran. This option has only slowed down Iran’s modernization of the army. Containment has not completely prevented modernization or nuclearization so far. It is only economic slowdowns that have stopped Iran militaristic ambitions, like when there are low oil prices. Isolating Iran from the Westerner waves of foreign investment only opens the door for Chinese and Russian investment and technology transfers to Teheran. Therefore the Obama Administration must move beyond the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act that was renewed by Congress in 2001. The same applies to North Korea, the more the Washington isolates Pyongyang, the more Pyongyang pursues an anti-American foreign policy, by the way.

  1. Building confidence: Iran to counterbalance the US presence in the Arabic Peninsula and Central Asia is joining the Russian-Chinese efforts of deterring America from that part of the world by means of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The US must be transparent and predictable to Iran in military terms to avoid a security dilemma. Joint exercises and surveillance of the Persian Gulf must be implemented.

  1. Ameliorating relations with Iran’s suppliers of military technology (Russia, China). The US has strategic problems with Moscow and Beijing over Eurasia because Washington perceives Eurasian politics as a zero sum game, but what if the US played a more constructive role in Eurasia to bring stability and cooperation with the major powers so that Moscow and Beijing are not tempted to counterbalance Washington by sponsoring Pyongyang and Teheran in their military build-ups. Why doesn’t Washington see Eurasia as a condominium where there is a great power management to bring stability and prosperity?

  1. Co-opting Iran. The assumption is that the American and the Iranian interests match. The US needs powerful allies in the Middle East. Iran is not a model of democracy, but is stable. The Iranian regime is concerned about its own security. The US needs to end the sanctions and political pressures against Iran and end the discourse of regime change. The US needs to bring Iran, as well as Russia, to the Western institutions like the World Trade Organization and work with Teheran on multi-track diplomacy between presidents, government officers, opinion leaders, academicians and students. The US will need to bring Iran in as a partner to stabilize Iraq and Afghanistan by providing security guarantees in nuclear negotiations, and lifting sanctions. Reciprocation would not be expected or required, at least at first.6

President George W. Bush launched the Great Middle East Initiative to foster democracy, prosperity and stability in the region and even developed a road map for the Israeli-Palestinian problem. However, the US is still hijacked by the Israeli lobby which influences Capitol Hill and the White House in a way that the US foreign policy to the Middle East is the Israeli foreign policy indeed. It will be very difficult to stop Israel from lobbying but it would be possible to make the US public aware of the risks of having Israel calling the shots specially when over the last decade the US has alienated most of the Arab Middle Eastern countries as well as Iran, Russia and China.

President Obama must start a process of reconciliation with Iran, as President Khatami did last decade when he offered the normalization of relations. After all, the US foreign policy tradition has examples of leadership: when the US improved relations with China (Nixon-Mao summit in Beijing) and with the former Soviet Union (Reagan-Gorvachev summit in Moscow). Why cannot President Obama go to Teheran to start a new era of understanding?

1 Ali M. Ansari, Confronting Iran, Basic Books, 2006, p. 2.

2 Ali M. Ansari, Confronting Iran, Basic Books, 2006, p. 3.

3 Bahram Rajaee, Deciphering Iran: the political evolution of the Islamic Republic and US Foreign Policy after September 11, in Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, 24:1, 2004, p. 169.

4 See Bahram Rajaee, Deciphering Iran: the political evolution of the Islamic Republic and US Foreign Policy after September 11, in Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, 24:1, 2004, p. 159-160.

5 See Abbas Milani, Obama’s Existential Challenge to Ahmadinejad, The Washington Quarterly, April 2009, p. 64.

6 See Sanam Anderlini and John Tirman, Iran-U.S.: The Case for Transformation, Center for International Studies, MIT, September 2008, 08-12, p. 4.

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