Will the United States Lose the Middle east . . . or Come to Terms with the Islamic Republic of Iran?
More than thirty years after a revolutionary movement inspired and guided by Grand Ayatollah Seyed Ruhollah Khomeini forced the last shah from Iran’s Peacock Throne and assumed power, most of what even well-educated Americans think they know about the political order that Khomeini and his followers established—the Islamic Republic of Iran—is wrong. In this case, ignorance is not bliss but a source of grave danger, for the United States is courting strategic disaster by persisting in a fundamentally hostile posture toward the Islamic Republic.
From the earliest days of the Islamic Republic, many Americans have believed that their country has legitimate grievances against it. Such belief conditions an attitude in which it is incumbent on Tehran to address these grievances and accede to American preferences about the Middle East and its future before U.S.-Iranian relations can improve. But in reality the United States needs, for its own interest, to come to terms with the Islamic Republic. To some, this statement may seem unduly apologetic with regard to postrevolutionary Iran, and perhaps even anti-American. It is neither. To let grievances (imagined or real) and hegemonic pretension prevent the United States from doing what its interests manifestly require is the truly anti-American position.
Since World War II, and especially since the end of the Cold War, America’s status as the preeminent power in the Middle East has been crucial to its global primacy. Its capability, alone among the world’s major powers, to project conventional military force into the Middle East has enabled it to assume responsibility for the physical security of the oil and gas flow from the Persian Gulf on which the global economy depends, and to become the presumptive enforcer of order across the Middle East. This muscle has given the United States extraordinary economic and political influence in the region, and it has reinforced American dominance in other important parts of the world. (As a senior Japanese diplomat told us, if the United States did not guarantee the flow of Persian Gulf hydrocarbons to Asian markets, it would lose its Asian allies.) In the post–Cold War period, preeminence in the Middle East has buttressed America’s claim to leadership in international economic affairs—even as the country continues losing ground to foreign competitors and setting records as the greatest debtor nation in history.
But the order in the Middle East that Washington has worked over decades to consolidate is eroding. To be sure, the United States will, for the foreseeable future, retain its unique ability to project military force into the region; no other power is capable of playing its enforcer role, or will be for years to come. But military capacity is less and less relevant to the challenges America faces there.
For our part, the two of us have been arguing since 9/11, inside and outside American administrations, that the United States’ strategic position in the Middle East is at serious risk, in large measure because of U.S. policy mistakes, and that these mistakes stem from the same source: a post–Cold War temptation to act as an imperial power in this vital part of the world. Instead of dealing soberly and effectively with the region’s complex political and security dynamics, the United States has tried to remake the Middle East in accordance with American preferences and with scant regard for Middle Eastern realities.1
For the past twenty years, America has not been content simply to maintain its military primacy in the Middle East, defend its interests there, and legitimize its leadership with political and strategic benefits to its regional partners. Instead, during the administrations of George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, it has tried to coerce political outcomes with the goal of consolidating a pro-American regional order—by retaining military forces on the ground in Saudi Arabia and other Arab states after the first Gulf War (something it did not do, to any significant degree, during the Cold War); by leveling sanctions against Saddam Husayn’s regime that led to the deaths of more than a million Iraqis, including half a million children (a policy that then United Nations ambassador Madeleine Albright defended with the notorious statement, “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price—we think the price is worth it”); and by invading Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11 and pursuing prolonged occupations that, by the Defense Department’s own figures, together have killed over 112,000 civilians (by other credible estimates, many more).2 There is also Washington’s perpetual insistence that everyone in the region not just accept Israel but tolerate virtually any definition of its security requirements and territorial needs put forward by the Israeli government. This agenda has pushed pro-Western regimes to line up against their own populations’ most deeply held values, interests, and political preferences. In effect, the United States has forced its partners to be soft on Israel but hard on local Islamists—in the long run, an untenable position.
This imperial turn in Middle East policy has proven not just quixotic but deeply damaging to American standing and interests, in the region and globally. In particular, it ignores a lesson that balance-of-power theorists, foreign policy realists, and astute students of international history all know: while hegemony seems nice in theory, in the real world it is unattainable; not even a state as powerful as the United States coming out of the Cold War can achieve it. Indeed, pursuing hegemony has made the United States weaker. Of course, the temptations of empire have lured great powers before it into what the historian Paul Kennedy has called “imperial overstretch.”3 But America’s drive to remake the Middle East has arguably set a new record for the largest amount of influence and wealth squandered by a great power in the shortest period of time.
As part of this imperial turn, the United States has systematically demonized would-be challengers to its primacy in the region, a practice whose most significant strategic consequence, in our view, has been a persistent refusal to come to terms with Iran’s postrevolutionary order. Besides working to isolate the Islamic Republic diplomatically, press it economically, and foment its collapse, Washington has sought to exclude it from the mainstream of regional affairs. It clearly signaled this approach at the beginning of the post–Cold War period, as American power seemed at its height, when the George H. W. Bush administration organized the October 1991 Madrid conference. Convened ostensibly to relaunch the so-called Middle East peace process, the conference was really meant to convince Arab states to buy into a new, highly militarized and U.S.-led regional political and security order in return for vague promises of American leadership in Arab-Israeli peacemaking. The George H. W. Bush administration made a point of excluding Iran from Madrid; from its perspective, there was no place in the new order for the Islamic Republic. That exclusion became the template for Washington’s post–Cold War Middle East diplomacy. Every subsequent administration has used the Arab-Israeli peace process to marginalize the Islamic Republic.
Successive administrations have developed three major complaints to justify their antagonism toward the Islamic Republic: its drive to produce weapons of mass destruction, its support for movements that Washington considers terrorist organizations, and its violations of human rights—the same trifecta of alarms the United States used to justify regime change in Iraq. But not only has the Islamic Republic survived; following the end of the Cold War, it emerged as the de facto leader of challengers to American ambitions to consolidate, in partnership with Israel, a dominant position in the Middle East. Thus the United States and Iran have become the leading antagonists in a struggle over American primacy, a new Cold War in which America’s approach to Iran has grown ever less receptive to serious, strategically grounded engagement and ever more oriented toward coercive options that, despite the sterile vocabulary of “containment,” nuclear “prevention,” and “regime change,” ultimately mean war.4
Over the years, Washington has sporadically engaged Tehran in various ways on various issues, but these diplomatic efforts have been hampered by the severely negative aspects of America’s Iran policy, especially the perennial hope that a discontented Iranian populace will bring down the Islamic Republic and transform the nation into a Western-style secular democracy. No American president—not even Barack Obama—has pursued rapprochement with the Islamic Republic by dealing with it as a legitimate political entity and addressing its central interests. Instead, the United States has settled into a strategically incoherent approach (formalized and branded as the “dual track” strategy) in which it periodically offers to negotiate about issues on terms that could not possibly be attractive to Tehran, while simultaneously ratcheting up “pressure” via unilateral and multilateral sanctions and other punitive means.
Although this approach has consistently failed to produce any progress, the Obama administration clings to it as tightly as its predecessors did. It has even upped the ante, effectively adopting militarized prevention of Iranian nuclearization and the assertive rollback of Iranian influence as the core of its strategy and, especially since the Islamic Republic’s June 2009 presidential election, moving steadily toward formal endorsement of regime change as the declared goal of American policy—just as President Bill Clinton did with Iraq in the late 1990s, paving the way for the American invasion in 2003. Along the way, Obama and his team have so reduced the options for negotiations that the diplomatic agenda now consists solely of small-bore proposals to limit specific aspects of Iran’s civilian nuclear program—even as Washington continues to demand that Tehran give up its efforts to master the nuclear fuel cycle, the very heart of its program. Even if nuclear talks produce a narrowly drawn agreement, there is no indication that Washington intends to use such a deal to realign relations with Iran. Rather, it hopes that such discussions might contribute, in the words of one high official, to “buying time and continuing to move this problem into the future” while it waits for the Islamic Republic to collapse.5 This is a recipe for strategic failure.
America’s determination to keep Iran in a subordinate position has become the biggest single risk to the secure and adequate flow of oil and gas exports from the Persian Gulf, calling into question its claims to be the provider of global energy security. Moreover, in refusing to come to terms with the Islamic Republic, Washington has crippled its ability to accomplish important goals both in the region and globally and undermined its status as an international leader. As the United States has floundered in the two decades since the Madrid conference, the Islamic Republic has stepped up as a central player in the region’s major political and strategic dramas: the Arab-Israeli conflict, the fate of Afghanistan and Iraq, the spread of nuclear weapons, and the fight against jihadi extremists. Iran has become, in effect, the most critical country in the world’s most critical region, and by now the United States cannot achieve any of its high-priority objectives there without it. Contrary to the wishful thinking of many American analysts and the Obama administration, developments in the Middle East since the outbreak of the Arab awakening at the end of 2010 have made the Islamic Republic even more essential to shaping the Middle East’s future. In Syria, Iranian mediation is a necessary condition for a negotiated resolution to what has become an increasingly bloody civil war. Yet the Obama administration has taken America’s self-damaging animus against Iran to a new level: instead of engaging Tehran, it prefers to bet on the eventual overthrow of President Bashar al-Assad’s government by armed forces increasingly dominated by Saudi-backed jihadis and other Al-Qa’ida-like elements.
By rejecting the Islamic Republic as a strategic partner, Washington has also sabotaged its ability to deal with politically engaged Islamist forces in the Middle East. In discussing political Islamism, it is critical to distinguish between groups like Al-Qa’ida, which define themselves almost exclusively through violent action, and movements such as HAMAS, Hizballah, and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which have robust political agendas and, if they resort to armed resistance, do so instrumentally to advance those agendas. This second category includes some of the region’s most authentic social forces, with political agendas stressing better governance and foreign policy independence and with track records of real service to their constituents. With the Arab awakening, they are now emerging as the most consequential political actors in countries that the United States has long considered parts of its regional sphere of influence. Some of the most important groups, like HAMAS and Hizballah, have long been closely linked to Tehran; others, like Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, are now establishing cooperative ties. Meanwhile, the United States’ unwillingness to deal with most of these movements only ensures that its regional influence will decline further. Rather than confront the inherent dysfunctionality of this approach, Washington embraces the logic-defying proposition that the same drivers of political change that are empowering Islamists in Arab countries will somehow transform the Islamic Republic into a secular liberal state.6
The United States is on the verge of losing its strategic position in the Middle East, with potentially disastrous consequences for its global standing as well. And the only way for it to forestall such an outcome is rapprochement with the Islamic Republic. In 1969, the newly inaugurated president, Richard Nixon, understood that the only way to rescue America’s position in Asia and restore its global standing was to abandon twenty years of U.S. policy aimed at containing, demonizing, and undermining the People’s Republic of China and, instead, to come to terms with it. Four decades later, Barack Obama shocked Washington’s foreign policy elite during his first presidential campaign by signaling a similar understanding of the need for better relations with the Islamic Republic. But from virtually the beginning of his presidency, entrenched domestic antagonism toward the Islamic Republic, his own willful inability to understand Tehran’s national security strategy, and his administration’s colossal misreading of Iran’s domestic political dynamics (especially after its 2009 presidential election) combined to derail his impulse toward engagement. More than any of his predecessors, in fact, Obama has given engagement a bad name, by claiming to have reached out to Tehran and failed when the truth is he never really tried.
Coming to terms with the Islamic Republic of Iran means dealing with it as it is, not as some might wish it to be. It is difficult for Americans to look objectively at a state like the Islamic Republic, which bases its political system on concepts of Islamic governance at odds with Western liberal paradigms. Decades ago, the eminent scholar Louis Hartz recognized a “deep and unwritten tyrannical compulsion” in America’s liberal tradition, a “colossal liberal absolutism” that “hampers creative action abroad by identifying the alien with the unintelligible.”7 In recent years, this American predilection has been particularly evident in relation to the Middle East—and nowhere more so than in Iran.
As a result, America’s Iran debate has been dominated by uninformed and agenda-driven views that have hardened into a powerful mythology about the Islamic Republic—its foreign policy, its domestic politics, and the way the United States ought to deal with it. This mythology has three main elements:
• The irrationality myth: the Islamic Republic is an immature, ideologically driven polity incapable of thinking about its foreign policy in terms of material national interests.
• The illegitimacy myth: the Islamic Republic is an illegitimate and deeply unstable political order at serious risk of implosion.
• The isolation myth: through concerted diplomatic action, economic pressure, and military measures, the United States can isolate the Islamic Republic, both regionally and internationally, and facilitate its demise.
In 1962, President John Kennedy warned that “the great enemy of truth is very often not the lie—deliberate, contrived, and dishonest—but the myth—persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the clichés of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.” Half a century later, this captures well the pernicious impact of America’s Iran mythology. Not only do its constituent elements assure the continuing dysfunctionality of Washington’s Iran strategy, they make engagement with Tehran seem like a fool’s errand—politically, morally, and strategically. More ominously, they are conditioning the political climate in the United States for an eventual war against Iran—just as in the late 1990s and early 2000s the political climate was conditioned for war against Iraq by falsehoods about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, his links to Al-Qa’ida, and the Shangri-La of post-Saddam Iraqi politics.
The prevailing Iran mythology is rarely challenged in mainstream discourse, for that requires a willingness to question not just America’s role in the Middle East but also basic precepts of American political culture. Many intellectuals and journalists in the United States have internalized the “liberal absolutism” described by Hartz, predisposing them to see foreigners resisting American hegemony not as rational actors with real interests but as irrational and illegitimate. Self-interest reinforces this proclivity: while artfully applying a hegemonic perspective to the perceived threat du jour can dramatically boost a career in policy analysis or journalism, an unwillingness to do so can damage one’s prospects. Before the Chinese Revolution and for twenty years after, the press and a critical mass of America’s Asia experts crafted an image of China’s communist leaders as rabid ideologues with whom no accommodation was possible. Before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, policy analysts and reporters partnered to demonize Saddam’s regime, hype the threat posed by his WMD and terrorist ties, and understate the negative consequences of removing him by U.S. military action. In both cases, those who played the game (for example, the Alsop brothers on China and Ken Pollack on Iraq) were rewarded; those who dissented were marginalized, if not—as with the so-called China hands—persecuted.
As Tehran challenges America’s hegemonic ambitions in the Middle East, think tank and university specialists have given quasi-professional legitimation to the prevailing Iran mythology, helping to make it conventional wisdom among American elites. It is telling that the most detailed chronicle of U.S.-Iranian relations since the revolution was written by a historian whose day job is with U.S. Central Command (and whose father is a former CENTCOM commander) and is framed in terms of the “twilight war” between Washington and Tehran—a work that draws on virtually no Iranian sources (other than defectors and expatriates) to depict the Islamic Republic as the clear provocateur and the United States as “largely the good guy.”8 Western media routinely accept and elaborate on myths of the Islamic Republic’s irrationality and illegitimacy. In a particularly outlandish case, Amir Taheri, an expatriate Iranian journalist and a darling of American neoconservatives (he appears regularly on Fox News and in National Review, the New York Post, and the Wall Street Journal), published an article in Canada’s National Post in 2006 claiming that the Iranian parliament had passed a law requiring Jews to wear strips of yellow cloth pinned to their clothing.9 Before publishing the article, the National Post checked with the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which vouched for it. But Taheri’s claim was entirely manufactured; in a rare bit of journalistic accountability on an Iran-related story in the Western media, the National Post retracted Taheri’s story with a public apology.10 This was not the first time that Taheri had invented claims about the Islamic Republic or Iranian officials.11 When asked about Taheri’s penchant for falsehood, his publicist replied that accuracy is “a luxury” where Iran is concerned: “As much as being accurate is important, in the end what’s important is to side with what’s right. What’s wrong is siding with the terrorists.”12 After the Iraq War debacle, accuracy is anything but a luxury where Iran is concerned. Yet neoconservative venues like the National Post and the Wall Street Journal are not the only media outlets that let the Iran mythology distort their coverage and commentary; as we will see, “mainstream” venues like the New York Times and the Washington Post do, too.
Given all that is at stake in the Middle East, we offer this book as a challenge to our fellow Americans and others to reconsider what they think they know about the Islamic Republic. It is especially critical to understand the Islamic Republic’s international strategy and its internal politics. To that end, we present what we believe is an empathetic but objective account of how the Islamic Republic sees itself and its place in the world, acts to protect its interests, and legitimizes itself to the Iranian people. We also deconstruct the mythology that surrounds Iran, demonstrating the extent of its persuasive power and its fallacies and identifying some of the individuals, organizations, and informal networks that perpetuate its hold over our public discourse. Finally, we outline a better way forward for the United States with Iran and the Middle East more broadly. For the alternatives to rapprochement—militarized containment, coercive regime change, and war—are far too damaging, to American interests and to the people of the Middle East, to bear serious strategic or moral consideration.
Copyright © 2013 by Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett