The Republic and the Rahbarby


The National Interest

By Gary Sick

JUST AS America shakes off its recent prolonged election cycle, Iran will be entering a presidential race of its own. As President Obama takes office, he must decide whether we will make a change to our long-standing Iran policy, and on what timeline. The United States can continue treating Iran as a permanent enemy to be confronted and isolated, thereby perpetuating the policies of the past three administrations. Or it can begin treating the Islamic Republic as a potentially "normal" power-subject to the usual blandishments of carrots and sticks. This accepts that Tehran has the capacity not only to annoy us but perhaps also to help ease some of Washington's worst dilemmas in the region.

Candidate Obama famously indicated that he would be prepared to open substantive talks with Iran-with proper preparation. But several of his advisers openly favor policies that would make meaningful dialogue difficult, if not impossible. The eventual decision will not only be contested but is certain to be hugely complicated by the poisonous domestic political climates in both Tehran and Washington. In both capitals, there are powerful political factions that thrive on the state of permanent hostility and reinforce each other through an extreme rhetoric of fear.

If President Obama is to pursue the course proposed by Candidate Obama, attempting to initiate a dialogue of a different sort with Iran, he will have to overcome the bitter residue of this venomous record. He must also decide how much priority to place on the Iranian issue when so many other problems-both foreign and domestic-are competing for attention. We have the ability to capitalize on Iran's political uncertainties in the run-up to the choice for its next leader. But any serious consideration of a coherent and more cost-efficient U.S. policy in the Persian Gulf must begin with a sober and realistic assessment of the Iranian threat. The climate of fear surrounding Tehran puts the United States in danger of making some potentially disastrous decisions.

Not Our Top Priority

Contrary to conventional wisdom, Iran is neither the most dangerous nor the most pressing problem to be faced by the new U.S. administration in the Persian Gulf region. The Afghanistan-Pakistan nexus, comprised of two weak or failing states with potential access to a stockpile of nuclear weapons, is clearly the most urgent and the highest risk to U.S. core interests. Iraq is a delicate and urgent problem, which will occupy much of the early attention of the new administration as Washington and Baghdad choreograph a responsible exit strategy. Nevertheless, the decisions the Obama administration makes about Iran in its first few months will have a significant effect on our other commitments.

Alarm about the Iranian threat typically rests on two propositions. First, it is claimed that Iran is a revolutionary Islamic theocracy that is politically extreme and undeterrable since the Shia religion welcomes martyrdom. Second, it is argued that Iran's ugly and belligerent rhetoric about Israel means that it will be quick to use any future nuclear weapon against Israel and its supporters, regardless of the consequences. Of course, Iran is no less capable of foolish and self-destructive decisions than any other government, but its record since at least the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988 has largely been that of a cautious power that puts regime survival above all ideological goals.

True, Iran's political influence has grown substantially in the past seven years, but that sharp rise has in effect been an unearned gift. The United States in 2001 attacked and dispersed the Taliban in Afghanistan, Iran's worst enemy to the east; then in 2003 we attacked and destroyed the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Iran's worst enemy to the west; finally, we oversaw the installation of a majority-Shia government in Baghdad for the first time in history, largely comprised of individuals and groups that had relied on Iranian shelter and support in the struggle with Saddam. At the end of that process, Iran was indeed far more powerful and influential than before, but that was almost entirely the inadvertent result of our own policies.

Despite its new prominence, Iran's capabilities should not be exaggerated. Iran is a midlevel power with a largely unpopular and dysfunctional government headed by a firebrand populist president with limited power. Iran's gross domestic product is about the same as the state of Florida, and 85 percent of its hard-currency revenues come from oil, whose recent price oscillations have wreaked havoc on the budgetary process. Inflation is officially running at close to 25 percent, and job creation is so low that many of Tehran's young, well-educated citizens are looking to emigrate. Iran's annual defense expenditures total about $19 billion (2.5 percent of GDP), less than half those of Saudi Arabia and roughly equivalent to three months of U.S. expenditures in Iraq.

Slow-Motion Nuclear Program

But that does not address Iran's growing command of nuclear technology, a threat that also tends to be overblown. Iran began to experiment with its own nuclear-fuel cycle in the mid-1980s, when Saddam Hussein was employing chemical weapons against Iran and was simultaneously developing a nuclear-weapons capability. According to U.S. intelligence, Iran terminated its tabletop experiments with nuclear weaponization in 2003, after Saddam was defeated and the Iraqi threat to Iran was eliminated.

Today, after more than two decades, Iran has a single nuclear-power plant, which is still not functioning, and a uranium-enrichment program involving, at the time of this writing, some five thousand low-capacity centrifuges (and expected to rise to six thousand by early 2009) under routine monitoring and inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). (Just for comparison, India, Pakistan, Israel and South Africa each took ten to twelve years to produce a nuclear device from the time they made a clear decision to do so; that may explain why Israeli intelligence has been predicting since at least 1991 that Iran would have a nuclear weapon within three to five years-or even less.) Iran declares constantly that it does not intend to build nuclear weapons and that such weapons are anti-Islamic. The IAEA, though properly suspicious of Tehran's ultimate intentions, has found no credible evidence of a nuclear-weapons program in Iran.

None of this is intended to dismiss concerns about Iran's potential role in the region. Rather, it is intended to put in perspective some of the excessive hype about the "Iranian threat" that is such an omnipresent part of our lives and that, for the most part, goes unchallenged. Iran is a country with a stout internal-defense capability that would be a harsh test for any potential invader. It has the ability to provide money, training and arms to dissident groups throughout the Middle East. It specializes in incendiary rhetoric. But it has almost no capability to project military power beyond its own borders, and it has no history of expansionist ambitions. Its borders have shrunk, not expanded, over the past several centuries.

In the interests of good relations with Russia, Iran remained conspicuously silent during Orthodox Russia's conflict with Iran's fellow Muslims in Chechnya. Despite revolutionary exhortations by Ayatollah Khomeini to overthrow the Sunni Arab Gulf monarchies, Iran has assiduously cultivated good relations with its Arab neighbors almost from the day Khomeini died in 1989. Despite calls by extremist Iranian fringe groups for volunteer political martyrs, there has not been a single case of an Iranian suicide bombing in Iraq. On the whole, Tehran has followed a cautious and prudent foreign policy based on a realistic appraisal of its strengths and weaknesses, and with regime survival as its primary goal. National suicide by using a rudimentary nuclear device against an opponent universally credited with more than two hundred deliverable nuclear weapons is contrary to everything we know about Iran. Tehran is not immune to classic policies of deterrence.

Decision By Consensus

Iran's unique governing structure makes it even more difficult for the leadership to make a decision that would threaten the existence of the regime or the state. Iran is an Islamic republic, which is itself a contradiction in terms. Although "Islamic" tends to trump all else, the "republic" part of the formula is reflected in a written constitution and multiple elections-averaging about one election a year over the past three decades of its existence. These are novel practices that do not appear in fundamentalist Islamic states such as neighboring Saudi Arabia, which rely on sharia law as their constitution and have historically regarded elections as un-Islamic.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the sixty-nine-year-old rahbar, or Supreme Leader, theoretically has almost unlimited powers. However, in practical terms he must confer with a series of other power centers and even build coalitions in order to make policy on controversial issues. In that sense, he should properly be regarded not as an absolute dictator in the mold of Saddam Hussein, but rather as primus inter pares in a complex repressive system where no one is fully in command.

Depending on the issue, the other power centers may include: the presidency and its administrative bureaucracy; the leadership of the majles (parliament); senior policy councils, e.g., the Expediency Council and the Guardian Council, which are populated by the elders and grandees of the political system (mostly clerics); the leaders of the Revolutionary Guard Corps; senior merchants and industrialists (the "bazaar"); and the senior clerical hierarchy in the holy city of Qum, among others.

Missing from this list is any institutional mechanism for soliciting the voice of the people, although the network of mosques, Friday prayer leaders, and frequent presidential, parliamentary and municipal-council elections provide a means for sampling popular opinion. The press also plays an important role. Despite constant efforts to strangle the media, it refuses to go away and is more outspoken (and more critical of the government) than any of its counterparts in the rest of the Islamic Middle East, with the possible exception of Turkey.

Ordinary Iranians are also more welcoming to an American connection than any other people in the Middle East outside Israel. In the last major internal public-opinion sampling on this subject, three out of four Iranians said that they would welcome negotiations and normalization of relations with the United States. Perhaps significantly, the key Iranian director of that 2001 study, Abbas Abdi, one of the Iranians who took over the U.S. embassy in 1979 and who later became a critic of the clerical regime, was quickly thrown in jail on espionage charges for publishing "intelligence" about Iran. That is a sad but typical example of the contradiction between the Iranian people and their highly suspicious, repressive and controlling government. Subsequent long-distance telephone polling in 2007 and 2008, however, reaffirmed the accuracy of the numbers.

The Clerical Fumble

This split between the spiritual elite and the general populace is not new. The clerical regime has been losing the support and respect of an increasingly large proportion of the Iranian public ever since the exhilarating days after the overthrow of the Shah in 1979. Most Iranians did not realize at the time of the revolution that they were risking their lives in street demonstrations on behalf of a new government that would be ruled by clerics. The clerical takeover was in some ways reminiscent of the capture of the Russian Revolution by the Bolsheviks. In the Iranian case, the clerical "party" was not merely a radical faction; Ayatollah Khomeini had emerged early as the leader of the revolt against the Shah, and he had indeed lectured about a "Government of God" with a supreme clerical authority during his exile in Iraq. Those views were downplayed during the course of the revolution, and the first revolutionary government was secular, not clerical. But when the secular leadership began to oppose the movement toward an Islamic government, it was discarded and replaced with clerics.

The clerics solidified their control of Iran during the eight-year Iran-Iraq War, but the desperate defense of the country in the face of Saddam Hussein's invasion forced the government to become much more pragmatic and nationalistic, as opposed to the visionary elation of the days after the overthrow of the monarchy. At the same time, the Iranian public became painfully aware of the shortcomings of this experiment in Islamic rule. Divine right was invoked to justify and excuse abusive behavior and incompetent leadership. Corruption grew to proportions surpassing those under the Shah, and arbitrary arrest and persecution of political opponents gradually expanded from sporadic outbreaks to systematic repression. As disillusion with the clerical regime became more prevalent, the system had to resort increasingly to repressive techniques to prevent the rise of organized opposition.

More Capricious Than Revolutionary

These developments were often misread, particularly by external observers who believed that the Iranian people were ripe for another revolution and that the clerical regime had become a classic dictatorship. There was very little evidence that the Iranian people, who had lived through one revolution and had seen its effects on the country, would be prepared to repeat the experience so soon. Similarly, the regime was becoming increasingly repressive, but even there the Iranian rulers were relatively inefficient and idiosyncratic.

Newspapers were closed in great numbers, but they often quickly opened again (with the same staff and a slightly changed name and logo) only to be closed again. This required great courage and sacrifice on the part of journalists and publishers, but such a rotating game of hide and seek would never have been permitted under, say, the totalitarian rule of Saddam Hussein. Individuals such as Abbas Abdi paid an enormous price in personal terms for confronting the regime, but many, like Abdi, were released from prison before completing their sentences and were permitted to continue writing and giving critical interviews to domestic and foreign news organizations.

In some ways the system was worse for being so erratic. No one could be sure when they might come under the baleful gaze of the security services or how severely they might be treated, but unlike Saddam Hussein's system (or Stalin's or many other totalitarian systems) they were likely to survive the experience. That may be modest comfort indeed to those who lost their means of employment or whose personal lives were wrecked, but it has produced exactly the opposite of what the clerical regime intended-a large cadre of committed reformers and human-rights advocates who have no illusions about their own safety but who nevertheless persevere in the cause of insisting on accountability and rule of law. This leaves Iran in contradiction. The leadership is both pragmatic and incompetent; the population both suppressed and an active voice against the regime.

Ahmadinejad's Reelection Ordeal

All of these tensions and conflicting interests come into play during any Iranian electoral cycle, but they will be especially prevalent in the coming months as Ahmadinejad tries to defend his record. Since Iran's change from a parliamentary to a presidential system shortly after the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989, the country has had three presidents: Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani; Hojjat ol-Islam Mohammad Khatami; and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was the first noncleric elected to the post. The constitution limits the president to two consecutive four-year terms. Both Rafsanjani and Khatami were easily reelected to second terms (and both are now free to run again, as Rafsanjani did in 2005), but Ahmadinejad, who comes up for reelection in June 2009, is expected to face serious challenges-good news for those domestically unsatisfied with his lackluster rule and those internationally fearful of his incendiary rhetoric.

Yet, Iran's electoral system is inherently deficient because of the absence of a primary. Instead, that task has come to be the province of the Guardian Council-a body of six clerics appointed by the rahbar plus six legal experts appointed by the head of the judiciary and confirmed by the majles. In the past, the Guardian Council has disqualified all but a small handful of candidates for president and other posts in a show of conservative strength and partisanship, all in the name of ensuring that only good Muslims are permitted to run.

Despite that, Iranians have had a choice, however narrow, at the polls, and the Iranian public has consistently surprised the experts (and no doubt many in the hierarchy) by electing candidates who departed from the mainstream of government orthodoxy. President Khatami, who received massive popular majorities of 69 and 75 percent in his two elections, represented the politics of reform, based on rule of law. He opposed repressive tactics and promoted a foreign policy based on inclusiveness and dialogue. This inspired such alarm in the old-guard conservative faction that they mounted a massive effort to thwart Khatami at every turn. They succeeded, and Khatami's rule is remembered wistfully as a dream that was never realized-but which has never really died.

In 2005, Iran elected Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a noncleric with a background as an engineer and former mayor of Tehran. Ahmadinejad ran on a platform of ending corruption and improving the economic well-being of ordinary Iranian families. But he has instead pursued eccentric economic policies that have drained the reserves of the Oil Stabilization Fund-Iran's oil reserves accumulated during the boom in oil prices-and has been unrelenting in promoting a confrontational foreign policy that has isolated Iran internationally, driven away foreign investment and tempted external military intervention. Corruption by almost any standard is worse now than when he took office. A man of boundless energy, the fifty-three-year-old Ahmadinejad suffered a sudden bout of exhaustion in October 2008 as he was facing humiliating defeats in the majles and a stunning 50 percent drop in the price of oil.

Ahmadinejad's prospects for reelection will be heavily influenced by three elements: the role of the rahbar; the identities of the opposing candidates who run against him; and external events, including the fate of the world economy and the actions of the next president of the United States, among other things. All of those are imponderables and largely beyond his control.

The president seemed to reduce his chances of heartfelt support from the rahbar by systematically ignoring and offending almost the entire senior leadership of the country during his first three years in office. Although Khamenei has made lukewarm and possibly pro forma statements of support for the president, this may have been nothing more than his own cardinal rule to oppose even the appearance of disunity in the Islamic system. This same rule may persuade him to support continuity, especially if Ahmadinejad is facing an opponent who is likely to challenge the cozy status quo of the ruling clique. The Supreme Leader has shown himself to be terrified of change in almost any form.

Ahmadinejad's electoral strategy appears to be based on a provincial-first approach, continuing his perpetual visits to Iran's provinces and small towns, where he presents himself as a hero of the rural citizenry and hands out liberal quantities of cash and funding for public projects. Much of that funding apparently comes from the Oil Stabilization Fund. The volatility of oil prices has kept those coffers from refilling as the president might have expected, and it has also cast a spotlight on his careless trusteeship of these national funds, which some might call irresponsible-or worse.

There will be no shortage of candidates opposing him. The current mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, will likely be his most dangerous rival on the right. A major question will be to what extent the "reformist" camp that was so successful at the beginning of Khatami's term will be able to reinvigorate itself and shake off the image of a do-nothing party that could not and would not stand up to the hard-line traditionalists. Some have proposed that Khatami himself should run again, but Iranian politics has not been kind to those seeking second chances. Still, Khatami retains great credibility and his personal endorsement could be a potent factor in the election. Of course, there are many other well-known candidates, and there is also the very real possibility of the appearance of a dark-horse entry, as was Ahmadinejad himself in 2005.

Testing A New Relationship

The Iranian presidential election, coming as it does within the first five months of the Obama administration, offers a challenge and an opportunity. The new president and his advisers must consider what effect their early actions could have on the course of the Iranian contest and its outcome. Two things are very clear. First, any overt attempt to skew the election will almost certainly fail and may backfire disastrously. Our knowledge of internal Iranian politics, though not totally absent, is neither sufficiently reliable nor sufficiently adroit to permit us to play such a complex game with any degree of assurance. Politically astute Iranian observers were taken by surprise in the elections of 1997 (Khatami) and 2005 (Ahmadinejad). We cannot realistically expect to be better than the Iranians themselves in our own analyses, and we should resist the temptation to think we can. Moreover, any suggestion of a U.S. intervention will probably strengthen the hands of those who are least attractive in terms of our own interests, making Tehran more of a threat than it is at present.

Second, however, we can be certain that whatever we do (and that can include doing nothing at all) will be noted, registered and interpreted-probably overinterpreted-in Tehran. Iran's relationship to the United States is certain to be an issue in their presidential campaign, and the candidates and their acolytes will try to use any U.S. words or actions to their own benefit-and to undermine their opponents.

My own solution to this conundrum is twofold. The new administration should recognize that it is unlikely that Iran will be willing or able to undertake or respond to any major new initiatives during the final months of the campaign. That is a period that the new U.S. administration could use to develop a workable game plan and to plant the seeds of a new policy. But it also provides an opportunity to test the waters of a new relationship in ways that may be more effective-and far less risky-than either of the policy approaches that have commonly been suggested. Neither an immediate initiative to launch formal negotiations with Iran nor the creation of a multilateral campaign to increase international pressure along with a rapid buildup of U.S. forces in the region to enhance bargaining leverage will lead to resolution. In the midst of an election campaign, the first is likely to go unanswered and the second would almost certainly create a backlash that would strengthen the hands of the most conservative elements in Iran. All of this creates a great deal of complexity for Washington as it begins to formulate Iran-centered policy. Many of the other U.S. concerns-Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan-will continue to take precedence. Yet, all remain contingent, at least to some extent, on the future machinations of Tehran.

Regional Consultations

According to the draft Status of Forces Agreement between the United States and Iraq, U.S. forces must leave Iraqi cities and suburbs by June 30, 2009. That date happens to fall within a few weeks of the Iranian presidential election, so there will inevitably be a great deal of activity and planning about the U.S. military presence during the preceding months. Only three months later, in September, presidential elections will be held in Afghanistan where Hamid Karzai may encounter significant opposition and where U.S. policy is almost certain to face one of its greatest challenges in the months after the inauguration of Barack Obama. Both of these events would benefit from consultations-not only between the United States and the countries in question but also among the regional neighbors who have a direct stake in maintaining stability and calm during a period of transition.

Iran has indicated in the strongest terms that it wishes to play a role in regional political developments consonant with its own size, strategic location and political influence. In fact, leaving Iran out of the picture as Iraq and Afghanistan try to cope with difficult transitions would be courting disaster and would represent yet another missed opportunity not only for the United States but also for its regional allies.

In neither case would the United States itself need to take the lead. Iraq and Afghanistan both are willing (and have the urgent need) to organize regional dialogues with their neighbors. This is particularly true if the United States is prepared to play a constructive and tacitly supportive role, in contrast to its previous obstructionism. The start of regional consultations by Iraq and Afghanistan, with the United States as a participant and Iran invited to the table, would provide a useful test of Iran's willingness and ability to play the kind of constructive role that it has claimed for itself. It would also return to the days during and after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan when Iran and America worked together quite effectively in a multilateral setting.

Signals From Washington

There are also several largely symbolic steps that the United States could take during this five-month interval. First, the new administration, in the course of its policy review, should examine anew the terms of the U.S.-Iran Algiers Accords of 1981, the last bilateral agreement between the two countries, completed through the good offices of the Algerian government to end the hostage crisis. At the request of the Bush administration in 2004, the U.S. Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court ruled that the treaty was still valid. As such, it is U.S. law. Article 1 of the treaty says: "The United States pledges that it is and from now on will be the policy of the United States not to intervene, directly or indirectly, politically or militarily, in Iran's internal affairs."

An early statement by the Obama administration reaffirming the validity of this treaty in all its parts would go far to resolve the deliberate ambiguity of the Bush administration's policy of "democracy promotion" that was widely interpreted as part of a policy of promoting regime change in Iran. As the United States discovered in dealing with Saddam Hussein (among others) it is virtually impossible to conduct meaningful negotiations with another government while at the same time promoting and encouraging the overthrow of that same government.

The U.S. policy of funding nongovernmental organizations in Iran has backfired disastrously and should be formally renounced. It has given the Iranian government an excuse to crack down on all civil-society groups and has cast doubts on the credibility of anyone willing to stand up to the regime. The opponents of the Islamic regime that the policy was intended to encourage have themselves urged the United States to terminate the program.

The Obama administration can and should support the proposal floated by the Bush administration for the establishment of an interests section, in effect a consular office in Iran staffed by U.S. diplomats. Although that would not entail formal diplomatic relations, it would suggest a willingness to proceed in that direction. Also, the new administration can and should also remove the absurd limitations on contact between U.S. diplomats and their Iranian counterparts in the course of their normal work. Actual negotiations must, of course, be specifically authorized by the government, but that should not preclude routine social contact at receptions or, for example, appearances on panels at conferences.

Finally, the United States could do itself a favor by granting a general license to all U.S. nonprofits (so-called 501(c)(3) organizations) to operate in Iran without regard to U.S. sanctions and without being forced to undergo the tortuous process of applying for permission from the Treasury Department. Though many of these may seem like mere tinkering to an already largely meaningless set of bureaucratic rules of engagement, they are key to setting the tone for higher-level change-and they are all reversible. None of these largely symbolic steps commit the United States to a future course of action.

Putting The Ball In Iran's Court

Changing our posture would accomplish several useful objectives: starting a process of confidence building, giving Iran an opportunity to begin to play a more responsible role in the region and signaling U.S. willingness to move on from the current antagonism. Such actions would certainly be recognized in Tehran and would make both the leadership and the people of Iran aware of the fact that a different kind of relationship with the United States was available. I personally think it would be an offer they could not refuse.

The U.S. position with Iran is actually much stronger than usually supposed. Iran has no doubt whatsoever about its relative military disadvantage or about Washington's ability to complicate Tehran's political and economic life. That favorable U.S. position will be greatly enhanced merely by the identity of the new American president. A U.S. president with the middle name Hussein (the greatest hero in Iranian iconography) is itself historic.

Still, none of these gestures will resolve the major differences between the United States and Iran concerning its nuclear program, its military support for organizations like Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and its opposition to an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. But those issues are very unlikely to be resolved in the first 144 days of a new administration while Iran is bogged down in one of the most contentious election campaigns in its history.

Instead, these small steps over the first months of a new U.S. administration could demonstrate louder than words that Iran's extreme rhetoric and radical policies are depriving them of the opportunity to play the kind of role that all Iranians believe is their right. Iran's reaction would itself provide the most accurate and reliable guide for selecting and implementing a longer-term American strategy for the future.

Gary Sick is a senior research scholar and an adjunct professor of international affairs at the Middle East Institute of Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. 

The National Interest

Submitted by AIFC on Tue, 01/27/2009 - 9:45am.