What should the United States expect form the March 14th parliamentary elections? How should the United States deal with the Iranian regime? Are more sanctions the answer? Is military pressure an option? What about direct diplomatic engagement?

In 1997, the Iranian people expressed their hunger for change by electing Ayatollah Khatami to the Presidency and reformers to parliament. To some analysts and experts in Iranian affairs, the election of reformers presented a window of opportunity for a possible engagement between Iran and the US that could strengthen the hand of the reformers in Iran. For reasons too long and complex to address in this piece, Iran and the United States failed to “engage” each other from 1997 to 2001. During that same period, Al-Qaeda, a bitter enemy of the United States and Iran, was busy expanding its base of support in many parts of the Islamic world. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, another opportunity arose with the United States taking on the Taliban, a sworn enemy of Iran. In its updated report dated October 17, 2001, entitled “Operation Enduring Freedom: Foreign Pledges of Military & Intelligence Support,” the CRS stated the following: “Iran has said it will not join a U.S. counter-terrorism coalition and supports a diplomatic solution to the conflict. Iran remains a staunch opponent of the Taliban and has been providing weapons to the opposition Northern Alliance. It has also closed its border with Afghanistan. In response to a request from the Bush administration, Iran has agreed to rescue any American military personnel in distress in its territory.” In March 2003, the United States launches Operation Iraqi Freedom and topples the regime of Saddam Hussein, a sworn enemy of Iran. Another missed opportunity. While I can list the many reasons to explain these missed opportunities, I think the most fundamental underlying reason is an extreme degree of mutual distrust. The United States believes that Iranian theocracy cannot be trusted and that the existing regime of the Ayatollahs is bent on pursuing a destructive policy in the region. On the other hand, the Ayatollahs believe that the United States is bent on pursuing regime change in Iran and, therefore, cannot be trusted. As a result, tensions between both countries continue to rise and are fast reaching an explosive state of crisis.

State of Reform
Given the current environment of US-Iranian relations, the Iranian regime has clamped down very hard on all kinds of reforms to the point that Iranians today seem to have given up on the possibility of bringing about meaningful change in their country. This is evident from the fact that groups with democratic aspirations have practically vanished from the scene because the general population has basically given up on challenging this regime. This “depressed’ state of mind has been caused by three main factors:

  • Fear: Iranians today are much more fearful of the current government than they were of previous administrations due the higher degree of coerciveness exercised by the regime. The more the United States talks about funding and/or encouraging human rights and democratization efforts in Iran, the greater is the government’s crackdown on people with democratic aspirations.
  • Impoverishment: the majority of Iranians are struggling with severe economic conditions exacerbated by high inflation and the impact of Western sanctions.
  • Belligerency: the government exercises an aggressive control over the population through the media, police and military. In addition, the Guardian Council has eliminated almost all reformers from the list of candidates for the upcoming parliamentary elections.

State of Regime
The Iranian regime feels a sense of invulnerability in pursuing its current policies domestically and abroad. This degree of self-confidence, bordering on arrogance, is the result of several developments, more notably the following:

On the Domestic Front

  • The Ayatollahs are well-entrenched and believe the regime is invulnerable to internal threats. There are mosques in every part of the country with devout Moslem followers and religious minorities such as Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians have all been pacified and do not cause any trouble.
  • The regime feels confident in its ability to withstand the effect of UN sanctions by reaching out to China and Russia. Russia’s GazProm is about to invest in the Pars project; China is a major exporter and is also negotiating oil investments.
  • March 14th Elections: the Guardian Council has removed most reform candidates from the ballot.

On the External Front

  • While there are parties within the government who express interest in having a dialogue with the United States, most have been taken out of key policy positions.
  • The regime does not trust the intentions of the United States and plans to stand up to US policy for the time being.
  • Opponents of a dialogue with the United States believe that the US is in no position to confront Iran militarily in spite of the rhetoric from Washington and military maneuvers in the region. They are convinced that the United States is in a weakened state, consumed by Iraq, and therefore, unable to carry out a major military operation against Iran.
  • The regime feels emboldened by its ability to project its power and effectively counter US policy in the region directly as in the case of Iraq, and indirectly, by relying on non-state actors. For example, with Hezbollah who, in the eyes of the Iranian regime, seemed to have performed reasonably well in standing up to Israel, and with Hamas whose defiant stance has further complicated the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

US Policy
Pursuing a regime of tighter sanctions targeting Iran’s strategic institutions and leadership is important and necessary but insufficient because of China’s and Russia’s independent pursuits of energy interests in Iran. A military campaign against Iranian nuclear and strategic targets at this stage will bring mixed results at best given Iran’s effective ability to project its power and influence in the region. In order to more effectively counter the Iranian threat while boosting its levels of readiness and preparedness, the United States must adopt a three-pronged approach.

1) Sanctions
The US should continue pressing the international community on tightening sanctions on Iran in order to keep the pressure on the regime.

2) Curbing Iran’s Regional Influence

The US can develop a more sophisticated and better calibrated approach to counter Iran’s ability to project its influence in the region. The accepted and often repeated notion in Washington that Iran is extending its influence in the region through the Shiites like those of Iraq and Lebanon should be quickly abandoned because it serves only Iran’s interests. The more the US lumps the Shiites with Iran, the greater becomes Iran’s ability to present itself as the “protector” of the Shiites in the region. Instead, the US should strongly pursue the Freedom Agenda set by President Bush and present itself as the true champion of the rights and freedoms of Shiites in both Iraq and Lebanon. Let me explain.

  • In Iraq: the Shiites of Iraq constitute a majority of the population and are generally weary of Iranian influence. A clear and unwavering stance by the United States on the side of the Shiites in Iraq would not only quicken the process of stabilization in that country, but would also cut off Iran’s ability to project its influence. A more secure Shiite-led Iraqi government that enjoys solid US backing can, with greater confidence, extend civil rights protections under the law to the Sunni minority.
  • In Lebanon: the Shiites of Lebanon, while not a majority, are the largest community in that country. Approximately 38% of the Lebanese are Shiites, 37% Christians, 21% Sunnis, and 4% Druze and other smaller communities. The more the Shiites of Lebanon are viewed as an extension of Iranian influence and the more the US talks of forcefully disarming Hezbollah, the stronger is Hezbollah’s hold on that community and the greater the Shiites become dependent on Iranian support. The US can formulate a policy that encourages the Shiites to become more trusting of US intentions and take part in an internal Lebanese process that demands the disarmament of Hezbollah.

What about the Iranian support of Hamas?
When Ariel Sharon fell into a comatose state, Israel lost one of its most brilliant strategists and visionary leaders since independence. Sharon orchestrated the Gaza withdrawal in a way that turned the international political landscape 180 degrees in favor of Israel. He sent two powerful messages to the Palestinians and the world community:

  • Stop pressing Israel to make territorial concessions; Israel must first have a reliable partner.
  • Let the Palestinians prove their governance capabilities first in Gaza to see whether they can grow into a more mature and reliable partner.

Sharon’s sudden departure from the Israeli political scene was a major setback to a process that only he could manage so effectively. Elections were held in Gaza, and Hamas won. Israel and the United States then adopted a policy aimed at totally isolating Hamas, which later led to Hamas’ take-over of the Gaza strip through a military coup. The more Hamas is isolated by Israel and the United States, the more Hamas will seek assistance from whoever will provide support, including Iran. Hamas is a terrorist organization; but Hamas wants to be a player and not an Iranian proxy. Question: should the US and Israel think about a process similar to Oslo that would make Hamas recognize Israel and renounce terrorism in exchange for sitting at the negotiations table? The reason Oslo failed had much to do with the late Yasser Arafat’s true motivation for signing the agreement. Arafat feared that the Palestinian uprising or intifada of 1987, which came about as a spontaneous revolt by the population of the territories, would in due time produce a local Palestinian leadership that might challenge him and the PLO. He desperately needed the Oslo agreement of 1993 in order to establish his power structure in the territories and cut off the burgeoning native leadership. Once he did that and consolidated his base, he stopped cooperating in the process and the rest is history. Hamas is already in power and would probably win elections in the West Bank if these were to be held today. On March 8, 2008, a Hamas militant massacred a number of Jewish seminarians in Jerusalem. What should be very worrisome to policy-makers is the reaction to that terrorist attack by Palestinians in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

In summary, the US can reduce Iran’s influence in the region by adopting more nuanced approaches that deny Iran the audiences it desperately needs to break out of its regional isolation. A more isolated Iran might be encouraged to become more accommodating.

3) Offering a “Grand Bargain”
In addition to pursuing sanctions and denying Iran a sphere of influence, the US can then offer Iran the possibility of a “grand bargain” based on common interests and threats. This includes reversing Taliban gains in Afghanistan, erecting contingency plans regarding Pakistan, and countering the spread of Wahhabi Salafism, an ideology that has produced the Al-Qaeda types of terrorism.

In conclusion, the United States has much to gain in developing a policy towards Iran that relies on sanctions, denying Iran a sphere of influence, and presenting Iran with a brighter alternative to its current isolation. While this approach may not necessarily produce a change in US-Iran relations, it will definitely strengthen the position of the United States in the region.