Chicago Tribune, November 7, 2008
Alireza Jafarzadeh (Foreign Affairs Analyst)
A multitude of foreign policy challenges, perhaps chief among them how to deal with the ayatollahs’ regime in Iran, awaits President-elect Barack Obama.
The global consequences of a nuclear-armed theocratic regime with an extremist, expansionist ideology were not lost on candidate Obama. He expressed a keen awareness that as president he must confront Tehran’s quest for nuclear weapons, subversion and terrorism in Iraq and strategy of regional domination. In July he said: “We cannot tolerate nuclear weapons in the hands of nations that support terror. Preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons is a vital national security interest of the United States.”
In March 2007, in an address in Chicago, Obama called Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad “reckless, irresponsible and inattentive” to the needs of the Iranian people. The U.S., he said, must engage in “aggressive diplomacy combined with tough sanctions” to defuse Tehran’s nuclear threat.
U.S.-Iran policy has been described as the “Bermuda Triangle” of U.S. presidents since 1979. What are the mistakes the next administration cannot afford to repeat?
Negotiation, while clearly the most desirable means of resolving international conflict, has time and again proven futile in the case of Tehran. Iran’s rulers consider their supreme leader as God’s regent on Earth. Successive American administrations and their European allies have been down that road, each time only to reach a dead end.
These failures have legitimized the theocratic regime, emboldening more rogue behavior and demands. Even worse, they have given Tehran time to advance its nuclear weapons program.
The survival of this unpopular regime depends on being in a state of perpetual crisis. The Iranian theocracy is incapable of acting as a “normal” state or enacting the kind of behavioral changes the free world demands. The ayatollahs know, even if the West does not, that they cannot thrive by acting “normal.”
Tehran’s strategic interests in advancing a nuclear weapons program, establishing a client state in Iraq and ruling through terror and suppression are fundamentally at odds with international and regional order. These are red lines the ruling clerics will not cross.
Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution writes in his book “The Persian Puzzle,” “The problem with the Grand Bargain is that it does not work in practice. Every American administration since [Ronald] Reagan has put the Grand Bargain on the table and tried to coax the Iranians into accepting it. In particular the Grand Bargain was the explicit core of the [Bill] Clinton initiative.”
To avoid past policy failures, Obama should strike a new course: Look to Iran’s future and engage the movement for democratic change. He, perhaps better than any world leader, knows the power of change and of a nation’s youth. These are the very elements the ayatollahs most fear in Iran, where there were some 5,000 anti-government demonstrations and protests—primarily by the youth—in the last year alone.
Iran’s ruling establishment is plagued by factional turmoil compounded by the drastic fall in oil prices. Political decay is fast spreading throughout the body politic. The Iranian people have a history of rising against despots of various stripes. They also have a nationwide resistance movement—albeit blacklisted and shackled by the State Department—at the center of their movement for democratic change.
An Obama administration must bring much needed change to what Defense Secretary Robert Gates described in October as “a failed policy that has seen Iran strengthen its position.” Obama’s promised “aggressive diplomacy” should include strengthening of meaningful sanctions targeting Tehran’s means of proliferation, terrorism and domestic suppression. In Iraq, by partnering with independent, non-sectarian Iraqi political figures, including the Awakening Councils, the next administration should confront the subversive campaign of Tehran and its proxies.
At its core, this new policy must reach out to the Iranian youth who aspire to a democratic, secular and non-nuclear government. Obama must look to Iran’s people and democratic opposition as a partner seeking stability and tranquility in the region and democracy in Iran.