Persian Dilemmas

The discouraging lessons of U.S.-Iranian relations.

Last month, the foreign ministers of France, Great Britain, and Germany triumphantly announced a new accord with Iran. Formally, the agreement obligates Iran to suspend temporarily all enrichment of uranium in return for some as-yet-unspecified economic benefits, including a steady supply of enriched uranium to fuel Iran’s light water nuclear reactor. Informally, the Europeans believe their diplomatic negotiations have helped to suspend Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Of course, no one can claim openly that the new deal hinders a nuclear weapons program, since Iran has never admitted to having one. Still, the Europeans proudly point to their accomplishment as proof that diplomacy works.

President Bush and his foreign-policy team are not buying it. Based on intelligence given to them by an Iranian exile organization, the administration remains convinced that the mullahs who rule Iran are developing a nuclear weapon and no piece of paper will stop them. In response, hard-liners both outside and within the administration are pressing instead for a military solution. Only the lunatic fringes still advocate a full-scale military invasion and occupation of Iran. But the idea of bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities is floated as a serious option of last resort, since every senior Bush official has declared that a nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable.

Does this all sound familiar? Intelligence about secret weapons programs provided by exiles, hard-liners pressing for a military method to prevent a foe from acquiring weapons of mass destruction, and Europeans calling for a diplomatic solution instead? The debate echoes the prelude to Operation Iraqi Freedom.

There’s one more similarity. As the debate on Iran now heats up, Kenneth Pollack is at the ready with a new book: The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict Between Iran and America. His previous book, The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq, hit the bookstores at precisely the moment when the world was arguing about goals and strategies for dealing with Iraq. In the midst of that rancorous controversy, Pollack made arguably the most cogent case for military intervention to achieve both Iraq’s disarmament and regime change. This time around, Pollack still applauds the idea of regime change, but he sees very little in the American arsenal that might help achieve this objective. And his own careful reading of the history of U.S. efforts to deal with Iran is enough to inspire some skepticism about the feasibility of the intricate arms-control approach he endorses instead.

Amazingly, given Iran’s strategic importance, The Persian Puzzle is the first comprehensive treatment of U.S.-Iranian relations since James Bill’s book The Eagle and the Lion, published 16 years ago. Neither a tirade against evil mullahs nor an indictment of American imperialism, Pollack’s book is a nuanced treatment of a bilateral relationship that has itself been anything but nuanced. If there is a theme to Pollack’s analysis, in fact, it is American ineptitude.

Since the end of World War II, relations between the United States and Iran have been remarkably rocky, featuring some of the lowest moments in the history of American diplomacy. Pollack rightly calls his chapter on the 1953 American-led coup against Iran’s nationalist leader, Mosaddeq, “The Ugly Americans.” Mossadeq was no Nelson Mandela, but the CIA operation against Iran’s head of state placed the United States on the wrong side of history in the country for decades to come.

For a while, Mossadeq’s American-installed replacement, Reza Shah Pahlavi, did seem to serve American geopolitical interests, even when he was also serving his own personal economic interests at the expense of his people. Yet the problem with backing our son-of-a bitch (the general approach to dealing with the Third World famously advocated by President Johnson)—whether in Iran during the Shah’s rule or in Egypt and Saudi Arabia today—is that you can all but guarantee that eventually their son-of-a-bitch will overthrow him. When our autocrat in Iran began to lose power in 1978, we had no good options for saving him or for working with the new regime. And the situation truly deteriorated when the Ayatollah Khomeini—the anti-American dictator who grabbed power from the old pro-American dictator—blessed the seizing of American hostages in 1979. As Pollack explains, the hostage crisis “was an act of vengeance for the 1953 coup, designed to humiliate the United States, to cause pain to the American people, and to assuage the angry psychological scars that Iranian people still bore from that event.” The failure of Jimmy Carter’s rescue mission left scars on the American side.

The next serious contact between the United States and Iran—Ronald Reagan’s Iran-Contra scheme—also ended in failure and embarrassment for American officials. Not surprisingly, American policy toward Iran after that “became defensive and reactive, and arguably has remained so ever since.” Even the election of a reformist president, Mohammed Khatami, in 1997 could not thaw this bilateral relationship. Many inside Iran in fact blame the country’s now-stalled democratic reforms on the failure of President Clinton and Khatami to normalize diplomatic relations.

To date, Bush has done little to change this policy of no policy. Aside from one speech, which made Iran a founding member of the axis of evil, Bush offered no new initiatives vis-à-vis Iran. He has hinted at objectives—stopping Iran’s nuclear weapons programs, ending Iran’s support for terrorists, promoting democratic regime change inside Iran—but has offered no strategy for achieving them.

Nor does the complex, tough-minded arms-control approach that Pollack lays out at the end of his book—a “triple track” array of carrots and sticks designed to manage (not eliminate) the Iranian threat—seem tailor-made for this administration. So far, at any rate, orchestrating a fine-tuned policy of incentives and penalties for autocrats has not been a hallmark of Bush’s presidency—as it certainly was not of his predecessors’ efforts to deal with Iran, either. And what Pollack has in mind calls for virtuosic diplomacy. The blueprint reads like rules for playing chess with the mullahs, filled with lots of advances and retreats, signaling, and applying and lifting sanctions as Tehran’s behavior merits.

Given the history of America’s bungled interventions in Iran’s domestic affairs, Pollack’s emphasis on an arms-control alternative to democratic regime change is no doubt wise, if unwieldy in its own way. But that history is also an argument against our current policy of disengagement. It may be that Pollack, whose own heart is clearly with the democrats in Iran, is unduly pessimistic, not about military forays—clearly a crazy idea—but about subtler tools of promoting democratic change. When he writes, “The Iranians have so much emotional baggage attached to the United States that they simply cannot move past it,” this reader wondered “Which Iranians?” The mullahs ruling Iran obviously want to stoke anti-Americanism, just like Communist dictators did during the Cold War. But most Iranians, over half of whom were born after the revolution, aren’t listening to their aging, corrupt leaders anymore. On the contrary, the Iranian people are the most pro-American Muslims in the world.

Pollack cannot be faulted for not capturing the mood of Iranian society, first because this is not the focus of his book, and second because the Iranian regime has prohibited him from visiting Iran. But this is exactly the problem. Thanks to the policy of disengagement, even our best experts have little chance to live or do research in Iran. Likewise, Iranian human-rights activists cannot receive grants from Western foundations, Iranian small-businessmen cannot trade with their American counterparts, and Iranian students find it all but impossible to get visas to study at American universities. The U.S. policy of isolation has not undermined Iran’s autocrats. Instead, it has weakened links between American and Iranian societies and diminished our intelligence about this important but mysterious country.

The CIA’s record in picking Iranian leaders—a subject covered exceptionally well in The Persian Puzzle—certainly confirms Pollack’s dispirited verdict that “our mere involvement [in Iranian domestic politics] invariably hurts whoever we try to help no matter what we do.” But as we look to the future, does Pollack’s assessment hold equally true for less blunt instruments wielded by other American agents of influence? Would an Iranian human-rights group really be tainted by a grant from the Ford Foundation? And even if so, shouldn’t the Iranian applicant be allowed to make that determination? Similarly, can we know in advance that a massive effort to educate Iranian students in the United States would have “zero success” in helping to change Iranian society? Can we really be certain that a more strategic approach to propagating ideas about democracy and human rights inside Iran will have no chance of inspiring the next Vaclav Havel or Lech Walesa?

This is all academic speculation, because in Washington these days, the phrase “regime change” is intimately associated with the 82nd Airborne, not radio broadcasts. But a serious U.S. strategy of regime change in Iran will have nothing to do with F-16s, Apache helicopters, or Marines and everything to do with visas, scholarships, and grants to women’s groups.