What to do about Iran? The question has been posed by every US administration since 1979, when a group of “students” seized the American Embassy in Tehran and held its diplomats hostage for 444 days. In the four decades that followed, the Islamic Republic cast itself as the principal enemy of the US, especially after the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
In that period, Tehran held dozens more Americans hostage in Iran or in Lebanon, where it acted via its local agents. Since 1979, not a day has passed without Iran holding some American hostages. According to Gen. David Petraeus, the man who commanded US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran was also behind the deaths of hundreds of American soldiers in low-intensity wars in those countries.
While targeting the US directly, revolutionary Iran has also tried to destabilize or overthrow regimes allied with America in the so-called Greater Middle East, an arc of crisis spanning from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. Despite many ups and downs and brief moments of tension being eased, the question of what to do about Iran has not lost its urgency or intensity.
So it is no surprise that the new administration of President Donald Trump should also be grappling with the question. Despite Herculean efforts, successive US administrations, from Jimmy Carter’s to Barack Obama’s, failed to find an effective answer to the question. One reason was they did not understand the nature of the new Iranian political landscape.
They did not realize that post-1979 Iran was divided into two realities: Iran as a nation-state, and Iran as the vehicle for promoting and exporting the Khomeinist ideology. The US, like the rest of the world, dealt with those who claimed to represent Iran as a nation-state, smiling and often courteous men speaking English or French and generally behaving as normal public servants in any system.
It took some Western politicians many years to realize that the smiling and courteous men with whom they dealt were merely talented actors playing the roles of president, foreign minister or ambassador, and that Iran’s real decision-makers were elsewhere, hidden behind a wall of mystery.
Because of that misunderstanding, Western governments, including that of the US, did not realize that regardless of concessions given to Iran as a nation-state, they could not quench its enmity as a vehicle for revolutionary ideology.
Carter wrote flattering letters to the late Ayatollah Rohullah Khomeini and established high-level contacts with the new regime, with promises of economic and military aid. President Ronald Reagan even broke US law to smuggle weapons to Iran via Israel to help the mullahs fight Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.
President Bill Clinton twice apologized to the mullahs for all the real or imagined ills the West had done to Iran. He also lifted a raft of sanctions imposed by Carter after the seizure of the embassy in Tehran.
Even President George W. Bush did his best, including by publishing a statement begging the mullahs to open a dialogue in the hope of “bringing Iran into the global tent.” In Iraq, he helped Iran’s surrogates, Ibrahim Al-Jaafari and Nouri Al-Maliki, to secure the premiership at the expense of Washington’s established Iraqi allies.
When it came to Obama, the world witnessed a determined effort by the US to go an extra mile to persuade Iran to change aspects of its behavior. Today the common consensus is that all those efforts failed, so the Trump administration must tackle the issue of Iran from a background of decades of failure. When it comes to dealing with Iran, the Trump administration has several advantages over its predecessors.
One advantage is that this administration includes several figures with intimate knowledge of Iran going back decades. Vice President Mike Pence began specializing in Iranian issues from his early days as a congressman. Defense Secretary James Mattis, a veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, accumulated good knowledge of Iranian politics from the front seat, so to speak.
The new head of the CIA, Mike Pompeo, was for years the key man in the US House of Representatives on matters pertaining to Iran. The new National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster belongs to a small group of senior US commanders who have observed and studied Iran for more than two decades.
Equally important is the new administration’s decision to dislodge entrenched Obama holdovers still hopeful to transform Iran from foe to friend. The new administration has spent the past few months trying to shape a coherent approach to the Iran problem, avoiding any hasty move.
This is why Trump decided to renew the lifting of some sanctions on Iran by a further three months. This was also the reason to postpone a congressional move to declare the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) a terrorist organization.
The new US administration must tackle the issue of Iran from a background of decades of failure. When it comes to dealing with Tehran, President Trump has several advantages over his predecessors.
The Trump administration realizes that barring a full-scale war, which is excluded at present, Washington alone cannot crack the Iranian nut. Previous administrations always sought an exclusive deal with Iran, keeping America’s European and Middle Eastern allies on the sidelines. But Trump is looking for a broad alliance with both European and Middle Eastern allies, and has even hinted that given certain conditions, it could also be extended to Russia.
That approach prevents Iran from playing a game it has indulged in for decades, inciting the Europeans against the US and dividing Middle East powers, including Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members.
Washington’s new analysis is that Iran is a threat to world order, and should thus be a cause of concern for everyone including Russia, Turkey, the EU, the Arab League and Israel. But what is not yet clear is the new administration’s ultimate aim regarding Iran. The crucial question of whether we seek a change of behavior or regime-change is not yet answered.
Some elements close to the administration, often inspired by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, hope for a change of behavior that would allow Iran to be woven into a new pattern of regional security and cooperation modelled on the Helsinki Accords of the 1970s, or even the Westphalian treaties of two centuries ago.
But a firm rejection of that strategy has already come from an unexpected quarter: Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. In a speech to the military at Imam Hussein University last week, Khamenei said he would not allow the slightest change in his regime’s behavior because that could ultimately lead to regime change. “Our aim is to change the world,” he said. “We cannot allow the world to change us.”
Senior IRGC strategist Dr. Hassan Abbasi, the “Kissinger of Islam,” has gone even further, insisting that the Khomeinist revolution’s ultimate aim is to turn the US into an Islamic republic. According to Tehran’s narrative, with few exceptions all governments in the world today are illegitimate and must be overthrown by revolution.
The immediate focus is on countries where Muslims form a majority of the population. Exporting revolution to those countries is the responsibility of the Secretariat of Islamic Awakening, created by Khamenei and headed by former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati. The Foreign Ministry, headed by Mohammed Javad Zarif, is strictly kept out of issues concerning Muslim-majority nations.
That Iran suffers from a split personality is instantly evident to a keen observer. Iran has a supreme leader and a president. It has a formal Council of Ministers and an informal Leader’s Advisory Board. It has a Parliament, but any or all of its legislation can be abrogated by fatwas (religious edicts) issued by the supreme leader. Iran has a traditional army, navy and air force, but also a parallel army, navy and air force run by the IRGC.
It has ordinary police alongside the Basij, the police of the revolution. There are two parallel systems of justice: One run by government courts controlled by the justice minister, and another in Islamic tribunals headed by clerical judges. There are two parallel security systems that can even arrest each other’s members and operatives: One run by the Ministry of Security and Information, the other by the IRGC.
The official government has embassies and ambassadors in 177 countries. Alongside them, the supreme leader has his own embassies and envoys. In Iran, the duality of power is daily highlighted by the presence along every provincial governor or city mayor of a cleric representing the supreme leader and charged with the task of keeping the revolution alive.
Iran also has two economies. The official one is vaguely organized along plans and budgets set by the formal government, and accounts for around half of gross domestic product (GDP). The other half is in the black market controlled by the military and security services, various foundations headed by mullahs, and factious charities in which individuals claim they are share-holders along with one of the imams.
The IRGC controls 25 jetties in major ports from which it can import or export whatever it likes with no supervision by the formal government. Some foundations, including that of Imam Reza in Mashhad, are major cartels with turnovers of tens of billions of dollars. No one knows how they operate, and they pay no taxes.
In every case, the excuse is that the revolution, representing one of the two Irans, must enjoy primacy in every walk of life over Iran as a nation-state. Needless to say, the interests of these two Irans do not always coincide. In the past four decades, every time there was a major clash between them, the side of the revolution won. Both Khomeini and Khamenei have made clear that if necessary, they are prepared to sacrifice Iran to their version of Islam.
This means exerting pressure on Iran as a nation-state will not necessarily force Iran as a revolution to change behavior or policy. Right now, Iran cannot function as a normal nation-state, to the point that it is not allowed even to use global banking systems to pay its employees or agents abroad. Last year, its new ambassador to London, Hamid Baeedi-Nezhad, complained that he has to pay his staff with cash brought in suitcases.
So far, successive US administrations and most other governments have tried to deal with official Iran and help it restore its position by re-becoming a normal nation-state. Such efforts have failed partly because Iran as a revolution has always regarded them as maneuvers aimed at altering the revolutionary nature of Iranian politics. As long as such duality continues, Iran cannot change its behavior or alter major aspects of its domestic and foreign policies.
Those representing Iran as a nation-state, for example the president and his ministers, may even sincerely wish to change behavior. But they will not be able to because both presidents Mohammed Khatami and Hassan Rouhani have admitted they lack real power.
So the options Trump and his allies face are limited. They could decide to basically ignore Iran, letting it stew in its juice until it is blown apart by its own internal contradictions. Or they could seek a direct deal with those who wield real power in Iran. That means ignoring the official Iran and communicating with Khamenei and the military-security-business networks operating around him.
That was the option chosen by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who flew to Tehran, spent hours talking to Khamenei and totally ignored Rouhani and his government. The result was the “strategic alliance” that Khamenei announced with Russia, undoing years of efforts by pro-Obama figures around Rouhani to restore ties with the US.
A direct deal with Iran as a revolution may calm some of its fear of being overthrown by foreign plotters. It may then be persuaded to tone down some of its aggressive behavior in the region. But it will not prevent it from fomenting instability and sponsoring terrorism; it will not turn that foe into a friend.
The outside world would have to learn to live with the Islamic Republic, warts and all, and treat it like a sickness that makes life difficult but is not lethal. Such a policy should be accompanied by active containment, making sure the mullahs know that every move they make would have consequences.
The third option is regime change aimed at helping Iran absorb its revolutionary experience and re-become a nation-state. None of the successive US administrations have even remotely considered that option, though some did toy with the idea. This option is more difficult to put into effect, but if successful, more efficient in removing what is the single most important source of instability in the Middle East.
As a revolution trying to make the rest of the world like itself, Iran will always remain a threat to everybody. As a nation-state that has absolutely no tangible cause for conflict with anybody, Iran could be a leading force in building a new architecture of peace and stability in this war-struck part of the world.
• Amir Taheri was executive editor in chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He worked at, or wrote for innumerable publications and published 11 books.
• Published in agreement with Asharq Al-Awsat