Seeing through Iran’s moderate vs hard-liner illusion
I believe the two most used phrases by Iran lobbyists in Washington and Europe are “this will strengthen the hard-liners” and “this will weaken the moderates.” Every single time a tough decision against the regime is made, they go off like synchronized alarm systems, repeating “this action is going to weaken the moderates and strengthen the hard-liners.”
As US President Joe Biden’s administration has now taken office, these lobbyists are pushing for a speedy return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal and have announced with certainty that, once money flows back to Iran and the economy gets better, then the moderates will be stronger. And, if this does not happen fast, then the hard-liners will be stronger, making it difficult for the Biden administration to address other issues.
Firstly, once the JCPOA is back, then the Iranian regime will not need to discuss any other regional issues. Secondly, does anyone still believe this “moderates versus hard-liners” narrative? Seriously, does anyone really believe that moderates — if they exist in the regime — have the capacity to do anything? Tehran has been successful in doing this diplomatic dance for decades now. The so-called moderate voices of Iran shouting their incapacity to move the needle because of the West’s decisions that are strengthening the hawks. This is just a superb invention.
But they have been able to use it because, first and foremost, Western policymakers have made the deliberate decision to believe this lie. Indeed, it has been quite a good tool or argument for Western officials to implement policies they wanted to push through for other reasons. It makes a good story to move fast before the “bad” hard-liners weaken the “good” moderates. This usually needs to happen before a presidential election, in which candidates are hand-picked by the supreme leader.
I do not believe that there are no reasonable or moderate figures with influential positions in Iran. However, short of a revolution — which will not happen — they are not capable of bringing a positive change. The regime has applied the same technique domestically. It alternates between moderate and hard-line decisions, giving small signs of hope for more personal freedoms. It tolerates little liberties that make the people who have been deprived of everything feel grateful, but does not bring enough hope or optimism for them to dare ask for more or for change. This balancing act has also been a superb tool.
And so, after these decades of diplomatic dancing between the West and Iran, it might be time to face the music. Facing the music means confronting the hard-liners and putting all the files on the table, including the negative meddling in regional affairs and the missile program, which has been cooperating again with North Korea. Unless there is a true will to stop these actions, then the diplomatic dance will continue.
The key question is what can be done to change the regime in Tehran’s actions — without a regime change, which would bring even more chaos into this region — and force it to adopt positive bilateral relations? A new policy direction from Iran would help develop trade, allow for cross-border investments and open the door to tourism and common infrastructure, from electrical to communications. The untapped potential of this new page would be a game-changer not only for the Middle East but the world.
After listing the pros and cons of Iran going ahead with this big shift, I do not see a single reason for it to continue pushing its current line of action. Iran will not achieve regional domination, just as it will not be removed from the regional equation. Yet we can agree on a formula preserving every party’s interests, both politically and economically, especially as the regime change concept is no longer valid.
Iran is a big and important country with a great population, and it is time this region was fully connected; especially as global economic competition heats up and there is a common need to diversify economies. The global and common threats the region faces are, in fact, much bigger than our current confrontation. I am surprised the Iranian regime has not yet grasped this.
Unfortunately, it seems that Tehran is feeling secure enough that the planets are aligning in its favor and that the Europeans, as well as the foreign policy team in the US, will go back to the JCPOA and will have a favorable approach to Iran. This action would remove all incentives, even if they were slim, for the regime to change anything in its modus operandi when it comes to regional affairs. I would say the opposite is true: The Iranian leaders are feeling emboldened and they will push for more destabilization and interference, as it seems it will yield better results.
The world needs a grand bargain with Iran. It should all start with a 'non-interference in domestic affairs accord.' This, more than a return to the nuclear deal, would be the key to global stability.
Khaled Abou Zahr
The regime knows exactly what the Europeans and the US diplomacy team want. Europeans want to go back and trade, especially after the coronavirus disease impact. They are eager to allow their companies to get back to the €30 billion ($36 billion) or so of deals they had in 2015. The US administration simply wants to erase the actions of the previous one and continue where President Barack Obama left off. So the Iranian regime is now making it difficult and sending different signals to put pressure on the West. In a certain way, I would say that, despite what the Western nations think, it is not they that is holding the stick and the carrot, but rather the Iranian regime — the hard-liners and no one else.
Once again, our region has many more stakeholders and players than just Iran and the West, and there will always be a counterbalance and new alliances. Therefore, the approach needs to include all the stakeholders, from Arab countries to Turkey and Israel, as well as Russia. Usually, these grand deals or bargains happen after a big war with a clear winner. So why not avoid this and consider the pandemic to be a symbol of the common threats we are likely to face in the future and map out a clear path toward a stronger Middle East? It should all start with a “non-interference in domestic affairs accord.” This, more than a return to the JCPOA, would be the key to global stability and a true win for moderates.
- Khaled Abou Zahr is CEO of Eurabia, a media and tech company. He is also the editor of Al-Watan Al-Arabi.