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Lessons from the Iranian Revolution

February 11, 2009

Washington D.C. – On the 30th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution and as the new U.S. Administration of President Barack Obama promises to seek out channels for direct diplomacy with the Islamic Republic of Iran, American experts continue gathering in Washington to discuss the legacy of the 1979 take-over of Iran by the clergy. Despite the promise of new beginnings, old misconceptions and mutual mistrust continue to dominate the relations between the United States and Iran, which some fear might cripple renewed efforts toward engagement.

Two former Foreign Service officers who were posted in Iran during the lead-up to the revolution spoke at an event organized by the Middle East Institute, a think tank in Washington D.C., pointing out the strings of developments and setbacks that drove U.S. foreign policy towards defeat in 1979.

Guilty of wishful thinking, the U.S. had a very inaccurate understanding of the situation on the ground in Iran, argued Charlie Haas, country director for Iran at the Department of State from 1975 to 1978 and Deputy Chief of Mission in Tehran in 1978-79. Up until the last few months of the regime of Shah Mohamed Reza Pahlavi, Haas recalled, “Washington thought that Iran was on the march, that things in Teheran were looking good, that the Shah was solidly in control, and that we were getting a lot of value out of all of this.” By the fall of 1978, when the situation had turned for the worst, the U.S. had decided to support the Shah until the very end, no matter how unpopular he had become. Scant regard was also paid to how such a decision would potentially spoil any opportunity to maintain some, however diminished, level of engagement with the Islamic Republic.

To its own detriment, Washington had severely underestimated the magnitude of the Islamic revolution and proved unequipped to deal with the consequences it bore. According to Henry Precht, a political and military officer at the Embassy in Tehran for the four years prior to the Revolution and the then State Department country director for Iran during the hostage crisis, five factors played a central role in the unfolding of events: ignorance, ideology, inertia, insults and Israel – the five Is.

The U.S. showed a remarkable lack of understanding of domestic Iranian politics, as Washington obstinately equated the whole of Iran with the person of the Shah (a tendency that, inexplicably, remains alive even today when the U.S. equates all of Iran to the words and actions of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad). Forgetting the existence and demands of the other forty millions Iranians, the U.S. ended up in an unsustainable position. Rigid anti-communism was partially responsible for such complete devotion to the Shah. Zbigniew Brzezinski, then National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter, viewed Iran as the lynchpin in the wall of containment around the Soviet Union and wouldn’t let go of his ideologically aligned ally Mohamed Reza Pahlavi. In addition to flat-out misconceptions and inflexible ideological stances, a kind of inertia in U.S. policy also made it impossible for Washington to change course. In the years that preceded the Islamic revolution, Iran suffered from rampant inflation and economic chaos, and the regime was becoming increasingly unpopular. “Basically, we were witnessing a war between the Shah and his people and the Shah was not going to prevail,” Henry Precht recalled. He became convinced that the U.S. should change approach and adjust to the changing time, but “because of inertia nobody accepted to embark upon this path,” Haas said.

The rise to power of Iran’s Islamist regime presented the U.S. with many more unexpected turns. During his exile in Paris, surrounded by westernized mullahs, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had managed to convince the world that he was another Gandhi coming along to rescue Iran from foreign subjugation. However, once he returned to Teheran in February of 1979, the more conservative clergy that had never left the country and had suffered a great deal of persecution under the Shah successfully took the revolution into a more fundamentalist direction. This departure triggered two developments. The U.S. and Iran embraced the rhetoric of insults, sparring accusations and blame, which quickly caused the relationship to deteriorate and then entirely collapse. The arrival of the Iranian theocracy, and the implications for Israel, also meant that Jerusalem became a prominent consideration in shaping Washington’s policy toward Teheran. This had not necessarily been the case in the past.

Some of the same dynamics that characterized the days immediately preceding and immediately following the Iranian revolution are still at play thirty years later and will partly influence the way bilateral dealings will develop under President Obama. Alex Vatanka, US Security Editor of Jane’s Information Group, and Trita Parsi, President of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), discussed the future of U.S.-Iran relationship at the Middle East Institute, in a separate panel.

The departing point for any new discussion about Iranian politics is the announcement made last Monday by former President Mohammad Khatami that he will run for office again this year, in the presidential elections scheduled for June. Since the ultimate power of the Islamic Republic lies in the hands of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and since all important decision-making happens behind closed doors, Vatanka speculated whether or not the Supreme Leader gave Khatami the green light. Ayatollah Khamenei might have had reasons to do so, especially considering the state of Iran’s economy and the increasingly unpopular government of President Ahmadinejad. In addition, and in spite of his reformist agenda, Khatami does not look like the confrontational personality that would ever truly challenge the Ayatollah and his supremacy. “If the Supreme Leader did give Khatami the ok, which I think is the case, Ahmadinejad’s road toward re-election will be steep,” predicted Vatanka. However, he added, if Khatami chose to run despite the opinion of Khamenei, “Iran is facing a period of political commotion like it hasn’t in a long time.”

Iran’s internal politics is increasingly fractured, Vatanka claimed, and the infighting between different factions is on the rise. This development should not be confused with a weakness of the regime. Rather, this is a testimony of how comfortable the Islamic Republic has grown, allowing for internal debate because it feels unchallenged otherwise. “I’m definitely not one of those who subscribe to the view that the regime is on the verge of collapse,” argued Vatanka, forecasting that the internal balance between reformists and conservatives and the debate on who holds the true legacy of the revolution will continue well into the next decade.

From the U.S. point of view, however, Vatanka reminded that reformists and conservatives are all Islamists and that the U.S. should not take the news of Khatami’s candidature as a reason to daydream about a complete change in Iran’s politics. After all, it is Ayatollah Khamenei who always has the last word, particularly with regard to matters of foreign policy. First and foremost, the U.S. should remember, Ayatollah Khamenei has an interest in preserving the supremacy of his office and, secondly, in guaranteeing the survival of the theocracy. As a result, one should expect that, in order to engage actively and directly with the U.S., Iran will ask for a full recognition of the regime as it is today, looking for a strategic shift on the part of Washington. “Once the regime is officially accepted by the U.S., and Iranians don’t feel it is at all right now, only then the debate on the U.S.-Iran relationship will change completely,” Vatanka speculated.

Trita Parsi echoed him, reflecting on a few questions that loom large on the Obama Administration as the President tries to find ways to open a fulfilling dialogue with Teheran. Parsi reiterated the fact that Iran wants security guarantees before it begins a direct diplomatic relationship with the U.S. The Iranian leadership has been talking about being included in the debate over the Middle East, to be granted a seat at the table. However, Parsi noted, Teheran has not yet put forward a comprehensive vision of what this inclusion should mean. He believes that the U.S. should seize this opportunity and be the first to lay out a plan for what the U.S.-Iran relationship should ideally look like in the future. “If we don’t present a long-term, strategic vision, Iranians will simply assume that the U.S. is only after regime change and, with that in mind, won’t fully cooperate even in areas in which we do share common interests,” Parsi claimed. After all, he recalled, Iranians were very disappointed when in 2002 President George W. Bush included Iran in the ‘axis of evil’ only weeks after Teheran had been cooperating with Washington on Afghanistan. President Obama should abandon all step-by-step and tactical-type approaches, which have failed in the past, and leave aside all remaining hesitation to move forward with a comprehensive vision and a strategic shift.

According to Trita Parsi, President Obama should also adopt a new kind of rhetoric when talking about Iran, like he did in his inaugural address, where he pledged to relate to the Muslim world on the basis of “mutual respect.” Americans should also finally drop the idea of a ‘carrot and stick’ approach. Iranians are offended by it because it is a language normally reserved for donkeys.

In addition, there is a matter of timing: the U.S. Administration must decide whether or not to begin a dialogue with Iran before the Iranian presidential elections take place in June. There have been charges that initiating a relationship now would only help the electoral campaign of President Ahmadinejad. It has also been claimed that it would be much easier for President Obama to speak to Khatami than to President Ahmadiejad. “The truth is we really don’t know and any time we have tried to play Iranian politics in the past we failed,” Trita Parsi argued. As a result, he advises the U.S. to leave the elections issue aside and to establish government to government relations that are independent of individuals on either side of the aisle. Opening up talks immediately could also facilitate the task of a possible reformist government, were Khatami to win the vote. In fact, one could make the case that Iranian reformers would enjoy more leeway in continuing negotiations that were initiated under conservative rule, rather than launching diplomatic engagement themselves.

Finally, President Obama needs to decide how to approach the very delicate nuclear issue. According to Trita Parsi, the U.S. should remain focused on what is achievable, rather than relying on hawkish rhetoric that only contributes antagonizing the Iranians. “Washington should want to discuss weaponization rather than enrichment,” argued Trita Parsi. As a signatory to the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Iran is prevented from developing nuclear weapons and should be held accountable for that. However, the NPT entitles Iran to enrichment, making it pointless to try and stop Teheran from enriching uranium.

Concluding his presentation, Trita Parsi recognized that the chances for the kind of ambitious strategic approach he laid out are very slim, even under President Obama. Nevertheless, the matter of fact is that, for the first time in thirty years, Barack Obama ran and won his presidential campaign on the promise to engage Teheran. This, according to Parsi, is unprecedented and should not be discounted.

Originally reported and written for Washington Prism

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