A Long View on Iran
There are four elements in Iran that bear on United States foreign policy interests: Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the “Supreme Leader;” his theocratic power base, the Revolutionary Guards and its Quds Force unit; President Hassan Rouhani and his elected government; and the Iranian people themselves, which includes a broad middle class. The distinction between the first three and the final element could possibly create an opportunity for some form of American outreach to the segment of these people who may have something in common with United States values of economic and personal freedom. The analogy here is our experience with the people in Eastern European in Warsaw Pact nations during the Cold War, where enough commonality between the United States and these people existed that they turned to us when the Berlin Wall finally fell.
The first and second elements are inextricably entwined- Ayatollah Khamenei and his power base, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The IRGC controls large enterprises which are estimated to account for a quarter of the domestic economy, while its special operations Quds Force continues to actively destabilize the Middle East and nurture Shiite terrorist groups and regimes in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. Because of these actions, the United States and Canada have designated the Quds Force as a terrorist supporter.A third element, the elected government, led by President Rouhani since 2013, is practically dependent and subservient to the Ayatollah despite any fiction of theoretical separation. Rouhani is characterized by some as a moderate, for what that may mean in Iran right now, and his 2017 re-election marked a second consecutive electoral victory over candidates who the media characterized as more “hardline.”
While Rouhani may be “moderate” in comparison to his extremely abrasive predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he nonetheless leads a government which is completely hostile to the interests of the United States, and which nurtures and spreads terrorism as much as his boss, the Ayatollah and his forces do. Despite Rouhani’s campaign promises to release the leaders of the Green Movement of 2009, they remain incarcerated, and 2015 featured the highest rate of executions in Iran in 25 years.
There is an institutional obstacle to taking the elected government seriously as anything but an artifice of the Ayatollah and the IRGC: the Council of Guardians, whose members are selected by the Supreme Leader, approves or disqualifies presidential candidates from running. Additionally, under certain circumstances, the Supreme Leader has the power to remove an elected president. At the end of the day, there is a front-office elected government and a back-office, Mullah-IRGC run theocracy in charge.
The last consideration is the Iranian people. There may be elements of the general populace which are not blindly aligned with the oppressive regime. The middle class in Iran, business and shop owners, could have different priorities than the theocracy. Despite years of sanctions, a broad private sector economy has survived and is growing, made up of well-educated people desiring freedom and upward mobility. It would seem that this segment might appreciate the economic and personal freedoms we Americans enjoy.
Research indicates a strong potential for freedom and democracy in Iran. A 2012 survey of the Iranian people by researchers at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya revealed they have more democratic values and tendencies than Egyptians, Moroccans, Indians, Russians, South Koreans and Ukrainians.
Subsequent studies by Zogby in 2015 and 2016 confirmed the earlier findings. The 2015 report found that 59 percent of Iranians want better relations with the West. Further, the studies documented an erosion of domestic support for Iran’s hegemonic ambitions around the Middle East. An encouraging example is the drastic decline concerning the level of support for the Assad regime in Syria, which fell from 90 percent in 2014 to only 24 percent in 2016.
However nominal or uncorroborated they may be, any potential asymmetries between the views of the government and the people should be taken seriously and exploited by the United States and the West. We might look to the Eastern Europeanexperience at the end of the Cold War. In the late 1980’s, having been subjugated and abused for years by puppet governments of the Soviet Union, the people of the Warsaw Pact countries mounted mostly peaceful revolutions, and overthrew their respective authoritarian regimes. Today, capitalism and varying degrees of democracy now flourish in these former communist states.
The United States’ strategy of combining persistent economic warfare against the communist governments with soft power outreach to their oppressed people laid a foundation for these transitions. Direct engagement with the people through media like Radio Free Europe (RFE) and Voice of America (VOA) were platforms to combat communist propaganda, and created an alternative narrative about the West. A connection, however tangential, between the United States and the people made Eastern Europeans realize they had a friend in the United States. When their governments finally fell, an architecture was in place by which to communicate and interact with Eastern Europe.
Could a similar strategy work with the people of Iran? Are there communication and counterintelligence measures we might deploy to increase the odds that a post-theocratic Iran would be friendlier to the United States? RFE and VOA already have Persian language broadcasts which, while restricted by the Iranian government, reach millions of Iranians through various media methods. Continued soft power efforts might establish a framework for a future relationship where the people of Iran might see the United States as a friend instead of a foe. If so, we might create conditions which allow Iran to replicate the free and capitalistic post-communist nations of Eastern Europe.
In 1959, Rev. Robert A. Graham, S.J., foresaw the changes in Eastern Europe as inevitable, writing “Overwhelmingly Catholic Poland …will sooner or later edge closer to normal relations with the Vatican. In this eventuality the communist government will find itself carried by forces which it cannot control.” Perhaps we can take steps to increase the odds that the Iranian theocratic regime will also someday find itself carried by forces outside its control and succumb to the democratic will of the people.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in June noted that our strategy with respect to Iran already acknowledges the democratic leanings of many Iranians. During testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, he stated the United States will “work towards support of those elements inside of Iran that would lead to a peaceful transition of that government.” Rather than advocate regime change, the secretary articulates a long-term strategy reminiscent of United States policy during the Cold War: a plan to reach out to the people of Iran to encourage their democratic potential, and put a framework in place to nurture a smooth transition to free markets and democratic government when the opportunity arises.