The Wrong Lessons

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The peaceful resolution in April of the crisis over the 15 British sailors arrested by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards was a welcome outcome and tidbit of good news in an otherwise tense relationship between Tehran and the West. Unfortunately, most in the West are learning the wrong lessons from this crisis about how to deal with the Islamic Republic.

On the one hand, self-described pragmatists as well as regime apologists—always in search of any token of good behavior by the mullahs—have asserted that the peaceful resolution of the crisis once again proves the futility of confrontation, the wisdom of accommodation, and the benefits of providing carrots rather than sticks. Therefore, the United States must now forgo any dream of regime change, offer the regime the respect it craves and deserves, and get on with the business of détente with the Islamic Republic. For this camp, the historical analogy is President Nixon’s China gambit in 1972.

On the other hand, advocates of confrontation believe that the hostage crisis affirmed their take on the Islamic Republic. The decision to detain innocent sailors and the odious practice of parading hostages before cameras for propaganda purposes—in the wake of the regime’s continued defiance of the Security Council and its relentless support for terrorists in Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine—are all proof that the mullahs are incorrigibly evil and understand only the language of raw power. Any negotiation with them affords them the legitimacy they do not deserve. Instead, the lesson to be learned from the crisis is tighter embargos, more money for those willing to fight the regime (including ethnic minorities seeking independence), and eventually the necessity of a military attack on the regime’s nuclear facilities.

Both interpretations of the hostage crisis, as well as the policy recommendations resulting from the analyses, are flawed.

The callousness with which the regime handled its prisoners—from solitary confinement to forced, public confessions—affirmed the menacing nature of this regime. The Islamic Republic remains an autocracy, intent on repressing its people at home and threatening the security of the United States and its allies in the region. This regime deserves no respect, legitimacy, or recognition from the United States. Only a democratic Iran will become a peaceful neighbor in the Middle East and a reliable, predictable partner for the United States. American leaders and their allies must not be fooled by Iran’s alleged rational behavior in freeing the hostages to assume that this is a “normal” regime with which the United States can develop stable and cordial relations, as Nixon did with China 35 years ago.

Compared to China in the 1970s, Iranian society is wealthy, urban, educated, and organized, offering hundreds of contact points for constructive engagement with Americans if offered the chance to interact.

The best strategy for nurturing democratic change in Iran, however, is not more sanctions or military confrontation. On the contrary, the fastest way to expedite change inside Iran is more interaction with the West and the United States in particular.


A comprehensive, uncompromising policy of engagement with Iran must begin with unconditional negotiations about everything, not just arms control. If the United States must give up its precondition of verifiable suspension of uranium enrichment before talks, then Tehran must accept human rights and state-sponsored terrorism as agenda items for any future negotiation. This open-ended negotiation must begin with the obvious trade: the suspension of all enrichment activities in exchange for

  1. An internationally supplied source of nuclear fuel;
  2. Diplomatic relations with the United States;
  3. The lifting of blanket U.S. sanctions (though keeping smart sanctions, mandated by the United Nations, in place).

But negotiations do not end there. U.S. officials should not pursue diplomatic relations with Iran as a strategy for preserving the status quo (as Nixon did with China in the 1970s) but as a strategy for altering the status quo (as President Reagan did with the Soviet Union in the 1980s).

For instance, opening a U.S. embassy in Tehran would facilitate interaction with Iranian and American societies, including more Iranian students in American universities, more American academic, scientific, and business delegations to Iran, and greater flows of information about the United States into Iran. Gradually, with normalized relations, American mass media and nongovernmental organizations could open offices in Iran, establish ties with their Iranian counterparts, and promote cultural exchanges, free flows of information, and democratic development.

Compared with Chinese society in the early 1970s, Iranian society today is wealthy, urban, educated, and organized, offering hundreds of contact points for constructive engagement with Americans if offered the chance. A U.S. ambassador in Tehran also could act as a vocal defender of Iranian human rights groups and as a symbol of America’s desire to work with the Iranian people and society, just as American ambassadors did in the communist world during the Cold War. At a minimum, a U.S. diplomatic presence inside Iran would expand our knowledge about the nature of the Iranian regime and society.

American leaders and their allies must not be fooled by Iran’s alleged rational behavior in freeing the latest hostages to assume that this is a “normal” regime open to stable and cordial relations.

Moreover, lifting sanctions should not generate new rents for the Islamic Republic but instead create new trade and investment opportunities for Iran’s genuine private sector. Many American investors seeking to work inside Iran are Iranian-Americans who despise the current regime. In the long run, they will wield their economic strength to empower Iranian society at the expense of the mullahs, not to their benefit.

Along with opening bilateral relations and lifting sanctions, U.S. officials should endorse creating a regional security organization in the greater Middle East that would include Iran, akin to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (now known as the OSCE) that began 30 years ago. Such an organization could provide security guarantees between states in the region, and among those outside the region that have major security stakes. When the CSCE first began, the Soviet Union and its satellite regimes were members. The security guarantees in the CSCE documents helped defuse tensions between states in Europe, whereas the human rights guarantees in the CSCE founding charter—the “basket three” items—eventually inspired human rights groups in communist countries to pressure their governments for change.


Advocates of confrontation believe that these bold policy changes would legitimize and strengthen a dangerous regime. They are wrong. Although we share their views of the Iranian regime, we disagree with the strategy for dealing with and ultimately changing it.

First, diplomatic relations, if handled properly, do not accord legitimacy. Was Reagan “selling out” to the Soviets, maintaining diplomatic relations while deploring communist oppression, encouraging engagement with dissidents, and seeking to roll back Soviet gains in the developing world? Was Secretary of State Shultz appeasing communists when he began talks about nuclear weapons with his Soviet counterparts, well before Mikhail Gorbachev came to power?

Why not pursue a policy that goes beyond the tired policy stalemate between bombing or arms control?

Second, we realize that our proposed strategy may not yield immediate results in politically liberalizing Iran. But even in the short run, our strategy will help delay the mullahs’ quest to acquire nuclear weapons, an important objective that current American policy is not achieving.

Third, our strategy is precisely the course advocated by most leaders of the democratic movement inside Iran. No major figure in the Iranian opposition supports sanctions, let alone military action. On the contrary, according to Akbar Ganji, arguably the country’s most important moral advocate of democracy, the vast majority of Iran’s democratic leaders and thinkers believe that normalized relations with the United States and greater integration of Iran into international institutions will strengthen their democratic cause.

After 30 years of failure in dealing with Iran, why not listen to Ganji and his supporters and pursue a policy that goes beyond the tired policy stalemate between bombing and arms control? A new policy, which combines the objective of democratic change with the strategy of engagement, offers a bold third way for dealing with Iran.