The Magazine

Going Soft on Iran

From the March 8, 2004 issue: The temptation of America's foreign policy "realists."

Mar 8, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 25 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

ACCORDING TO THE NEWSPAPERS and the CIA, Iranian "hard-liners" dealt their country's reform movement and fledgling democracy a heavy, perhaps lethal, blow on February 20. With over 2,000 candidates "disqualified" before the parliamentary elections even took place, the ruling clerical elite ensured that the reformers, who've won office and national attention since the presidential election of Mohammad Khatami in May 1997, would no longer dominate the parliament, or Majles, which has become a forum for public discontent and frustration with the ruling mullahs. With a majority of seats in the next parliament, and already firmly in control of the country's internal security organizations and courts, the "hard-liners" will be able to fracture and silence, so the reporting goes, the political parties, newspapers, and organizations that left-wing clerics, like Khatami, had used to create a national movement for change.

According to many American "realists"--the school of foreign policy most often associated with such men as former national security advisers Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski, former diplomats James Baker, Richard Murphy, Thomas Pickering, and Richard Haass, and institutions like the Nixon Center and the Council on Foreign Relations--there may be a silver lining in the bad news. Iran's "hard-liners" may in fact be "pragmatic conservatives," to borrow a phrase often heard now in the colloquies of Washington's think tanks where the intellectual laborers of American realism are trying to devise a new strategy for Iran and the Greater Middle East. In the post-9/11 world, the fear of weapons of mass destruction in the wrong hands dominates public policy debates, and a growing number of American realists believe that Iran's "pragmatic mullahs"--in Persian translation, this means former Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the major-domo of the clerical establishment, and Ali Khamenei, the "spiritual leader" of the country--are the men to cut a deal to halt Iran's WMD programs.

There is even a sense in certain quarters that we might actually be lucky that Khatami and the parliamentary reformers have been whipped. Rafsanjani and Khamenei may play a very rough game domestically--Hezbollah thugs beat dissidents, "rogue" intelligence agents knife and run down liberal intellectuals, the judiciary jails any dangerous political opposition figure too prominent to off, and the Council of Guardians preemptively disqualifies troublemakers from office--but externally they are, so the theory goes, responsible, rational actors who are principally motivated by geopolitics and economics (and, in the case of Rafsanjani, lucre). They are, in other words, real men, not distracted by all the leftist intellectual debates that consumed so many on the Khatami side of the political house.

It's worthwhile to remember that not that long ago prominent American realists made a different argument. In May 2001, just before President Khatami won his second term, Brent Scowcroft wrote in the Washington Post that we should unilaterally engage the Islamic Republic by lifting sanctions--specifically those targeted against the energy sector--even before talking about the clerical regime's fondness for terrorism, its development of nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction, or its unrelenting hostility to a peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians. According to Scowcroft, such a unilateral move was not to be viewed as "a sign of weakness in light of continued predations by an obnoxious and repressive regime." Such a charge would "miss the central point, which is that an active struggle is underway to determine the future course of Iran. The key is to speak to the people of Iran, not to their oppressors." Thus, for the Bush administration to give "a signal from the United States showing the desire for a better bilateral relationship might provide encouragement and impetus to reformers and the people who so eagerly seek change."

Of course, Scowcroft didn't explain how exactly an oil deal with Conoco or ExxonMobil would empower Iran's democratic forces. (One wonders whether Scowcroft, who has been a paid consultant to U.S. energy companies, would have made this argument to the shah of Iran, or whether American oil executives have ever made this case to the energy-rich princes and dictators of the Middle East, post-Soviet Central Asia, or the Caucasus.) Neither he nor the other heavy hitters who cochaired a major review of U.S.-Iran policy in 2001 (former secretary of defense James Schlesinger and Democratic congressman Lee Hamilton) explained why Rafsanjani and Khamenei, two clerics who have excelled at machtpolitik, would not view unilateral American concessions as unilateral American concessions.