A young woman votes in the second runoff of the Iranian Parliamentary elections this past April (via Faith Today).
Iran is not our enemy. The reaction from Iranians to Obama’s election has been one of cautious optimism and anticipation:
Iranians reacted positively to Barack Obama’s election, saluting the
choice of the American people in breaking with George Bush’s policies
and hoping – despite years of deep mutual mistrust – for better
relations between Tehran and Washington.
“Now [America] will probably set aside its domineering policies. This is what we
hope as a third world and Islamic country. I hope for a meeting between
the supreme leader and Obama, but only if the US accepts our values.
Our differences with the US are not about nuclear issues or terrorism
or Zionism or human rights. The main problem is how the US looks at us.”
The time is definitely ripe for change in relations between the US and Iran. In the Washington Monthly, Leverett and Leverett argue that a grand rapprochement with Iran is an opportunity for the next president:
Iran’s growing strategic importance and confidence in its role in the region mean it is no longer just a threat to be managed. More than ever, it is now an international actor that can profoundly undermine, or help advance, many of the United States’s most vital strategic objectives.
That is why the next U.S. president, whether it is John McCain or Barack Obama, should reorient American policy toward Iran as fundamentally as President Nixon reoriented American policy toward the People’s Republic of China in the early 1970s. Nearly three decades of U.S. policy toward Iran emphasizing diplomatic isolation, escalating economic pressure, and thinly veiled support for regime change have damaged the interests of the United States and its allies in the Middle East. U.S.-Iranian tensions have been a constant source of regional instability and are increasingly dangerous for global energy security. Our dysfunctional Iran policy, among other foreign policy blunders, has placed the American position in the region under greater strain than at any point since the end of the Cold War. It is clearly time for a fundamental change of course in the U.S. approach to the Islamic Republic.
By fundamental change, we do not mean incremental, step-by-step engagement with Tehran, or simply trying to manage the Iranian challenge in the region more adroitly than the Bush administration has done. Rather, we mean the pursuit of thoroughgoing strategic rapprochement between the United States and Iran: the negotiation of a U.S.-Iranian “grand bargain.” This would mean putting all of the principal bilateral differences between the United States and Iran on the table at the same time and agreeing to resolve them as a package.
The added benefit of active engagement with Iran would be increased cultural and economic exposure to America, which will further widen the gap between the mullahs and the youth. Rather than try to foster outright rebellion (as the discredited neo-conservatives like Michael Ledeen have been advocating for years), we can play a more passive kind of pragmatic liberal interventionalism. By acting an an enabler rather than an active meddler in Iran, we can help transform it from within; Iran is perhaps the best-suited Islamic country for genuine, organic democratic change.
In many ways, an analogy to Nixon and China makes a lot of sense. Like China, Iran is an ideological society run by authoritarians and which has a great deal of strategic and hegemonic influence in a region of the world that America also has strategic interests in. Just as China is literally an existential threat to staunch democratic ally Taiwan, Iran is a danger to Israel. As with China, however, we can still have relations with Iran and make it clear that aggression towards our ally will be met with a response – an argument that succeeds in deterring nuclear-armed China from it’s ideological claim to Taiwan, and one that will succeed in deterring Iran as well. Note that Israel has the advantage over Taiwan in that it has nukes of its own – the “mad mullahs” of Iran seek power above all else and thus will be just as susceptible to MAD doctrine as the Soviets and Chinese.
Ultimately, a rapprochement with Iran – a nation and a civilization in its own right, one which expressed interest in closer ties with the US and whose people expressed genuine sympathy in the wake of the 9-11 attacks, but was rewarded for its olive branch by being named as part of the Axis of Evil by President Bush – is in our long term interest, as well as the world’s. It will increase, not decrease our security, as well as Israel’s (despite their anxiety to the contrary), because an Iran that need not fear America is one that will engage in less bluster and defensive posturing. After all, America is the superpower; they have more to fear from us than we do them (and likewise Israel, with a nuclear arsenal of its own).
But how likely is the Obama Administration to pursue closer ties with Iran? Obama’s campaign rhetoric accepts the frame that Iran is intrinsically hostile,
an entity to be deterred and prevented from obtaining nuclear weapons
“at any cost”. From his seminal speech on foreign policy to the Chicago Council for Global Affairs (which turned neocon Robert Kagan into an Obama supporter),
he took a more moderate tone, arguing for diplomatic carrots and
economic sticks, and invoked the idea of an international nuclear fuel
bank to give countries like Iran “no more excuses” to pursue their own
enrichment schemes. He also opposed the Kyl-Lieberman amendment, which
argued in favor of using force to confront Iran, but hasn’t taken any
position on whether he would support Israeli military action. Overall, it’s very hard to really gauge Obama’s position towards Iran, other than the improvement over Bush in terms of being willing to engage in “high level” diplomacy.
What makes me more hopeful about a sane Iran policy, however, is Joe Biden. Biden is the foreign policy polymath and so it should be no surprise that he’d given extensive thought to Iran – as far back as 2002, in a speech to the American-Iranian Council, in which he laid out a comprehensive five-step policy:
The United States should allow non-governmental organizations to
support a range of civil society and democracy building activities in
Iran; continue to work with Tehran on matters of mutual interest;
should go along with Iran’s bid to join the World Trade Organization
(WTO); should work to “indirectly assist” the Tehran regime in the
fields of refugees and anti-narcotics efforts; and should encourage
citizen exchanges with Iran, according to Biden (Democrat of Delaware).
Biden also said he believed that the United States would “ultimately have to facilitate a regime-change in Iraq.”
The Bush administration, Biden told his audience, should “issue a
general license to permit American non-governmental organizations to
financially support a broad range of civil society, cultural, human
rights, and democracy-building activities in Iran. Such funding is
currently banned by Executive Order.”
The United States “should continue to work with Iran on matters of
mutual interest as we did on Afghanistan,” the Senate Foreign Relations
Committee chairman said.
“The dialogue on Afghanistan should serve as a model and should be
extended to other areas of mutual interest, like the future of Iraq,
another topic for discussion and cooperation,” Biden said.
The United States should go along with Tehran’s bid to begin accession talks to the WTO, the Delaware Democrat said.
“We should be willing to indirectly assist Iran on refugee and narcotics matters,” he said.
Iran has “a huge population of Afghan and Iraqi refugees,” Biden said.
Tehran “has paid a heavy price in blood and treasure in battling narcotics traffickers on its eastern frontier,” he said.
Finally, the United States should continue to encourage citizen exchanges, he said.
Biden, as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, then
extended an invitation “to receive members of the Iranian Majlis
whenever its members would like to visit.”
The full speech is here and it’s really worth reading in full. Note that Biden does explicitly mention regime change, but he isn’t talking about military intervention. By “facilitate” he’s alluding to the same passive role that I spoke of above; fostering stronger ties with Iran across the board will result in liberalization of their society and ultimately a rejection of authoritarian control. Here, the analogy to China diverges, because of demographics: according to the CIA World Factbook, in Iran the median age is 26 years old, with 22.3% age 14 and younger and only 5.4% age 65 or older; in China the median age is 33.6 years old, with 20.1% age 14 and younger and 8% 65 and above. These percentages may not seem all that different, but multiplied across the population size (China: 1.3 billion; Iran: 65 million) the youth in Iran have far more relevance to their country’s future than their Chinese counterparts. The pragmatic nature of the Chinese Communist Party in pursuing capitalist policy, and the lack of a “cultural enforcement” on dress and socializing with opposite gender, also makes Chinese youth less likely to express dissatisfaction with their society. The contrast with Iran is one we can make use of in the long term.
One more thing worth noting is that Biden has expressly invoked Walter Mondale as his role model for Vice President:
“I was invited to every meeting the president had,”
Mondale said. “I read all the same materials he did, all the
During his tenure, Mondale said he served as an extension of
the presidency, traveling to China and the Middle East on
diplomatic missions and advising Carter on international and
I can envision a high-profile formal diplomatic visit by Joe Biden to Tehran within the first 100 days of an Obama Administration. Such an initiative would really set the stage for the policy towards Iran, and the broader muslim world as a whole.