Reading Iran All Wrong

U.S. foreign policy elites often speak in their own echo chamber of acceptable thought and thus grow more and more detached from the real world. Such a case is the recent punditry about Iran, as Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett describe.

By Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

Hassan Rouhani’s election as Iran’s president seven months ago caught most of the West’s self-appointed Iran “experts” by (largely self-generated) surprise. Over the course of Iran’s month-long presidential campaign, methodologically-sound polls by the University of Tehran showed that a Rouhani victory was increasingly likely.

Yet Iran specialists at Washington’s leading think tanks continued erroneously insisting (as they had for months before the campaign formally commenced) that Iranians could not be polled like other populations and that there would be “a selection rather than an election,” engineered to install Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s “anointed” candidate — in most versions, former nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili.

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani addressing the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 24, 2013. (UN Photo)

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani addressing the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 24, 2013. (UN Photo)

On election day, as Iranian voters began casting their ballots, the Washington Post proclaimed that Rouhani “will not be allowed to win” — a statement reflecting virtual consensus among American pundits. Of course, this consensus was wrong — as have been most of the consensus judgments on Iran’s politics advanced by Western analysts since the country’s 1979 revolution.

After Rouhani’s victory, instead of admitting error, America’s foreign policy elite manufactured two explanations for it. One was that popular disaffection against the Islamic Republic — supposedly reflected in Iranians’ determination to elect the most change-minded candidate available to them — had exceeded even the capacity of Khamenei and his minions to suppress. This narrative, however, rests on agenda-driven and false assumptions about who Rouhani is and how he won.

At 65, Rouhani is not out to fundamentally change the Islamic Republic he has worked nearly his entire adult life to build. The only cleric on the 2013 presidential ballot, Rouhani belongs to Iran’s main conservative clerical association, not its reformist antipode. While he has become the standard bearer for the Islamic Republic’s “modern” (or “pragmatic”) right, with considerable support from the business community, his ties to Khamenei are also strong. After Rouhani stepped down as secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council in 2005, Khamenei made Rouhani his personal representative on the Council.

Backing Rouhani was thus an unlikely way for Iranian voters to demand radical change, especially when an eminently plausible reformist was on the ballot — Mohammad Reza Aref, a Stanford Ph.D. in electrical engineering who served as one of reformist President Mohammad Khatami’s vice presidents. (Methodologically-sound polls showed that Aref’s support never exceeded single digits; he ultimately withdrew three days before Iranians voted.)

The outcome, moreover, hardly constituted a landslide — not for Rouhani and certainly not for reformism: Rouhani won by just 261,251 votes over the 50-percent threshold for victory, and the parliament elected just one year before is dominated by conservatives.

The other explanation for Rouhani’s success embraced by American elites cites it as proof that U.S.-instigated sanctions are finally “working” — that economic distress caused by sanctions drove Iranians to elect someone inclined to cut concessionary deals with the West.

But the same polls that accurately predicted Rouhani’s narrow win also show that sanctions had little to do with it. Iranians continue to blame the West, not their own government, for sanctions. And they do not want their leaders to compromise on what they see as their country’s sovereignty and national rights — rights manifest today in Iran’s pursuit of a civil nuclear program.

The Iranian Challenge

Iran’s presidential election and the smooth transfer of office to Rouhani from term-limited incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stand out in today’s Middle East. Compared to Afghanistan, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Palestine, Syria, and Tunisia, the Islamic Republic is actually living up to former U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s description of Iran as “an island of stability” in an increasingly unsettled region.

And compared to some Gulf Arab monarchies, where perpetuation of (at least superficial) stability is purchased by ever increasing domestic expenditures, the Islamic Republic legitimates itself by delivering on the fundamental promise of the revolution that deposed the last shah 35 years ago: to replace Western-imposed monarchical rule with an indigenously generated political model integrating participatory politics and elections with principles and institutions of Islamic governance.

These strengths have enabled the Islamic Republic to withstand sustained regional and Western pressure, and to pursue a foreign policy strategy likely to reap big payoffs in 2014. This strategy aims to replace American hegemony, regionally and globally, with a more multi-polar distribution of power and influence.

It seeks to achieve this by using international law and institutions, and by leveraging the Islamic Republic’s model of participatory Islamist governance, domestic development, and foreign policy independence to accumulate real “soft power” — not just with a majority of Iranians living inside their country, but (according to polls) with hundreds of millions of people across the Muslim world and beyond, from Brazil to China and South Africa.

Such soft power was on display, for example, in the last year of Ahmadinejad’s presidency, when, during a trip to China, he won a standing ovation from a large audience at Peking University, where a representative sample of next-generation Chinese elites showed themselves deeply receptive to his call for a more equitable and representative international order.

In the current regional and international context, the West is increasingly challenged to come to terms with the Islamic Republic as an enduring entity representing legitimate national interests. In Tehran, the United States and its European allies could have a real partner in countering al-Qa’ida-style terrorism and extremism, in consolidating stable and representative political orders in Syria and other Middle Eastern trouble spots, and in resolving the nuclear issue in a way that sets the stage for moving toward an actual WMD-free zone in the region.

But partnering with Tehran would require Washington and its friends in London and Paris to accept the Islamic Republic as the legitimate government of a fully sovereign state with legitimate interests — something that Western powers have refused to accord to any Iranian government for two centuries.

President Barack Obama’s highly public failure to muster political support for military strikes against the Assad government following the use of chemical weapons in Syria on Aug. 21, 2013 has effectively undercut the credibility of U.S. threats to use force against Iran.

On Nov. 24, 2013, this compelled an American administration, for the first time since the January 1981 Algiers Accords that ended the embassy hostage crisis, to reach a major international agreement with Tehran — the interim nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 — largely on Iranian terms. (For example, the interim nuclear deal effectively negates Western demands — long rejected by Tehran but now enshrined in seven UN Security Council resolutions — that Iran suspend all activities related to uranium enrichment).

But recent Western recognition of reality is still partial and highly tentative. The United States and its British and French allies continue to deny that Iran has a right to enrich uranium under international safeguards. They also demand that, as part of a final deal, Tehran must shut down its protected enrichment site at Fordo, terminate its work on a new research reactor at Arak, and allow Western powers to micromanage the future development of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.

Such positions are at odds with the language of the interim nuclear deal and of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). They are also as hubristically delusional as the British government’s use of the Royal Navy to seize tankers carrying Iranian oil on the high seas after a democratically-elected Iranian government nationalized the British oil concession in Iran in 1951 — and as London’s continued threat to do so even after the World Court ruled against Britain in the matter.

If Western powers can realign their positions with reality on the nuclear issue and on various regional challenges in the Middle East, Iran can certainly work with that. But Iranian strategy takes seriously the real prospect that Western powers may not be capable of negotiating a nuclear settlement grounded in the NPT and respectful of the Islamic Republic’s legal rights — just as Britain and the United States were unwilling to respect Iran’s sovereignty over its own natural resources in the early 1950s.

Under such circumstances, more U.S.-instigated secondary sanctions that illegally threaten third countries doing business with Iran will not compel Tehran to surrender its civil nuclear program. Rather, Iran’s approach — including a willingness to conclude what the rest of the world other than America, Britain, France, and Israel would consider a reasonable nuclear deal — seeks to make it easier for countries to rebuild and expand economic ties to the Islamic Republic even if Washington does not lift its own unilaterally-imposed sanctions.

Likewise, Iranian strategy takes seriously the real prospect that Washington cannot disenthrall itself from Obama’s foolish declaration in August 2011 that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must go — and therefore that America cannot contribute constructively to the quest for a political settlement to the Syrian conflict.

If the United States, Britain and France continue down their current counter-productive path in Syria, Tehran can play off their accumulating policy failures and the deepening illegitimacy of America’s regional posture to advance the Islamic Republic’s strategic position.

How Will the West Respond?

Coming to terms with the Islamic Republic will require the United States to abandon its already eroding pretensions to hegemony in the Middle East. But, if Washington does not come to terms with the Islamic Republic, it will ultimately be forced to surrender those pretensions, as it was publicly and humiliatingly forced to do in 1979.

Moreover, continuing hostility toward the Islamic Republic exacerbates America’s inability to deal with popular demands for participatory Islamist governance elsewhere in the Middle East. Less than a month after Rouhani’s election, it was widely perceived that the United States tacitly supported a military coup that deposed Egypt’s first democratically elected (and Islamist) government.

The coup in Egypt hardly obviates the fact that, when given the chance, majorities in Middle Eastern Muslim societies reject Western intervention and choose to construct participatory Islamist orders. Refusing to accept this reality will only accelerate the erosion of U.S. influence in the region.

The United States is not the first imperial power in decline whose foreign policy debate has become increasingly detached from reality — and history suggests that the consequences of such delusion are usually severe. The time for American elites to wake up to Middle Eastern realities before the United States and its Western allies face severe consequences for their strategic position in this vital part of the world is running out.

Flynt Leverett served as a Middle East expert on George W. Bush’s National Security Council staff until the Iraq War and worked previously at the State Department and at the Central Intelligence Agency. Hillary Mann Leverett was the NSC expert on Iran and – from 2001 to 2003 – was one of only a few U.S. diplomats authorized to negotiate with the Iranians over Afghanistan, al-Qaeda and Iraq. They are authors of  Going to Tehran. [This article previously appeared at The World Financial Review (click here) and at http://goingtotehran.com/the-year-of-iran-tehrans-challenge-to-american-hegemony-in-2014-leveretts-in-the-world-financial-review ]

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6 comments on “Reading Iran All Wrong

  1. mirageseekr on said:

    The rhetoric against Iran is clear to see through by anyone who chooses to look. Iran has been willing to have the nuclear program inspected for a long time now but yet Washington acts as if this is new. The American government NEEDS an enemy to keep the war machine churning. It helps when the nations generally do not speak English as it is easier for them to change the message given to the public to suit their needs. Americans are slowly waking up to this, Syria was a pivotal moment, and for the first time Americans challenged the governments narrative and found that they not their leaders where correct. This progress is slow because mainstream media is a government puppet trying to control the masses. You will not find any mention of the MIT study concluding that the gas attack originated in rebel controlled Syria. US government would never admit that they lied or were even wrong. The age of information will be the American government downfall. People here have known things have been wrong for a long time, but now the government/media/corporate/military dots are being connected.

  2. Paul Surovell on said:

    The assumptions of this piece — (a) that the Syrian episode shows that the US cannot take military action against Iran and (b) that Iran gave up nothing in the interim deal — are not only wrong but could encourage irresponsible behavior that will lead to war.

    First, war against Syria was barely averted primarily because Republicans decided to oppose the President for partisan reasons, not because they opposed war. Iran agreed to freeze its nuclear program and eliminate uranium enriched above 5% and the agreement has been saved– so far, by the narrowest of margins in the Senate.

    AIPAC and the warmongers lost another round in the Senate but the struggle for a peaceful resolution of Iran’s previous refusals to comply with Security Council resolutions faces battles ahead.

    The new Iranian leadership is not the same as the previous Iranian leadership and it understands that if it wants to rejoin the community of nations and to increase its influence in the world as well as the Middle East, it must compromise on its nuclear program as well as on other matters such as the tenure of President Assad and on recognition of Israel as a consequence of the creation of a Palestinian state.

    • Paul Surovell on said:

      Things are moving even faster than I expected. From today’s Times of Israel:

      “The Islamic Republic may consider recognizing Israel after a peace accord is struck with the Palestinians, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif said Monday in an interview with German TV.

      “After the problem with the Palestinians is resolved, the conditions that will enable recognition of the State of Israel will be established,” Zarif said.

      “If the Palestinians are happy with the solution, then nobody — nobody — could prevent that from happening.”

      The Times of Israel http://www.timesofisrael.com/iran-fm-we-may-recognize-israel-after-palestinian-deal/

  3. rosemerry on said:

    On the point and clear, as usual. The USA, or the I/F/UK/US axis will not accept Iran as a sovereign, reliable trading partner, to the disadvantage of all of them. The business leaders in France, I know, are itching to get into Iranian contracts. The hubris and stupidity, plus the pandering to Israel which pretends fear of Iran, go against all common sense.

  4. Shahriar on said:

    Iran is “an island of stability” sitting on a time bomb !.

  5. What Rouhani Says:

    .Condemns the killing of innocents
    .Talks about a positive approach to technology
    .Talks about the end of outside involvement in Syria
    .Claims Iran’s nuclear project is peaceful

    What Rouhani Does:
    .Executes hundreds of innocents in Iran
    .Prevents Iranians from freely surfing the internet
    .Supports Assad who murders innocents
    .Continues developing Iran’s military nuclear capability

    Behind the smiles and the mirth brought about by Hassan Rohani’s triumph in the first round of the Iranian presidential election, there lurks a personal tragedy: his elder son took his own life in 1992 in protest of his father’s close connection with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

    “I hate your government, your lies, your corruption, your religion, your double acts and your hypocrisy,” wrote the future president’s son in his suicide note, published in London by exiled Iranian political commentator Ali Reza Nouri.

    “I am ashamed to live in such environment where I’m forced to lie to my friends each day, telling them that my father isn’t part of all of this. Telling them my father loves this nation, whereas I believe this to be not true. It makes me sick seeing you, my father, kiss the hand of Khamenei,” read the letter published in the London-based al-Sharq al-Awsat

    Official Iranian press attributed the young man’s suicide to unrequited love.
    Rohani had harsh words for his son who he said committed a great sin in putting an end to his life; however he still made sure he was buried in a select plot in the temple of the founder of the Islamic Republic Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

    Iran’s newly elected president pledged Monday, in his first press conference since being elected to presidency, to follow a “path of moderation” and promised greater openness over the country’s nuclear program, emphasizing messages from Western leaders since his victory that have brought cautious hope of new openings with Tehran.

    But he said he would not support halting Iran’s uranium enrichment, which is a key stumbling block on talks between Iran and world powers.

    Iran’s president-elect said the United States must recognize Iran’s nuclear rights and pledge not to interfere in its internal affairs before direct talks between the two countries can take place.

    “The issue of relations between Iran and America is a complicated and difficult issue,” Rohani said. “It is an old wound that needs to be … healed.”