By Reza Khanzadeh
As the Islamic Republic of Iran and the United States continue to trade verbal jabs on Iran’s nuclear program, scholars and analysts are calculating the various scenarios that could possibly play out. Conversations have been exhausted as to whether or not Israel will attack. How will Iran respond? What effects will this have on the region? And, what should Washington do? It is the latter question which is key to the debate because from cyber-attacks to assassinations of Iranian scientists, it is the United States that has spearheaded all efforts to stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions. These tactics prompt other crucial questions, such as what is Washington’s ultimate goal in Iran? How has this objective dictated American strategy? And why Iran is constantly portrayed as a threat and is increasingly becoming the centre of U.S. foreign policy discussions?
Before discussing these issues it is important to point out two caveats. First, attempting to predict any foreign policy issue, let alone future Washington–Tehran relations, is a very fickle and almost impossible task given the unstable nature of this region and specifically this relationship. The constant uncertainty of tomorrow’s international relations leads many politicians and experts to backtrack their claims. Second, it is vital to apply caution when assessing the rhetoric of Iranian and American politicians. Most importantly, one must understand the context within which a comment was made. For example, during the third U.S. presidential debate many of the comments on Iran by both candidates must not be taken solely at face value but seen more as a tool to sway voters and reassure international allies. Another example comes during the 1992 U.S. presidential elections, where Bill Clinton’s comments on China were much harsher than that of President Bush. The former criticised the latter for not taking a harder stance, however, once Clinton became president his policies towards China were almost identical to that of his predecessor. Similarly, this election season, Romney criticized Obama’s policies towards Iran and called for a much tougher stance; however, if Romney would have won the presidency his policies would have been almost identical to that of Obama’s. Why?
For starters, Romney’s position on Iran has evolved over the past five years. At first, he argued that a military strike should be seriously considered and a regime change should be pursued. Fast forward to the third presidential debate and no comments were made on regime change. Rather, Romney declared, “of course a military action is the last resort. It is something one would only consider if all the other avenues have been tried to their full extent.” One explanation as of why Romney’s position changed is that he acquired more foreign intelligence on U.S.-Iran relations and realized the complexity of this situation vis-a-vis Washington’s end goal for Iran – which is regime change. Consequently, although Obama and Romney provided their policies, this issue is much larger than any one president. Washington’s main objective for Iran will only be realized if the U.S. continues the current course and avoids any and all actions that can lead to the re-unification of the Islamic Republic and its people. Why is this important?
The Islamic Republic prides itself as a nation that is not subordinate to the U.S.; while maintaining a conspiratorial attitude and blaming all their shortcomings on the West. On the other side, the Iranian citizens are torn between confronting their government, wanting U.S. assistance, and needing the autonomy to decide their own future. Therefore, U.S. policymakers’ approach towards Iran is very delicate. Although the end goal is regime change, Washington does not want to be seen as actively pushing for it. If the Iranian people see regime change as a result of foreign intervention, there is a high probability that they will switch sides, rally around the flag, and support their regime solely out of patriotism and pride. That is why the path taken by the Obama administration has been and is the most opportune approach. This is best evident when looking at the growing number of sanctions; America’s offensive rhetoric; talks of military attacks; military exercises; and a crippling Iranian economy, and still the Iranian citizens are blaming their government – which is a positive sign for Washington.
That is also why the Obama administration has been clear that a military attack on Iran is the last option. Washington understands that the progress they have made will be in vain if Iran is attacked. In other words, Washington’s push to weaken the regime, increase internal political dissension, and create a rift between the government and its people. The weaker and more divided Iran becomes, the more likely it will want to negotiate. Recently it has been reported that Tehran is willing to temporarily suspend its twenty percent uranium enrichment if sanctions are lifted. Even with little confidence in this statement now, it does show signs that the Islamic Republic is rethinking its strategy. Then there is also the possibility of an uprising against the government. With Iran’s currency falling by 40 percent, the country’s oil exports dropping at its lowest in two decades, the bazar establishment protesting and boycotting, and political dissension increasing within the government, an uprising is possible. These events point to the fact that Washington’s current course is playing a toll on Iran. Finally, there are conversations inside Iran as to how the Islamic Republic will look post-Khamenei. This uncertainty will be another complication added to the regimes increasing instability – a serious factor worth considering from a U.S. policy standpoint.