The Iranian Riddle
By Trita Parsi Monday, Mar. 15, 2010
Read more: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1969292,00.html#ixzz0hJYM2P8V
Iran is the 21st century equivalent of 1930s Russia — a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. The Iranians haven't stumbled upon this mystifying state coincidentally, and the enigma isn't the result of outsiders' failure to try to understand them. Rather, the Iranian government has a deliberate policy aimed at confusing the outside world about its goals and decision-making processes. "There is an intention out there to confuse," a noted Iranian professor told me in Tehran a few years ago. The rulers in Tehran think that opacity and the perception of unpredictability buy them security.
Given that intent, it is hardly surprising that Washington has had such a difficult time formulating a successful Iran policy. Right now, the Obama Administration is embarking on the sanctions track, pursuing both a U.N. Security Council resolution, as well as measures by a coalition of the willing that would go beyond anything imposed by the U.N. The idea is that a tough sanction regime would hit the Iranian government — and especially the Islamic Revolutionary Guards — while sparing Iran's population. (See the top 10 players in Iran's power struggle.)
Yet despite what they say, few in Washington believe sanctions alone will alter Iran's behavior. They have never worked as well as they might in Iran; rhetoric has only served to raise tensions further. The experience of the Bush Administration shows that the combination of sanctions and rhetoric about regime change — remember the "Axis of Evil?" — helped strengthen the hands of Iran's hard-liners. It vindicated Tehran's paranoia and reduced options available to the U.S. If the Iranian regime thinks that the real aim of U.S. policy is to topple it, it is hardly likely to make the conciliatory policy changes — for example, on its nuclear program — that the U.S. seeks.
So what should Washington do? A starting point should be to recognize that the U.S. is no longer dealing with an Iran that merely simulates indecisiveness. On the contrary, Iran seems genuinely irresolute and paralyzed by the Khamenei government's loss of legitimacy and continued conflicts both within the élite and between the government and the people. (See pictures of Iran's presidential elections and their turbulent aftermath.)
The government may have scored a tactical victory on Feb. 11, by preventing the opposition from organizing antigovernment demonstrations on the anniversary of the revolution, but beneath the surface little has changed. The government lacks legitimacy and is increasingly resorting to force to stay in power. Infighting at the élite level is becoming more brutal, with wives and children of opposition leaders being beaten and tortured by government-sanctioned militias.
Under these circumstances, the embattled Iranian government is unable to set a new course for its foreign policy. In a state of paralysis, Iran's behavior is primarily driven by two forces: bureaucratic inertia and a willingness to take only those decisions that are deemed low-risk within Iran's internal political context. That does not include compromise with Washington and the International Atomic Energy Agency on the nuclear issue. From the Iran-Contra scandal onwards, Iran's history is ripe with examples of Iranian politicians losing their careers after trying to create an opening to the U.S. Iran's opposing political factions fear that rivals would reap the political benefits of an end to the U.S.-Iran enmity. From the standpoint of those in the regime, the low-risk course is to respond to pressure by opting for confrontation and escalation. Iran's hard-liners are more comfortable and astute at handling an easily defined threat such as a combative Bush than they are an elusive and indefinable Obama. (See the top 10 Ahmadinejad-isms.)
None of this bodes well for the U.S. Ratcheting up indiscriminate sanctions will likely close the window for diplomacy, leaving Obama in the same position as Bush placed himself. But Tehran's tendency toward confrontation might lead to the situation spiraling out of control. Military confrontation, which no one in the Obama Administration favors, may become unavoidable.
One game changer would be victory by Iran's pro-democracy green movement. But Washington has little influence over the fate of the greens and the movement's struggle follows a timetable that is not synchronized with Iran's nuclear trajectory. The opposition remains a thorn in Khamenei's side. But exaggerated expectations of its prospects will put undue pressure on the movement. (See pictures of terror in Tehran.)
So here is the central dilemma of Iranian policy: Iran's greens need time, but Washington does not seem to think it can afford to wait. While patience is underrated in the U.S. political culture, impatience carries a much greater risk when dealing with a country currently prone to escalation. The tragedy of yet another war in the Middle East is something America simply cannot afford. Waiting for something to change is hard for Americans. But on Iran, that is what they should do.
Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, won the 2010 Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order
Read more: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1969292,00.html#ixzz0hJXHFYbG