coming weeks, the United States may well be joining a new round of nuclear
negotiations with Iran. But, rather than working to promote their success, most
commentators seem to be consumed with explaining their anticipated failure. And
their follow-up policy prescriptions seem designed to do more harm than good.
Take Karim Sadjadpour's article, "The Sources of
Iranian Conduct," in the November issue of Foreign Policy. Sadjadpour seeks to adapt George Kennan's famous
1947 "Mr. X" article
-- which proposed the outlines of
the Cold War "containment" strategy used against the Soviet Union -- for
America's current Iran debate.
"Like the Soviet Union, the Islamic Republic is a corrupt, inefficient, authoritarian regime whose bankrupt ideology resonates far more abroad than it does at home," Sadjadpour writes. "Also like the men who once ruled Moscow, Iran's current leaders have a victimization complex and, as they themselves admit, derive their internal legitimacy from thumbing their noses at Uncle Sam." It's a clever conceit, but it would be a disaster for U.S. interests if Sadjadpour's piece attains anything close to the level of influence achieved by Kennan's.
That's so for three main reasons. First, Sadjadpour's reading of the drivers of Iranian foreign policy is profoundly at odds with the historical record of the Islamic Republic's actual conduct. Second, his policy prescriptions would keep the United States from acting in its own best interests to pursue a comprehensive realignment of U.S.-Iranian relations. Third, his policy prescriptions would lead ultimately to a U.S.-initiated military confrontation with Iran.
Sadjadpour uses a highly selective exegesis of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's rhetoric about the United States as a basis for arguing that the Islamic Republic's very survival requires antagonism with America. This is a politically convenient argument, absolving Washington of any responsibility to engage seriously with Tehran, until the deus ex machina of "regime change" solves the Iran problem.
It is, however, incorrect. In his role as supreme leader since 1989, Khamenei has approved multiple Iranian initiatives to reach out to the United States, across the Rafsanjani, Khatami, and Ahmadinejad presidencies. These initiatives include Iranian assistance to free American hostages in Lebanon in the late 1980s and early 1990s, coordination with Washington to provide weapons to beleaguered Bosnian Muslims in the mid-1990s, extensive cooperation with the United States over Afghanistan and al Qaeda following the 9/11 attacks, U.S.-Iranian ambassadorial talks regarding Iraq in 2007, and offers of comprehensive talks with the United States in 2003, 2008, and 2009.
If Khamenei is deeply suspicious of America's ultimate intentions toward the Islamic Republic, this is perhaps because, in every one of the cases just cited, it was the United States that cut off ongoing tactical cooperation with Tehran or rejected serious overtures aimed at realigning U.S.-Iranian relations.
Indeed, Khamenei is still open to rapprochement. In response to U.S. President Barack Obama's 2009 Nowruz (Persian New Year) message, Khamenei said: "You change [your policies toward the Islamic Republic], and we shall change as well." That is not, as Sadjadpour implies, a "cynical response" to Obama -- it is an invitation to put a serious and substantive agenda on the table aimed at realigning U.S.-Iranian relations.
These are things that Obama, to this day, has never done. Sending vague letters to the supreme leader while ignoring letters sent to Obama by Iran's elected president (something that Sadjadpour advised the White House to do) came across in Tehran as yet another crass attempt to manipulate the Iranian political system. And as we have previously pointed out, Obama has done this while continuing Bush-era covert operations meant to destabilize the Islamic Republic and expanding anti-Iranian sanctions.
As Sadeq Kharrazi -- a former senior Foreign Ministry official who is both an outspoken reformist and a relative of Khamenei -- said recently, "The road to Washington passes through the supreme leader's office... The leadership has set the terms and conditions, and he is not against détente between Iran and any other country, even the U.S. What he opposes is resumption of ties based on pre-revolution arrangements."
Kharrazi's words should be taken seriously -- as testimony that U.S.-Iranian realignment is possible and as an indicator of what is required from the U.S. side to achieve it. But Sadjadpour's contrived analysis leads inexorably to dismissal of a realignment of relations between Washington and Tehran of the sort that the United States and the People's Republic of China achieved in the 1970s. Instead, Sadjadpour draws out an analogy between the Islamic Republic and the Soviet Union, with an accompanying policy recommendation that the United States use militarized containment against Iran until fundamental political change -- encouraged by Washington -- occurs.