Make peace with Iran

The Islamic Republic of Iran celebrated its 40th anniversary on Feb. 11. It was then, in 1979, that the country’s fate was yielded to the Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his Islamist revolutionaries. The relationship between the U.S. and Iran has been dreadful ever since. Official diplomatic communication has yet to be restored, the two countries thwart each other’s interests at every turn and aggressive sabre-rattling on both sides threatens to erupt in conflict. The Middle East will continue to be extremely unstable for as long as this relationship remains afoul.

It didn’t have to be this way. Six decades of flawed decision-making by schemers in Washington D.C. and Tehran has created the bloody backdrop for today’s mutual animosity. It was the U.S. that orchestrated a 1953 coup that overthrew Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh after he tried to audit and nationalize the British-owned oil resources in his country. It was the Ayatollah supporters who overran the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held the staff hostage for over a year. The U.S. funded Iraq’s war against Iran, Iran funded the terrorist group Hezbollah’s war against everything and President George W. Bush included Iran in his inflammatory 2002 Axis of Evil speech.

It is tempting to imagine how differently the U.S.-Iranian relationship could have gone had different decisions been made by more prudent minds. But as interesting as alternate history may be, it has limited use for solving the problems of today. What we should recognize is the fact that some important features exist amidst this chain of bad events. Features that could be strategically advantageous to the U.S. and its allies, if they weren’t overshadowed by all the resentment. Features that provide evidence for Iran as a circumstantial ally and a balancer of Middle East power. The sooner we accept those features, the sooner we can move towards cautious reconciliation with this enemy.

The first feature is Iranian democracy. Iran is certainly not a free and fair country, but it has stronger institutions in that regard than monarchical Saudi Arabia and the increasingly despotic situation in Turkey. These three countries are the most important to consider because they are the region’s major power brokers. Iranians elect their own president and legislative representatives. Granted, the quality of that process is imperfect. The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, can still disqualify candidates and exercise final say on any policy. But the Ayatollah doesn’t weigh in on everything, President Hassan Rouhani is responsive to public needs and the Iranian parliament does contain political parties with diverse ideas.

Iranian democracy is meaningful to the U.S. because it gives us a mechanism to influence who achieves power there. Not meddling, but rather signaling to Iranians that their reformists will lead to success and their hardliners will lead to failure. The Obama Administration realized the value of rewarding Iran’s political moderates. When Rouhani won his 2013 presidency on the promise of better relations with the west, the U.S. accelerated efforts to design the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, colloquially known as the Iran deal, by 2015. The JCPOA helped get Rouhani re-elected in 2017.

Iranian moderates are more likely to be consistent with U.S. interests in the region than hardliners would be. So it follows that we ought to reward the election of those moderates. Shared interests include the repression of ISIS, the stability of Afghanistan and the role that Iran could play as a balancer against Saudi Arabia and Turkey. These shared interests constitute another feature of Iran that we should recognize.

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When it comes to the balance of power, the U.S. is currently over-invested in Saudi Arabia. This is rather curious given that the kingdom is a long-time source for terrorist funding. Its vicious monarchy is culpable in high-profile assassinations of journalists, and the kingdom’s Wahhabi branch of Islam is known for being particularly oppressive. Saudi Arabia is at odds with both our values and our interests, yet we take their side against Iran. That has the effect of creating an existential threat in Iran’s psyche, a feeling in which hardliners thrive.

When we talk about making peace with Iran, we should not consider it to be an abrupt and total realignment. The world knows all too well about the abuses of Iran’s theocracy. Rather, making peace with Iran is a gradual and measurable process towards a better future. It requires for the U.S. to balance Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia into a manageable triumvirate. It requires observation of the old Russian proverb, “trust, but verify.” It requires the U.S. Senate to reclaim its constitutional responsibility in foreign policy via ratification of treaties. Above all, it requires a recognition of Iran’s right to exist and how their reformist leaders can converge with U.S. interests.

Views expressed in the opinion section do not reflect the views of The Northern Light.