Iran – Carrot and/or Stick Diplomacy

The Bad News
The fundamentalist regime of Ayatollah Khomeini appears to be firmly in control of the mechanisms of power and has increased fundamentalist restrictions on the population. Until mid-2008 high oil revenues provided resources for the nuclear and armament programs and the financing of its surrogates, Hezbollah and the Shi’a militias. Thus far, the regime has been able to rebuff all of the efforts of the United Nations, the US, the EU and Russia to suspend their nuclear program, and Iran appears on the verge of developing the enriched uranium needed for atomic weapons.

The Good News
Iran has a large and literate population that had wide exposure to Western culture during the reign of the Shah. It has sought democracy twice, in 1953 with the election of Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh and again in 2002 when Ali Akbar Rafsanjani lost the election (36% to 62%) to Mahmoud Ahmadinajad’s. Its youthful population is largely pro-West. Young people everywhere resent impositions on their freedom, and Iranian youth understandably prefer Western culture and life style to the return to the 7th century fundamentalist life proposed by the Ayatollahs.

The recent severe drop in oil prices will curtail Iran’s ability to support its external ventures. Government promises of a higher standard of living have not been fulfilled thereby diminished its credibility with the population and making it more vulnerable to a peaceful regime change.

The Best News
A nationwide poll of Iran conducted by Terror Free Tomorrow (in Farsi) in June 2007 produced the following results:
• 88% considered improving the Iranian economy their first priority;
• 29% thought developing nuclear weapons important;
• 80% favored full international inspections of nuclear facilities;
• 70% favored normal relations with and trade with the US.61% oppose the current Iranian system of government.
• 79% favor a democratic system.
Clearly, this indicates that the majority of the Iranian people are voting for peaceful relations with the West.

The Opportunity
With the departure of George W. Bush, whose inclusion of Iran in the “Axis of Evil” was regarded as a monumental insult to the proud Iranian people, the new administration of President Obama has the best opportunity in decades to accomplish Western objectives regarding Iran. Optimally, the free world would like to see Iran become a free and prosperous nation with stable and secular government which respects human rights and does not seek to spread its influence and control over its neighbors. These objectives clash diametrically with those of the present Iranian theocracy,
Therefore, the question is what policies should be adopted by the Western countries and the peaceful and stable regimes in the Middle East to accomplish these objectives. Obviously, the optimum solution would be for a peaceful overthrow of the present Iranian theocracy to be replaced by a more benign and open society as desired by the majority of Iranians. This is not an easy task in any nation controlled by a ruthless autocracy that is intent on holding onto its power.

That description certain applies to the present Islamic theocracy and is a principal reason behind their drive for nuclear weapons. But if the premise that the majority of the Iranian people want to live in a modern secular society (albeit with a benign Muslim culture like Indonesia) is correct, than the issue is how best to accomplish the regime change.

The overthrow of a “rogue government”, be it Iran, North Korea or Venezuela, is not an easy task, A coup d’etat can backfire. The coup engineered by the CIA and MI5 in 1950 which resulted in the installation of the Shah achieved the immediate goal of delaying nationalization of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (than owned 51% by the British government, later became BP). It also created the animosity of the Iranian people towards the Western powers which greatly contributed to the situation today. The recent Iraq experience, where the highly successful “Operation Iraqi Freedom” was followed by a hugely expensive and controversial occupation, certainly has sufficiently chastened the Coalition governments from attempting to impose regime change through a military invasion and occupation

Thus, if the active support of coups or military invasion is ruled out, the only realistic foreign policy options are to support actions which will (a) lessen external threats of the present regime, and (b) encourage the population towards integration with the peaceful nations of the world.

In his presidential bid, Barack Obama was highly criticized by his statements that he would “sit down with anyone” including Mahmoud Ahmadinajad. Although his unconditional remark was naïve, the intent was correct. However, the American leadership in Iranian relations may not be the most effective strategy to accomplish Western objectives.

The Bush administration’s primary policy towards Iran was to impose a series of economic sanctions supported by the UN, the EU and Russia to induce the Iranian government to suspend its nuclear development program. Despite their protests that these programs had a peaceful intent, ongoing UN inspections and the development weapons grade plutonium give little credence to these claims. These denials are in essence a negotiating technique to gain time while these weapons and delivery systems are developed. Given the ineffectualness of the sanction programs to date, without the use of military strikes to destroy the nuclear facilities, it is likely that Iran will in due course join the “Nuclear Club”.
Is this outcome necessarily disastrous? Does even a nuclear-armed Iran pose any direct threat to the United States? The countries which should be most interested in a peaceful Iran are its immediate neighbors, and to the extent that Iran ever develops long range delivery systems, the countries of the EU and Russia, However, these nations have lived and prospered under a “nuclear cloud” for over half a century. Iran’s neighbors, Israel, Pakistan and India each have developed a nuclear capability, but have restrained from using them, presumably because of the threat of massive retaliation. Further, during the Cold War years Western military forces developed a significant capability to monitor and defend against such attacks.

A more likely and dangerous threat is the acquisition of smaller, artillery nuclear weapons by terrorist groups with the possible conversion into a “dirty bomb” smuggled in to target cities in one of the ubiquitous containers. This possibility gives security forces far more sleepless nights than aerial launched strikes.

The major opponents to a nuclear Iran are the government of Israel and its supporters. Considering the history of Islamic-Jewish animosity, they regard the possession of nuclear weapons by the present Iranian theocracy as an existential threat. But is this a likely scenario? Given the effectiveness of surrogates such as Hezbollah to project Iranian influence, would the Supreme Leader authorize a nuclear attack on Israel knowing the country would be destroyed in retaliation? Does he possess the power within his government to actually carry off such an attack?
The pressure tactics used by previous administrations and its allies have had the undesirable consequence of uniting the Iranian people in an “us against them” bunker mentality. A more positive approach would be to welcome them into the free world through increased trade and contacts at all levels and through all media The Chinese experience of developing trade and cultural ties with an autocratic regime shows the power of defusing tensions and creating greater trust and prosperity. It is logical that Iran’s neighboring countries should take the lead in diplomatic efforts to protect themselves. American involvement should primarily be support their policies, This approach may not satisfy the hawks in Israel, but their objectives need not determine US foreign policy. That is the subject of further discussion.

Byron K. Varme,
Executive Director, Foundation of International Freedom
February 28, 2009