Iran: To Engage or Not to Engage

The Iranian Presidential elections are imminent. The main challenger, former Prime Minister Mir Hussein Mousavi, is increasingly seen as a candidate who could defeat incumbent Ahmadinejad. This would certainly result in a change in the tone and tenor, if not the substance, of the messages coming out of Tehran. That would be a good thing.

Once concluded, however, regardless of who occupies the Presidential palace for the next four years, the regime - in affect the Supreme Leader - will once more have to seriously address the issue of whether or not to engage with the United States. And, it is by no means a given that he will decide that it is in the interests of Iran, and more importantly, the regime, to do so. But, make no mistake about it; this is an issue of the utmost importance to the Islamic Republic - more so even than to the United States - with the potential to significantly impact, if not define, the future course of the "79" revolution. As such, the internal discussion will be wide ranging, furious and at times bitter.

Engagement with the U.S. is very frightening and potentially very threatening to the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the regime writ large. In looking at the totality of risk versus gain, the Supreme Leader must balance the inevitable changes that will accompany opening Iran up to the West, and the US in particular, against the advantages of developing access to foreign capital, western goods and technology (although they seem to be doing pretty well on their own) and enhanced prestige and international stature. For the regime's many hangers on and supporters, they must consider the significant economic changes, many not to their advantage, that will surely follow.

Notwithstanding a hesitancy to engage, based on a very real concern about the potential impact of America's awesome "soft" power on Iranian society and its potential to challenge the control of the ruling clerical elite, many Iranians seek to be at the forefront of ushering in the reestablishment relations with the United States when it finally does occur, primarily due to the significant political and financial benefits they would accrue. For many Iranians, this is the big prize. Scary - yes. Certain to bring change to Iran - most definitely. Full of promise or the beginning of the end - this very much depends on one's current position within the regime.

Many attempts have been made over the last thirty years to bring the two sides together in some fashion, perhaps the most notable being that which preceded the spectacular blowup that came to be known in the U.S. as the Iran-Contra scandal. Most were backchannel efforts, some more "official" than others. None, however, enjoyed from the Iranian side sufficient support from the Supreme Leader required to insulate it from those who sought to sabotage it, which they did in each and every case. Liken it to a game of "King of the hill" where the goal is to ensure that if you are not the winner, then at least neither is anyone else. This has resulted in years of absolutely no progress. This could change should the Supreme Leader decide to authorize contact with the U.S.

From the US side, in the minds of many, there are numerous reasons not to seriously engage with Iran. They are religious fanatics; they are irrational and can't be reasoned with; they are trying to take over the entire Middle East; they support Terrorism; they severely repress their own people, etc, etc, etc. The list is long and often times ugly. As someone who worked on the front lines of these issues for many years, I view working to mitigate these very issues as reason to move with speed to engage.

And, for those that would make the case that diplomacy has been tried, and has failed, this is simply not the case. Yes, meetings have been held; discussions had; and issues debated, but, always under the looming shadow, whether implicit or explicit, of a U.S. policy of regime change. Other than on a very limited range of tactical issues, it is not hard to understand why Iran's leadership would be unwilling to seriously engage when they believe that our ultimate goal is simply to pull them into our embrace and whisper sweet nothings in the ear, all the while intent on choking the life out of the regime.

The Supreme Leader initially addressed the issue of improved relations with the United States following President Obama's Nowruz address to the Iranian nation - the most important point being that, under the right circumstances, it is possible - and that should the US approach Iran with respect and sincerity, and a willingness to deal with its leadership in good faith, then Iran might/might just be amenable to discussions.

It is also clear, however, that the Iranian leadership believes it occupies the high ground and is working from a position of strength in its dealings with the United States. As a result, they are content to sit back and wait for the US to come to them. This also allows them to drive a harder bargain up front as well as to refrain from revealing their own cards before they are ready. It is likely that, as the possibility of real dialogue approaches, their public positions will harden and their tone will sharpen. This will signal that the negotiations are truly on.

For our part, we need to consider carefully what the Iranians appear to want from the United States. The signals coming out of Iran vis a vis engagement - before the issue was overtaken by the Presidential election - while certainly conflicting, were quite interesting. Many statements tended to be confrontational and at times harsh, primarily in response to what the Iranians viewed as continued confrontational statements and actions from the U.S. and its allies. A few, in fact, were mildly supportive, in a typically Iranian backhanded sort of way. Virtually no one, however, including the Supreme Leader voiced a definitive "no" to the possibility of either dialogue or improved relations with the U.S. Instead, the primary message, across the board - including from the reformist camp - emphasized the belief that neither the stated policies nor the actions of the Obama administration had yet matched its rhetoric of change. The Iranians appeared to be waiting for an indication that the US is ready for a strategic change in the relationship rather than simply engaging in what they fear is tactical maneuvering. It is unlikely that they will have changed their views in the interim.

A key underlying Iranian message appears to be - as long as the overall strategic approach of the U.S. predicates success solely on the eventual capitulation of Iran to the demands of the west, they are not interested. A new paradigm, backed up by substantive and unequivocal actions, is required. While Iran's leadership does appear to recognize aspects of President Obama's approach to be an improvement from the previous administration, they are still quite skeptical over whether this will translate into real change in US policy towards the Islamic Republic. They are waiting for "proof', in the form of clearly articulated US end goals regarding Iran--including what role the US believes Iran should play in the region. In addition, Rafsanjani's reference to the fact that Iran did not cut diplomatic ties - he points out it was the U.S. - is a not so subtle reminder that America is in fact the supplicant here, thus they need to make the first move.

In addition, in the absence to date of clearly communicated US objectives, they have taken the appointment of Dennis Ross and other so-called 'Zionists' to be an indication that the US will follow the same policies as both the Clinton and Bush administrations: containment, using carrots and sticks which - in the opinion of the Iranians - is a non-starter and will simply undermine the talks.

Bottom line - without clearly articulated strategic US end goals, backed up by actions, the Iranians fear that there is no guarantee that tactical cooperation in places like Afghanistan will lead to true long-term change. If they are not provided these assurances it is far less likely they will choose to engage at all. And that would be an opportunity lost.