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Iran: Entainment -- A Way Forward

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We are at a particularly sensitive, and difficult, stage with Iran, one that calls for a thoughtful, nuanced approach vice simply defaulting to policies of the past. So, where do we go from here?

We in the West, and particularly in the United States, feel compelled to honor the bravery and sacrifice of the Iranian people. And we should. But we must recognize their actions for what they are; an almost desperate effort to convince the ruling Islamic regime that what they are asking for is not inimical to a strong, independent and Islamic oriented Iran. In fact, their desire for freedom of expression and representative, accountable government is a sign of the very strength that all Iranians seek and potentially a natural progression to the path that the clerical regime itself has claimed it represents. These are of course ideals, and ideals often run smack up against the realities of power, money and narrow special interests. That is what is happening in Iran now. What we are seeing play out is not about religion. The Islamic wave that carried and supported the '79 revolution is largely spent. What we are seeing now in Iran is power politics at its most base and brutal. Religion has become at best a tool and at worst a weapon in the hands of those who hold power and a bludgeon to be used against those who seek to dilute the power of those at the top, or share more fairly in the enormous wealth of the Iranian nation. The "opposition", large numbers of whom are card carrying members of the Islamic regime from its very inception -- and many of whom literally sat at the feet of the Imam, Ayatollah Khomeini -- now appear to see a different road ahead, one that reintegrates Iran into the international community of nations and celebrates and promotes a proud and prosperous Iran. Their vision clashes with that of the ruling elite, one that includes elements of both the clerical and military establishments desperately fearing any change in the status quo, and they are paying a price for their presumption.

Yes, we must honor and recognize their efforts, but this is not our fight. As the ongoing "showtrials" clearly demonstrate, any attempt to too directly support or bolster the oppositions' efforts to challenge the regime merely plays into the hands of the hardliners by providing them with an even bigger stick with which to strike back. And, not once have they asked us to do so. Not once among the flood of videos, twitters or other messages coming out of Iran have we seen a plea for intercession or material support. They have asked only that we see and hear their struggle. In addition, we in the West must keep in mind several truths -- The fact is that the Iranian people participated in and brought about the revolution that overthrew the Shah. They did this because they were dissatisfied with what their leaders were doing, and not doing, on their behalf. So, they opted for change. True, the initial vision of many of a truly representative and responsive government, one that would work to realize the best possible future for all of its people, was highjacked early on and they are now living with the result, as have many revolutionary societies in history. At the same time, however, we must recognize that many in Iran are in fact far better off than they might have been otherwise. Education and literacy have increased dramatically, particularly among women; quality medical care is available throughout much of Iran; rural electrification and transportation is reaching areas as never before. And while many are struggling to make ends meet due to financial mismanagement and corruption, and a generally dysfunctional economic system, the vast majority have enough to eat. And they are proud of what they have accomplished. As a result, many Iranians are not so much looking for wholesale change as a natural evolution of the revolution they helped bring about. So,while they have realized the basics that most seek in their lives, as defined by Maslow's "Needs hierarchy" they now clearly seek more. And this is the rub. With this, you might say that the Islamic regime is to a degree a victim of its own success. Having lifted the overall level of living standards they are now forced to deal with the informed populace and raised expectations that naturally follow. And while the people are demanding that they do so this is something they must do on their own.

We can, however, help. We have tried the sanctions route. As a single threaded strategy it has proven largely ineffective and has in fact strengthened many of the very institutions we seek to weaken. Many among the ruling elite in fact seek to preserve the status quo of sanctions given the historical personal benefits they have seen. There have been some limited successes, U.S. Treasury actions for example, and following this strategy allows us to point to concrete steps aimed at confronting and mitigating Iranian mischief in the region. But an objective analysis of sanction's efficacy simply does not support continuing to rely on this course of action as the sole pillar of U.S. policy. Another simple truth is that the Islamic regime has proven itself to be too resilient and resourceful to be brought down via this route. And regardless of wishful thinking among some, barring a dramatic change in the international strategic landscape (read Russia and China) this is unlikely to change anytime soon. In order to have some chance of success we simply must continue to pursue some level of direct engagement. Politically, this is difficult, particularly given the appalling behavior of the regime in reaction to their botched handling of the Presidential election. It is also less satisfying to us in the West than an aggressive, can do -- or gotta do something/anything -- type of approach. But, it has become abundantly clear that our ability to positively influence events inside Iran from a distance is extremely limited. Lastly, based on the realities we are faced with, implementing an effective sanctions regime alone is simply not realistic and leads us into a trap that significantly limits our options by forcing us to rely overly on the good will of others, some of whom do not have the best interests of the U.S. at heart (again -- read Russia and China). Bottom line -- We need to put our Iran policy back in the hands of those who are best prepared to protect U.S. interests, Americans.

Let's not kid ourselves. There are no easy or quick fixes here. And at this point, given the intense historical distrust and fear of the U.S. by Iran's leadership, exacerbated by recent events, the hardest step of engagement will be the first. In addition, another hard truth -- the Iranian leadership simply does not believe it must engage with the U.S. in order to survive. Thus, like it or not, they will need to be convinced that it is to their overall advantage to do so, and not just ours. So, in all likelihood, and as distasteful as it may be, in order to move the process forward the U.S. will have to make the first move in order to demonstrate some level of good faith. This will place Iran's leadership in the position of having to respond to a concrete action vice a nebulous expression of intent. What does this all mean? Simply put, the only real chance for success in reaching out to Iran is to implement a carefully crafted strategy of engagement and containment. Call it a policy of "entainment," if you will. What would make this different from past efforts? It is clear that without the U.S. at the table the Iranians have little incentive to take either sanctions or engagement very seriously. But, with the U.S. directly involved, Iran's leadership will for the first time be able to truly measure the cons of continued containment versus the pros to be had via the adoption of a serious and comprehensive diplomatic relationship with the U.S. -- and the broad, tangible benefits that could ensue. And make no mistake about it -- we will need to clearly demonstrate that there are significant long term benefits to be had from unclenching the proverbial fist.

How to begin? The sanctions/containment component is largely already in place. Recent discussion of embargoing refined gasoline is unlikely to make any significant impact, particularly given the Iranian leadership's current focus on mitigating this strategic vulnerability. This clearly falls into the "gotta do something/anything" category. Better to focus initially on demonstrating that the U.S. is truly serious about developing a new relationship by implementing unilateral actions aimed at specific issues impacting Iran as a nation. An example of how to do this? The recent series of air crashes in Iran points to serious problems in this key sector. Part of this appears to be Iran's increasing reliance on Russian aircraft. If the U.S. were to relax sanctions specifically to allow Iran's airlines to improve maintenance and safety, and perhaps even purchase western aircraft, this would have an immediate and positive impact on all Iranians. Given the severity of the problem and the significant number of deaths that have already occurred, Iran's leadership would be hard pressed to simply reject this offer without looking even more petulant or uncaring than they already do to the Iranian populace. They would also be pressed to respond in some manner other than the deafening silence we have seen so far. For those that would point to the potential dual-use aspects involved -- there is that potential -- but that is the nature of compromise.

There are certainly other actions that could be taken but this is not the venue to explore them. In the end, the issue here is how to find a way forward out of the untenable and increasingly dangerous situation in which we currently find ourselves. For a variety of reasons we have been able to muddle through vis a vis Iran over the last 30 years. We no longer have this luxury. The accelerating Iranian nuclear program, and the alarm it is generating in the region and the west, is a game changer and must somehow be addressed. The worst case scenario is one in which we find ourselves facing a nuclear armed Iran convinced that its very survival is at stake. At best, we owe it to all concerned to find a way to re-integrate Iran back into the international community of nations. At a minimum, we must reach a Modus Vivendi that minimizes the risk of military confrontation, the results of which would be catastrophic.