Rethinking Iran

The U.S. needs a sustainable policy for dealing with the Islamic republic. Here's what it would look like

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Illustration by Alex Nabaum for TIME

Earlier the month, the U.S. Navy reported that five Iranian speedboats had approached a U.S. convoy in the Strait of Hormuz and radioed the threat "You will explode." President Bush promptly warned that an expansionist, fundamentalist Iran was up to its old tricks and that "all options are on the table to protect our assets." For a moment, the stage was set for confrontation. There was one problem: Pentagon officials noticed the recording was suspect and had to move quickly away from their initial claim that Iranian naval officers had issued the threat.

The war scare that wasn't stands as a metaphor for the incoherence of our policy toward Iran: the Bush Administration attempts to gin up international outrage by making a claim of imminent danger, only to be met with international eye rolling when the claim is disproved. Sound familiar? The speedboat episode bore an uncanny resemblance to the Administration's allegations about the advanced state of Iran's weapons program--allegations refuted in December by the National Intelligence Estimate.

In the eyes of even our closest allies, the Administration's Iran policy amounts to a lurch from one imagined crisis to the next. But between U.S. hype and the rest of the world's indifference lies the stubborn truth about Iran: the most populous and economically thriving country in the Persian Gulf is run by a regime that arrests and tortures critics at home while fueling destabilization and violence abroad. What America needs is a sensible, sustainable Iran policy that can meet U.S. security and economic interests, command international support and withstand the shifting Middle Eastern sands. What would such a policy look like?

Answering that question first requires Washington to recognize how much our current policies have strengthened the Islamic republic. Despite denouncing Iran's influence in the new Iraq, the Administration has spent billions propping up an Iraqi government whose leaders take many of their cues from Tehran. Threats of possible U.S. military action against Iran have given President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a scapegoat, helping him maintain power by stirring nationalist solidarity. And the removal of Saddam Hussein and the Taliban, combined with the decline in U.S. influence in the region, has created a void that Iran has exploited to spread its influence.

Bush's latest strategy involves trying to contain Iran by arming Sunni counterweights in the region, like Saudi Arabia and other gulf states. Such a strategy is rooted in the cold war mantra that even if a regime was a "son of a bitch," it should be supported as long as it was "our son of a bitch." It doesn't work. Washington supported both Osama bin Laden and Saddam in the 1980s on precisely this logic, but after 9/11, Bush himself acknowledged that coddling the enemies of our enemies had not made them friends; instead it had helped sow more extremism. And today Arab governments can no longer be bought by a single bidder. Avoiding too close an association with Washington, they toy with Russia, China, India and others competing for their affection.

A new Iran policy should start with the premise that any country behind a problem can also be behind a solution. No aspect of the Iraq quagmire can be resolved without Iranian involvement. Washington has a better chance of modifying Iran's influence in Iraq--and Afghanistan, the Palestinian territories and Lebanon--than of immediately halting it.

To do so, we need to broaden the range of policy tools we draw upon. That means refraining from redundant reminders that military force is still "on the table," which only strengthen the hand of hard-line Islamists and nationalists. It means broadening cultural contacts with the Iranian people, bypassing the regime through Voice of America and the Internet. And it means trying high-level political negotiations, something the Bush Administration has so far shunned. Supporters of engagement should not equate dialogue with concessions. We should ask international negotiators to insist--as we did with the Soviet Union during the cold war--that Iran address human-rights issues as well as security concerns. It's true that earlier attempts at engagement have produced few dividends. But what negotiations can do is diminish perceptions of U.S. arrogance and remind the world of the urgency of getting Iran to cooperate on issues of shared interest, from preventing state failure in Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan to caring for Iraqi refugees.

Engaging Iran won't guarantee improved U.S.-Iranian relations or a more stable gulf region. But not engaging means more of the same. The longer we wait to rethink our Iran policy, the greater the likelihood that the next crisis will erupt into a full-fledged confrontation.