Realism and Iran


Wall Street Journal – REVIEW & OUTLOOK: Realism is an academic theory that holds that nations should, and typically do, conduct foreign policy with greater regard for their interests than their values. But realism is also an ordinary word that tells us that good sense and experience are better practical guides to action than theory. The Wall Street Journal

December 5, 2006; Page A18

Realism is an academic theory that holds that nations should, and typically do, conduct foreign policy with greater regard for their interests than their values. But realism is also an ordinary word that tells us that good sense and experience are better practical guides to action than theory. That’s a distinction worth bearing in mind as the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group releases its report this week and we debate whether the U.S. should engage diplomatically with Iran.

To hear the so-called realists tell it, engaging Tehran is a matter of necessity and ought to be one of choice. Necessity, they say, because there will be no good outcome in Iraq — or Lebanon and Palestine — without Iranian acquiescence, which can only be achieved through face-to-face talks and confidence-building measures. Necessity, too, because they think that neither the U.S. nor Israel can stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions militarily and so they must be dealt with as part of a broader negotiation.

Yet the same people who now call for engagement also believed in it long before the invasion of Iraq or the recent revelations about Iran’s nuclear advances. They argue that Iran’s pressing political and economic problems — the country’s huge youth cohort, cleavages within the regime and its loss of popular legitimacy, ethnic and labor unrest and growing unemployment — mean the Islamic Republic has reasons of its own to come to the table. The same logic also suggests that the real purpose of its nuclear program is to serve as a bargaining chip to obtain bigger concessions from the West rather than as an end in itself.

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But here’s where realism of the common sense kind should intrude. Iran’s domestic problems are hardly new and in some ways have been eased by the high oil prices of recent years. In 1997, Iranians “elected” a supposedly moderate president, Mohammed Khatami, on a reformist platform. As Iranian journalist Amir Taheri notes in the November Commentary magazine, the Clinton Administration sought to establish openings with the Khatami government by lifting some sanctions and apologizing for U.S. political meddling. President Clinton even planned an “accidental” encounter with Mr. Khatami during the U.N.’s millennium summit, but Iran’s Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei canceled it at the last minute. The stood-up President “was left pacing the corridors of the U.N.,” writes Mr. Taheri.

Presidents Carter and Reagan earlier tried engagement with the Ayatollah Khomeini, each time with disastrous consequences: the seizure of the U.S. embassy in 1979; the Iran-Contra scandal of 1986. One problem is that however sincere Iranian moderates may be in seeking an accommodation with the West, Iranian hardliners have proved equally intent on torpedoing any deals. The hardliners have consistently held the upper hand.

This point should be obvious now that Mr. Khatami has been replaced by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Much has been said about Mr. Ahmadinejad’s election being a victory for populism over clericalism. But his candidacy was promoted by Supreme Guide Khamenei and a clerical establishment that pre-selects its officeholders according to narrow ideological and religious criteria.

In Mr. Ahmadinejad, they found a man whose wipe-Israel-off-the-map rhetoric is matched by his record as a hostage-taker, prison interrogator and organizer of violent domestic paramilitaries. If the “realists” greeted Mr. Khatami’s election as a sign of regime softening, why then do they not draw opposite conclusions about his successor?

The Bush Administration has also tried diplomacy, agreeing to allow the Europeans — hardly the most truculent negotiators, except on Guantanamo — to take the lead on the nuclear issue. In late 2003, Iran agreed to suspend its nuclear work as a confidence-building measure; within months, they were caught cheating. A second go-around a year later led to the same result, with Tehran dismissing a package of incentives that included security guarantees, technical assistance, commercial ties and prospective membership in the World Trade Organization.

An effort to get Iran to agree to have Russia enrich its uranium was negotiated for months and led nowhere. Iran has consistently misled U.N. inspectors and illegally obstructed their work by denying them multiple-entry visas. It has flouted the Security Council’s August 31 deadline to cease enriching uranium, choosing instead to expand its enrichment work while pursuing other nuclear programs such as a heavy water plant at Arak that has few possible non-military uses.

The deeper issue concerns Iran’s strategic ambitions. “Realists” argue that despite the regime’s avowed revolutionary principles, what it really seeks is to become a status quo power, secure in its neighborhood and linked to the wider world.

Even assuming Iran’s ambitions extend only to the region, its unneighborly behavior belies this hope. Iranian agents were almost certainly responsible for the 1996 murders of 19 U.S. servicemen in Saudi Arabia. Hezbollah waged its summer war against Israel using arms supplied by Tehran; those arms may yet be turned on the Lebanese government.

Both Britain and the U.S. have publicly accused Iran of supplying increasingly sophisticated improvised explosive devices to anti-Coalition forces in Iraq; IEDs are the leading cause of U.S. military deaths. Now Iran says that a swift American withdrawal from Iraq is the key to peace. That may be music to the ears of Western critics of the war. But it’s hardly surprising given that the U.S. is what chiefly stands in the way of Iran’s desire to dominate Iraq through the likes of Muqtada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army is responsible for some of the worst sectarian violence.

Iran actively supports more than a dozen Parties of God (aka, Hezb Allah) in places as faraway as Paraguay and Argentina. Asian regional powers such as India and Pakistan have not sought the long-range ballistic missiles as Iran has through its Shihabs, which can now reach parts of Europe. Whereas India and Pakistan have deployed modest nuclear arsenals adequate to defend against each other, the scope of Iran’s enrichment program suggests a desire to construct scores of bombs a year.

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Finally, there is the matter of values. One has to wonder about “engaging” a regime whose recent domestic practices include taking a razor to the tongue of labor leader Mansour Ossanloo, whose crime was to have organized an independent union for bus drivers. Realists would have us believe that a country that indulges such barbarism can still be expected to act as a predictable and, under certain conditions, reliable partner in diplomacy.

It’s true that we also “engaged” the Soviet Union during the Cold War, but most successfully when Ronald Reagan also spoke candidly about Soviet reality and on behalf of Russian freedom and the U.S. resisted the Kremlin’s global designs. We suppose in that sense the Gipper was an idealistic realist. President Bush has spoken repeatedly, in his major speeches and in interviews, about American support for Iranians who aspire to more freedom, which is one reason the U.S. is popular among the Iranian people. What message would it now send those Iranians if the U.S. turned around and embraced the rule of Tehran’s mullahs?

We think it’s simple realism to believe the fate of people like Mr. Ossanloo explains Iran’s past behavior, and well predicts its future.

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