Why the West Can’t Do Business With Iran

Obama persists in trying to talk to a regime whose “sacred cause” is to replace a US-led world order with an Islamic one

Having started his first presidential term in 2009 by offering “a hand of friendship” to the Islamic Republic in Iran, President Barack Obama has begun his second term by renewing his invitation for direct talks with the leadership in Tehran. In a variation on the same theme, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has described Iran as “the toughest problem” facing American foreign policy today. And, yet, she too has pinned her hopes on a “diplomatic solution” before the March 2013 deadline set by Obama.

Both Obama and Clinton, who is retiring as Secretary of State, would do well to read James Buchan’s insightful new book Days of God: The Revolution in Iran and Its Consequences (John Murray, £25). Buchan, who lived in Iran in the 1970s and has followed developments there for the past 40 years, has a much broader compass than Iran’s relations with the United States and the 20-year dispute over alleged Iranian intentions to build a nuclear arsenal. But when it comes to the thorny issue of reaching a compromise with Iran on virtually any major issue, Buchan has grave reservations about the rose-tinted spectacles of American diplomacy under Obama. “History has shown,” Buchan writes, “how on four occasions (since 1940) Iran persisted with a weak hand long after it should have folded. Iran’s intransigence revealed not strength but weakness and, each time, it underestimated the bloody-mindedness of its adversaries.”

According to Buchan, Iran, under the Khomeinist regime, holds one of the weakest hands it has had in its recent history and yet is adamant in playing it by rejecting all compromise. He writes: “Contemptuous of diplomacy, the Islamic Republic is now incapable of it.” On two of the occasions that Buchan studies in some detail, the impasse created by Iranian intransigence ended with regime change in Tehran. On two other occasions, the Iranian leadership was forced to accept a dramatic change of course, in effect tactically surrendering to foreign diktat in order to save their regime.

Buchan shuns speculation on how the current standoff over Iran’s nuclear ambitions and its campaign to “wipe Israel off the map” might end. But the mindset he describes, with a degree of understanding rare among Western commentators on Iranian affairs, tends to exclude a genuine change of course by Iran’s current leadership. At best, Iran might enter a new set of negotiations to buy time and avoid tougher punishment, including possible military action by the United States and/or Israel. The mindset that Buchan describes is that of a decision-making elite of clerics, military and intelligence officers and technocrats drunk on an intoxicating mix of Shia messianic mumbo-jumbo, pseudo-Marxism and what many call pan-Islamist fascism. 

According to that mindset the Iranian regime is the only “divinely guided” government in the world, all others being in the hands of deviant Muslims or outright infidels. The present world order is a concoction of “Zionists and Crusaders” and is sustained by military force, propaganda and economic domination. The fall of the Soviet Union removed the only serious challenger to this despicable order. The Islamic Republic in Iran has the duty to fill that gap by assuming the role of challenger. Its aim should be a new Islamic world order. And that, in turn, requires the end of American domination. A key step in that direction is the destruction of the United States’ principal “bridgehead in the heart of Islam”—that is to say Israel.

As far as the Islamic Republic is concerned, anti-Americanism may be even more important than professing Islam. This is why Tehran has forged close ties with the handful of regimes across the globe that, each for a reason of its own, shares that visceral hatred of the US. Apart from North Korea, an ally of the Islamic Republic since the early days, several leftist regimes in Latin America, notably Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Ecuador look to Tehran as a source of inspiration for their own anti-American policies. It was with their help that Iran hosted the summit of the non-aligned movement in 2012, at which President Mahmoud Ahamdinejad was elected as the leader of the club for the next three years.

Anti-Americanism is also the principal reason behind Tehran’s support for the Syrian despot Bashar al-Assad. Assad belongs to the Nusairi community, an esoteric sect regarded as heretical by both Shia and Sunni Islam. And yet the Iranian government has managed to obtain fatwas from two clerics describing the Nusairis as “believers”. In other words, even infidels can be regarded as believers, provided they share the Islamic Republic’s hatred of the US. Latin America’s leftist regimes and Syria account for more than 80 per cent of the Islamic Republic’s investments abroad. In the dispute over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, Iran supported Christian Armenia against Shia Muslim Azerbaijan. The reason was Armenia’s close ties with Russia, while Azerbaijan had become an ally of the US and established full diplomatic ties with Israel. What mattered for the Khomeinist regime was not Islam but anti-Americanism. Tehran also approved Russia’s genocidal war against Chechnya, a Muslim nation in the Caucasus. Again, the reason was Tehran’s dream of building an anti-American axis with Moscow. A decade later, Russia tried to repay its debt to Iran by supporting the Islamic Republic’s efforts to save the Assad regime in Syria by massacring the Syrian people.

Buchan traces the Iranian regime’s hostility to the present world order to the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who led the Islamist revolution that created the Islamic Republic in 1979. Buchan writes: “None but God, Khomeini wrote, may rule on earth, and the world has in the Koran and the Traditions (hadith) all the law it needs. There is no place for legislation, assemblies or elections.” In other words, such American concepts as a “government of the people by the people for the people” based on man-made constitutions and the rule of man-made law have no place in the ideal world order the ayatollah hoped to create.

Buchan is careful to remain agnostic about the possibility of war with Iran. However, his analysis depicts a regime that will not stop unless it hits something hard on its path. In the late 1980s and after Khomeini’s death in 1989 hopes that the Islamic Republic might imitate Communist China and abandon adventurism in foreign policy in exchange for a place in the Western-dominated global system created some excitement among Iran-watchers. However, over the decades that followed it became increasingly clear that, even if its leaders wanted it, the Islamic Republic couldn’t imitate Communist China. Communism is a secular ideology and Communist China was behaving like a nation state concerned with concrete issues such as national security, recognition, trade, economic cooperation and technological exchange. The Islamic Republic, however, behaves not as a nation state concerned with issues of interest to nation states, but as a cause, propagating and pursuing a messianic dream.

Every February in Tehran, the Islamic Republic hosts two international conferences under the titles “A World Without America” and “A World Without Israel”. Dozens of papers are delivered and many more speeches are made at the two conferences that attract anti-American and anti-Semitic “thinkers” from across the globe, including the US and Israel. However, the talk is not of economic development, something Iran badly needs, or even cultural exchanges. The focus is on “the sacred cause”: the destruction of the American “Great Satan” and, as the first step in that direction, the elimination of Israel. Would the Islamic Republic use a putative nuclear arsenal to further its “sacred cause”? Again Buchan is agnostic and, perhaps, has to be. But who could be absolutely sure that it would not?

It is not only with the US and Israel that the Islamic Republic cannot conceive of normal nation-to-nation relations. Caught in the tangled web of a sick ideology they are prisoners of myths that are not easily circumvented. The Khomeinist ideology cannot conceive of a relationship with an adversary, a rival or a competitor. Whoever deviates from whatever happens to be “the path of the Imam” at any given time is regarded as enemy (dushman). While compromise is possible with an adversary, rival or competitor in personal life as in international relations, an enemy can only be defeated and destroyed. Because it has cast itself as a “sacred cause”, the Khomeinist regime cannot behave as a nation state. And that has made it difficult, at times even impossible, for the Islamic Republic to deal with a host of mundane issues that a normal nation state would handle with little difficulty.

For example, ever since the fall of the USSR, the Islamic Republic has been negotiating a new status for the Caspian Sea with the other littoral states—Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan. Two decades later, however, there is not the slightest prospect of an agreement. The reason is the Islamic Republic’s “my way or the highway” negotiating strategy. A “divine government” cannot offer any concessions to powers hostile to “true Islam”. For years, the Islamic Republic campaigned to join the so-called Shanghai Group, a club of Central Asian nations led by China and Russia and supposedly dedicated to fighting terrorism and smuggling. Talks led to an impasse because Tehran wanted to change the rules of the club by joining it. So far, China and Russia have refused to surrender to Iran, allowing it only observer status. As far as membership of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) is concerned, Iran is again adopting an à la carte approach. It insists on picking and choosing which rules to obey and which to ignore. Again, the result is an impasse in negotiations with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that is charged with policing the NPT.

Even when it comes to relations with Muslim countries, the Islamic Republic remains a prisoner of its ideology. Years of talks with Iraq, under the friendly government of Nuri al-Maliki, have failed to produce an agreement to reopen the Shatt al-Arab border waterway, thus allowing Basra and Khorramshahr, respectively Iraq and Iran’s biggest ports, to resume activity after a hiatus of more than 30 years. The reopening of the two ports would have a major impact on the two neighbours’ economies. But no agreement is in sight because Tehran wants to dictate terms that no Iraqi government could accept. Iran is also at loggerheads with Afghanistan, its neighbour to the east, over sharing the waters of several border rivers, notably the Hirmand, Harirud and Parianrud. The Khomeinist regime has denounced agreements reached under the Shah as “capitulation” and insists on dictating terms that, despite its massive dependence on Tehran, the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai would not be able to sell to its own people.

Iran’s behaviour as the embodiment of a cause rather than as a country has also produced tension in its relations with several Muslim countries. Over the past three decades, 17 Muslim-majority countries have severed diplomatic relations with Iran and/or expelled Iranian diplomats. Right now Morocco, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, all of them Muslim-majority nations, have no diplomatic relations with Iran. More interestingly, perhaps, Iran is the only Muslim country to have severed ties with the Palestinian Authority under President Mahmoud Abbas, who is attacked in the Tehran media as a “Baha’i agent of Zionism”. Despite its claim of leadership in the world of Islam, the Khomeinist regime has only one true ally there: Syria under Assad. Lebanon, where a government dominated by the Iranian-controlled Hezbollah is in place, could be regarded as only partly friendly because a majority of Lebanese political parties are openly hostile to Iran.

The regime’s relations with non-Muslim countries have been even more tumultuous. Israel withdrew its diplomatic representation from Tehran in 1979 just as the Khomeinists were about to seize power. The US severed diplomatic ties after Khomeinists raided its embassy in Tehran and held its diplomats hostage for 444 days. French, Italian and South Korean diplomats were held hostage at different times. At one point all European Union members with the exception of Greece withdrew their ambassadors from Tehran. In the 1980s France severed ties with Iran and closed its embassy on two occasions. Britain did the same in 2011 after a mob raided the ambassador’s residence in Tehran and ransacked the building.

Those familiar with the current thinking in government circles across the Muslim world know that there is a consensus that without regime change in Tehran there can be no significant evolution in Iran’s provocative foreign policy on any major issue. Only under a new regime, more concerned about developing the Iranian economy and curing the nation of its social ills rather than “exporting revolution”, might Iran cease to regard the rest of the world as dushman and start behaving as a nation rather than a cause.

The Khomeinist regime’s habit of regarding every critic as an enemy also affects domestic politics. Unable to conceive of dialogue, let alone making a deal, with its critics, the regime has often opted for their physical elimination. More than 100,000 dissidents have been executed or died in prison under torture. Five million Iranians have fled into exile in more than a hundred countries across the globe. Between 1989 and 2012 at least 120 dissidents were murdered abroad, including assassinations in Britain, the US, France, Germany and Switzerland. 

Even regime officials at the highest level could suddenly become dushman by questioning the “path of the Imam” in its latest version. Of the regime’s six presidents only one is still alive and in Iran and enjoying freedom of movement. He is Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who succeeded Khomeini as “Supreme Guide” (rahbar) in 1989. Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, the first President, fled to exile in Paris. The second, Muhammad-Ali Raja’I, was blown to pieces in a bomb attack weeks after being sworn in. Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Muhammad Khatami are still in Tehran but subjected to a daily barrage of abuse in the official media. Both have had their passports withdrawn and are not even allowed to visit their respective home towns. Of the regime’s three prime ministers, before the post was abolished in 1989, one died in disgrace and under house arrest. A second was killed in a bomb blast believed to be an inside job. A third, Mir-Hussein Mussavi, has been under house arrest since 2009 along with his wife. Senior clerics have been defrocked and war heroes transformed into non-persons overnight because they criticised aspects of the regime’s policies. The highest crime is any suggestion that compromise with the US might well be in Iran’s national interest. Ataollah Mohajerani, a Khomeinist firebrand and long-time Minister of Islamic Guidance, found himself transformed overnight into an “enemy of Islam” by calling for a debate on relations with the “Great Satan”. He had to flee to London to work for a Saudi publication. 

In November 2012 an estimated 400 former officials of the Islamic Republic, including several of ministerial rank, were in exile in western Europe, the United States and Canada. The Governor of the Central Bank fled to Canada after warning that, economically, Iran was paying too a high a price for its anti-American stance. “We want to destroy America, not negotiate with it,” says Ayatollah Mohammad Saeedi, Special Representative of the “Supreme Guide” in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard.

Iraq, the subject of Michael R. Gordon and Bernard E. Trainor’s magisterial new book Endgame: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Iraq from George W. Bush to Barack Obama (Pantheon, $35), plays a central role in Tehran’s hopes for creating “a world without America”. In the Khomeinist vision, the promised world order which would replace that created by the Western powers would be centred on a new Islamic “superpower” with Iran at its core. To protect that core, Iran should create a regional glacis consisting of a Shia-dominated Iraq, a Syria ruled by Nusairis and a Lebanon dominated by Hezbollah. In time, that glacis could be extended to include Kuwait, where Shias account for 30 per cent of the citizens, Bahrain, where 75 per cent are Shias, and Yemen with Zaydi Shias representing 60 per cent of the population. Middle East commentators have dubbed this an Iranian plan to create a “Shia crescent” carved in the heart of the Arab world where Sunni Muslims form more than 90 per cent of the population. The Shia crescent would then claim leadership by casting itself as standard-bearer in a “jihad to liberate Palestine”, chase the Jews out of the region, and lead a worldwide campaign to destroy American hegemony. In that context Iraq could play a crucial role. With Egypt, it is one of only two countries that have the demographic weight, historical and cultural credentials and the economic weight to claim the leadership of the Arab world. The fact that in the past few years it has enjoyed a measure of stability rare among Arab nations, while opening vast new spaces for personal and political freedoms, adds to its political appeal to Arabs.

Liberated from Saddam Hussein’s tyranny in 2003, Iraq had much of what was needed to realise the dream of a democratic future for all Arabs, as spelled out in George W. Bush’s controversial “Freedom Agenda”. The idea was that Arabs would look at the nascent Iraqi democracy and rise to emulate it by overthrowing their respective despots. At the same time, thanks to Iraq’s immense oil wealth, fertile soil and water resources rare in other Arab countries, building it as a modern state with a liberal political and economic system would be no burden on the American Treasury. However, things did not develop as Bush had imagined. Iraq was transformed into the hottest issue in domestic US politics: those who had opposed the toppling of Saddam succeeded in presenting the entire enterprise as a costly and tragic failure. The authors of Endgame clearly suggest that Obama owes a good part of his victory in the 2008 presidential election to that success.

Whether or not that was the case, Obama has done all he can to weaken the links between the US and Iraq, leaving the latter with little option but to draw closer to Iran as a shield against Sunni revanchism. As the authors of Endgame explain in some detail, Obama even ended up supporting the reappointment of Nuri al-Maliki, the candidate backed by Iran, as prime minister. So determined has Obama been to ignore Iraq that he did not bother to appoint a new ambassador to Baghdad for several months. The President simply shrugged his shoulders when the Status of Forces (SOFA) treaty with Baghdad ran out, ending all effective American presence in Iraq, despite being urged by many senior Iraqi politicians, especially the Kurdish leaders, to agree to the presence of a token American military presence, around 16,000 troops in all, for a further five years. Obama has also made a point of excluding Iraq from the process of consultation with America’s regional allies. Saudi Arabia, Egypt under President Hosni Mubarak and even Algeria have been consulted and invited to G8 summits. Iraq, however, has been left out in the cold, its sin being its liberation by American troops.

This is all the more amazing because the US made a heavy investment in blood and treasure to liberate Iraq and put it back on the road to recovery. Between 2003 and 2011, when the last US troops pulled out, more than 1.5 million American military personnel served in Iraq. Of those, a total of 4,475 were killed in action and a further 32,225 were wounded. In addition more than a million civilian Americans also worked in Iraq, many as volunteers pouring in to build schools and clinics and repair damaged infrastructure. More than any Muslim country, Iraq has a bond of blood with the United States. And yet the Administration continues to push it towards Iran as Obama continues his campaign of hatred against Bush. 

Obama is determined to script his own version of the Bush “Freedom Agenda”. While Bush allied the US with Shias and Kurds in Iraq, and Tajiks and Shia Hazaras in Afghanistan against the Sunni-dominated regimes of Saddam and the Taliban, Obama has forged an alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood, helping it reap the fruits of the Arab Spring from Morocco to Egypt, passing through Tunisia and Libya.

Endgame is a fascinating sequel to Gordon and Trainor’s earlier book on the Iraq war, Cobra II. Even those who closely followed the Iraqi drama from start to finish could still learn from the new information and the perceptive analysis the authors provide. Endgame is interesting for another reason: it provides an inside view of the infighting that accounts for much of what passes for politics in the US. The degree of personal jealousies, sectarian feuds and partisan hatreds, even within the military elite, send shivers down many spines. This is a brutal zoological study of American politics in which most players are more concerned about “what is in it for me” than the broader, and necessarily hard to gauge, interests of the nation.

It is against that background that one should ponder Khomeini’s notorious dictum about an America that, constantly divided against itself, “cannot do a damn thing”. In Tehran today that perception is more alive than ever, preventing the Iranian leadership from taking Buchan’s advice by throwing in their weak hand before their bluff is called.

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