In the run-up to the next round of nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 in Kazakhstan next week, we have published our newest article, “Time to Face the Truth About Iran,” in the February 25, 2013 issue of The Nation, which will hit newsstands in a few days. Additionally, The Nation has published it online, see here (so far for subscribers only). We encourage our readers to visit The Nation’s Web site and leave comments, Facebook likes, etc., The article is also distributed online by Agence Global, see here, and has been picked up by a number of other sites, including Middle East Online and ZNet.
The article opens by taking on America’s Iran mythology:
“For more than thirty years, American analysts and policy-makers have put forward a series of myths about the Islamic Republic: that it is irrational, illegitimate, and vulnerable. In doing so, pundits and politicians have consistently misled the American public and America’s allies about what policies will actually work to advance US interests in the Middle East.
The most persistent—and dangerous—of these myths is that the Islamic Republic is so despied by its own people that it is in imminent danger of overthrow. From the start, Americans treated the Iranian Revolution of 1978-79 as a major surprise. But the only reason it was a surprise was that official Washington refused to see the growing demand by the Iranian people for an indigenously generated political order free from US domination. And ever since then, the Islamic Republic has defied endless predictions of its collapse or defeat.
The Islamic Republic has survived because its basic model—the integration of participatory politics and elections with the principles and institutions of Islamic governance and a commitment to foreign policy independence—is, according to polls, electoral participation rates and a range of other indicators, what a majority of Iranians living inside the country want. They don’t want a political order grounded in Western-style secular liberalism. They want one reflecting their cultural and religious values: as the reformist President Mohammad Khatami put it, ‘freedom, independence and progress within the context of both religiousity and national identity.’
That’s what the Islamic Republic, with all its flaws, offers Iranians the chance to pursue. Even most Iranians who want the government to evolve significantly—for example, by allowing greater cultural and social pluralism—still want it to be the Islamic Republic.”
We go on from there to debunk various contemporary versions of the myth of the Islamic Republic’s illegitimacy and fragility—regarding Iran’s 2009 presidential election, the Green Movement, the impact of sanctions, and the ramifications of the Arab Awakening. On the last point, we write that, contrary to conventional wisdom in Washington,
“[Iranian] policy-makers and analysts see the Arab Awakening as hugely positive for the Islamic Republic’s regional position. They judge—correctly—that any Arab government that becomes more representative of its people’s beliefs, concerns and preferences will be less enthusiastic about strategic cooperation with the United States, let alone Israel, and more open to the Islamic Republic’s message of foreign policy independence…
What Washington misses above all is that Tehran does not need Arab governments to be more pro-Iranian; it just needs them to be less pro-America, less pro-Israel and more independent. Because US elites miss this critical point, they miss a breader reality as well: that the Arab Awakening is accelerating the erosion of Washington’s strategic position in the Middle East, not Tehran’s. Rather than deal with this, Americans continue to embrace the logic-degying proposition that the same drivers that are empowering Islamists in Arab countries will somewho transform the Islamic Republic into a secular liberal state.
But reality is what it is. Consider the strategic balance sheet: on the eve of 9/11, just over a decade ago, every Middle Eastern government—every single one—was either pro-American (e.g., Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf Arab monarchies, and Tunisia), in negotiations to realign toward the United States (Qaddafi’s Libya) and/or anti-Iranian (Saddam’s Iraq and the Taliban’s Afghanistan). Today, the regional balance has turned decisively against Washington and in favor of Tehran.
This has occurred not because Iran fired a single shot, but because of elections that empowered previously marginalized populations in Afghanistan, Egypt, Gaza, Iraq, Lebanon, Tunisia and Turkey. In all of these places, governments have emerged that are no longer reflexively pro-American and anti-Iranian. This is a huge boost to the Islamic Republic’s strategic position.”
On the nuclear issue, the proposition that sanctions and the Arab Awakening may somehow force Tehran to make the concessions “that the United States and Israel have long demanded” is detached from both historical and current reality:
“Unlike others in the Middle East, Iran was an early signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. And the Islamic Republic has for years been willing to negotiate with America and others about their concerns over its nuclear activities—so long as it would not have to concede internationally recognized sovereign and treaty rights…Iran continues to be interested in an agreement—perhaps one restricting its near 20 percent enrichment in return for new fuel for its research reactor and substantial sanctions relief or, preferably, a more comprehensive accord. In this regard, the nuclear issue is quite simple: if the United States accepts Iran’s right to enrich on its own territory under international safeguards, there could be a deal—including Tehran’s acceptance of more intrusive verification and monitoring of its nuclear activities and limits on enrichment at the near 20 percent level.
But the Obama administration, like the Bush administration before it, refuses to acknowledge Iran’s nuclear rights. In the wake of Obama’s re-election, there is no evidence his administration is rethinking that approach: senior US officials say their goal remains a suspension of Iran’s enrichment-related activities. The administration may offer Tehran bigger material incentives for substantial nuclear concessions (as if the Iranians were donkeys to be manipulated with economic carrots and sticks). But Washington remains unwilling to address the Islamic Republic’s sovereign rights and core security concerns, for that would mean acknowledging it as a legitimate political entity representing legitimate national interests. As long as this is the case, there won’t be a deal.”
We conclude by underscoring that
“Americans should have no illusions about the consequences of an overt, US-initiated war against the Islamic Republic…Starting a war with Iran over the nuclear issue would ratify the US image, in the Middle East and globally, as an outlaw superpower. This prospect is even more dangerous to America’s strategic position today than it was after the invasion of Iraq. Just a few years ago, the United States was still an unchallenged superpower. Other countries’ views did not matter much; especially in the Middle East; Washington could usually impose its requirements on compliant governments whose foreign policies were largely unreflective of their own peoples’ opinions.
Today, as more countries with increasingly mobilized publics seek greater independence, their views on regional and international issues—as well as the views of their people—matter much more. Therein lies the real challenge posed by the Islamic Republic, a challenge that Washington has yet to meet squarely: How does the United States work with an Iran—or an Egypt, for the matter—acting to promote its interests as it sees them, rather than as Washington defines them?
America needs better relations with Tehran to begin improving ties with the growing number of Islamist political orders across the Middle East, which is essential to saving what’s left of the US position in the region. It also needs Tehran’s help to contain the rising tide of jihadi terrorism in the region—a phenomenon fueled by Saudi Arabia and Washington’s other ostensible Arab allies in the Persian Gulf. Iran is a critical player for shaping the future not only of Iraq and Afghanistan, but Syria as well. More than ever before, American interests require rapprochement with the Islamic Republic. Continued US hostility only courts strategic disaster.”
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett