Home The Washington Diplomat September 2009 As Iran Tries to Figure Out Its Future,U.S. Tries to Figure Out Its Approach

As Iran Tries to Figure Out Its Future,U.S. Tries to Figure Out Its Approach


The theocratic backbone of Iran is being put to the test. That’s been clear ever since opposition leaders rebuked supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s decision to declare the disputed June 12 re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a “divine assessment” and to order all Iranians to accept the results.

The response led to weeks of bloodshed and chaos in the streets. Dozens of dissidents have been killed and hundreds of protestors and prominent reformists have been tried for treason and, allegedly, forced into phony confessions.

The current battle essentially pits the regime — Ayatollah Khamenei, Ahmadinejad and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps — against opposition leaders — including defeated presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, as well as former presidents Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami. While the regime would like people to think otherwise, the United States has not been directly involved in the turmoil and has so far adopted a wait-and-see approach to the situation.

The turmoil is indeed historic. For nearly 30 years, Iranians lived under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s theory of “velayat-e faqih,” which sought to blend together theocracy and a measure of democracy by giving Muslim clergy, in particular its supreme leader, the God-given authority to oversee the country.

And for nearly 30 years, the system seemed to work — at least in the eyes of the supreme leader’s inner circle. When national debates grew testy, the supreme leader delivered a special sermon in which he announced an ultimate decision, and the ruling was absolute and final.

But that is not the case today. When Khamenei defied any expectations that he would call for a new election and threw all his political muscle behind Ahmadinejad, the country erupted in protests. Many Iranians believed the election was rigged, their secular right to vote had been stolen and, in many cases, their human rights violated.

Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, knows a thing or two about violated human rights. In 2007, she was put under house arrest and then detained in Iran’s notorious Evin prison for nearly four months on charges of anti-government activities after visiting her ailing elderly mother in Iran. After a campaign of both quiet and public diplomacy by colleagues and U.S. officials, she was pardoned by Khamenei and released in August 2007.

Esfandiari told The Washington Diplomat that today’s reformist movement is linked to Khatami’s 1997 landslide presidential election victory. That campaign was led by technocrats, reform-minded politicians, NGOs and high-ranking civil servants who “pushed for the idea of opening up to the outside world and also internal reform, especially when it came to the rule of law and also implementing the constitution when it comes to freedom of speech, freedom of movement.”

In stark contrast today, some of those voters have been shouting “death to the dictator” from their rooftops in an unprecedented challenge to Ayatollah Khamenei that has exposed the internal divisions between the country’s hard-line and more liberal clerics, and even within members of the conservative establishment.

Shifting U.S. Axis U.S. foreign policy toward Iran has changed dramatically this decade as the government tries to figure out the best way to deal with Iran, not only on nuclear issues, but also on its strategic importance in the Muslim world and its support for terrorist organizations, including Hamas and Hezbollah.

President Bush rhetorically attacked the regime of Iran — his most notorious example being his “axis of evil” line from the 2002 State of the Union address. He also pushed for tougher economic sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program and refused to remove the threat of force from the table.

Bush’s approach has been blamed for helping to legitimize and further harden the regime — while also unintentionally empowering it through the Iraq war and the ouster of its nemesis, Saddam Hussein — policies that have come back to haunt the United States. Yet others argue that Bush pushed Iran to adopt policies that eventually weakened the country. For example, during Bush’s tenure, Iranians increased funding for the military, backed militias in Iraq, supported proxy wars in Israel, and increased funding for food subsidies that, skeptics say, went toward Ahmadinejad’s supporters. The moves stretched the country’s finances, angered many Iranians, and coincided with dropping oil revenues.

President Obama followed by fulfilling his controversial campaign promise to engage rival countries. He has repeatedly and publicly said he is ready to have direct contacts with Iran — as he did in his Nowruz holiday greeting in which he praised the culture of Iran and said the United States wants it “to take its place among the community of nations.”

Obama followed up with his June speech in Cairo in which he again called for a new beginning in Muslim-American relations and repeated: “I have made it clear to Iran’s leaders and people that my country is prepared to move forward. The question, now, is not what Iran is against, but rather what future it wants to build.”

And when opposition leaders protested in Tehran against the future they were seeing for their country, Obama was careful not to get too involved, knowing full well that Ahmadinejad would highlight it as another example of American meddling in the country’s affairs. So far, Obama has stopped short of endorsing the reformist movement. Instead, he praised what he considered the courage and dignity of the demonstrators while assailing the Iranian government’s “threats, beatings and imprisonments of the past few days.”

Nicholas Burns — a 27-year U.S. Foreign Service veteran who served as undersecretary of state for political affairs under the Bush administration — has applauded Obama’s non-confrontational approach.

“President Ahmadinejad would like nothing better than to see a very aggressive series of statements by the United States that would try to put the U.S. in the center of this,” Burns, now at Harvard University, told The Washington Diplomat. “And I think President Obama is avoiding that quite rightly.”

He added: “This is not a dispute for the U.S. to be the center of. It’s up to Iranians to decide who Iran’s future leaders will be. He said he respects Iran’s sovereignty. I think it was important to do that.”

Esfandiari agreed and said her personal experience in Iran — robbed at knife point by men who stole all her documents and then being held for months in detention — gave her a firsthand look at the regime’s paranoia over U.S. involvement in their internal affairs and its own vulnerability.

“By not getting involved in supporting the opposition movement at least he cannot be accused of interfering and meddling in Iran’s affairs,” Esfandiari said. “I spent eight months in jail — of which 105 days were in solitary confinement — trying to convince them that Iran was not a banana republic and you cannot overthrow the government of Iran through a velvet revolution.”

The Looming Deadline In late July, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters that Obama’s offer to engage with Iran is not “open-ended” and that the president is “anticipating or hoping for” a response “perhaps by the time of the U.N. General Assembly” on Sept. 23.

Asked what she expects to happen next, Esfandiari laid out a few potential scenarios. For starters, Iran may wait as long as possible to respond with some sort of proposal for diplomatic talks. When it does, the White House will review the proposal and determine how to move forward — a process, she said, will take time.

Another possibility is that Tehran could request that the deadline be pushed back. Esfandiari said the regime might go this route because they do not want to speak from a weak point “and internally the government has lost its legitimacy.”

“We have not heard a ‘no’ from Iran and we have not heard a ‘yes,’” she pointed out. “The reason is they internally have so much on their plate. I am not sure who would have time to.”

Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, agrees that the current regime is in a tough spot. “If Tehran rebuffs an opportunity to have meaningful talks with Washington, it will increase its own isolation and put itself under greater international pressure, while the United States will improve its own standing,” he wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine.

Nevertheless, such a scenario is still likely to test the administration’s patience and could become problematic because some experts have said that Iran has the capacity to develop a nuclear bomb before year’s end.

But, Esfandiari suggested, that could be more political posturing than anything else — an attempt to put additional international pressure on Iran. She could be right. Secretary Gates has said Iran is not close to having a nuclear weapon, which gives the international community more time to persuade Tehran to abandon its suspected arms program through diplomatic means.

Whatever the case, big questions remain. “Would an effort at dialogue with Iran produce results?” Holbrooke has asked. “Could it reduce the overt anti-Israel activities of the Iranian government, which poses an existential threat to the Jewish state? Could it stop the nuclear program? Is there enough common ground to enlist Iran in a regional project to stabilize Iraq and Afghanistan?”

But, perhaps more than anything else, Iran’s future hinges on the strength of the opposition movement. Can it survive under a regime that continues to aggressively crack down on it? And how long can the Obama administration watch and wait, before it is compelled to act?

About the Author

Seth McLaughlin is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.