North Africa, West Asia

Defying conventional wisdom and ‘getting real’ with Iran

The process of reviewing the new US administration’s policy on Iran has been greatly hampered by out-of-date preconceptions and wanton comments on the part of some senior officials interested in scoring points with certain domestic constituencies.

Mehrdad Khonsari
28 July 2017

Iranian president Hassan Rouhani attends a news conference in Tehran, Iran, on May 22, 2017. Picture by: TIMA AGENCY/Reuters/PA Images. All rights reserved.While President Trump has so far desisted from carrying out the campaign promise he made to tear up the nuclear agreement, there is no question that Washington’s language towards Iran has become increasingly more provocative and hostile since his accession. What is unclear at this point is who exactly is the new administration’s aggressive talks directed against? Is it the people of Iran who by all accounts are perhaps the most American-friendly people in the Middle East? Is it the popular, reform-oriented government of president Hassan Rouhani who negotiated the nuclear agreement, ended Iran’s isolation and removed the threat of another costly and unwanted Middle Eastern war? Or is it the hardline, doctrinaire elements supported by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps with very little public support that nonetheless continue clinging on to every vestige of real power in the country?

For some time now, a real battle is being waged between the supporters of the recently elected government and the hardliners who are unwilling to let go of the economic and political stranglehold they have had over the nation for the past 38 years. Their rejection of a call for ‘national reconciliation’ which has the support of president Rouhani and former president Mohammad Khatami – ostensibly the most popular political figure in the country, has redefined the political map in Iran and has placed the supporters of national reconciliation in the front line of opposition to powerful quarters who remain bent on monopolizing political and economic power within their unpopular and shrinking constituencies. The future fate of the country is today very much dependent on the outcome of this important battle.

Khatami’s popular call for national reconciliation, with its proven track record in other countries, has come at a time when key constituencies within Iran, including the youth, the intelligentsia, the traditional clerical hierarchy as well as the majority of the current ruling establishment, appreciate the urgent need to redefine Iran’s position on key internal and external priorities through peaceful dialogue and away from violence and disorder.

While the Iranian people will themselves decide the outcome of this internal debate, it also makes sense for the new US administration, to adopt a more sophisticated approach by exhibiting greater sensitivity to events on the ground and more importantly placing a lid on their wholesale outbursts that fail to distinguish between potentially friendly progressive forces and their dangerous hardline adversaries.

The US instead of punishing away all Iranians can benefit - like the EU - by encouraging investments in what is believed to be the world’s largest foreign investment capital market. This can be achieved by removing barriers for Iran’s private economic sector not controlled by revolutionary organizations to also play a leading role in marginalizing the hardliners while actively tackling dominant issues such as economic decline and youth unemployment.

From a regional perspective, the US, also needs to take note of the fact that "evolutionary Iran" (i.e. with radicalism on the wane and political moderation on the rise) is much more on the right side of history than most others —regardless of how many arms they buy. Coupled with this is the important consideration that the failure of democracy in the aftermath of the "Arab Spring" should in no way be interpreted to mean that the future of the region is tied to perpetual autocracy. Hence looking to the future, for the sake of peace and stability, it is critical for the US to give much greater credence to seeking diplomatic solutions and maintaining a balanced position between all parties that takes into consideration their legitimate interests.

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