Iran: The real beauty in the eye of American beholders

Iran: The real beauty in the eye of American beholders
Comment: Iran has been viewed by both Republican and Democratic decision-makers as the more beautiful prize, writes Robert Springborg.
7 min read
27 Nov, 2017
Iranian women walk past the former US embassy in Tehran [Getty]
President Trump's vilification of Iran has eclipsed the US' long-standing desire to restore favourable relations with Tehran, even at the possible expense of its informal alliance with Saudi Arabia. Put simply, Iran has been viewed by both Republican and Democratic decision-makers as the more beautiful prize.

US courtship of Iran rests on some realities and many hopes. Key is Iran's undoubted geopolitical superiority, initially in the Gulf and now extending virtually from the Levant to the Afghan frontier. Not only is it a land bridge spanning these regions, its population of 80 million - slightly greater than Turkey's - automatically renders it a major Middle Eastern power.

Its state capacities exceed those of any Arab country, as reflected in its mastery of asymmetric warfare and associated power projection far beyond its borders.

Its systematic use of terrorism as an instrument of foreign policy is interpreted by influential former CIA agent Robert Baer as relatively "rational" and effective, at least as compared to its Sunni jihadi counterpart.

His view is widely shared, along with the policy preference for favouring Iran over Saudi Arabia and other Arab states.

Culturally, despite being politically dominated by mullahs, Iran is widely viewed in the US as more sophisticated, more "western", than the Arab world. 

Familiarity with Iranian movies, for example, is far more widespread than that with Arab cinema. Iranian academics are more numerous and visible in US universities - relatively speaking - than their Arab counterparts. Expatriate Iranian communities in the West are more coherent, vibrant and successful than those of any Arab state or of Turkey.

During his entire presidency Obama essentially cold shouldered not just Saudi Arabia, but the whole Arab world

The American-based Iranian lobby is better organised, financed and effective than that of any and all Arab states.

In sum then, many American decision makers are nostalgic for the "good old days" of the alliance with the Shah's Iran.

But believing that the mullahs are truly in control and that there is next to no chance of restoration of the monarchy, they are willing to sup with those devils as the price of restoring the Washington-Tehran axis. They nurture hopes that the mullahs will moderate, or be replaced by real moderates.

Iranian students storm US embassy in November 1979 resulting in US hostage crisis [Getty]

Iranian students storm US embassy in
November 1979 resulting in the US hostage crisis [Getty]

US policy toward Iran reflects this long-standing orientation. Presidential candidate Ronald Reagan cut a deal with the mullahs to release the American embassy hostages only after the election, thereby ensuring President Carter's defeat.

President Reagan then went on to broaden the back channel to Tehran, providing arms in what became known as the Iran-Contra affair, thereby double-dealing against Iraq and its Arab backers, then engaged in war against Iran.

Reagan's CIA covered up the role of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in kidnapping and killing Americans in Lebanon from 1982, as well as the incarceration in Tehran of the captive president of the American University of Beirut.

Not to be outdone by the Republicans in seeking to come to terms with the mullahs, President Clinton launched the so-called "dual containment" strategy that effectively undermined the weaker Iraq, paving the way for its subsequent domination by Iran.

The acceptance by the Clinton Foundation of some $2 million from a known agent of the mullahs' regime, in exchange for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signing off on the sale of used Boeing 747 aircraft to a company known to be owned by the IRGC, was presumably not caused just by greed, but by the desire to signal to Tehran the Clintons' favourable intentions.

The invasion of Iraq ordered by President Bush junior, accompanied with the liquidation of the Baath Party and the end of Sunni dominance, paved the way for direct Shia and indirect Iranian control of the Iraqi state.

Within his first six months in office, President Obama turned his back on the Iranian opposition that had mobilised to contest the June 2009 presidential election. He remained silent as protesters were rounded up and killed by the regime.

By contrast, two years later he personally supported the Arab Spring. In March 2010, President Obama overruled Iraqi voters who had given the anti-Iranian Ayad Allawi a majority, ensuring instead that the Iranian puppet, Nouri al-Maliki, became prime minister.

Obama's courting of Tehran reached its apotheosis in July 2015, with the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), under which the sanctions regime against Iran ended in return for Tehran temporarily suspending its nuclear programme.

Instead of moderating the mullahs it has emboldened them and reinforced their profound anti-Americanism

Obama beat back all efforts from within and outside his administration to include other requirements, such as cessation of support for militant attacks in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, to be included as preconditions for the lifting of sanctions.

During his entire presidency Obama essentially cold-shouldered not just Saudi Arabia, but the whole Arab world. He implied that he was willing to sacrifice any and all Arab states for the restoration of close working relations between the US and Iran.

Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif [AFP]

Secretary of State John Kerry meets with
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif [AFP]

Little wonder that President Trump vociferously attack the JCPOA and indeed, Obama's cosying up to Tehran more generally.

Obama's pronounced tilt had gone too far for even those generally inclined to want to strike a deal with Iran, many of whom - especially those in the military - had first-hand experience of Iran's brutal use of asymmetric warfare to counter American interests.

The recent chorus of criticism of Trump for his condemnation of the JCPOA and for seeking to restore balance in American relations in the region was shrill and predictable, coming as it has from Obama Democrats and the pro-Iran lobby.

But a more balanced assessment of the costs and benefits to the US of its long-standing courtship of the mullahs; Iran suggests that Trump in at least this matter is on the right track.

US courtship has helped further to entrench the mullahs and the IRGC in power, undermining potential opposition. It has opened the door to Europeans, most notably the French, to resume business as usual with Tehran, thereby further cementing political control by the regime.

It virtually guaranteed Iran's consolidation of power over Lebanon, while strongly bolstering its leading positions in Syria and Iraq. It placed huge stress on GCC states, contributing to the rash seizure of power by Muhammad bin Salman in Saudi Arabia, thereby possibly precipitating the destabilisation of the world's leading oil exporter.

Many American decision makers are nostalgic for the 'good old days' of the alliance with the Shah's Iran

The misguided effort to curry support with the mullahs by both Republican and Democratic administrations has been nothing short of catastrophic.

A sound assessment of the Tehran regime would have revealed that the prospects for success of such an effort were virtually zero. Instead of moderating the mullahs it has emboldened them and reinforced their profound anti-Americanism and dedication to expanding Iran's power throughout the region.

It is a sad commentary on the quality of American decision-making that it is the egotistical and unreliable President Trump who has taken up, even if only ephemerally, the challenge to fix this long-standing problem of US policy in the Middle East.

Given Trump's eccentricity and shrinking political base he will likely fail in this as he has in other of his half-hearted efforts. The best that can be hoped for is that his successor does not succumb to the lure of the putative attractiveness of Iran, but instead accurately perceives the real Iran, warts and all, and takes steps to counter its influence and undermine its oppressive leadership. 

Robert Springborg is the Kuwait Foundation Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Middle East Initiative, Belfer Center. He is also Visiting Professor in the Department of War Studies, King's College, London, and non-resident Research Fellow of the Italian Institute of International Affairs. 

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff