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Trump Can’t Deal With Iran If He Doesn’t Understand It
Trump Can’t Deal With Iran If He Doesn’t Understand It
Iran’s Protests: Time to Reform
Iran’s Protests: Time to Reform

Trump Can’t Deal With Iran If He Doesn’t Understand It

Originally published in Foreign Policy

Tweets about putting Iran "ON NOTICE" are no replacement for appreciating the sources of Iranian conduct in the Middle East.

It took only 12 days in office for U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration to put Iran “on notice” that the era of compromise had been replaced by an era of confrontation. In a stern message on Feb. 1, then-National Security Advisor Michael Flynn accused Iran of a “provocative ballistic missile launch and an attack against a Saudi naval vessel conducted by Iran-supported Houthi militants.” Two days later, Washington slapped sanctions on 25 individuals and entities involved with Iran’s ballistic missile tests, even though U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231 had only called on, not enjoined, Iran to refrain from such tests.

In response, Iran threatened its own sanctions and held a military drill, including rocket launches. Gen. Amir Ali Hazjizadeh, an Iranian air force commander with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), threatened: “Should the enemy make a mistake, our roaring missiles will rain down on them.”

Despite the bombast, both sides have so far been careful not to escalate too far, too fast. The sanctions designations were carefully selected so as not to violate the terms of the nuclear deal. Likewise, the missiles tested during Iran’s military drill were not ballistic, and these launches therefore did not contravene the U.N. Security Council resolution.

It is not helpful to exaggerate Iran’s sway and power.

But such tit-for-tat measures, if they continue, could easily spiral out of control and provoke a military confrontation. This is especially true since the bilateral communication channels born of the nuclear talks, which helped to contain tense episodes under the Barack Obama administration, are no more. Unlike the previous administration, Trump’s National Security Council and State Department appear uninterested in engaging their Iranian counterparts.

If Washington hopes to develop an effective strategy for dealing with Tehran, it must first understand the sources of Iranian conduct in the region. It is not helpful to exaggerate Iran’s sway and power: While Tehran has more influence in Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, and Sanaa than it used to, its role in all four is more bitterly contested by state and nonstate actors than in the past.As a Persian nation among Arabs and Turks, a Shiite state among Sunnis, there are natural barriers to Iran’s reach — hence its failure to export its nearly four-decade-old revolution to any neighboring country. In the words of former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, “Iranian influence is self-limiting. The harder they push, the more resistance they get.”

The policies of all contemporary Iranian leaders, regardless of where they fall on the political spectrum, have been shaped by two impulses: regime preservation and restoration — critics would say expansion — of Iran’s role as a regional leader.

The pursuit of self-preservation, the principal objective of any political system, borders on paranoia in an Iranian political culture steeped in a deep sense of insecurity and solitude.

Consider the words of this aggrieved Iranian leader: “Why is it normal for France and Britain to even have nuclear and hydrogen weapons, but for Iran, which is not a member of NATO and its security is not guaranteed by any country in the world, the simple principle of self-defense becomes so problematic?” This complaint was not lodged by a turbaned anti-American official in the Islamic Republic but by the Shah of Iran, the steadfast American ally and a prime recipient of U.S. weaponry who launched the country’s nuclear program.

The security perspective of Iran’s current leaders is shaped by the traumatic 1980-1988 conflict with Iraq

The security perspective of Iran’s current leaders is shaped by the traumatic 1980-1988 conflict with Iraq, in which almost the entire region and the West supported Saddam Hussein’s war effort. Subsequently, they witnessed the United States invade Afghanistan and Iraq, their neighbors to the east and the west.

To compensate for its sense of encirclement by U.S. forces and pro-U.S. states, and its inferior conventional military capacity compared with that of its neighbors, Iran developed a network of partners and proxies to push threats away from its borders. Tehran dubs this its “forward-defense policy,” a euphemism for many in the region for Iran’s exploitation of other states as buffers at the expense of their sovereignty.

The Lebanese Hezbollah is the cornerstone of Iran’s forward-leaning strategy. As a senior Israeli official once put it: “For us, Iran is a 1,000 kilometers away, whereas for Iran, Israel is 10 meters away from across the Lebanese border.” Many in Tehran are convinced the primary reason Israel did not strike Iran’s uranium enrichment facilities and heavy-water reactor during the nuclear crisis was its fear of hundreds of Hezbollah’s Iran-supplied missiles pointing at Israeli cities.

What Iran calls the “axis of resistance” to Israel and the United States — known to Iran’s Sunni neighbors as the “Shiite crescent” — is a more aggressive extension of its forward-defense policy. It not only gives Iran strategic depth but allows it to project power in the Levant. Iran long rejected the notion that sectarianism lay at the root of its alliances, but as Syria’s zero-sum proxy war deepened, it has shed even the pretense of staying above the sectarian fray. Tehran now mobilizes Shiite militias from across the region to fight in Iraq and Syria while it fails to condemn — and even facilitates — the atrocities they commit in these countries’ Sunni heartlands, stoking resentment and providing Sunni extremists a potent recruitment tool.

Tehran’s conventional deterrence appears no less threatening to the region. Its centerpiece is a ballistic missile program — a legacy of having been a victim of these during the Iran-Iraq War. As the only Iranian weapon that could reach its adversaries on their soil, the missiles are deemed an existential asset by Tehran, which will pursue their development regardless of whatever sanctions are imposed. The Iranians refused to put their missiles on the bargaining table during the nuclear negotiations and are unlikely to compromise on them, absent fundamental changes to the region’s security structure of which Iran would be an integral part.

It’s hardly surprising that what looks defensive from Tehran would be perceived elsewhere as aggressive. But what makes Iran’s regional policy seem especially menacing is the second impetus behind it — its desire for regional power status, which to neighboring capitals looks like a bid for hegemony. To them, that scenario is as unbearable as Iran’s isolation from the region is unacceptable to Tehran.

Any U.S. policy toward Iran’s regional ambitions must take these dynamics into account. This will allow Washington to develop a realistic assessment of Tehran’s likely reactions, of which the following are the most obvious:

First, the United States could continue its decades-old pursuit of containing Iran. This entails sanctioning Tehran and ensuring that it is unable to modernize or significantly expand its military capabilities and reach while supplying its regional rivals with the latest cutting-edge weaponry. The problem with this policy is that it has plainly failed, as new wars and instability have opened opportunities for Iran to increase its influence in the region. It is also clear that the more Washington sides with and arms Iran’s Sunni neighbors, the more it pushes Tehran to double down on means of asymmetric deterrence and forward defense.

The idea of designating the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization is one initiative sure to backfire. Ironically, the IRGC is likely to welcome this step. Given its extensive role in Iran’s opaque economy, the designation will further chill foreign investment in Iran, thereby helping it preserve its vested economic interests and boosting its domestic standing as a champion of resistance to the United States.

But the most damaging impact, as some in the U.S. military and security establishment have warned, would be on U.S. troops who operate in proximity to Iranian advisors and Iran-backed Shiite militias in Iraq. Defeating the Islamic State and stabilizing Iraq will become much more difficult if these militias turn their guns on U.S. military advisors — as they did when the United States still had 130,000 troops in Iraq — instead of their shared foe. For now, the help of these militias may prove indispensable in liberating Mosul.

Second, Washington could up the ante and resort to military confrontation. During the campaign, President Trump vowed to put that option on the table — promising to shoot Iranian boats that harass U.S. Navy ships “out of the water.” But direct military confrontation in the Persian Gulf could have perilous consequences, pushing the Iranians toward familiar asymmetric responses: to either use their speed boats, mini-submarines, or mines to directly target U.S. ships or employ partners (like the Houthis in Yemen) to fire missiles at U.S. Navy vessels or those of its allies in the Red Sea.

Those risks could make an indirect and limited conflict more attractive. The Trump administration could consider targeting the Houthis, which it sees as an Iranian proxy, in order to send a strong signal to its Gulf allies and Tehran alike. So long as the conflict is containable, going after Iranian and Houthi equities in Yemen might seem less risky than in Iraq and Syria, where Iran could retaliate directly against U.S. forces.

[E]ven limited use of military force could have disastrous ramifications

But even limited use of military force could have disastrous ramifications. So far, Iran has provided just enough assistance to the Houthis to provoke Saudi Arabia into launching a military campaign that has cost it billions of dollars, with no end in sight. But a U.S.-led escalation of the conflict could further radicalize the Houthis, who have a history of ignoring Tehran’s advice, and push them to invade Saudi Arabia’s southern provinces if negotiations fail to yield a settlement. This would further intensify a ruinous war, weakening Yemen internally, to Iran’s advantage, and pushing the Houthis further into Tehran’s arms.

Finally, the best option — albeit one that currently appears inconceivable given the Trump administration’s marrow-deep suspicion of and belligerence toward Iran — would be for the United States to take into account Tehran’s legitimate security concerns and explore whether cooperation on areas of common interest is possible. At the same time, it could clearly communicate red lines that could trigger a strong response, such as reprisals against Mosul’s population by Iran-backed militias, or attacks by Hezbollah against Israel from the Golan Heights, or shipments of sophisticated weapons to the Houthis in Yemen.

Washington does not need to bring its guard down, throw long-standing allies under the bus, or turn a blind eye to Iran’s behavior in the region. But in the same way that the Trump administration is prepared to have a dialogue with Moscow — whose actions in the region are also not aligned with Washington’s — to understand its hopes and fears, cooperate with it when possible, and contain it when necessary, it must engage Tehran.

Washington may eventually be able to help create the conditions or even lead in building a sustainable order that guarantees peace and prosperity for both large and small nations in the region. In the meantime, however, it should operate by the dictum: First, do no harm. That means it should avoid deepening the chaos by picking a heedless fight with one of the region’s few stable countries.

Iran’s Protests: Time to Reform

Originally published in Open Democracy

Without addressing head-on the drivers of the protests and pursuing popular reform, the Iranian leaders are only buying time until the next standoff between the state and the society.

The protests in Iran seem to have died down, but if Iranian leaders fail to recognize that the status quo has become untenable and major reforms are unavoidable, they are only buying time until the next uprising, which could lead to greater instability.

It is easy for the leadership in Tehran to dismiss the outpouring of popular ire over economic and political stagnation. The latest protests were leaderless, too amorphous, too scattered, too provincial, and too shallow. Above all, they lacked a unifying objective. Protesters knew what they did not want, but differed on what they wanted. Slogans ranged from “death to inflation” to “death to embezzlers” to “death to the dictator” and “give up on Syria! Think of us”.

Conversely, the Islamic Republic remains too resilient, its leadership’s resolve to cling to power too strong, the capacity of its parallel security organizations and paramilitary squads for coercion too fearsome, and its control over the airwaves and cyber arena too inviolable.

The three million demonstrators who marched silently on the streets of Tehran on June 15, 2009 shook the political system to its core, but failed to dislodge it. Despite Iran’s practiced capacity to surprise, it was naïve to believe that tens of thousands of demonstrators, mainly outside the capital, could bring the current order to its knees in 2018.

Long-standing Grievances

The story of what transpired on December 28th, 2017, in Mashhad, the site of the first demonstration and supreme leader Ali Khamenei’s hometown, remains to be told. Its trigger was disgruntlement over economic malaise, endemic corruption and glaring income inequalities, but some of president Hassan Rouhani’s hardline rivals might have poured fuel on the fire – that they initially loudly welcomed the protests suggests this possibility. But who/what lurked in the shadows is not as important as what was in plain sight.

In 90 percent of more than 80 towns and cities that experienced unrest, riots already had occurred in the past six months over basic socio-economic issues: from unpaid wages to lost deposits and environmental disasters. Dashed expectations of rapid economic recovery after the 2015 nuclear deal, compounded by unbreathable smog that had descended on several metropolitan areas, a chain of earthquakes and their mismanaged aftermath, and an austerity budget hiking prices, and slashing subsidies, while granting more perks to religious and military institutions – these together made for a perfect storm.

The Islamic Republic remains too resilient, its leadership’s resolve to cling to power too strong.

The state’s response, however, was atypical as security forces refrained from resorting quickly to brute force – at least by their own standards. The restraint might have been because most of the protesters seemed to be the system’s own constituents – the more pious, lower-income, blue-collar workers from the country’s peripheries. It might also have stemmed from the leadership’s reluctance to alienate human-rights conscious Europeans, on whom Tehran counts for salvaging the nuclear deal in the face of president Donald Trump’s hostility towards it; or from a calculation that violence could play into the hands of those who are seeking to destabilize Iran, and thus roll back its gains in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen.

Many outsiders were projecting their hopes onto this Iranian drama, but in the end, they were mere spectators. The question is what Iranians will do next.

A History of Reluctance

Rouhani has struck the right tone: admitting that the ruling elite is out of touch, recognizing people’s right to protest, noting that their dissent stemmed not just from economic malaise, and emphasizing that they seek a more open society and polity. Ayatollah Khamenei, however, has blamed the protests on a triangle of Iran’s enemies: the U.S. and Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Iranian exiled dissidents.

What is not clear is whether the leadership can accept a civic culture in which peaceful protests are tolerated and deemed normal, and whether it can evolve.

The question is what Iranians will do next.

Past patterns, especially the record of Rouhani’s predecessors, are not promising. In the face of popular and/or elite wrath at their reforms, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (after the protests of the early 1990s) and Mohammad Khatami (after the 1999 student uprising) became more risk-averse and pursued only superficial change.

Yet marching in circles this time potentially could bring the country to the brink. Its predicaments, from chronic unemployment (hovering around 30 percent for the educated youth) to its bankrupt financial system and its environmental challenges can neither be ignored nor resolved using the failed policies of the past. After years of sanctions and economic mismanagement, the unemployed and disgruntled Iranian youth have less to lose, which means they may be more prepared to throw caution to the wind and resort to violence.

There is still a significant constituency, however, who while sympathizing with the popular grievances, fears the chaos that will come with radical change. The 1979 revolution’s memory and the Arab uprisings’ experience have been instructive for the large, and increasingly mature Iranian middle class, which has sought reforms for nearly 20 years. The hashtag “we will not become Syria” was trending among middle-class Iranians.

Managing Reform

Ayatollah Khamenei has the authority to drive change, but is nearing 80 and almost certainly is not eager for fundamental reforms. Denouncing this “sedition” as a foreign conspiracy is more familiar ground, and – to him – less risky. For his part, Rouhani’s ambition to succeed the leader might stop him from forcefully pushing for change and instead invest in the longer term. Among the political and military elite, there is also strong vested interest in preserving the status quo.

But by failing to allow gradual evolution, Iran’s leaders, themselves former revolutionaries, could be making instability more likely in a country that experienced two major revolutions in the past century (the constitutional revolution in 1906 and the Islamic revolution in 1979). At some stage, events might spiral out of control.

Iran’s recent history offers constructive lessons.

President Rouhani should turn the crisis into an opportunity, pivoting from the protesters’ target to their champion for change.

First, it might get too late too soon for the system to absorb the shock. The Shah realized in the late 1970s that there was a need for change. But the reforms he implemented were tardy and timid. Second, ill-conceived action could be worse than inaction. In 1989, shortly before his death and cognizant of the deadlock in the system’s power structure, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini started a process to amend the constitution and abolish the prime minister’s office. In the end, however, that change bifurcated the political system and created more, not less, friction between the system’s theocratic and republican institutions.

Bearing these precedents in mind, President Rouhani should turn the crisis into an opportunity, pivoting from the protesters’ target to their champion for change. He should secure Ayatollah Khamenei’s consent and submit to parliament a package of major reforms, including constitutional amendments that would empower elected institutions and a timetable for implementing them. Without such bold measures, the major surgery that the Iranian president admits the country’s economy is in need of simply will not happen. A fragile garrison state is certainly not a legacy Ayatollah Khamenei should be satisfied with.

The recent Iranian protests might not augur deep change, as the country’s leaders may not be prepared to relinquish their old ways. But without addressing head-on the drivers of the protests and pursuing popular reform, they are only buying time until the next standoff between the state and the society.