What do George Clooney, Jack Straw and Zbigniew Brzezinski have in common? The Hollywood star who sells coffee machines in TV ads, the former British foreign secretary, and the American ex-National Security adviser are among a growing number of Western elites who urge rapprochement with the Islamic Republic even if that meant appeasing the mullahs.
The idea of making a deal with the mullahs is not new. Even before Ayatollah Khomeini seized power, the US and Britain were in close contact with his entourage thanks to a network of agents posing as academics, businessmen and simple wellwishers. All US presidents since Jimmy Carter have tried to woo the mullahs and some, like Ronald Reagan, even smuggled arms to Iran through Israel to tip the balance of the Iran-Iraq war in favor of the ayatollah.
President Bill Clinton’s second term was marked by the myth of the “Grand Bargain” with Iran. Clinton and his Secretary of State Madeleine Albright apologized to Tehran for unspecified “wrongs” that the US and the West in general had done to Iran over the centuries. Clinton even tried to arrange an “accidental” handshake with President Mohammad Khatami but failed because the latter was ordered from Tehran to steer clear of the leader of the “Great Satan.”
Here is what Clinton said at a meeting on the margins of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in 2005: “Iran today is, in a sense, the only country where progressive ideas enjoy a vast constituency. It is there that the ideas that I subscribe to are defended by a majority.”
And here is what Clinton had to say in a television interview with Charlie Rose a few days later: “Iran is the only country in the world that has now had six elections since the first election of President Khatami [in 1997]. [It is] the only one with elections, including the United States, including Israel, including you name it, where the liberals, or the progressives, have won two-thirds to 70 percent of the vote in six elections: Two for president; two for the Parliament, the Majlis; two for the mayoralties. In every single election, the guys I identify with got two-thirds to 70 percent of the vote. There is no other country in the world I can say that about, certainly not my own.”
In other words, Clinton believed that the Islamic Republic was more “progressive” than the United States of America or any other Western democracy.
Obama’s appeasement policy
However, it is since the election of Barack Obama as president that the “appease the mullahs” industry has gone into top gear. One reason for this is Obama’s fascination with the Khomeinist regime. “Obama understands our revolution,” says Sadeq Zibakalam, a Tehran university teacher with ties to President Hassan Rouhani’s administration. “We would be unwise not to respond to his show of goodwill.”
As a black man who feels “the sufferings of generations of African slaves” and the “massacre of native Americans,” Obama cannot but admire those who stand up to “American bullying.” He has rejected the long-held American conceit of being “special” and is determined to cut the US down to size, the Iranian analyst believes. Obama has written at least five letters to former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei, implicitly endorsing the Islamic Republic’s ambition to become the regional “superpower.”
“They have a path to break [their] isolation and they should seize it,” Obama has urged the mullahs. “Because if they do, there is incredible talent and resources and sophistication . . . inside of Iran, and it would be a very successful regional power.”
Obama has also set aside five UN Security Council resolutions on Iran’s nuclear project to seek a give-and-take deal with Tehran on dubious terms. In the process he has dropped the key demand in all those resolutions that the Islamic Republic stop its uranium enrichment program.
“Obama has no problem with the Islamic Republic projecting its power in the Middle East,” says Hamid Zomorrodi, a political researcher in Tehran. “Under the Shah, Iran was a regional superpower with the blessing of the US. Obama is ready to offer the same blessing to the current regime in Tehran. The trouble is that the current Iranian regime thinks it can become a regional superpower without the American blessing.” The Shah’s mistake was to think that he needed the Americans. The mullahs believe that all they need is to neutralize the US. Obama is doing that for them.
The Western approach to the Khomeinist regime has been based on at least two illusions. The first is that one is dealing with a normal nation-state pursuing the normal interests of any classic nation-state based on the Westphalian model. A nation-state is interested in security, trade, access to natural resources and markets, being consulted on regional and global issues and, of course, a measure of prestige. However, like other revolutionary regimes, the Khomeinist regime does not, and indeed cannot, behave like a classic, Westphalian nation-state. Under Khomeini and his successors, it has been forced to behave like a cause rather than a state. In other words, this regime does not want anything in particular because it wants everything. Regarding itself as the sole possessor of “legitimacy” among all the 192 members of the United Nations, the Khomeinist regime does not consider itself bound by an international law created by “Zionists and Cross-Worshippers.”
The second illusion is that Westerners seeking a deal with Iran have often believed that a “Grand Bargain” could be pulled off with a one-shot effort. “We plan to go to Tehran, see what they want and give them what is reasonable,” said Hans-Dietrich Genscher, then West German Foreign Minister in 1990. A quarter of a century later, Obama is pursuing the same mirage.
Right now a concerted campaign is under way to clinch a deal, almost any deal, with Tehran on its nuclear ambitions.
In the final phase of Ahmadinejad’s presidency, Obama offered a number of major concessions to Iran through secret negotiations held in Oman. These included recognition of Iran’s right to enrich uranium “up to a point,” as noted above, in violation of the Security Council resolutions that demand a complete stop. Another concession was giving Russia, which Tehran regards as a power capable of counter-balancing the US and Europe, a direct role in the negotiations. A deal seemed imminent during talks held in Almaty, Kazakhstan, but collapsed after “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei demanded “further clarifications.”
Hopes of reaching a deal were revived with the victory of the faction led by former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in presidential elections in 2013. The faction’s connection with Washington since the “Irangate” days in the mid-1980s was regarded by the Obama administration as an opportunity to persuade the Islamic Republic to abandon its messianic revolutionary ambitions and start behaving like a nation-state rather than a cause. The fact that a similar calculation failed during the faction’s previous stewardship of Iranian affairs under both Rafsanjani and President Mohammad Khatami was conveniently ignored.
Scores of research papers and op-eds published by American think tanks and individual pundits perpetuate two myths. The first is that the Rafsanjani faction, of which both Khatami and the current President Hassan Rouhani are members, is genuinely interested in reform and, more importantly, capable of re-orienting the regime away from a revolutionary strategy towards a reformist posture.
That assumption, however, is open to debate. During its control of the state apparatus for 16 consecutive years under Rafsanjani and Khatami, the faction did not introduce a single major political, social or economic reform. Its apologists blame that failure on the faction led by Khamenei, who is supposed to be anti-reform and always keen to veto any change. That excuse, however, is hard to sustain because there is not a single instance of any reform project presented by Rafsanjani and Khatami but vetoed by Khamenei.
The second myth is that what is needed is a change of behavior by the Islamic Republic. The trouble, however, is that the Islamic Republic’s behavior is an inevitable result of its nature as a revolutionary regime and not contingent on this or that faction’s tactical choice. The scorpion does not sting because it wants to be awkward; it has to sting in order to survive, its behavior being dictated by its DNA.
The Iran lobby in Washington and London, among other places, has always dreamt of a “Nixon in China” solution for the Iranian problem, which, most admit, is at the root of most other problems in the Middle East today. The dream is inspired by President Richard Nixon’s state visit to China in 1972, a visit that led to the normalization of relations between Washington and Beijing.
“The president should consider going to Tehran,” says Flynt Leverett a former CIA analyst who has written a whole book on the analogy drawing on his knowledge of China. The idea has received sympathetic echoes in some American think tanks. However, like all historical analogies, the “Nixon in China” one, for a number of reasons, could be misleading when applied to Iran.
To start with, the initiative for the “Nixon in China” denouement came from Beijing, not Washington. By the end of the 1960s, China had started to take the measure of the damage it had done to itself through almost two decades of revolutionary madness, especially after 1966 when the so-called Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution led to countless tragedies across the nation. By the early 1970s China was just emerging from a series of famines, largely induced by Mao Zedong’s collectivization policy, tragedies that, according to Frank Dikötter in his magisterial book Mao’s Great Famine, claimed at least 45 million lives. A more personal account of the great famine of 1958-62 is provided by Chinese author Xun Zhou in his book Forgotten Voices.
Worse still, China saw itself surrounded by hostile neighbors. In geopolitical terms, China is an “island” nation. To its north it is isolated by the vast deserts of the two Mongolias and the seemingly endless wasteland that is Siberia. In the west it is cordoned off by interconnected deserts and high plateaus larger than Europe. The Himalayan uplands seal the country’s southwestern border. In the south and southeast, China is cordoned off by the tropical forests of India and Indo-China. Across the water in the east, China faces Japan, its ancestral foe, and, farther away, the looming menace of the United States in the Pacific. Of China’s 14 neighbors none, save perhaps Pakistan, could be regarded as non-hostile, if only because the People’s Republic has irredentist disputes with all of them. In the 1960s the Soviet Union simply annexed large tracts of Chinese land after a series of border skirmishes. The two Communist giants had fallen out as a result of Mao’s firm and loud opposition to Nikita Khrushchev’s “ideological revisionism.” For its part, China had inflicted a series of defeats on the Indian army, annexing large tracts of Indian land in Kashmir-Ladakh. Profiting from the confusion caused by the Vietnam War, China had also moved into parts of Vietnamese territory.
By 1971, China’s only supposed ally Pakistan had been defeated by India, with the help of the Soviet Union, allowing the emergence of Bangladesh, another anti-Chinese state, on its eastern flank. Some in Beijing feared that a similar scenario could be pushed through in Tibet or even East Turkestan (Xinjiang) with Indian and Soviet support. Lacking a blue-water navy and a credible air force, China at the time felt itself exposed in the face of its Soviet ideological rival and an American “superpower” still smarting from its wounds in Korea and Vietnam. It made sense for China to tone down its anti-American stance.
Reporters of my generation witnessed the change of tone as early as 1970 during our first visit to the People’s Republic. At the time, China had started putting feelers to Iran about restoring diplomatic ties as a first step towards a dialogue with the United States, then Iran’s major ally. As Nixon’s National Security adviser, Henry Kissinger visited Tehran twice and travelled to Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, for secret talks with Chinese emissaries. “The Chinese message to us was clear,” says Ardeshir Zahedi, then Iran’s foreign minister and a key player in forging the Washington-Beijing dialogue. “It was not in our interest to let the Soviet Union become the arbiter of life and death of nations in the whole of the Asian continent.”
Contrary to received wisdom, the initial American response to Chinese peace offerings was far from enthusiastic. Kissinger knew little about China and saw the world through the prism of European history in which Russia had been a central player for at least a century. He was already putting the final touches to his détente strategy, which envisaged a kind of US-Soviet condominium on the modern world. Washington’s initial reluctance to rise to, let alone bite, China’s bait was demonstrated by a series of demands designed to dislocate the Communist regime’s global “revolutionary network.” Washington wanted an end to China’s support for “liberation movements” in Africa, notably Angola, Mozambique and Namibia. Beijing obliged by pulling the carpet out from under long-established allies. For its part, Iran wanted China to end its support for the Communist-led insurgency in the Omani province of Dhofar, allowing an Iranian expeditionary force to crush the rebels. Again, China complied. The threat to oil routes in the Gulf, the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian sea vanished.
Mao had labelled the United States “The Paper Tiger,” giving the Gang of Four their favorite slogan. The Gang of Four, consisting of Mao’s wife Jiang Qin, the party intellectual Yao Wenyuan, and the apparatchiks Zhang Chunqiao and Wang Hongwen, were bitterly opposed to any rapprochement with the US. Even in September 1971 when we interviewed Jiang Qin and Yao Wenyuan, then Mayor of Shanghai, they could not forget their anti-US slogans. However, it was already clear that their faction had lost and that, having had the control of the military and security apparatus wrested away from them, they could no longer impact Chinese policymaking in a major way. The break came in the plenum of the party’s Central Committee in July 1972. There, the blame for all that had gone wrong, including crimes committed in the name of revolution, was put on Lin Biao, who had conveniently died—or been liquidated—in an air crash. With the radical faction neutralized, the Communist regime was now able to start behaving in a more rational manner. That meant Beijing could now be regarded by the outside world as a normal, even if unsavory, partner in international relations.
The official downfall of the Gang of Four came in 1976, a few months after the death of their protector, Mao Zedong. By 1971 the tide had turned against them. When Nixon went to China, the Chinese leadership had already decided on a strategic change of course. Some leaders, like Deng Xiaoping and Zhongxuan, the father of the current President Xi Jinping, needed a bit more time before returning to decision-making centers. However, the road had been paved for them by Prime Minister Chou Enlai and his close associates, including Hua Kuo-feng and Li Hsien-nien. In interviews, all three insisted on China’s interests as a nation with no reference to its previous claims of “exporting revolution.” Normalization with the US was made possible because the reformist faction had won and was able to transform the People’s Republic from a cause into a nation-state.
No good road to Tehran
The situation in Iran is different. The Rafsanjani faction has always wanted to use normalization with the US as a means of winning the power struggle against radical rivals in Tehran. This was the message that Javad Zarif, the new foreign minister, kept hammering into Secretary of State John Kerry’s ears in Geneva when the two went for a 20-minute walk in the fresh air, away from hidden microphones.
Iran’s situation today is different from that of China in 1972. The Islamic Republic fears no invasion from any of its neighbors. Thanks to the US the two most credible threats, Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan, have been removed.
Nor does Iran face an impending famine. In fact, Iran has suffered no famines since 1865. Also, the current Iranian leadership, which includes US Green Card holders and other individuals who have studied and lived in the US for decades, have a much better understanding of how American power works than the Chinese did in 1971-72. They know that Obama, a president at the end of his tenure, is not the same as Nixon, then at the start of his second term after a triumphal re-election. (Nixon, however, was to be kicked out before ending his tenure as a result of the Watergate scandal.)
More importantly, perhaps, the US today, under an enigmatic leader like Obama, whom some in Tehran believe may secretly sympathize with the Islamic Revolution, is not the same as the US in 1970 at the height of its power and prestige.
“Why should the Islamic Republic give Obama anything when Obama describes himself as Iran’s shield against the US Congress?” demands commentator Nassir Amini. “Kerry has met Zarif no fewer than 12 times. Far more than his meetings with any of his counterparts among US allies. Tehran snaps its fingers and the Americans run in excitement.”
China decided to change course and redefine itself because it hit several hard hurdles on its way. Thanks to the weakness, not to say cowardice, of its regional and extra-regional adversaries, the Islamic Republic has not hit such hurdles, so far. As Ahmadinejad observed this “train without a reverse gear and a stop” does not stop until it is stopped. Obama may yet realize his dream of going to Tehran and putting a wreath on the tomb of Ayatollah Khomeini, and even inspiring an opera as did Nixon’s venture into Beijing. However, wishful thinking is no substitute for a policy.