The current debate over whether the United States should ease sanctions against Iran in light of the latter’s struggles with COVID-19 reflects a broader reality: More than four decades after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, we still lack a consensus about the nature of the regime in Tehran and how to deal with it.
For Iran, we need something akin to the “Cold War consensus” of decades ago, when our two political parties agreed that America’s biggest global challenge was Soviet-led communism and that Washington should defend itself and its allies by “containing” the Soviets.
Such an “Iran consensus” is long overdue. Ever since the revolution of 1979 ousted the U.S.-backed Shah and ushered in a terror-sponsoring, hegemony-seeking, nuclear weapons-aspiring, anti-Western theocracy, Washington has pursued a confused, disjointed, meandering approach toward the Islamic Republic.
To nurture an Iran consensus, especially at a time of bitter partisanship in Washington, the man elected president in November should consider appointing a bipartisan commission of foreign policy elders — former secretaries of state, national security advisors, and so on — to consider the nature of Iran’s regime, clearly delineate the challenges it poses, and outline an approach around which the country can broadly rally.
That’s because, as our policies of the last four decades make clear, we lack agreement on even the most basic issues relating to Iran. Those include:
What is the regime? In Tehran, an unelected Supreme Leader wields ultimate power and an unelected Guardian Council routinely bars most candidates for parliament, reflecting the fact that the government is far more authoritarian than democratic.
Nevertheless, in the early 2000s, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage went so far as to term Iran a democracy, and for decades all-too-many of our foreign policy experts have held out hope that the election of a supposedly moderate Iranian president would nurture domestic reforms and warmer U.S. ties.
That neither the “moderate” President Mohammad Khatami two decades ago nor President Hassan Rouhani today have proved to be real reformists likely won’t convince these same experts to abandon this hope.
What drives the regime? Henry Kissinger famously suggested that Iran must decide whether it wants to be “a nation or a cause.” But Washington, too, must decide whether it considers Iran a normal nation or an unrelenting revolutionary cause.
Starting with President Carter, after Iranian students seized America’s embassy in Tehran in late 1979, presidents of both parties have sanctioned Iran over its terror sponsorship, regional mischief, and nuclear-related pursuits.
Where presidents have disagreed with one another is over the possibility that Tehran could be persuaded to markedly change its behavior abroad and shed its anti-Western hostility, paving the way for normalized U.S.-Iran relations.
Though other presidents tested the possibilities of a U.S.-Iranian rapprochement in back-channel communications, President Obama went the furthest — hoping that by refusing to criticize Iran’s fraudulent presidential election of 2009 and spearheading a global nuclear deal with Tehran, he could convince the regime to reduce its hostility, change its nefarious ways, and rejoin the international community.
How dangerous would nuclear weapons make the regime? Iran’s nuclear progress started attracting greater attention beginning in the early 2000s, and Presidents George W. Bush, Obama, and Trump all vowed not to let Iran acquire or develop nuclear weapons with which to threaten the region and wider world.
That consensus was a bit of a mirage, however. To be sure, Obama rejected the idea of “containing” a nuclear Iran, saying that an Iran with nuclear weapons would pose too large of a threat to Israel and the United States. But, while he and his aides proclaimed that the U.S.-led nuclear deal closed off all Iranian pathways to a bomb, the deal he ultimately concluded was slated to expire over time, giving Tehran eventual free rein to pursue nuclear weapons anew.
That was a reality that Trump apparently did not want to accept. He withdrew the United States from the deal and imposed a “maximum pressure” campaign of sanctions to, among other things, force Iran back to the negotiating table to craft a more comprehensive agreement.
Indeed, nothing encapsulates Washington’s dissensus over Iran better than the nuclear deal itself and its aftermath.
Obama treated it as an executive agreement rather than an official treaty for the Senate to approve, at least in part because a Republican-controlled Senate wouldn’t have provided the two-thirds vote needed for ratification. Now, many Democrats of both the House and Senate are bemoaning Trump’s decision to ditch the deal, fearful that it isolates Washington from its allies in Europe, who still back the agreement.
All told, Washington’s head-spinning incoherence of the last decade over Iran’s nuclear program shows just how desperately we need a consensus. It’s long past time to build one.
Lawrence J. Haas, senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, is the author of, most recently, Harry and Arthur: Truman, Vandenberg, and the Partnership That Created the Free World.