Three words best define the policies of the United States toward Iran in the past 32 years: naiveté, surprise and failure. Ironically however, the rest of the world has been looking to the US for guidance and leadership on how to deal with the Iranian regime.
The US policy towards Iran has been a failure. Fundamentalists rule Iran with an iron fist. Their attitude toward the world has been demeaning, abusive, and hostile. Their illegal, unwelcomed and malicious influence has been broadening in the region. Their terrorist exploits is reaching way beyond the region to Europe and the Americas. Iranian ayatollahs are at the door step of becoming a major nuclear player in the international arena.
The US has been repeatedly surprised by the events in Iran. With all its intelligence might and army of Iran experts, the United States government was left childishly puzzled by the 1979 revolution, caught off guard by seizer of the US embassy in Tehran and the hostages taking, could not anticipate consolidation of fundamentalists rule in 1981 and every single election and major development since then, including the recent uprising in Iran.
The US policy toward Iran has been plagued with naiveté. The US has given every dictator in the theocratic regime of Iran benefit of the doubt. For three decades, administration after administrations held the ill-conceived hope that a moderate will emerge from the gloom of tyranny in Tehran who will extend them the olive branch.
Are the US government, think-tanks, intellectuals and policy makers so inept that they cannot even learn from their repeated mistakes? Are the Iranian ayatollahs so shrewd that they have outsmarted us constantly for more than thirty years? Truth be told, the answer to both of these questions is no.
This paper offers a new perspective: The American government, along with the American and the Iranian people are the victims of an incessant and relentless campaign of misinformation and manipulation by special interest groups. This campaign has been so intense, focused and multifaceted, that has effectively parallelized the United State’s ability to formulate a sensible and sound policy toward Iran.
In the rest of this paper, we take a broad and brief look at this campaign of misinformation and manipulation, noting that its price for American and Iranian people alike has been dire and appalling.
In a secret memo leaked to the press, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has recently complained that the US lacks a strategic vision for dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions. This is mainly due to the much cherished illusion that overture toward Iran would succeed.
Richard Haas, the president of the very influential Councils on Foreign Relations and a great advocate of engagement with Iran, has also expressed regret about his wrong judgment on Iran and the policy advice given to the administration:
“Obama administration reversed George Bush’s approach and expressed a willingness to talk to Iran without preconditions… The other options—using military force against Iranian nuclear facilities or living with an Iranian nuclear bomb—were judged to be tremendously unattractive. And if diplomacy failed, Obama reasoned, it would be easier to build domestic and international support for more robust sanctions. At the time, I agreed with him.
I've changed my mind. The nuclear talks are going nowhere… Instead we should be focusing on another fact: Iran may be closer to profound political change than at any time since the revolution that ousted the shah 30 years ago.”
Could Haas’s self-criticism and Gates’s warnings signal a breeze of change in Washington? Regrettably, this is not the first time we hear such confessions with nil follow-through.
In September 2008, the actual Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who has been personally involved in dealing with Iran from the very beginning of the Islamic Republic, gave a speech in Washington and masterfully defined the dominant aspect of US policy toward Iran in the past three decades: (official transcript)
“I have been involved in the search for the elusive Iranian moderate for 30 years.(Laughter.)I was in the first meeting that took place between a senior U.S. government official and the leadership of the Iranian government in Algiers at the end of October, 1979.Brzezinski -- the Iranian prime minister, defense minister and foreign minister asked to meet with Brzezinski, who was in Algiers for the 25th anniversary of the Algerian Revolution and I was with him.He asked me to go as the note-taker.
And he walked into that meeting and, in essence, said, "We will accept your revolution.We will recognize your country.We will recognize your government.We will sell you all the weapons that we had contracted to sell the Shah.We have a common enemy to your north.We can work together in the future."Their response was, "Give us the Shah."Each repeated their respective positions about five or six times and at the end, Brzezinski stood up and said, "To give you the Shah would be incompatible with our national honor."And that ended it.And three days later they seized our embassy and two weeks later all three of those officials were out of their jobs.
Every administration since then has reached out to the Iranians in one way or another and all have failed.Some have gotten into deep trouble associated with their failures, but the reality is the Iranian leadership has been consistently unyielding over a very long period of time in response to repeated overtures from the United States about having a different and better kind of relationship.”
Well before Secretary Gates, many other US politicians had come forward and admitted similar failures. Kenneth Pollack, the Director for Persian Gulf affairs at the National Security Council under President Clinton in 2004, described Clinton’s efforts to engage Iran:
“In the Clinton Administration in 1999 and 2000, we tried, very hard, to put the grand bargain on the table. And we tried. We made 12 separate gestures to Iran to try to demonstrate to them that we really meant it, and we were really willing to go the full nine yards and put all of these big carrots on the table if the Iranians were willing to give us what we needed. And the Iranians couldn't.”
The Naiveté: A Delusional Search for the Moderates
The “illusionary search for moderates” as Robert Gates put it, has driven American officials to being the subject of public mockery. In 1986 President Reagan who sought friendship with “moderate” Rafsanjani secretly sent his National Security Advisor to Tehran. In addition to the supplying arms requested by the Iranian regime, McFarlane also offered as souvenir a cake in the shape of a key, symbolizing a new opening in the US-Iran impasse.
Later, Clinton’s illusions about “reformist” Khatami pushed him to ridicule when he addressed the UN general assembly in 2000. The administration hoped for an “accidental” friendly encounter with the Iranian president at the UN. The idea was to break the taboo of “engagement” and break the ice. What happened next was humiliatingly bizarre. While Clinton was waiting in the UN hallways to shake hands with the Iranian president, Khatami hid in the men's room refusing to come out!
But probably the most dramatic example of the American gullibility occurred in 2002-03 when George Bush’s representatives coordinated the invasion of Iraq with the Iranian envoys. This invasion gave the clerical rulers of Tehran a historic and golden opportunity to strengthen their fundamentalist influence in Iraq, challenge the US presence, shape the future of this country and finally strengthen Iran’s position in the Middle East.
President Obama is not an exception to this rule. In the middle of the Iranian uprising, while millions were challenging the regime, he sent his delegates to sit down with the Supreme Leader’s envoys. In order to prepare for this meeting Obama had sent several secret messages, public letters and video greetings to the Iranian dictator. He had refrained from offering full support to the regime’s opponents. President Obama even asked the Congress to delay the passage of new sanctions against Iran. These “goodwill” gestures are the continuation of thirty two years of overtures that have only served to weaken the American position against Iran, and make a mockery of the American foreign policy.
Obviously, at every turning point when the policy makers arrived at an impasse with Iran and were ready to examine alternative policies, strangely, they were given advice and fresh hope that a new pragmatist, moderate, realist or reformist leader will emerge in Iran and would resolve US concerns. At every defining moment that the US should have changed the course, it was driven dragged back to the same path of failure and naiveté.
The Role of Think Tanks and Iran Experts
A cursory review of the past three decades shows clearly that some of the most influential think tanks and their “Iran experts” have been repeatedly incorrect in their assessment and analysis and have provided bad advice to US administrations. The unexplained persistence of these wrong analyses and advisory reports could only suggest that these are intentional efforts to shape US policy toward specific direction.
This off beam trend surfaced more visibly in 1997 when Mohammad Khatami became the Iranian president. The American business interests that suffered from sanctions against Iran stepped forward and launched a large scale lobby to remove these sanctions and change the US policy toward Iran. Supported by oil corporations and USA*Engage (pro-trade lobby), several “Iranian” groups were formed to promote this campaign.
A new generation of scholars and “Iran experts” surfaced striving to print their marks on the American policy toward Iran. Tons of advisory reports, expert analyses and press articles were produced to make engagement with Tehran the formal policy of the Administration. During Khatami’s presidency, the campaign of these “Iran Experts” ignored Khatami’s lack of power and relentlessly and falsely advertised the solidity and irreversibility of the reform movement. From 2003 to 2005, this campaign strived to mask the rise of the radical factions connected to the Revolutionary Guards and erroneously and deceptively predicted that “pragmatists” are taking power in Tehran.
In July 2004, the Council on Foreign Relations released a high profile “Task Force Report on Iran.” Suzanne Maloney (then advisor to Exxon Mobil) directed this project that included Zbigniew Brzezinski, Robert Gates and 20 other “experts”. At a time when a large number of Iranian analysts, political scholars and intellectuals were warning about the rise of a new radical faction representing the Revolutionary Guards, the CFR report ignored this important change in the Iranian power structure and surprisingly discovered an “ascending pragmatic faction” in Iran: (Iran: Time for a new approach. CFR Task Force report)
“Iran is experiencing a gradual process of internal change that will slowly but surely produce a government more responsive toward its citizens’ wishes and more responsible in its approach to the international community.” (page13)
“…. the pragmatists who appear to be ascendant in Tehran.” (page19)
A year later in 2005 Ahmadinejad became president and the illusionary bubble about the “new ascending pragmatists” burst. However, it did not stop these think tankers from discovering new moderate factions that would curb Ahmadinejad’s radicalism and will hence reduce American concerns. They publicized the rise of a new “realist” faction headed by Ali Larijani or new pragmatists headed by Javad Ghalibaf, the Mayor of Tehran.
In 2008, it became evident that Larijani or others have no relevance. This time, the same experts who emphatically envisioned the rise of new moderates in Iran, reached the conclusion that the US had knocked at the wrong door and should directly deal with the Supreme Leader. They advised the new administration that Iran is stable and “solidly entrenched in power” and US should accept the Iranian influence in the region and coexist with this new regional super power.
Two of the most prestigious think tanks, the “Council on Foreign Relations” and the “Brookings Institutions” cooperated and produced a report titled "Restoring the Balance: A Middle East Strategy for the Next President". Its third chapter was related to Iran: "Pathway to Coexistence: A New U.S. Policy toward Iran" and was written by Suzanne Maloney and Ray Takeyh.
In this report, they asserted that the Iranian regime is stable and will remain in power for the foreseeable future:
"On the surface, Iran seems to be a good candidate for revolutionary agitation, but the Iranian regime retains enormous capacity for control over society and appears to be firmly entrenched in power for the foreseeable future. Despite long-term and widespread public dissatisfaction, the persistence of the Islamic Republic over three decades of considerable internal and external pressures should leave few illusions about its staying power. The Islamic Republic is unpopular at home, but revolutionary change remains unlikely.
Only a few months later the Iranian uprising started and in July 2009, Maloney testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee and was put before the reality. She admitted that “the events in Iran have challenged all that we thought we knew about Iran”:
“The Islamic Republic has entered a new and ultimately unpredictable phase of its perpetually gripping history. Iran and the regime is now forced to contend with an almost unprecedented array of internal challenges that are both complex and interconnected.
The events since June 12th have changed Iran in profound and irreversible fashion, and it would be fruitless, even counterproductive, to proceed as though this weren't the case. The United States must adjust both its assumptions about Iran and its approach to dealing with our concerns about Iranian policies.”
Over the past decade, this group of so-called “Iran experts” with enormous influence on US policy toward Iran has continuously misinterpreted the Iranian politics and misled the consecutive US administrations but ironically, their influence, stature and prestige grew despite the enormity of their miscalculations.
The pro-engagement lobby
On December 18, 2008, shortly after Obama’s election, representatives of some 20 groups held their monthly meeting to discuss their lobby efforts to influence US policy on Iran. The coordinator of this coalition declared that the group is now the “center of gravity on Iran issue” in the Congress.
This coalition is the “Campaign for a new American policy on Iran” (CNAPI) that for the past several years has been lobbying to influence US policy with Iran. American foreign policy project is a coalition’s political website. The December 2008 meeting brought together representatives from USA*Engage (pro-trade lobby), Open Society, peace and religious groups. The National Iranian American Council (NIAC) has been coordinating this coalition and its lobby.
The governmental press in Tehran has referred to NIAC as the “Iranian lobby in US” and Senator Jon Kyl has sent an inquiry to the US Attorney general asking to investigate the group’s ties with the Iranian regime. (See also “Iran’s oil Mafia)
CNAPI coalition was formed in 2005-6 after Ahmadinejad became president. Officially, these groups came together to fight Bush’s policy on the Middle East and prevent a war between US and Iran but NIAC’s internal documents suggest that it joined this coalition and gradually shifted its focus toward fighting the sanctions and pressure on Iran.
In 2007 Parsi sent a report to his partner in Tehran and explained the activities of this coalition and how it should be morphed to an anti-sanction lobby. The report is titled the “lobby groups”:
“As of early 2005, Washington’s heated rhetoric over Iran has attracted the attention of a variety of interest groups eager to prevent the escalation of tensions in the Middle East and the prospects of a war between the US and Iran. These groups have managed to build unprecedented support in Congress in favor of dialogue and against military action among progressive Democrats as well as conservative Republicans on Capitol Hill.
This coalition of pro-dialogue and anti-war entities consists of a diverse group of organizations ranging from arms control organizations, to Iranian American organizations, to religious groups. Key players in this coalition are the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, which coordinates a coalition of approximately 50 organizations, MoveOn and the National Iranian American Council.
While these groups have focused extensively on passing measures to reduce the risk for war with Iran, little attention has been paid to efforts to intensify sanctions against Iran. Furthermore, while a momentum exists for anti-war measures, no comparable opportunity exists currently for an anti-sanctions campaign. Nor is the coalition of disarmament, religious and progressive groups best suited to take on this issue. Here, the absence of pro-business interests on Capitol Hill active constitutes a key point of advantage for AIPAC.”
In his report, Parsi explained the importance of bringing in the pro-trade lobby group and notably USA*Engage:
With the exception of USA Engage, American businesses and oil companies have after September 11 next to eliminated their efforts on Capitol Hill in favor of greater trade and contacts with Iran.
USA Engage is a coalition of approximately 500 major US companies which has retained a distant interest in the Iran issue, though the coalition has devoted little resources towards promoting trade or preventing new sanctions from being imposed. In particular, the recently imposed UN sanctions have granted the sanctions track with Iran new legitimacy and made efforts to oppose such measures on trade grounds more difficult.
However, initial efforts are currently being made to make align the trade groups with the pro-dialogue coalition and frame sanctions an initial step that invariably will lead to war. If such a coalition of pro-trade and pro-dialogue groups can be formed, the current momentum for sanctions may be significantly hampered.
The balance of power on Capitol Hill is currently shifted in favor of sanctions on Iran but against military action. AIPAC continues to seek both military strikes against Iran and draconian sanctions and has benefited from the absence of active lobbying by pro-trade groups. A change in heart by pro-trade coalitions may significantly hamper efforts to have Congress impose new draconian sanctions on Iran. This is great significance since Congressional sanctions are far more difficult to undo than those imposed by the Executive Branch.”
A year later in 2008, NIAC became the coordinator of this coalition, USA*Engage joined the group and their focus turned toward lobbying against sanctions. Some of the coalition meeting notes and relevant documents has been posted here and the review of these documents gives a basic understanding about the coalition’s work and its agenda.
CNAPI has three pillars: Trade lobby that has been active in Iran issue for the past thirty years and created the USA*Engage in 1997 with the goal of removing sanctions against Iran. Then, there are peace and left organizations that grew strong during George Bush administration. Finally, pro-Iran advocacy individuals or organizations with ties to different factions of the Iranian regime.
The United State’s inability to develop, implement and sustain a cohesive, balanced and prudent policy toward Iran has been devastating. The cost of this confusion and inaction has been significant loss of credibility and influence in the region, loss of commerce, loss of the trust of the Iranian people, and last but not least loss of life of American men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A root cause of this confusion is the persistent efforts by various interest groups to redirect the American policy to benefit them. These groups are assisted by some “Iran experts” who have effectively portrayed a delusionary description of the Iran’s internal power structure and status. While the recent uprising in Iran and the failure to stop the nuclear program have caused a new barrage of confessions, it is hard to believe that after thirty years these are sincere awakenings that lead to solid policy changes.