Election Revives Washington’s Wariness Of Iranian Moderates

Earlier this week, as Iranians once again rushed to the streets in celebration – this time over a football victory rather than an election – the tone back in Washington was decidedly less effusive. The occasion was a hearing of the subcommittee for the Middle East and North Africa of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, focused on last week’s presidential election in Iran. The title of the hearing – “The Regime Cementing Its Control” – was decided prior to the election’s somewhat unexpected outcome, and the discussion highlighted the deep cynicism within the U.S. policy establishment toward the prospect of even the slightest bit of good news from Iran.

I spoke as part of the panel of witnesses testifying at the hearing, alongside Alireza Nader of the RAND Corporation and Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Links to each of our written statements can be found here, here, and here, and if you’re a real glutton for punishment, you can watch the hearing online here.

For some, the statements of Subcommittee Chair Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and her colleagues offer welcome evidence that Washington will resist the temptation to use the election of a more moderate president as justification for jumpstarting diplomacy with Iran. For others, the tone of the hearing will entrench the conviction that Congress is determined to torpedo any prospects for improving relations with Iran.

I’d endorse neither of those interpretations. What I observed seemed to be a serious effort on the part of a number of U.S. Congress people to wrap their heads around what had happened in Iran, and what the election results mean for the issues that concern Washington, in particular Iran’s nuclear program, its support for Syrian brutality, and the government’s treatment of its own population. I perceived no unwillingness to listen, or to ask thoughtful questions, but rather a profound suspicion toward the notion of Iranian moderates or hail-Mary prospects of political change in Iran.

Given the history, this is hardly surprising. After all, it was the siren song of strengthening purported Iranian moderates that persuaded the Reagan Administration to indulge in the disastrous and illegal scheme to sell arms to Tehran and funnel the profits to Central American rebels. The first Bush Administration tried and failed to work out a deal with some of those same moderates to secure the release of Western hostages held in Lebanon. The Clinton Administration sought to leverage the rise of Iranian reformists through repeated overtures that went unreciprocated.

And throughout the ebbs and flows of Iran’s domestic politics, the regime’s support for terrorist organizations, rejection of the possibility of peace between Arabs and Israelis, and massive investment in a suspect nuclear program continued. From the perspective of many U.S. policymakers, Iran’s convoluted factional landscape offers pitfalls but no promise, either for meaningful change on the issues of greatest concern, or for generating traction on overcoming the long bilateral estrangement.

This instinctive doubt toward Iranian moderates was conveyed by the Representatives from both sides of the aisle at Tuesday’s hearing, and has emerged as a major theme of many pundits. This interpretation caricatures Iranian moderates as either dupes or ploys, smiling front men who are deliberately or unwittingly elevated in order to lull the erosion of sanctions and advance a nefarious determination to achieve nuclear weapons capability. And, they argue, even if Iran’s election suggests the U.S. strategy is working, that only reinforces the need for intensifying pressure still further.

Many Iranians have a starkly different narrative of this same history, one that would emphasize the signals that Washington has rebuffed (e.g., the 1995 offer of the first post-revolutionary upstream oil deal to a U.S. company, which was answered with a new U.S. embargo on Iran), the opportunities that American obstructionism has precluded (this week especially, many are pointing to the U.S. refusal to participate in nuclear negotiations until after Rouhani had been forced out of his position as negotiator and replaced by hardliners); and the enduring U.S. efforts to undermine the stability of the Islamic Republic.

Such suspicions have calcified into paranoia among the hard-line elements of the Iranian leadership, but even some Iranians opposed to the regime believe that Washington bears at least some portion of the blame. The critique leveled against Rouhani by the hardliners during the campaign— that prior Iranian outreach to Washington only invited more pressure— is a grievance leveled against Washington by dissidents and reformists.

It is not my purpose here to adjudicate between these dueling interpretations of history, but to highlight their persistence. And to remind all those— including myself— who are hoping that Iran’s election will produce progress on the nuclear issue or lead to more productive diplomatic postures on the Syrian civil war that the election itself will do little to undercut the decades of mistrust between the two states. The upcoming months will undoubtedly offer innumerable opportunities for Iranian as well as American skeptics to see their existing qualms validated. The real question is what both sides can do to generate some momentum and facilitate, at minimum, modest progress that is both tangible and durable.

In gauging how to proceed, U.S. policymakers need to appreciate that Iran’s new president is not a redux of reformist President Mohammad Khatami, who was charming and erudite but cornered by conservatives. (This may be one of the reasons why Khatami took his sweet time with the conventional congratulatory statement on Rouhani’s election.) Rouhani is not a reformist at all, as the characterization is typically applied within the Iranian political context. His past political affiliations and postures put him squarely in the camp of pragmatic conservatives, such as former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, although the hardening of Iran’s right-wing camp in recent years has created enough distance that today it is probably most apt to describe both Rafsanjani and Rouhani as centrists.

However, what matters more than his philosophical inclinations is the context in which Rouhani has ascended to the presidency: an environment of profound economic crisis, international isolation, and open rebellion against the Supreme Leader’s policies of domestic repression and international resistance. In other words, it is 1988 all over again for Iran. As I’ve argued here and elsewhere, Rouhani may be the new Rafsanjani – a consummate deal-maker who has been charged to steer the Islamic Republic through this crisis. The domestic context is even more polarized today than it was during the final months of the war; the Revolutionary Guard have a much wider hand in shaping Iran’s policy, and it is not entirely clear if Khamenei has either the capacity or the inclination to overrule push them back, as Ayatollah Khomeini did in 1988, should the hard-liners prove determined to perpetuate the conflict.

At the same time, Rouhani may be boosted by a force that he has only recently embraced: the Iranian people, who also are more empowered today than they were 25 years ago. Thanks to technology, the coming-of-age of the post-revolutionary generation, and their encounters with both reform and repression, the Iranian population has played a substantial role in encouraging – or obliging – their leaders to find some way to resolve the morasse that the regime’s nuclear defiance has created. Rouhani ran, and won, on slogans of reform. Whatever element of orchestration may have played a role in Rouhani’s election, he owes his position to the 36 million Iranians who were willing to go to the polls this time around, despite the bitter disappointment of the vote-tampering in 2009 and the violence and intimidation that followed in its wake. Their willingness to participate in a flawed electoral system is a testament to their determination to find a peaceful path to a better life, and a challenge to the Iranian leadership to move quickly along a more constructive path.

The turnout, the strong margin in Rouhani’s favor, and the ebullient street demonstrations in the wake of his victory also should be understood as a cautionary note for U.S. policymakers. Washington must find a way to balance its understandable skepticism toward a suddenly hopeful turn in Iran with a readiness to facilitate any diplomatic momentum that emerges from this election. As one of the Congressmen at Tuesday’s hearing acknowledged, it’s awkward for American officials to scorn the election outcome that produced such a receptive response among Iranians. For that same reason, in my view, it would be a profound mistake for Congress to once again seize the initiative on Iran policy and double-down on the sanctions.