Changing Regime Change US and EU Need a Unified Strategy for Iran

The US and Europe need to change strategies if they want to influence Iran. The Obama administration should focus on using political and diplomatic means, while the EU should attach concrete and verifiable conditions to its stipulations.

By Henner Fürtig

The US and the EU need to stop playing good cop, bad cop with Iran. It's high time for a unified policy.

The US and the EU need to stop playing good cop, bad cop with Iran. It's high time for a unified policy.

Early this year, celebrations will begin in Iran to mark the 30th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. With such deep discord between Washington and Tehran, it is safe to assume that the two governments will not exchange congratulatory messages. Still affected by the strategic defeat of the 1979 overthrow of the Shah, the United States views the Islamic Republic of Iran as an enemy. It has done so at least since the occupation of the US embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979 and the humiliating 444-day hostage-taking of 52 embassy staff, which included a failed rescue attempt. Since then Iran has shared the top place on the US list of "rogue states" with Libya, Iraq, and North Korea. The United States has made numerous attempts since 1979 to reverse the Islamic Revolution and to bring down the regime that emerged from it -- both directly through support for coups and opposition groups, and indirectly through political and economic sanctions.

But the endurance of this animosity can ultimately only be explained by the Iranian leaders of the revolution choosing the United States as the principal enemy -- the Great Satan. "All the Middle East's problems are caused by the West and America. All Muslims' distresses come from America," said revolutionary leader Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979 to the Islamic Student Association in Qom. At other points he even made the United States the enemy of all mankind: "We, they, all people see America as the greatest enemy."

Not only Khomeini but also his successors have retained this emphasis on America's status as an enemy. Thus, after the end of the Cold War, Ali Khamenei, the contemporary leader of the revolution, heralded a new bipolarity in the international system, with the US-led West and the Islamic world as the antagonists. "In the past the West placed priority on the Soviet Union and on Marxism," Khamenei said, "but now its attention is concentrated on our region, which became the most important region only because it was here that the Islamic Revolution came into the world." Since the revolution, Iranian foreign policy has been determined by its preoccupation with the United States. It is no exaggeration to say that antagonism toward the United States has become a constitutive element of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Given these rigid positions, a third-party initiative -- for instance by the European Union or individual European states -- would seem appropriate. The Europeans could relieve the Americans significantly if they could succeed in placing the West in a better light in the eyes of Iranian leaders. In doing so, however, they cannot afford to repeat a basic error, namely their fundamental underestimation of the Iranian Revolution.

Mass Revolution

Since 1979 there has been no shortage of prognoses from domestic and international opponents of the Iranian Revolution claiming it is in crisis or about to collapse. These have, however, consistently proved unfounded or the product of wishful thinking. The main reason for these misjudgments is not the absence of crises in Iran, nor of contradictions, problems, and extreme internal political conflicts, but rather the ignorance concerning the substance of Iran's steadfastness: The state and the regime are the direct products of one of the few modern mass revolutions. Revolutions of this character (like those in 1789 and 1918) produce a specific canon of behaviors, stages of development, and reaction patterns in relation to internal and external threats, which bear more similarities than differences.

Three points are of particular significance. Firstly, mass revolutions at a fundamental level develop a missionary task or sense of purpose with a universal claim. Secondly, challenges, pressure, and threats -- especially from outside -- create a my-home-is-my-castle mentality and a defensive reflex even among those citizens who are critical of the revolution. Thirdly, revolutions of this scale are vulnerable to internal factors and are historically long-lasting. The comment of former Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai on this point has become well-known: When asked how he judged the French Revolution he replied that it was still far too early to say. That was in 1969. The fact that in the French Revolution the ousted Bourbons recaptured power for a short period does not make it a failed revolution. Even when revolutions are broken off, as the Russian revolution was at the beginning of the 1990s, it took decades and was the result of an implosion rather than external pressure.

Against this backdrop it is easier to understand the complaint made recently by US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates that, through his 30 years of direct and indirect negotiations with various Iranian partners, there has not been even the slightest change in their fundamental position.(4) What has changed repeatedly since 1979 is the form and methods through which Iran exercises power. It began with the proselytizing and expansionist ambitions under Khomeini (1979-1989), to be followed by the pragmatism of Ali Akbar Rafsanjani (1989-1997), and then the idealism of Khatami (1997-2005), only to return under Mahmoud Ahmedinejad in 2005 to "Imam Khomeini's line."

Good Cop, Bad Cop?

If tackling the foundations of the revolution promises little chance of success, these changes in form and method in the exercise of Iranian power continue to offer opportunities to exert influence. Yet America and the European Union have chosen to take very different tacks.

Since diplomatic relations between Iran and the United States were broken off following the hostage crisis, the different US administrations have developed an ever more extensive range of instruments to deal with Iran. President Jimmy Carter placed Iran on the list of "rogue states" and imposed restrictions on trade, travel, and financial transfers, among other areas. Most sensitive to the Iranian revolutionaries was the freezing of some $4 billion of Iranian assets in US accounts and the takeover of Iranian investments in US corporations.

A further pronounced tightening of the sanctions came in August 1996 with the Iran Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA), which meant that foreign corporations would also face punitive consequences if they invested more than $20 million in the Iranian energy sector. In his January 2002 State of the Union address, President George W. Bush included Iran -- alongside Iraq and North Korea -- in his "axis of evil," and the following year he endorsed the students protesting in Tehran and other large Iranian cities. On September 30, 2006 Bush signed the Iran Freedom Support Act, which was approved by both houses of Congress and which -- after the "rehabilitation" of Libya -- replaced the ILSA at the same time as extending it. This made "democracy promotion" in Iran an official aim of US foreign policy. Directly following this was the allocation of 75 million dollars to the US Department of State for thinly veiled support of regime change in Iran.

US policy toward Iran did not depend on the party affiliation of the respective president. During the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, conservative Republican Ronald Reagan secretly delivered badly needed weapons to Iran. In 1996, Democrat Bill Clinton initiated enactment of ILSA and its continued extension.

During the same period the major European countries were keen to depoliticize their relations with Iran, so as not to jeopardize lucrative economic and trade relations. This trend continued after the Cold War, above all because Iran offered preferential terms for quick reconstruction after the 1980-88 war with Iraq.

But at the same time, the starker contours of a common EU foreign and security policy have emerged, namely in the form of the European Union's "critical dialogue." Through this dialogue the European Union promised the Iranian government not to judge it based on moral categories but to treat it -- from a rational standpoint -- as the leadership of an important regional power. Based on these conditions, topics such as human rights, civil liberties, torture, terror, and weapons of mass destruction could not be debated.

This approach was based on the opinion that increasing external pressure on Iran would more likely serve to strengthen the position of the ruling regime and diminish the scope for forces critical of it. Considering the heterogeneity of the political landscape in Iran, moderate forces within the leadership would have to be convinced that a restrained foreign policy would serve the country's national interest, and that this goal could only be achieved through communication and incentives. Strengthening European-Iranian relations further would, according to this way of thinking, only be possible if Iran were to respond with actions. At least that was the theory. In practice, the "critical dialogue" soon suffered from the fact that the Iranian side had no time frame placed upon it for these actions, and the threat of sanctions was left out entirely. President Ahmedinejad subsequently put a definitive end to the stagnating dialogue after taking office in 2005 by breaking radically with the foreign policy of his predecessors. Thus the Europeans failed to advance themselves as a counterweight to the United States, and the constant courting of Iran only lessened Muslims' interest in the country. Additionally, Ahmedinejad's anti-Israel tirades and, more importantly, his denial of the Holocaust, made a continuation of the previous policy toward Europe impossible.

The good cop, bad cop game does not apply to the handling of Iran. It assumes that both sides seek the same thing, but that they simply endeavor to achieve it with different methods. In the case of Iran, however, the "good cop" -- the European Union -- was only aiming at changing the regime's behavior, whereas the "bad cop" -- the United States -- wanted to do away with it completely.

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