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Time for the U.S. President to Go to Tehran

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With the election of the new president of Iran, Dr. Hassan Rouhani, the quest for talks between the U.S. and Iran is gaining momentum. However, it seems unrealistic to expect that, after more than 30 years of bilateral animosity and denouncing each other, Iran and the U.S. can establish a good relationship based on mutual understanding, especially in the short term. The newly published book, Going to Tehran, written by Flynt and Hillary Leverett who are two experts in national security as well as lecturers at the American University, places most of the blame for poor relations on the U.S. administration. The book faults the U.S. for acting arrogantly and dealing with Iran imprudently based on fallacious suppositions and, of course, failing to address the Iranians' legitimate grievances. The authors believe that the U.S. antagonism for Iran is based on bogus assumptions, just as the war with Iraq was based on fabricated pretexts. The war with Iraq was sought by Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich Arab countries in the gulf and these countries are also encouraging the U.S. to confront Iran militarily.

The U.S. resorts to a dual-track strategy that uses sanctions to force Iran to the negotiating table under U.S. terms and as a pretense to war. The U.S. "periodically offers to negotiate about issues on terms that could not possibly be attractive Teheran, while simultaneously ratcheting up pressure via unilateral and multilateral sanctions and other punitive means." Such an approach has no effect other than to squander the opportunities for mutually acceptable negotiation between the two countries. The intention of the dual-track policy of the United States is to cook up an excuse for initiating more vigorous sanctions against Iran and, ultimately, a possible military confrontation.  

The authors believe that the ignorant American agenda for the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) is based on misconstrued fables that the IRI is an irrational government that is driven by ideology not rationality, that the IRI has no legitimacy and could be toppled easily, and that the IRI is the an isolated regime in the region and the United States can further isolate this country. They explain through their in-depth research that all of these three fairy-tale stories are untrue; the Islamic Republic of Iran is here to stay and none of these allegations have any element of truth. What seems to have been overlooked by U.S. officials is the critical role Iran can play in the region. "Iran has become, in fact, the most critical country in the world's most critical region, and by now the United States cannot achieve any of its high-priority objectives there without it."

While such rhetorical claims by both countries are popular with the majority of voters, they are far from factual. Even though the theocratic rulers of Iran keep responding to American hegemony with mouth-filling slogans, this is just for wielding power and popularity; the authors argue that deep down they don't believe in them. The Leveretts contend that every government strives to keep its sovereignty and independence by any means and Iran is no exception. "Protecting Iran's independence and sovereignty, de facto, de jure, became the primary goal of the Islamic Republic's foreign-policy; it remains so today." Given the fact that Iran faces many difficult challenges domestically and abroad and has no real allies among neighboring countries, the "political and policy elites in Tehran have identified a range of threats and challenges facing the Islamic Republic.... While they continue to frame the Islamic Republic's foreign and military policy as Shia's solidarity, for support for the umma, and opposition to domination, they derive their foreign-policy and national- security goals from standard international law and practice."

The authors state that Iran has no hegemonic aspirations; however, American politicians either do not want to understand or simply ignore this basic point. Politicians must realize that as U.S. dominance in that section of the world dwindles, Iran's power will surge and the United States will be less and less capable of achieving its goals in that region that are so vital to its interests. The U.S. has no choice but to warm up to and seek Iran's collaboration. Time and again the Islamic Republic of Iran expressed its sincere willingness to negotiate and was prepared to give the Obama administration a chance for diplomacy. However, the Obama administration did not take this offer seriously.

Here in the United States, politicians and pundits alike have made a big fuss about the Iranian 2009 election, dubbing it as rigged. However, there has not been any evidence of electoral fraud, the authors claim; neither the Green movement nor any other opposition source has been able to produce any such evidence. They further claim that most Iranians do not want Western-style democracy even though they want to be connected to the modern world and benefit from its amenities. Iranians want to preserve their cultural traditions and make a reasonable balance between the two worlds. Additionally, the authors assert that people in the Middle East want to be governed by Islamists, not by a secular government. "Muslim populations, given choice, opted to be governed by Islamists. It is now playing out in Egypt and other countries touched by the Arab spring."

Has the Islamic Republic provided a higher living standard for Iranians? You bet, the authors argue. The Leveretts present promising statistics concerning the Iranian economy and living standard. Among such statistics are a positive GDP growth rate for almost every year the IRI has been in power; improvement in non-oil sectors of the Iranian economy; and self-sufficiency in key industries such as steel, copper, paper products, and cement. The per-capita income of about $11,000 is comparable to some emerging countries and Iran has also made progressive strides when it comes to non-economic areas such as improving economic equality, life expectancy, medical care, and educational opportunities. When it comes to "women's issues, the Islamic Republic is well ahead of most of its neighbors, including two American allies Saudi Arabia and post-Taliban Afghanistan." Likewise, advances have been made in scientific endeavors such as the amount of scholarly research that has been conducted as well as the number of papers published by Iranian researchers/scientists. However, the authors do not present any evidence that such successes are in fact linked and related to the Islamic Republic's government or are facilitated and subsidized by its policies. One can also argue that, had Iran had a secular government, these numbers would have been even more impressive. The other concern that is overlooked by the authors is whether such progress is actually due to the Islamic Republic or whether this is a reaction to its restrictions, impositions, and censorship. Why have so many Iranian scholars left the country to settle in more democratic nations? When it comes to brain drain, Iran is at the top of the list.

The authors also downplay the role of the hard-line Mullahs who run the government in the background, especially the role of the Supreme Leader who has the final say in almost all the vital issues. Instead, they minimize his role to that of the keeper of balance and protector of coherence by stating, "[he] wants to present this system's basic coherence and equilibrium."

When it comes to human rights, censorship, the abuse of privileges, and suppression, the book is virtually silent. The Leveretts even believe that the story of Neda was not as dramatic as was portrayed by the media. "Neda [Agha] Soltan's story had such an impact because it fits nearly with the Western myth of Islamic republic illegitimacy." Neda was not even demonstrating when she was shot, the authors claim. They labeled this and similar stories as Western propaganda aimed at blemishing the Islamic Republic. Also, the authors fail to make any mention of the brutality with which the IRI government cracked down on the post-election protestors. They even credit the government for handling the protests so impartially. According to the authors, the number of those who were arrested or detained was a very small percentage of the demonstrators. "More than 90% of those detained were released without charge; the international Campaign for Human Rights in Iran found that about 250 people there convicted of crimes stemming from the unrest."

The most illogical claim the authors make is that "a majority of Iranians saw their government's response to the 2009--10 protests as legitimate, contrary to Western caricatures of it as bloody crackdown." Throughout this chapter, the authors maintain that the opposition failed to produce any documents supporting their claim of election fraud. They, in fact, use the same approach as some of the IRI apologists--blame everyone for Iran's problems except the Iranian government.

The Leveretts argue that since 1979, America has used the same approach toward Iran as it did toward China in 1949. They state that the U.S. has maintained a policy of isolating, delegitimizing, demoralizing, and characterizing these countries as threats to U.S. security; it didn't work then and it does not work today. Instead, the U.S. should utilize the same approach toward Iran as was used by President Nixon to open up China. Isn't it better for the U.S., China, and the world that these two countries not reproach one another?

According to the authors, "It is no less imperative today for the United States to make the transition from its damaging quest for dominance--especially in the Middle East--to effective international leadership, based above all on unsuccessful management of the balance of power in post-cold war hegemony is eroding, its economic supremacy is being challenged by the rise of China and the rest of Asia, and its failure in Afghanistan and Iraq have demonstrated the limits of what its military power can accomplish."

The title of the book, Going to Tehran, summarizes the Leverettes' resolution to the tensions and impasse that have resulted from U.S. policy. "A comprehensive top-down approach is absolutely essential for Washington and Teheran to come to terms with each other, and the record indicates that the current Iranian leadership would be as a receptive to such an approach as the Chinese leaders were in the early 1970s." As a matter of fact, Iran should be a major player in U.S. Middle East policy. In order for this to happen, the United States should recognize first and foremost the legitimacy of the Iranian government. It is time for United States to get it right this time through direct talks with Iran and it is time and for the "American president to go to Tehran."

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Reza Varjavand (Ph.D., University of Oklahoma) is associate professor of economics and finance at the Graham School of management, Saint Xavier University, of Chicago. He has been an avid participant in many professional organizations and active in (more...)
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