“To resist or not to resist?” In Tehran’s political circles these days that is the question. The prospect of fresh sanctions to be imposed by the United States and its allies has helped intensify the debate which has marked Iranian politics since the mullahs seized power in 1979.
At first glance the most common answer seems to be in favor of “resisting”, whatever form it might take. Over the past four decades the Khomeinist ruling elite has been divided between those called “the accommodationists” who have been prepared to seek a deal with the United States and those who refuse even talking to the “Great Satan”. The mullahs’ first Cabinet, headed by Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan, included five US citizens of Iranian origin and was thus dominated by the “accommodationists”. It contemplated a strategy of partnership with the United States to face the Soviet threat in the context of the Cold War. That strategy ever got off the ground as Bazargan and his pro-US group were swept away in the political tsunami triggered by the seizure of the US Embassy in Tehran. Then began almost a decade of war and tension in which the pure revolutionists ran the show and marginalized the accommodationists. The sinking by the US navy of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard navy, followed by Khomeini’s abject retreat and subsequent death, closed that parenthesis as the “resistance” policy proved to be futile.
Then followed almost a decade of domination by the accommodationists who went to the extremes to befriend the ”Great Satan” on the sly. However, a decade of secret and later overt “dialogue” with the Great Satan proved equally fruitless, leading to a “resistance backlash” symbolized by the emergence of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as President. As we know, that attempt at “resistance” also failed, doing possibly long-term damage to Iran’s economy and the nation’s social fabric.
The disastrous end of Ahmadinejad’s presidency gave the accommodationists a fresh chance to try their old and several times failed stratagems. The joint effort by US President Barack Obama and his Islamic counterpart Hassan Rouhani to dupe their respective audiences with the so-called “nuke deal” was hailed by many as an end of the vicious circle of accommodation-resistance. Now, however, we know that that chapter, too, has closed. Even the Islamic Foreign Minister Muhammad-Javad Zarif now admits that much. In a talk in Tehran last Sunday he claimed that even Obama, a “polite and friendly man”, had not been quite straight with his Khomeinist partners in duping the world.
Today, the Islamic Republic looks like a two-trick pony both of whose tricks have been exposed as sham and inefficient. It is, of course, not in the gift of a journalist to predict the future. But it seems to me that the Khomeinist regime will no longer be able to rely on either of its two tricks in the context of the usual cheat-and-retreat strategy to get itself off the hook at least for a while longer.
The reason for that failure is the regime’s inability to clearly spell out its case and tell the Iranians, and the world beyond them, why it is addicted to policies that have produced nothing but grief for all concerned.
It would be a good thing if the “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei were to appear on national television and tell Iranians precisely why it is in Iran’s interest to help Bashar al-Assad kill Syrians or what could be gained for prolonging the war in Yemen by supporting a rebel group that, regardless of the justice or injustice of their cause, have no chance of winning and, even if they won, would in no way contribute to Iran’s security and prosperity.
Until recently, one argument advanced by Khomeinists was that though the current policies, including a real or feigned enmity for the United States, may harm Iran’s interests as a nation they still serve the interests of ran as a vehicle for “Islamic Revolution.” In other words, sacrificing Iran’s national interests to the interests of the dominant ideology may have some rational explanation.
However, even that argument no longer holds. Thousands of deaths and billions spent in Syria have not only harmed Iran’s national interest but have also failed to secure any advancement for the Khomeinist ideology.
Having found a new and stronger protector in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Assad and his cohorts now regard the Islamic Republic as something of an embarrassment. It is no surprise that Assad has vetoed an Iranian plan to set up “cultural centers” in the so-called “newly liberated” areas of Syria, that is to say chunks of territory abandoned by the regime’s opponents. Iranian mullahs and their military associates are no longer flowing into Syria at will and when they arrive there, they are no longer treated with the deference they enjoyed five years ago.
Even in chunks of Yemen held by the Houthis, Iran is being pushed to the sidelines. In fact, the bulk of Iranian diplomatic and military personnel fanning the war in Yemen are now located in neighboring Oman.
Even in Lebanon, as a prominent pro-Tehran Lebanese newspaper editor noted recently, the Islamic Republic risks losing its influence because of the increasing difficulties it faces in paying its allies and mercenaries.
The daily Kayhan, believed to reflect Khamenei’s views, still boasts about the Islamic Republic’s success in having Gen. Michel Aoun elected President of Lebanon. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that, while trying not to ruffle the mullahs’ feathers, Aoun is so full of himself as not to be a mere puppet for Gen. Qassem Soleimani.
The looming crisis in Iran may be an opportunity for Iranians, both in the regime and those opposed to it, to decide whether they wish Iran to behave like a vehicle for a bankrupt ideology or like a nation-state with the legitimate, quantifiable and rationally analyzable interests of a nation-state.
I am not a fan of historic comparisons. But the dilemma that Iran faces today has been faced by other nations that experienced a revolution. President Richard Nixon helped the People’s Republic of China face that dilemma and choose translating itself into a nation-state. President Ronald Reagan played a similar role in the case of the Soviet Union, helping the rebirth of Russia, and 14 other republics, as nation-states. Today, President Donald Trump has a similar opportunity with Iran by encouraging its transformation from the vehicle of a sick ideology into a regular member of the community of nations. This is not about a strategy of sanctions and/or war as an end in itself. Nor is it about playing a new version of Obama’s diplomatic chicanery.
Trump must show the leadership in Tehran that it can no longer play the old tricks either of cheat-and-retreat or of ersatz resistance.
The aim is to help Iran cure itself of the disease of Khomeinism and regain its health as a nation.
This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.