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Detente With Tehran?
By Ilan Berman
April 9, 2007
These days, you do not have to look very far to find signs of Iranian troublemaking. The Islamic Republic's nuclear program -- which its firebrand President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has likened to a train "with no brakes" -- shows no signs of running out of steam despite the best efforts of the United Nations Security Council. Tehran's assistance to Shi'ite segments of the insurgency in Iraq likewise does not appear to be slackening, even though Iran has publicly vowed to help bring greater stability to the former Ba'athist state. And in Lebanon, the Iranian leadership is helping its principal terrorist proxy, Hezbollah, carry out a slow-motion coup against the fragile pro-Western government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora. Iran's ayatollahs, in other words, are behaving badly.
Given this state of affairs, it would be reasonable to conclude that Washington is gearing up to resolutely confront the Iranian regime. In some quarters, however, quite the opposite seems to be happening. Faced with the gravity of the current crisis, more than a few policymakers and analysts have begun to urge some sort of accommodation with Tehran.
At face value, such a "detente" indeed seems tempting. Engagement with the Islamic Republic, the argument goes, could compel the Iranian regime to behave better in Iraq, forswear its nuclear ambitions and roll back its support for regional radicals. In the best case, it may even lead to a thaw in the 27-year-old cold war between Washington and Tehran.
Yet there are at least three reasons why "doing a deal" with the Islamic Republic is both potentially disastrous and ultimately self-defeating.
The first has to do with regime ideology. The Islamic Republic established by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979 is far more than simply a nation-state. Rather, it was -- and remains -- a radical revolutionary movement. According to the country's 1979 constitution, Iran's clerical army, the Pasdaran, is tasked not only with the national defense, but also with "fulfilling the ideological mission of jihad in God's way; that is, extending the sovereignty of God's law throughout the world."
The goal of the Iranian regime, in other words, is not to become a part of the world community, but to overturn it. Such a government has no interest in a diplomatic bargain that would diminish its international standing -- irrespective of how attractive such an arrangement might happen to be to the West.
The second is strategic. While it has not ruled out the possibility of one-on-one talks with the Iranian leadership per se, the Bush administration has imposed an important precondition on any such contacts: that the Iranian regime suspend its uranium enrichment prior to any dialogue. Such a stipulation is prudent; the United States does not want potentially protracted negotiations to serve as a boon to Iran's nuclear program, providing the regime with more time to make nuclear progress. Time and again, however, the Iranian leadership has rejected any such formula, declaring its intention to forge ahead with its nuclear program irrespective of U.S. and international demands. In doing so, it has made clear that it has prioritized the acquisition of a nuclear capability over dialogue with the West.
In and of itself, this should be an important indicator of the value placed by the Iranian leadership upon nuclear possession. Simply put, for Iran's ayatollahs, the nuclear program is not a bargaining chip; it is a core element of regime stability and a vehicle for regional dominance.
Perhaps the most compelling reason for avoiding negotiations with the Islamic Republic, however, is demographic. Iran today is in the throes of societal transformation; fully two-thirds of the country's roughly 70 million-person population is aged 35 or younger. Moreover, this constituency, deeply disillusioned with the Islamic Revolution, is largely Western-looking in orientation.
The country's current ruling elite, by contrast, is aging and ill, and by all accounts lacks serious popular support from the Iranian "street." All of which means that in the next five to ten years, irrespective of what transpires on the nuclear front, Iran's current leadership will give way to a new ruling order -- one that is, at the very least, more predisposed to partnership with the United States and the West.
Given these realities, a "grand bargain" with the current leadership in Tehran could well yield tactical, short-term benefits. The long-term costs, however, are bound to be enormous: the emergence of a nuclear-armed Iran, and the alienation of Iran's young, pro-Western population, a vibrant constituency that will ultimately determine the political disposition of that country.
Washington can ill afford to have either scenario become a reality.