Dealing With a (Still) Hostile Iran: Five Lessons to Be Learned and a Cornered Cat

by October 2021
A portrait of Ayatollah Khomeini on the wall of the former US Embassy in Tehran. Photo credit: Eric Lafforgue / Hans Lucas via Reuters Connect
Chorus of Policemen: We go, we go
Major General Stanley: Yes, but you DON’T go
Pirates of Penzance

During the summer of 1979, at least ten times a day someone in Tehran would ask, “When are THEY leaving? Next week? Next month?” “They,” of course, were the Iranian clerics who had installed themselves in power after the collapse of Mohammad Reza Shah’s government in February of that year. The questioners assumed some sort of terrible mistake had been made and that sooner or later (preferably sooner), sanity would prevail and everyone would realize that clerics cannot govern a country. Politicians rule. Generals rule. Clerics don’t rule.  

Well, in this case “they” were not going anywhere. They are still here 42 years later, either the same people or their disciples. From the earliest days of the revolution, a circle of several dozen powerful clerics—whose ideas and sentiments were closest to those of Ayatollah Khomeini—formed a tight-knit network of Friday prayer leaders, revolutionary court judges, and “Imam’s representatives” that had survived assassinations and natural deaths of its members.  In less than two years they had eliminated their rivals. First, with the help of leftists, they crushed the nationalists who, it turned out, had no stomach for street fighting and mob politics; next they turned on their erstwhile allies and eliminated the leftists in a vicious, violent campaign that left thousands dead. By 1981 they had made the elected president irrelevant and had gained total control of Iran’s security services, judicial system, media, and armed forces. In the intervening decades, presidents, ministers, and parliaments have come and gone. The survivors of this group—and their proteges—have gone nowhere and continue to rule. 

Not only have the mullahs not left, but neither has their creation, an Islamic republic that has defied all predictions of imminent collapse, and has survived assassinations, boycotts, sanctions, war, political isolation, emigration of the educated, economic mismanagement, and political ineptitude on a grand scale. Those who predicted that the Islamic Republic would either destroy itself or eventually recognize reality and moderate its extremist rhetoric and its hostility to much of the world have had to eat large portions of crow Thermidor. Iranian antagonism toward the US, Israel, and others has remained constant. As one Iranian official told a group of American students (in 2016), “The basis of our foreign policy is opposition to you.”

Lesson One: Have Goals

In this reality the US has struggled in vain for over four decades to find an Iran policy that makes sense. One obstacle has been the lack of any defined goal that political leaders can use to measure a policy’s failure or success. For, as the Cheshire cat famously told Alice, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” Goals have remained elusive and a matter of debate. Some argue that our goal should be the collapse of the Islamic Republic.   Others argue that our goal should be that Iran become a “normal” state, whatever that is. Still others argue that the US should seek to engage the Islamic Republic in areas of mutual interest in order to end the dangerous exchanges of threats, accusations, and insults that have characterized the last 40 years.

Successive American administrations have insisted that policies variously called “smart sanctions,” “two track,” “dual containment,” and “maximum pressure” are succeeding. How did they know? Because they said so. They are grading their own exams and naturally give themselves the highest marks; but more important—succeeding at what?

The nuclear agreement of 2015–2016 (the JCPOA), however it affected Iran’s economy and nuclear program, was supposed to establish a different way for Iran to deal with other nations.  Whatever else it did, it was to demonstrate that both sides could achieve something through engagement and dialogue, instead of the shouting that had achieved nothing for 35 years. For their part, Iranians could realize sanctions and other economic relief; and Americans and their negotiating partners could achieve limitations on Iran’s disturbing nuclear program.

Lesson Two: Expect the Unexpected

That was the idea. However, as the Monty Python skit tells us, “No one expects the Spanish Inquisition.” In this case, no one expected the election of Donald Trump as US president in 2016, just after the JCPOA had gone into effect and appeared to be working as designed. Trump withdrew from the agreement, not because he disagreed with its contents—contents he had not read. He disliked it because he was obsessed with undoing, for better or worse, the work of his predecessor. He had built a persona as master dealmaker (“Only I can fix it”), so any agreement President Obama made had to be flawed. His new agreement would—because HE made it—be better.

Of course, the Iranians were having none of it. They used this opportunity to take a new position. They found themselves on diplomatic high ground while their opponents ranted and raved. A change of American administration in early 2021 has not led to a smooth return to the JCPOA. Suspicion and mistrust remain deep on both sides, and negotiators have reverted to their traditional view that “anything the other side proposes or agrees to must contain some sort of trick.”

The change of administration in Tehran after the presidential elections of June 2021 and its direction remain uncertain. Whenever talks on the nuclear issue resume, it is possible that they will feature the unproductive “positional bargaining” witnessed in 2010–2013, when gatherings were consumed by pointless arguments over the date and place of the next meeting, statements of inflexible positions extended by the need for translation, and the Iranian representative’s evasion of a direct meeting with his American counterpart.  

Lesson Three: Deal With Reality

A consistent feature of American and others’ dealings with Iran has been an obstinate refusal to recognize and deal with reality. In 1978, as the early disturbances became a serious threat to the Pahlavi monarchy, Ayatollah Khomeini emerged as the undisputed leader of the uprising.  Opponents of all political stripes—Marxists, nationalists, religious modernists—marched under his banner. Whatever the marchers’ goals, few understood that Khomeini had clearly spelled out that his purpose was to recreate the seventh-century Medina city-state ruled by god’s inalterable laws and controlled by those knowledgeable in those laws (that is, the clerics).

In his vision—well understood by a few and ignored by most—there was no room for democracy, pluralism, secular laws, political parties, or a constitution to limit the power of rulers. Many Iranians opponents of the Shah—heirs to the secular nationalist movement of the 1950s—ignored the reactionary views in Khomeini’s 1971 lectures on Islamic government, and, when talking to each other and to their Western counterparts, they made him into an “Iranian Gandhi” who would leave governing to others.  

“Iranian Gandhi”? A reenactment of Khomeini’s arrival to Iran in 1979. Photo credit: REUTERS/Mehr News Agency/Ruhollah Yazdani

For clueless American officials, their view of the revolution depended on which clueless Iranian they listened to. In his diary, President Carter noted that ambassador to Iran, William Sullivan, believed that a Khomeini victory would bring democracy to Iran, and that General Robert Huyser, Brzezinski’s man in Tehran in early 1979, believed that a Khomeini victory would bring the communists to power. Of course, both were wrong, but they reflected the views of Iranians who either saw Khomeini as a tool of the communists or as the savior who would overthrow the Shah’s dictatorship, retire to his seminary, and deliver freedom to the long-suffering Iranian people.  

When the monarchy finally collapsed in February 1979, those who best understood both Khomeini’s head and his heart, were ready. Powerful clerics, such as Motahhari, Beheshti, Mofatteh, Hashemi-Rafsanjani, and others, were determined this was THEIR revolution, not that of Mosaddegh’s heirs or members of Mehdi Bazargan’s Freedom Movement. If the latter wanted to be ministers, governors, heads of universities in the new system, that was fine. They could expound to western journalists to their heart’s content. The clerics would ensure that their network kept the power while the nationalists—unable to work together—kept meaningless titles, wrote penetrating articles, and exercised no authority beyond their office doors.

This ugly reality of who held power in revolutionary Iran finally mugged the American government on November 4, 1979, when a mob easily overran the US Embassy, despite the assurances of the nominal Iranian authorities that they would “do their best” to provide security. Three American diplomats at the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs were told “If you leave this building we cannot guarantee your safety.” They camped out at the MFA until December 1980, when the embassy occupiers ignored the foreign ministry and removed the three prisoners to join the rest of the captives.  

Lesson Four: Know the Other Side’s Goals

Knowing what the other side wants (as opposed to what they say they want) is basic to any negotiation. When Iranian negotiators are asked directly, they will often respond with “all we want is justice” or “all we want are our rights.” Such responses, of course, befuddle American lawyers looking in vain for something specific.   

But for Iran’s ruling elite—the people that count—the goal that overshadows all others is survival while staying in power. They see themselves under constant threat from domestic and foreign enemies: American forces in the Persian Gulf and Iraq; hostile Sunnis in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan; hostile Azeri, Baluch, and Kurdish irredentists to the north, southeast, and west respectively; and nuclear-armed Israel, India, and Pakistan. When the leaders hear “death by a thousand cuts,” “axis of evil,” “regime change,” “maximum pressure,” and “all options on the table” from foreign capitals, such language confirms what they already suspect: that enemies are determined to overthrow the Islamic Republic, with subversion if possible and by force if necessary.   

Calls for the destruction of Israel fall into the same category. Isolated in a sea of Arabs, Turks, and Sunnis, the Islamic Republic must search for a passport to deal with its neighbors, especially the Arabs. Tehran seems to hardly realize the effects of such rhetoric when Israel feels its existence threatened and the US sees threats to an important regional ally. Such language and his association with Holocaust denial made Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005–2013) so toxic that no one in Washington would listen to him, even when he occasionally made sense.  

Under these conditions, the ruling clerics will do what they believe they must do to keep power. With survival at stake, they will waver between concession and brutality according to which serves their immediate purpose. For example, near the end of the Iran–Iraq War, in summer 1988, the clerics executed thousands of political prisoners—some of whom had already served their sentences—for reasons still unclear but whom they considered a threat. Although willing to sacrifice tens of thousands of their country’s young men in the swamps of Khuzestan and southern Iraq during the 1980–1988 war with Iraq, these same clerics were not ready to sacrifice themselves and their positions. Thus, in August 1988, they accepted a humiliating cease-fire—Khomeini’s proverbial “cup of poison”—when they realized continuing the war could bring them all down.  

Lesson Five: Beware the Cornered Cat

In the US, much of what has passed for “Iran policy” for the last 40 years was not intended to achieve any goal beyond bashing the other side and feeling self-righteous. Did sanctions, threats, and accusations do anything to weaken the Islamic Republic and persuade it to treat its own people decently and moderate its hostile policies? There’s no evidence that they did. Nor is there any evidence that more of the same (super maximum pressure or death by ten thousand cuts?) will do so. After 40 years of the same ineffective policies, one suspects that no longer does anyone care about their effectiveness.

The mutual enmity—the endless repetition of insults and threats—is dangerous, especially when combined with an absence of communication. It risks a misunderstanding becoming an armed conflict destructive to all sides. For all parties, it re-enforces the notion that “they” (Washington, Tehran, Tel Aviv) are incorrigibly hostile and will do anything against “us.” For the Islamic Republic—clearly the weaker party—the danger is always that it will lash out when it believes its very existence is threatened.

Eight centuries ago the astute Persian poet Sa’adi of Shiraz warned us:

Have you not seen the cornered cat?
With its tiny claws, it can tear out the eyes of a leopard.

We should heed his wisdom today.  

John Limbert
John Limbert, retired US ambassador and former president of the American Foreign Service Association, received the Department of State’s Award for Valor in 1981 after 14 months as a hostage in Iran. Following his diplomatic career, he taught Middle Eastern studies at the United States Naval Academy.
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