Ardeshir Zahedi is Iran’s former foreign minister (1966-1971) and ambassador to England (1962-1966) and United States (1960-1962 and 1973-1979). Ali Vaez is the International Crisis Group’s Iran project director, based in Washington.
The Trump administration seems to believe it can achieve what has eluded its predecessors for four decades: fundamental change in Tehran. It has resorted to a time-worn set of tools to attain this objective: strangling the Iranian economy through sanctions, destabilizing Iran by supporting dissidents and secessionists, and launching an information war against the leadership in Tehran. It appears convinced that exercising what it calls “maximum pressure” will cause Iranian capitulation or regime collapse.
The Iranian people, meanwhile, strive for democracy as they have for more than a century, amid growing discontent over endemic corruption, repression and environmental degradation. They deserve a government that respects their rights, preserves their dignity, and offers them peace and a chance at prosperity. Washington’s belligerence, however, could once again bring their democratic struggle to grief. This is for several reasons.
First, the Trump administration has very little credibility as the would-be standard-bearer of positive change. Its rhetoric promising to “crush” Iran or usher in “the official end of Iran” through military action belies its professed distinction between the leadership and the Iranian people.
The administration’s list of public missteps toward the Iranian people is as long as it is regrettable. It includes preventing almost all Iranians from visiting the United States; misstating the historic name of the Persian Gulf; failing to express sympathy with Iranians after terrorist attacks by the Islamic State and separatist groups; and, perhaps most consequentially, withdrawing from the nuclear deal that remains popular in Iran and to which many there had pinned their hopes for a better life.
These mistakes have helped transform top-down anti-Americanism in Iran into a bottom-up phenomenon. Nothing spurs a rally-around-the-flag effect among 83 million Iranians more than humiliation and threats of foreign aggression.
How can Iranians buy into the administration’s professions of positive intent when Washington selectively decries their leaders’ corruption and human rights violations while overlooking the same behavior among U.S. allies? Why didn’t President Trump ask his North Korean or Russian counterparts to fundamentally reorient their policies before he would engage them in fruitless pageantry?
The administration’s Iran policy is not a strategy. It is a pressure tactic wrapped in bellicosity folded inside a chimera. It is bereft of a viable vision and based on the naive assumption that overthrowing the Islamic republic will miraculously lead to a pluralistic and pro-American order. That previous U.S.-sponsored regime change in the region has ushered in failed states or worse autocracies seems to be an afterthought.
Even when the administration seems to vie for rapprochement, it is unconvincingly inconsistent. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says, “We are prepared to engage in a conversation [with Iran] with no preconditions,” but in the same news conference , he goes on to say that would happen only “when the Iranians can prove that they want to behave like a normal nation.” This kind of double-speak and condescension does not instill trust.
The suffocating sanctions that the United States is slapping unilaterally on Iran have pushed the country into a deep inflationary recession, impoverishing its middle class and enriching state-affiliated actors, especially men with guns and experience in circumventing restrictions. This could lead to one of two outcomes: a weakened Iranian society, in which making ends meet will overshadow any quest for liberty; or a blind, desperate revolt that ends either in a brutal crackdown or a bloody civil war.
Either scenario will leave behind a broken, radicalized and militarized Iran, perhaps entrenching the Islamic republic’s most hard-line elements. How does that temper Iran’s behavior? How is that in the United States’ interest?
Bullying and crude threats will achieve little beyond entangling the United States and the region in another senseless war while deepening the two countries’ 40-year estrangement. The United States should strive for an Iran that is stable with a strong middle class and highly educated youths connected to the moderating influence of the outside world. The Iranian people want to restore the friendship between Iran and the United States, two countries that enjoyed 123 years of cordial ties before 1979. But the path to their hearts and minds is not through sanctions and military intervention.
It is not too late for this administration to cease demonizing and threatening Iran, and step aside from its maximalist demands. One of Iran’s most renowned poets, Rumi, offers a better way forward: “Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”