The Persian Question

As Iran once again becomes the centerpiece of the foreign policy debate between the two likely candidates for president, analysts and commentators continue to weigh in on the glaring difference between the positions of Senators Obama and McCain on how to tackle the Persian question. David Brooks, writing in the New York Times on Friday, suggests that "we don't understand the Iranians because the Iranians don't understand themselves." An astonishing statement coming from an extremely bright journalist, and one that betrays the fundamental problem Americans, indeed Westerners, have with trying to figure out how to manage relations with a resurgent Iranian power. The arrogance of that statement, the conceit, is that because our sophisticated Western minds cannot quite comprehend the infernal Eastern minds of the Persians, then surely they cannot either. That if their political system and their foreign policy leaves us befuddled, then they, as unsophisticated Orientals, cannot possibly be rational in either thought or in the management of their political system. I'm afraid I have news for Mr. Brooks and for all who would agree with him: the Iranians do indeed understand their system, understand their foreign policy, understand what their regime stands and should stand for, and are quite happy, no thrilled, that you are confused, befuddled, and quite frankly, lost in how to deal with them.

There is a reason why (and you can ask the British and the Russians) Iran was not colonized by the great powers, even as it was a weak and supplicant nation in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries: Iranian diplomacy. Iran has always played its more powerful adversaries against one another, has deftly maneuvered on the international stage, and has always had the same goal, under the Shahs or the mullahs, of at a minimum maintaining its independence and identity in the face of threats from abroad. Today, the ruling class in Iran has perhaps a wider foreign policy goal of spreading its influence and power well past its borders, a goal that is in keeping with the ancient Persian belief in the superiority of its culture as compared to its neighbors'. Iran's political system may appear complicated and may appear to be at odds with the notions of liberal democracy, what we hold dear, but in fact, at least on the foreign policy front, is almost frighteningly effective. Foreign policy is set and controlled by the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, just as it was by the first and only other Supreme Leader of Islamic Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. That foreign policy is managed by whoever is the president, but also by a small cadre of trusted advisors the Supreme Leader surrounds himself with.

The British government announced last year, when its sailors were being held in Tehran, that it was surprised and relieved that it found the avenue to securing their release through Ali Larijani, then Iran's nuclear negotiator, now speaker of Parliament, but always one of the Supreme Leader's closest and most trusted lieutenants. However, no Iranian was surprised that Mr. Larijani could end the crisis with such ease. Analysts expressed surprise two years ago when during a sensitive time in the nuclear negotiations, the Supreme Leader dispatched not the foreign minister but Ali Akbar Velayati, a former foreign minister and another close advisor, to Moscow to meet with President Putin (and presumably deliver a message on Iran's intentions). Again, no Iranian was surprised. When former president Khatami visited the US in 2006 as a private citizen (much to President Ahmadinejad's chagrin), the conversations and meetings I was privy to indicated that his trip too, although ostensibly unofficial, was not only endorsed by the Supreme Leader but had as one of its goals a certain kind of Persian diplomacy (and was, in my mind, successful in countering, amongst the non-governmental American foreign policy community, the notion that Iran under Ahmadinejad was now an unapproachable and potentially deadly adversary). And again, Iranians were not surprised, although Americans may have missed the point entirely.

Yes, the Iranians are know full well what they're doing, and if it confuses the West and even puts it off balance, then perhaps that is intentional and part of the reason for Iran's success in diplomacy, a success that Mr. Brooks et al are often quick to acknowledge. Of course there are many within the Iranian ruling class and the government who would prefer a less opaque political system, one that would allow power to be more concentrated in one of the branches of government (the one they're in, naturally), just as some in any US administration might prefer that the president enjoy greater powers, or some in Congress who might prefer to have a greater role in influencing or even controlling the executive branch. But the Supreme Leader balances the various factions within the Iranian regime with great tact and finesse, and although the system may appear dysfunctional at times, it is in fact an extremely well-oiled machine that has managed to secure Iran's international interests now for almost thirty years. And the debate going on right now between Senators McCain and Obama (and even Hillary Clinton) actually misses the point in terms of how to deal with Iran. Senator Obama's position, one that he has finessed recently but one that still anticipates negotiations with the Iranians without preconditions, is, to the Iranians, just as arrogant as Mr. Brooks' suggestion that the Iranians don't understand themselves. Although the Supreme Leader, earlier this year, made the unprecedented and little noticed statement that Iran had never suggested that the break in relations with the US would be permanent, the idea that Iran is waiting for a president of the US to come and talk to them displays in their minds the same Western attitude they have fought against for the last twenty-nine years. It is not, the Iranians believe, for the Americans to decide when, where, and with whom they will talk to; it is at the very least a mutual decision, and one the Supreme Leader will ultimately decide for Iran (and will need to explain to the millions of supporters of the regime not just in Iran, but throughout the Muslim world, who believe that Iran is the last influential and significant power that stands up against the hegemony of the West).

The Supreme Leader himself will not be someone the US will talk to, as tempting as it may be for Senator Obama to believe, now that he has revised his position vis a vis Ahmadinejad, that that may be possible. The Supreme Leader does not travel outside of Iran and does not grant audiences to non-Muslims except in rare instances, nor would he, to borrow Hillary Clinton's terminology, confer legitimacy on the US president by granting him a meeting until he was sure Iran's interests would be protected. (Yes, the Iranians can think exactly the same way we do, and gee, doesn't it sound arrogant?) Whoever the next US president is will have to begin the process of talking to Iran, if he or she decides to do so, by first exploring avenues to the Supreme Leader, whether through Larijani, Velayati, Mottaki (Iran's foreign minister), Khazaee (Iran's ambassador to the UN who reports to the foreign ministry as well as the Supreme Leader and who conveniently has an office on Third Avenue in Manhattan), or even someone like Khatami and his trusted lieutenant Sadegh Kharrazi, who despite their diminished roles in Iranian politics, still have the ear of the Supreme Leader. He or she will have to wait and see whom the Supreme Leader will be subtly backing in the presidential elections of 2009, and whether it is Ahmadinejad who is re-elected or whether there is a new administration. And he or she will discover eventually whether the Supreme Leader wants that administration to be the one that breaks the thaw with the US and re-establish relations or whether he prefers a quieter and more subtle détente, an understanding if you will, of what the roles of the U.S. and Iran are to be in the region and how their interests can be aligned.

Mr. Brooks is pessimistic about the idea of talking to Iran, and Senator McCain has all but ruled it out, but I'm rather hopeful. I believe that Senator Obama's position, one of negotiating without preconditions, is a sound one. The Iranians may infuriate, they may obfuscate, and they may make it difficult for an American administration to sense any real progress with what appear to be intransigent positions. But the Iranians do want relations with the U.S., albeit more on their terms, and they will, as long as they are respected, negotiate in earnest. They are not, as some would have us believe, ideological foes, nor are they self-defeating.

To make Senator Obama's offer of some time ago to sit with Ahmadinejad the burning issue of the campaign is a red herring, and Senator McCain knows it, as does David Brooks. The Persian question should be (and really always has been) whether we deal with Iran or whether we try and change Iran, not who comes to tea at the White House. There is no middle ground, as the eight years of the Bush administration have showed, and the notion of changing Iran, i.e. changing its regime, is now a fanciful one. Senator Obama need not apologize for preferring to engage, rather than attack, Iran, and he and his foreign policy team will, if they take office, figure out quite quickly who it is they need to be talking to. Senator McCain might too, if he becomes president, and if he comes to understand that his beloved war in Iraq will not end the way he hopes unless he does.