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Making Iran Normal: Integration, Not Isolation, Is the Key

by REZA SANATI in Miami

19 Jan 2011 18:58Comments
107372102_0.jpgThree decades of failure for U.S. policy should have been no surprise.

[ opinion ] As the United States and some of its Western partners meet once again with Iran in hopes of addressing the Islamic Republic's nuclear program and many of its regional policies, a familiar debate has arisen between proponents of a containment strategy involving economic sanctions and isolation versus those who favor military options. What the advocates of each position fail to realize is that their interaction resembles a mutual mirroring far more than it does an ideological duel between rival strategies. Simply put, containment and the use of military force are not opposing perspectives but two faces of the same policy, viewpoints that both lie along a continuum principally rooted in hostility.

Since 1979, American policy toward Iran has oscillated between these two points, usually landing somewhere in the ambiguous middle. During the later stages of the Iran-Iraq War, the United States actually intervened militarily against Iran. In the war's aftermath, the Clinton administration employed a dual containment approach, imposing stringent trade and financial sanctions on both Iran and Iraq.

Yet whatever its varying strategy -- "pure" containment, the use of military force, or the ambiguous middle -- American actions have failed to deter Iran from pursuing what it has deemed to be its justifiable policies, including its nuclear program. And while some perceived President Barack Obama's "open hand" rhetoric as signaling a possible change, two years into his presidency, there has not been any real shift from the habitual American behavior toward Iran.

The fog within U.S. policy toward the Islamic Republic has led pundits and policy makers alike to construct a narrative that implies that America's central dilemma with Iran is either its human rights record, its support for militant groups, its anti-Israeli position, its nuclear program, or some combination of the foregoing. While these matters are obviously problematic for Washington, many other regimes in the region that depend upon the United States for survival exhibit behavior similar in ways to Tehran's -- some virtually duplicate it wholesale.

As reductively viewed by Washington's decision-making establishment, however, the Iran conundrum is simply the three-decade-old loss of Iran in the American grand strategy, particularly its metamorphosis from asset to liability, and the inability of the United States to find a substitute that can fill Iran's pivotal role in Middle Eastern security.

In many ways, it is the United States that has not recovered from the Iranian Revolution. And since that cataclysmic event, Revolutionary Iran has been deemed a threat to the American security establishment's vital interests in the oil-rich Middle East. Hence, what Washington seeks is not necessarily regime change, but regime normalization, which over time, would lead to more conventional and predictable state behavior on Tehran's part. In other words, from the American perspective, the functional questions is: How can the Iranian Revolution be concluded and Iranian conduct, both domestically and globally, be normalized as demanded by international law and expected by international norms?

After 30 years' pursuit of the same policy of isolation, whatever its variations, America obviously needs to choose a different course of action to meet its objectives. First, it needs to be recognized that the approach the United States has taken toward Iran has not only failed in this case, it has rarely succeeded anywhere else. Even a cursory view of the historical record, from Mao's China, to North Korea, to Saddam's Iraq, to Cuba, to the Sudan, to different experiences with the Islamic Republic itself, shows clearly that the use of isolation as a policy tool simply fails to achieve the objective of regime change or major behavioral change. The elementary reason is that while this policy imposes hardships upon society, it rarely disturbs the core functionality of the targeted state. Over time, economic sanctions, in particular, erode the power of the most capable domestic agents of change, namely the middle class, making them dependent upon the very regime that is meant to be isolated, entrenching that same political order.

On the other hand, if the United States wants Iranian normalization, there is another way, a method that has not only a high chance of success with Iran, but tangible proof of accomplishment in virtually every place it has been attempted. This is the integration approach, a process that involves the assimilation of the supposed "rogue" state into the global economic and political spheres. In time, as the country's middle class interacts, politically, socially, and economically, with its region and the world at large, a normalizing effect occurs within that society and, invariably, upon the government in question. Usually this involves the economic advancement of the middle class, which provides them with concrete means of influence, which in turn builds pressure from below on the regime. From post-Mao China to postwar Vietnam to post-military dictatorships in Turkey, Chile, Spain, and Argentina, the integration approach has successfully made extremism "bad for business" and persuasively threatened these governments with real losses if extremism reemerges.

The trouble with America's Iran policy is that from the very beginning of the Islamic Republic, U.S. and U.S.-backed sanctions, isolation, and military force yielded a regime that became hardened and numb to pressure. Consequently, as the Islamic Republic is a political order that was born and developed in the harshest of conditions -- revolution, war, economic deprivation -- the sort of actions and threats that have been employed only bring them back to familiar territory. In this light, it can be seen that the United States has never had any real leverage over Iran, and the custodians of the Islamic Republic have never had anything to lose -- hence, Tehran's continued defiance.

If the normalization of Iranian behavior is the goal, there are successful templates for bringing it about. For instance, instead of imposing sanctions that hurt Iran's middle class, the United States should purchase from that middle class, as it eventually did from the Chinese and Vietnamese counterparts after years of inimical relations. The result would be the empowerment of the Iranian middle class in virtually every aspect of daily life. On a state level, allowing the entrance of Iran into the World Trade Organization would not only improve its prospects for long-term economic advancement, it would, in much more immediate terms, force the government to take important corrective measures, as WTO membership entails major behavioral responsibilities and constraints.

Similarly, if the United States wishes Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to be a more responsible military force, it should engage it diplomatically in solving regional problems such as Iraqi and Afghan reconstruction, Pakistani stabilization, and Persian Gulf security, which would fundamentally steer Iranian power toward the advancement of American interests. Continuation of the now long-standing posture toward Iran simply reinforces the antagonistic stance that some in the Iranian security establishment take toward all things American.

Furthermore, if the nuclear issue is finally to be resolved, any solution will surely involve drafting Iran into a regional framework where access to peaceful, nonmilitary nuclear power is enjoyed and protected by all regional players. In practice, this would entail the multi-nationalization of Iran's indigenous nuclear program, linking Tehran's need for nuclear fuel with the needs of other countries in the region. One possibility would be to have other states purchase nuclear fuel that has been enriched in Iran once additional protocols from the IAEA are ratified by the Majles, Iran's parliament. These integration approaches will provide Iran not only with tangible benefits for normalization, but also significant economic and security costs if they veer toward extremism -- a benefit/cost tradeoff that does not exist now and has never credibly been proposed.

Essentially, in order for the Iranian state to normalize, it must be presented with the normative aspects of security that international law and global norms provide to most of the international community. For that to happen, what is needed is a reconciliation of the 1979 divorce between the United States and Iran prompted by the Revolution. The walls that keep Iran from full membership in global society must be lowered.

As the other cases noted above repeatedly remind us, ideologically driven regimes, each in their own way, organically normalize from within when pressure from the outside subsides. Then, and only then, do domestic forces gain the capacity to address the internal contradictions within those societies and finally turn the pages of a bygone era.

Reza Sanati is a research fellow at the Middle East Studies Center in Miami and a Ph.D. candidate at the Florida International University School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA).

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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