As the Islamic Republic of Iran and the United States continue to trade verbal jabs on Iran’s nuclear program, scholars and analysts are calculating the various scenarios that could possibly play out. Conversations have been exhausted as to whether or not Israel will attack. How will Iran respond? What effects will this have on the region? And, what should Washington do? This latter question is the key to this entire debate because from cyber-attacks to assassinations of Iranian scientists, it is the United States that has spearheaded all efforts to stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions. These tactics prompt other crucial questions, such as what is Washington’s ultimate goal in Iran? How has this objective dictated American strategy? And why is Iran constantly portrayed as a threat and is increasingly becoming the centre of U.S. foreign policy discussions?
Before discussing these issues it is important to point out two caveats. First, attempting to predict any foreign policy issue, let alone future Washington–Tehran relations, is a very fickle and almost impossible task given the unstable nature of this region and specifically this relationship. The constant uncertainty of tomorrow’s international relations leads many politicians and experts to backtrack on their own claims. Second, it is vital to apply caution when assessing the rhetoric of Iranian and American politicians. Most importantly, one must understand the context within which a comment is made. For example, during the third U.S. presidential debate between Mitt Romney and President Obama on October 22, 2012, many of the comments on Iran by both candidates must not be taken solely at face value but seen more as a tool to sway voters and reassure international allies. Another example comes during the 1992 U.S. presidential elections, where Bill Clinton’s comments on China were much harsher than that of President Bush. The former criticised the latter for not taking a harder stance, however, once Clinton became president his policies towards China were almost identical to that of his predecessor. Similarly, this election season, Romney criticized Obama’s policies towards Iran and called for a much tougher stance; however, if Romney would have won the presidency his policies would have been almost identical to that of Obama’s. Primarily because Romney’s position on Iran has evolved over the past five years. At first, he argued that a military strike should be seriously considered and a regime change should be pursued. Fast forward to the third presidential debate and no comments were made on regime change. Rather, Romney declared, “of course a military action is the last resort. It is something one would only consider if all the other avenues have been tried to their full extent.” One explanation as of why Romney’s position changed is that he acquired more foreign intelligence on U.S.-Iran relations and realized the complexity of this situation.
One nuance of this complexity resided in the fact that the Islamic Republic of Iran prides itself as a nation that is not subordinate to the U.S. while maintaining a conspiratorial attitude towards the West. Concurrently, the Iranian citizens are torn between confronting their government, wanting U.S. assistance, and needing the autonomy to decide their own future. Therefore, U.S. policymakers’ approach towards Iran is very delicate. With the unfortunate reality that the majority of Washington wants a regime change in Iran, they are well aware that the United States must not – and cannot – be seen actively pursuing such an objective through its policies. If the Iranian people see regime change as a result of foreign intervention, there is a high probability that they will rally around the flag, and support their regime solely out of patriotism and pride. That is why the Obama administration has been clear that a military attack on Iran is the last option. Washington understands that the progress they have made will be in vain if Iran is attacked. The weaker and more divided Iran becomes, the more likely it will want to negotiate. Recently it has been reported that Tehran is willing to temporarily suspend its twenty percent uranium enrichment if sanctions are lifted. Even with little confidence in this statement now, it does show signs that the Islamic Republic is rethinking its strategy. Moreover, with Iran’s currency falling to 40 percent, the country’s oil exports dropping at its lowest in two decades, the bazar establishment protesting and boycotting, and political dissension increasing within the government, an uprising is possible. These events point to the fact that Washington’s current course is playing a toll on Iran. Finally, there are conversations inside Iran as to how the Islamic Republic will look post-Khamenei. This uncertainty will be another complication added to the regimes increasing instability – a serious factor worth considering from a U.S. policy standpoint.
Although America’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear program are for the most part valid, Washington’s main objective of weakening this regime has predated this threat. However, America’s approach to such an objective has been subtle. Therefore, when Iran is constantly discussed and viewed as a threat, it is not so much that these issues are important for Washington more than they are a means to an end in trying to change this government. Take for example how in the past Washington was concerned with Iran’s human rights violations but now they are squarely focused on Iran’s nuclear program. The reason why is not because Iran’s human rights record has improved but rather Iran’s nuclear program provides the best options for Washington to weaken this regime. If this issue is resolved and the Islamic Republic is still intact, Washington will move on to the next issue it can utilize to weaken the government. Whether that may be Iran’s support of terrorists organizations, its proxy wars against Israel, its influence in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bahrain, and Syria; and so on. What needs to be realized and accepted by the politicians and policy makers within Washington is that the Islamic Republic of Iran is not going anywhere. This government has strong support within Iran and is very well established. The sooner Washington redefines its endgame towards Iran to something other than regime change the sooner they will be able to reach an understanding, and possibly an agreement, on some, if not many, of the issues they and Tehran disagree on.