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Good cop, bad cop
How to deal with Iran

July 8, 2004

From Roger Howard's Iran in Crisis: Nuclear Ambitions and the American Response (Zed Books, 2004). Howard has travelled widely throughout Iran and has written extensively for many newspapers and journals, including The Daily Mail, The New Statesman, The Spectator, Middle East International, The Institute for War and Peace Reporting and Jane's Intelligence Review.

There are many reasons why Iran deserves considerable attention from the outside world. But are there also any constructive measures that the West can take to reduce the risks of domestic and international confrontation?

As a starting-point, Western government should draw a clear distinction between Iranian domestic issues on the one hand and issues that more directly affect the outside world on the other. In terms of defusing the political and economic pressures upon Iran in a way that benefits the cause of democracy and human rights, it is highly questionable that there are any real measures that the West can take. For at least as much as their counterparts in any other country, Iranian politicians generally deeply resent criticism and interference by the outside world of their own internal policies and are very much more likely to ignore international protests than bow to them. But because few Iranians would ever question the obvious legitimacy of the West's concern for its own security or for the stability of Iran's regional neighbours, there is instead a strong case for arguing that Western pressure should be concentrated on these issues.

It is in this context that the European Union's policy of 'critical engagement' should be viewed. This approach was initiated by the EU in 1995 and has since been endorsed by the European Union's General Affairs Council, which continues to declare its "continued support for the process of reform in Iran and in this context ... its willingness to strengthen relations between the EU and Iran". But despite considerable diplomatic efforts, this approach has not achieved any of the real benefits to domestic reform that its supporters have always hoped for.

Even the example that its supporters cite as evidence of its effectiveness, the official ban in December 2002 of the stoning to death of some convicted criminals is misleading, since this particular punishment was very rarely practised in modern Iran in any case: there were two such cases in both 2001 and 2002. "The truth about critical engagement", as one senior Western diplomat has admitted, "is that its achieved almost nothing in terms of advancing the cause of human rights and political reform, and for every step that we have gone forward there have been at least as many other steps back".

Some liberal humanitarians could of course plausibly counter-argue that the continuation of such an approach would be justified if there is no prospect of change inside the country. In Iran, however, for reasons that have already been discussed, such changes are inevitable and Western government can therefore allow Iran's own internal dynamics, engineered by profound demographic changes, to bring about the reforms they wish to see. When such a crisis point is eventually reached, they are in a position to moderate and curb some of the excesses that may very well eventuate.

By contrast, 'critical dialogue' can be strongly defended as the best approach to find Iranian cooperation on the nuclear issue, the Middle East peace process and the rebuilding of Iraq and Afghanistan. The clearest proof that this is the best approach emerged on 21 October 2003 when the Iranians took most commentators by surprise by striking a deal that was made possible through negotiation and diplomatic pressure. If Iran had been isolated by all governments, not just by Washington, then there would have been no opening where the agreement could emerge.

This is not to say that there is no room for the harder line that Washington has always taken when dealing with Iran, and many Western diplomats argue that the present combination of European dialogue and this harsher American stance is probably the best approach towards the current Iranian regime. "It's good to have both a good cop and bad cop", in the words of one European representative in Tehran, "so that the Iranians can never be quite sure what's in store for them. Too much aggression gives them no incentive to compromise, while too much leniency will make them think they can it all their own way".

Certainly the mere threat of UN-imposed economic sanctions against Iran, as the US has sought to impose in retaliation for any violation of its nuclear obligations, is enough to make even the most die-hard conservative in Tehran think twice about any misdemeanour: even a very brief embargo on the exportation of Iranian oil would devastate its economy.

But there is also considerable scope for the US to change the way in which it deals with Iran in future. While Washington has never been slow to condemn the Iranian government, it remains to be seen if future US administrations will be equally quick to promise and deliver rewards in return for Tehran's cooperation and compromise. The US government could, for example, give details of the circumstances under which existing economic sanctions could, perhaps gradually, be lifted and also raise the spectre of potentially offering Iran membership of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Earlier Iranian bids to join the WTO have previously been blocked by both Israel and the United States, even though membership would promote the cause of reform by demanding a major overhaul of the regime's economic and political institutions in a way that would further challenge the hard-liners grip on power.

There are other measures that the US can arguably take but which to date have not been addressed. Washington can ask if its economic sanctions would be better directed not at Iran as a whole but instead targeted more specifically at the extensive overseas investments that many of the regime's leaders are known to hold in Western banks. Obviously any such measures would much more effectively penalise the material interests of those who can make decisions about their country's future instead of the ordinary civilians who clearly exert no comparable political leverage.

There are also ways in which America can reduce the level of mistrust with Iran, thereby creating a more positive climate in which threats of economic and military force, as described above, could still be made but probably much more effectively than hitherto: if the Tehran regime, instead of thinking that Washington is implacably opposed to any and every course it takes, has more faith that any new notes of compromise will be rewarded then it will of course be more willing to strike them.

One such step that the US could take to improve its relations both with Iran and the wider Islamic world would be to withdraw, or at least considerably scale down, some of its military presence in the surrounding region. Since 9-11 the number of American military bases throughout the republics of the former Soviet Union has proliferated and currently include around a dozen US military outposts in Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, and another three in Afghanistan. Moreover the US military has staged joint military exercises in sensitive regions that are close to the Iranian border, notably with Azerbaijani troops in the strategic oil-rich Caspian Sea on 14 August 2003.

But in a unipolar world in which America maintains an unparalleled military dominance, it is arguable that these bases do less to serve any constructive purpose than to symbolise US "hegemony" and rally the anti-American cause in the same way that the presence of US troops on the 'holy soil' of Saudi Arabia has previously acted as a rallying point for Al Qaeda. By dramatically scaling down such a presence, Washington would alleviate Iran's serious and well-founded concerns for its own security and much reduce the level of mistrust between the two countries.

Although such measures might considerably defuse international tension, it nonetheless still remains impossible to predict where Iran's future lies. It may be that the best-case scenario, hoped for by every independent observer, will eventuate as the mullahs, recognising the futility of clinging remorselessly to power, perhaps unexpectedly hand over the reins of the political order to democratic forces, thereby allowing a new political order to emerge, perhaps painlessly.

But because Iranian politics have long possessed a capacity to surprise, it is also possible that the current regime will continue to defy all predictions and remain in power for far longer than currently seems likely.

Just as during the turmoil of the immediate post-revolutionary years, or at particularly dramatic moments of the war with Iraq, there were times when the regime's days seemed numbered, so it is possible that a new conservative government, even if given only a very dubious mandate by a low electoral turnout in the February 2004 elections, could still succeed in staving off opposition with a series of populist measures and incentives and thereby maintain its grip on power. The same tactics were used with good effect during 2002, for example, when a particularly acrimonious teacher's pay dispute that had spilled into violent disorder in the streets was defused by the offer of financial subsidies.

In any event, at the time of writing few scenarios seem to be beyond the realm of possibility. A US or Israeli military strike, an organised insurrection or mass street protests have all also been aired as possible outcomes of the country's different tensions. But whatever does in fact eventuate, there can be little doubt that Iran will not be far from tomorrow's headlines.

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Book of the day

Iran in Crisis
Nuclear Ambitions and the American Response
By Roger Howard

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