Dealing with Iran’s Hardliners

Last month in Iran, supporters of a long-shot parliamentary candidate stuck campaign materials to a handful of chickens and set them loose in the village in what a local official called “a new way to campaign.” Though the chickens were an innovative way to remind voters that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad failed to deliver on his campaign promise to put a chicken in every pot, this candidate and others were forced to find obscure ways to reach voters because they were prohibited from putting their faces on campaign materials. Because of this and other arbitrary election rules, the large margins of victory by conservative hardliners in the March 14 election came as no surprise.

After the recent elections to the Iranian parliament, known as the Majles, the regime’s power became more solidly entrenched than in recent memory. The newfound confidence of the hardline regime complicates the effects of the December 2007 release of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran’s nuclear program. The report emboldened U.S. policymakers and presidential candidates who disagree with President George W. Bush’s aggressive approach to Iran. But because the report signaled to Iranian hardliners that a U.S. attack is unlikely in the future, they became more resolute than ever to continue Iran’s nuclear research. The outcome of the election guarantees that hardliners will continue to defy the international community on the nuclear issue.

Members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the most fervent supporters of Iran’s nuclear defiance, gained a noteworthy number of seats in the election. Typically, the IRGC eschews elected office, but the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has rejected his predecessor Ayatollah Khomeini’s precedent by actively promoting their political engagement. The increasing involvement of the Iranian military in politics has been called a creeping coup in which Guard members are slowly crowding out established clerics. The military’s ascendancy strengthens the Supreme Leader because members of the IRGC owe their positions entirely to him. As the military continues to gain power, the Islamic Republic will become both more uncompromising regarding Iran’s nuclear program and more interventionist in its regional foreign policy. A more consolidated regime means a more confident one, which further empowers the entrenched elements of Iran’s hardline clerical regime. This should make US policymakers wary.

The outcome of the Majles election is clear. The real winner is the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. But the best way to deal with Iran’s nuclear program – and a cluster of other issues including Iraq – remains the same: negotiations.

Iran in Iraq

It didn’t take long for the outcome of the election to become manifest in Iran’s policy regarding Iraq. The recent offensive by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government against forces loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr boosted Iran’s political influence in Iraq while also setting back U.S. objectives.

The Iraqi government-led offensive singled out Sadrists in hopes of undermining their influence in upcoming regional elections. Sadr’s followers pose the greatest political threat to Maliki because they stand on the side of public opinion on such issues as a strong central government and government control of Iraq’s oil supply. Maliki’s U.S.-supported positions – a weaker federal structure and privatization of oil – are largely unpopular. The offensive failed to subdue the Sadrists, which set back U.S. plans to draw down forces to pre-surge levels. With the goal of eliminating Sadr’s movement as a political rival unmet, Maliki’s governing coalition accepted an Iranian-brokered ceasefire deal.

The implications of this week-long event in Iraq could prove to be very significant for both the United States and Iran. By organizing the negotiations between both Shiite factions, Iran gains the favor of both the Maliki government and Sadr’s movement. Because of the zero-sum perspective of the Bush administration, any Iranian political gains in Iraq are losses for the United States as it attempts to maintain absolute influence in the country. Maliki’s failure to eliminate Sadr spells trouble for the U.S.-supported government; the trouble is amplified by the fact that the survival of the Sadrists led both sides to approach Iran to organize the ceasefire agreement. To make matters worse for the United States, the leader of the Iranian Quds Force, which was recently declared a terrorist organization by the Kyl-Lieberman amendment, spearheaded the negotiations.

Had the results of the election been different, Iran’s negotiation of the ceasefire would not be serious cause for U.S. concern because it could be seen as something of an isolated case of Iranian intervention. But with the victory of the hardliners, the United States should interpret the ceasefire deal as foreshadowing a more aggressively interventionist Iran.

Unconditional Negotiations

Rapid changes brought about as a result of the Majles election and Iran’s growing position in Iraq will continue to accelerate as Iraqis gear up for October 2008 provincial elections, the United States elects a new president in November 2008, and Iranians prepare to elect a new president in summer 2009. These changes will significantly affect U.S. policy regarding Iran no matter which candidate is elected president. The new U.S. president will have to maneuver carefully to resolve outstanding issues with Iran, including Iran’s nuclear program, the stabilization of Iraq, combating terrorism, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and others.

The only way for the United States to accomplish those goals is through unconditional negotiations. The United States faces the choice of continuing the foreign policy of brinkmanship or choosing a policy of peace. For three decades, the United States has chosen policies of isolation and sanctions rather than cooperation. As a result, Iran has demonstrated the ways it can hurt the United States in Iraq and maintain military confrontation. Without at least the offer to negotiate, the United States will continue to navigate the impasse with Iran with a severely limited set of tools – all of which lead further down the path to war. The risk of fruitless negotiations is far outweighed by the benefits of even marginal progress.

Take the example of North Korea. The United States participated in lengthy and often frustrating six-party talks with North Korea on its nuclear program. The odds of successfully negotiating a deal with the new nuclear power were long, but the gesture of organizing good faith talks to satisfy the mutual interests of all parties, including North Korea, changed the game. The result was a deal to disable and dismantle North Korea’s nuclear facilities. The deal is fragile and hard work remains ahead, but it would have been impossible without negotiations.

The same principle applies with Iran. Despite the gains by hardliners in the Majles, Iran is, at its core, a rational actor. Hardliners do not want war with the United States. Economic woes and a split between Iran’s government and its people over relations with the West make fertile ground for negotiations; hardliners in Iran recognize this opportunity. If the United States begins the difficult task of seeking common ground with Iran, there are no guarantees, only the possibility that skilled U.S. negotiators could emerge with a solution that benefits both Iran and the United States. Maintaining the status quo, however, guarantees nothing but further brinkmanship and the potential for war.

Any talks should preferably involve the Supreme Leader because the president holds relatively little power in the Iranian government. Ayatollah Khamenei is truly “the decider” in the Islamic Republic, and negotiations involving him will avoid the frustrations of Iran’s notoriously two-faced bureaucracy. Once the two sides sit down together, U.S. negotiators can employ a carrot-and- stick approach to induce Iranian cooperation. This approach should combine significant economic incentives for Iran, such as possible WTO membership, ending trade sanctions, foreign direct investment in Iran’s petroleum industry, much-needed civilian aircraft parts, and possibly a security guarantee, to usher Iran back into the international community.

In return, the United States can expect a radical shift toward Iranian compliance with the IAEA, a renewed spirit of cooperation to stabilize Iraq, and even a pledge of non-interference in the ailing Israeli-Palestinian peace process. If done effectively, negotiations could at once satisfy the needs of a United States desperate for effective solutions in the region while also guaranteeing vital political and economic benefits for the Islamic Republic.

Though negotiations are not guaranteed to end the 30-year-old dispute with Iran, they offer the best hope for resolving the current impasse and beginning the difficult process of reconciliation. With luck, United States cooperation with Iran may be the key to resolving many of the major challenges facing the Middle East today.

Patrick Disney and Danny Hosein are contributors to Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org). Disney is a recent graduate of Trinity University, where he focused on U.S.-Iran relations. He currently teaches U.S. government at Nolan Catholic High School in Fort Worth, TX. Danny Hosein is the Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellow at the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL), a nonpartisan, nonprofit Quaker public interest lobby in Washington.