Patrick Clawson is senior fellow at the National Defense University's Institute for National Strategic Studies and senior editor of Middle East Quarterly. The views expressed here are his alone.
Along with Kenneth Timmerman and most Americans, I hope the people of Iran can establish a democratic government that bestows the blessings of liberty on all. The key question, however, is not whether this is a desirable goal but whether it is appropriate for the U.S. government to take actions -- especially covert operations by intelligence agencies -- to replace the present Iranian system. I believe it is not.
WHY ROLLBACK IS A MISTAKE
The U.S. government should adopt a policy that advances vital U.S. interests even as it promotes American values such as freedom, democracy, and human rights. That said, the United States has little vital interest in the way Iran is run domestically; its concern centers on how Iran behaves internationally. It is by no means clear that Timmerman's recommended policy of encouraging democracy, helping unify the opposition, and coordinating with allies to foster democratic change are the best way to change Iran's unacceptable behavior abroad.
First, a more democratic Iran could still be a highly nationalist state that pursues weapons of mass destruction and seeks to dominate the Persian Gulf, two goals unacceptable to the United States. The shah had tendencies in this direction, and they caused tensions with Washington (though in his case they were balanced by an attempt to preserve regional stability).
Secondly, the United States can better accomplish its aims by outwaiting the Islamic Republic, for Iran's vulnerabilities and the unpopularity of the current government are sure to bring about profound changes. The Islamic Republic of Iran will not be with us for anywhere near as long as was the U.S.S.R., which the United States wisely outlasted rather than trying to roll back. In the meantime, Washington needs to present a credible deterrent against Iranian aggression while depriving Tehran of the money and technology it needs to acquire a more threatening military.
Lastly, Washington should not publicly establish a goal such as overthrowing the Iranian government if it is unlikely to achieve it, for such a failure undermines U.S. credibility. That might lead Iranian leaders falsely to conclude that Americans would be similarly unable to meet goals more vital to U.S. interests (such as protection of shipping through the Hormuz Straits). The principle of speaking softly while carrying a big stick is wiser, as Hungary in 1956 made forever clear, than grand speeches encouraging others to risk their lives on moral crusades for which, when push comes to shove, Washington will not risk American lives.
A DEAL WITH TEHRAN?
Timmerman implies that no deal with the Islamic Republic is possible. He should not be so categorical. Washington could, in theory, work out a deal with the Islamic Republic that would satisfy vital U.S. interests: what most concerns Americans, Iranians could compromise on, such as nuclear weapons and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Iran cannot win a nuclear race with neighbors like Iraq and Saudi Arabia, so it should not even move in this direction. Further, nuclear arms deter the United States less effectively than do hostages, as Major General Mohsen Rezai, the Revolutionary Guard Commander, recently noted. Undermining Arab-Israeli peace is not a central issue for Iranians, emotionally or in terms of state interests; the leadership could adopt a stance like that of Mu`ammar al-Qadhdhafi of Libya, who bristles with rhetorical hostility to Israel but actually does little or nothing.
These areas of geostrategic potential compromise, notwithstanding, Tehran does not reach a modus vivendi with Washington, and the reason lies in its own weakness. The present U.S.-Iranian confrontation results, at heart, from the Iranian leaders' lack of legitimacy to undertake difficult steps. To preserve their crumbling revolutionary credentials -- an effort undermined by their incompetence in economic policy and the declining popularity of their cause -- is more important to them than good relations with the United States. This situation will probably continue, which is why I am pessimistic about a deal with Iran. But a government prepared to face the realities about Iran's situation and its interests could come to power, and the U.S. government should be prepared to do business with it, once Tehran demonstrates with concrete actions that it has changed its approach.
In conclusion, Timmerman and I do agree on one point: the importance of increasing American radio broadcasts to Iran. Iranians' receptivity to Western broadcasting is evident from the speed and vigor with which Tehran's leaders respond to reports carried on Voice of America or Radio Israel. Indeed, as the Islamic Republic becomes a less open society, Iran's leaders are increasingly sensitive to any criticism. Dishes for receiving satellite television were banned in early 1995, several publications were shut down, and thugs beat up popular loyal opposition figures (most notably the highly popular professor `Abdolkarim Sorush) and burned bookstores.
To assure that Western broadcasts reach Iran more effectively, transmitters should be set up that can emit signals to Iran's population on the medium-range frequency (rather than just the short-wave). The several million dollars this would cost would be more useful than any implausible scheme for covert destabilizing operations or for involving the U.S. government in exile politics.