A dialogue with Tehran is possible, Hillary Mann Leverett writes, but Barack Obama must first reject Washington's warped view of the Islamic Republic.
The inauguration of Barack Obama has given rise to hopes about a new diplomatic opening between the United States and Iran - and Obama's statements as a candidate certainly suggest a desire to realign relations with the Islamic Republic. But to succeed Obama must first be willing to challenge the prevailing view in the US, which holds that Iran is an "irrational rogue state", an immature and ideologically-driven polity that is incapable of thinking about its foreign policy in terms of national interests, a state with whom there can be no negotiating.
This assessment of Iranian intentions is fundamentally wrong - and it has led to policies that badly serve American interests. The historical record shows that, at least since the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989, Iran has been increasingly capable of defining its foreign policy in terms of national interests. Many of those interests are legitimate - like the desire to be free from the threat of attack, to have sovereignty without interference over internal affairs and to have the the world's most powerful state accept the Islamic Republic as Iran's legitimate government.
Moreover, Iran has shown itself increasingly capable of acting to defend and advance its national interests. Americans and others may not like many of the strategic and tactical choices that Tehran makes, but they are not "irrational". Having negotiated with Iranian counterparts for almost two years over Afghanistan and related issues as a US diplomat at the United Nations and as director for Iran affairs at the National Security Council, I have seen firsthand how Iranian diplomats can negotiate productively, deliver on specific commitments, make concessions and calculate trade-offs across a range of issues to enhance Iran's overall strategic position.
If US-Iranian relations are to improve, the United States needs to acknowledge that Iran is a sovereign state with serious interests. Unfortunately, the conviction that Iran is an "irrational rogue" continues to distort American debate - and, ultimately, American policy. For example, it is all but taken for granted in Washington that, should Iran obtain nuclear weapons, it would use them to "wipe Israel off the map", no matter the consequences. According to this account, the Islamic Republic aspires to become, in effect, history's first "suicide nation".
The reality of Iran's national security strategy is far different. Candid conversations with Iranian officials confirm that Iran pursues an "asymmetric" approach, aimed at generating the same security that conventional military capabilities, allies and strategic depth provide for other countries. This strategy includes developing unconventional military capabilities (missiles, chemical weapons and a nuclear programme) as a last-ditch deterrent.
Iran was attacked with chemical weapons in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war but did not respond in kind. Iranians drew two lessons from this experience: that they could not rely on the international community to protect them, and that they needed more robust deterrent capabilities, including at least the foundations of a nuclear weapons programme. If the United States and its allies want to stop Iran from going all the way to overt nuclear weaponisation, they need to be prepared to address the Islamic Republic's fundamental security concerns - and to stop demonising it as a latter-day Third Reich bent on a second Holocaust.
Tehran's ties to a range of groups that the United States government identifies as terrorist organisations - Hizbollah, Hamas and even al Qa'eda - are taken in Washington as confirmation of Iran's irredeemably aggressive and malign ambition. But here too, Iranian policy needs to be understood in the context of the Islamic Republic's asymmetric security strategy. Proxy actors - political, paramilitary and terrorist - in neighbouring states and elsewhere give Tehran tools to ensure that those states will not be used as anti-Iranian platforms, providing a measure of strategic depth. This element of Iran's national security strategy encompasses not only groups identified by Washington as terrorist organisations but also Iraqi and Afghan political parties and their associated militias.
But if the United States and its allies want to reduce the Islamic Republic's reliance on various proxies to defend what Tehran perceives as Iranian interests, it is necessary to address the security concerns that prompt such reliance in the first place. Iran has shown itself to be perfectly capable of co-operating with America in mutually beneficial situations, as after the fall of the Taliban. During the 1990s, Tehran funded and equipped a militia, the Sepah-e-Mohammed, comprised of Afghan refugees who had fled Taliban rule and found sanctuary in Iran. Following the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 Tehran directed the Sepah-e-Mohammed to join the new, US-sponsored Afghan national military.
In contrast, when the United States invaded Iraq, there was no meaningful co-operation between Washington and Tehran regarding the shape of the post-war order. Iran saw the US presence in Iraq as a possible platform for attacks on Iranian interests - perhaps even an invasion. Tehran used its ties to Iraqi militias newly returned to their homeland to influence Iraqi politics and thwart the consolidation of a potential US move into Iran.
The failure of American foreign policy elites to understand Iranian motivations has also produced a profoundly warped discussion in the United States of alleged Iranian ties to al Qa'eda. Senior Bush Administration officials initially provided grist for this mill, in much the same way that they manufactured an alleged connection between Iraq and al Qa'eda. More recently, American commentators have asserted, without any hard evidence, that Iran provides training, explosives, funding, intelligence, transportation and shelter to senior al Qa'eda operatives and the Taliban. The ingrained view of Iran has led an increasing number of Washington figures - and not just neoconservatives - to see Iran's "links" to al Qa'eda as further evidence of its ambition to attack American and Israeli assets worldwide.
The reality is more complicated than the conventional wisdom suggests. After the invasion of Afghanistan, Tehran detained hundreds of suspected al Qa'eda operatives attempting to flee across Iran's border. Iran repatriated at least 200 of these individuals to the new Karzai government in Kabul, to Saudi Arabia and to other countries. But Iran could not return all its detainees; the Islamic Republic has no diplomatic relations with Egypt, for example, and Iranian diplomats told my colleagues and me that Tehran was not able to repatriate Egyptian al Qa'eda members. Rather than co-operate with Iran to establish a framework within which Tehran could have made al Qa'eda detainees in Iran available to US interrogators - as our Iranian interlocutors requested - the Bush Administration insisted that Iran detain and deport all the al Qa'eda figures we believed might be in Iran, without any assistance from or reciprocal understandings with the United States, to "test" Iranian intentions.
Later, in the run up to the war in Iraq, the Bush Administration told the Iranians that the Mujihideen e Khalq - an Iraq-based Iranian opposition group that the United States had for years identified as a foreign terrorist organisation - would be targeted as an extension of Saddam's military apparatus. But after the invasion, the Pentagon granted the MEK special protected statusraising concerns in Tehran that Washington wanted to use the MEK as part of a campaign to bring down the Islamic Republic. At that point, the Iranians began to view the al Qa'eda operatives in its custody as a potential bargaining chip to use with Washington regarding the MEK.
The Iranians offered a deal - to exchange al Qa'eda figures they had detained for MEK cadres in Iraq. They offered to release all the low- and midlevel MEK figures they might receive, to allow the ICRC to monitor the treatment of any high-level MEK figures detained in Iran and to forego application of the death penalty to any high-level MEK figures found guilty of crimes by Iranian courts. But in the end, it was not Iran but the Bush Administration that rebuffed a deal - motivated by an unwillingness to "legimitate" Iran and a desire to retain the option to employ the MEK as part of a future attempt at regime change. Such a deal would have given the US access to important Al Qaida operatives - including, possibly, Osama's son Saad bin Ladin, who US officials now say has left Iran for Pakistan.
It will take not only sustained effort but also clear strategic vision for the Obama Administration to repair the damage to US interests done by the Bush Administration's mishandling of relations with Iran. Defining that vision will require a willingness to question the all-too-prevalent image of Iran as an ideologically-driven and categorical supporter of an undifferentiated array of terrorist groups. Fundamentally, the Islamic Republic is a state that acts on the basis of what it perceives as its national interests. It will not revise its ties to groups that the United States does not like in response to US coercion or to meet US "preconditions" for serious strategic dialogue. Iran will only change course when it perceives strong and positive strategic incentives to do so. The question is whether Washington is willing to provide them.
Hillary Mann Leverett, former Director for Iran and Gulf Affairs at the National Security Council, is CEO of Stratega, a political risk consultancy. She was one of a small number of US officials authorised to negotiate with Iran over Afghanistan and related matters.