Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 07/2009

Despite Crackdown, U.S. Must Deal with Iranian Regime

Richard N. Haass

June 2009

Council on Foreign Relations


Richard N. Haass, President, Council on Foreign Relations

Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor,


June 26, 2009

Asserting that the Iranian theocracy has become a "thugocracy," CFR President Richard N. Haass says the Iranian regime will likely prevail because of its use of force against the population. This makes the urgency of negotiating an end to the country's nuclear program more pronounced, and possibly more difficult, Haass says. "The Iranian challenge still exists, and may actually be somewhat worse," he says. "I'm talking about the nuclear program, their influence in Afghanistan and Iraq, their support of Hezbollah and Hamas. None of that has changed." Haass says the Obama administration "still ultimately has to try to deal with [Iran]" but adds: "It has become extraordinarily difficult to talk to this regime, and Iran has become in absolute and relative terms far more capable."

It's been two weeks since the Iran election and the giant protests that took place after what seemed to the people on the street as an arbitrary decision by the Iranian leadership to award victory to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Since then, there's been a security crackdown and a lot of rumors about possible behind the scenes deals, but nothing seems concrete. What do you think is going to happen?

As the old saw goes, it's always dangerous to make predictions-especially about the future. But my own sense is that the regime seems to be prevailing. The reasons are several. First, while there are divisions within the regime, they are not incapacitating. It's not immobilizing it. Second, the regime is able and willing to use force against the protesters. The regime is not blinking. Third, the ability of the protesters to push back is obviously limited. History suggests that governments or regimes survive when they hang tough. I think that is what we are seeing in Iran. We're also seeing two other things. First, the nature of this regime is either changing or being exposed before our eyes. It may be a theocracy in principle, but it's increasingly a 'thugocracy' in practice. The religious elements, while they still exert influence over the militia and over the Revolutionary Guards, are to some extent now beholden to them. Second of all, and somewhat more optimistically, I do believe that this has now exposed the regime for what it is. It has lost legitimacy. It has power, but it doesn't have legitimacy in the eyes of a significant percentage of the Iranian public. This suggests to me that seeds have been sown for future political change even if that change is not realized in the short term.

Barack Obama came into office vowing that he wanted to engage in a direct dialogue with the regime in Iran. If you were in your old job as director of policy planning at the State Department and were asked to sketch out a policy paper, what would be your main points.?

The Iranian challenge still exists, and may actually be somewhat worse. I'm talking about the nuclear program, their influence in Afghanistan and Iraq, their support of Hezbollah and Hamas. None of that has changed. Simply ignoring this unattractive reality does not make it go away and does not make it get better. So the administration still ultimately has to try to deal with it. My first piece of advice would be not to deal with it until we know what the new reality is; and secondly, to take advantage of the president's upcoming summit in Moscow [July 6]. The single best way to influence the Iranians is to present a united international front against them. The United States and Europe are essentially in a similar place. China's hiding behind Russia, which makes Russia critical.

The Russians were one of the first to recognize Ahmadinejad's re-election. They would gain by disorder in Iran. The price of oil would go up and so forth.

I just came back from Moscow and I am not terribly optimistic that the Russians will play a helpful role in part because of the reason you suggest: they may actually see some tactical gain in a degree of instability that could hike oil prices. They have important economic interests in Iran that they don't want to jeopardize. They're also worried that if they got too tough with Iran, the Iranians could foment terrorism and instability inside Russia. So for all of these reasons, I don't believe the Russians are inclined to use anything like the leverage we would like them to.

Coming back to Washington, Obama toughened his position the other day in his press conference. His rhetoric intensified, but he still held out the desire to have talks if possible. Your view is that it's going to take a while until things settle down?

We should be prepared to deal with whatever the government of Iran is, but only once that's clear. To engage with it before that is clear would not just be inappropriate, it would be self-defeating. If something better doesn't emerge in the short run, the United States should still deal with them bilaterally and multilaterally without illusions. What we ought to look closely at is how the Iranians behave at the negotiating table, whether they seem to be legitimately negotiating or stalling. Just as important, if not more important, we ought to be looking at what they're doing in their nuclear laboratories and what they're doing on the ground in the region. We ought to try to build international support for whatever our position is, and we ought to make our position public. I believe that the regime, whatever it turns out to be, should have to explain to the Iranian people why it would turn down an attractive offer from the United States and the world for integration, for sanctions reduction, and for economic benefit in order to pursue a narrow confrontational policy. It is important that the United States still put forth a reasonable alternative path to the Iranians, and to make it public. That's the best chance we have on getting the Iranians to react responsibly, if only because the regime's Achilles heel continues to be its mismanagement of the Iranian economy.

How much do you think the Iranian leadership still needs a "Great Satan"? [the United States]

Their recent comments suggest that they still depend on that, they keep trying to discredit the opposition by associating it with the United States and Britain. As an aside, I would say that President Obama has been far more right than his critics in avoiding saying too much and getting in the middle of what's happening in Iran, both because we do not want to taint the opposition and we don't want to raise expectations and create a 2009 version of Hungary in 1956 [when Soviet troops quelled the emergence of a liberal regime]. But again, we should make our policies public to make it more difficult for the Iranian regime to justify its own behavior on the basis of what it would allege to be unfair or hostile U.S. policy.

The Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei suggested that he had received a letter from Obama. Do you think the United States should make that public?

Again, I wouldn't do anything just now until the domestic political situation in Iran sorts itself out. But I believe we ought to be prepared to make public the substance of our policy and the choices that are being put forward to Iran. I would try to put the Iranian government on the defensive and make it more difficult for it to reject a reasonable relationship with the outside world.

We don't really have much going on with Iran right now. We don't even have cultural exchanges. While visitors can go back and forth still, there isn't much else.

You're right. There's precious little going on, and this is one of the mistakes of the previous eight years. The one area where we had something going on for awhile was Afghanistan, and that actually yielded some fruits. But we chose not to have more going on out of the wish, or hope, that this regime would fall. That was obviously a wish, not a strategy. Now the irony for Barack Obama is that he's more inclined to deal with the Iranians, but because of what's happened in the streets of Iran, it's become more difficult here. And because of the passage of time, Iran is more difficult to deal with. Iran is arguably the biggest strategic gainer of any country in that part of the world in the past decade. Again, it's unfortunate for the U.S. that we're prepared to talk, and in some ways need to try diplomacy, given the unattractiveness of either living with an Iranian nuclear option or using military force against it, but it has become extraordinarily difficult to talk to this regime, and Iran has become in absolute and relative terms far more capable.

Do you think there's any question that this election was stolen?

The short answer is "no." I find the arguments of those who suggest otherwise baffling. The speed with which the Iranians proclaimed victory, literally days before they could have counted the ballots, and the heavy handed way they've acted, suggests to me that the clerical establishment working with the Revolutionary Guards did not want this to go to a second round if nobody had an absolute majority or did not want Mousavi to win on the off chance that he himself had a majority. There's no other explanation for why they would have reacted in such a heavy handed manner. If they had the ballots on their side, they could have wrapped themselves in the cloak of democracy. Again, I find the arguments of those who suggest that the numbers put out reflect reality baffling.

They're arguing that you have to prove the negative, but that's impossible.

Why would the regime act with the haste and secrecy and heavy handedness if they didn't have to? It seems to me that they would have enjoyed, to say the least, the opportunity to stand up before the world and have the world see that Ahmadinejad was as popular as this alleged vote count suggests. Clearly he wasn't. So again, I don't believe we know the full extent of the fraud, but it had to have been sufficiently large to justify the price the Iranian government is willing to pay.