Bridge the Gulf

To Advance Negotiations with Iran, Cede Conventional Wisdom

By Frederic Wehrey

Frederic Wehrey is a RAND adjunct senior policy analyst and a specialist in Persian Gulf security issues. For the past three years, his field research in the Middle East has focused on local perceptions of Iranian influence, political reform in the Gulf, and the regional impact of the Iraq war. He is currently a doctoral candidate in international relations at the University of Oxford, St. Antony’s College.

On March 20, 2009, at the start of the Persian New Year, U.S. President Barack Obama sent the people and leaders of Iran a videotaped message to hail a “new beginning” of “pursuing constructive ties” between the two nations. But for the United States to deliver on this promise, and for Iran to overcome its suspicions of America, U.S. policymakers will need a clearer understanding of Iran’s political complexity, regional influence, and negotiating culture. Only then will diplomatic overtures, grounded in reality, stand a fair chance of success.

Much has been made of the upcoming June 12 presidential election in Iran as a possible turning point in Iran’s relations with the West. Yet the winner of this contest, regardless of his political leaning, will have to operate within the system of checks and balances that defines Iran’s political system. Contrary to popular assumption, ultimate political power in Iran rests not with the Office of the Presidency but with the Office of the Supreme Leader, or rahbar, who mediates over an array of contending factions and government structures.

Ultimate political power in Iran rests not with the Office of the Presidency but with the Office of the Supreme Leader.

The current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has long evinced a sense of confidence about Iran’s regional standing, a fundamental distrust of U.S. motives, and a dedication to preserving Iranian sovereignty, all of which may make compromise with Tehran difficult. Moreover, factional struggles and bureaucratic interests within Iran’s political system make the country’s nuclear ambitions less sensitive to external pressure than is commonly recognized. Popular support for nuclear enrichment complicates matters further.

Closely tied to Khamenei is the 125,000-member Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which has seen its profile in Iran’s politics, economy, and society expand dramatically over the past decade. Yet the Guard Corps is hardly monolithic in its political outlook, and the twin poles of commonly held assumptions about this institution are both incorrect: It is neither a corrupt gang nor a firebrand’s vanguard aiming to export Iran’s revolution across the region. Rather, its vested and expanding interests in the Iranian economy may, over the long term, make it an increasingly pragmatic force, as opposed to an ideological one.

Outside the domestic realm, U.S. policy must be grounded in a more sober appraisal of the extent and limitations of Iran’s influence in the region. The notion of constructing a bloc-like containment of Iran, centered on Saudi Arabia as an Arab counterweight to Iran, is increasingly unrealistic. The key driver in dealings between Saudi Arabia and Iran is not the Sunni-Shia religious divide or even ethnic Arab-Persian distinctions, but rather a calculated appraisal of geopolitical influence and economic self-interest. Given their geographic proximity and the impending U.S. drawdown in Iraq, the two countries may find that their interests increasingly intersect.

In approaching Iran, U.S. diplomats should be mindful that Iranians have unique negotiating attributes. Among them are a pronounced sense of victimization and a tendency to revisit issues that both sides previously agreed were closed. Yet there is value in negotiating with Iran, even if the likelihood of a breakthrough is remote. Negotiations can broaden U.S. contacts inside the regime, reduce misunderstandings that can escalate into conflict, and demystify a country that is widely misunderstood.

Schoolgirls in Tehran wave Iran's national flag.
Schoolgirls in Tehran wave Iran’s national flag on February 10, 2009, marking the 30th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution that toppled the late U.S.-backed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

Supreme Leadership

Lacking the charisma of his predecessor, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei, the current Supreme Leader Khamenei is often overlooked and considered a weak personality, but he is Iran’s highest political authority. Much of his formal power is exerted indirectly — through appointment and oversight roles over legislative and military institutions — but the informal realm is where U.S. policymakers should focus their attention. Khamenei exerts influence through his mediating role over competing factions, his personal relationships with top military commanders, and his special representatives throughout Iran’s key security, diplomatic, and religious institutions.

Since Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s 2005 election, Khamenei’s influence has grown, largely as a result of his ability to use Ahmadinejad to press unpopular agendas while expending no political capital of his own. Khamenei has also been buoyed by nationalist pride. Iran’s recent gains in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the 2006 Lebanon war, and the ongoing strife in Gaza have caused Khamenei to enjoy a sense of strategic confidence — the belief that there is a “new Middle East” tilted squarely in favor of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

In tandem with this outlook, Khamenei’s ambivalence about U.S. motives and his commitment to Iranian sovereignty inform his approach to negotiations. In his mind, incremental compromises may be perceived as signs of weakness, threatening the steady erosion of Iranian sovereignty. Throughout his speeches, the promotion of justice and the safeguarding of Islam worldwide are frequently cited as the transcendent goals of the Islamic Revolution. Yet to pursue these, Iran must be politically independent, which in turn hinges on economic and technological self-sufficiency, hence the overriding importance of an indigenous nuclear fuel cycle.

Oil has not brought Iran economic self-sufficiency. Oil exports made up nearly a third of Iranian government revenues and 85 percent of total export earnings in 2007, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, but this reliance on a single resource has hindered growth in the remainder of the economy. Meanwhile, government interference in the economy has deterred foreign direct investment in oil, gas, and other economic sectors. As a result, the Iranian economy has not grown to its potential and remains plagued with high inflation, unemployment, and other ills.

Such economic pressures might encourage those who deride Ahmadinejad for his posturing on the nuclear program, but internal bureaucratic interests and popular support for nuclear enrichment make the Iranian nuclear issue more intractable than is commonly assumed. The Iranian government’s success in branding its nuclear-enrichment program as a symbol of national sovereignty also now limits its ability to make concessions on that issue, were it so inclined.

The strongest supporters of Iran’s nuclear drive are those who stand to lose the most from its termination. Foremost among these is the nation’s Atomic Energy Organization, which oversees the program. Another is the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which provides security for all nuclear-related installations and, given its role as custodian of Iran’s ballistic missile arsenal, would likely exert command and control over any nuclear weapons.

Pasdaran Rising

Known as the Pasdaran (Persian for “guards”), the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has evolved far beyond its original foundation as the guardian of the Islamic Revolution. Today, the corps functions as an expansive sociopolitical-economic conglomerate whose influence extends into virtually every corner of Iranian society and political life.

Founded by the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979, the Pasdaran still constitute the nation’s elite military armed force, comprising ground troops as well as naval and air assets. The Pasdaran are second in size only to the regular military, the Artesh, which receives fewer resources. The Pasdaran have also gained power in Iran’s highly factionalized political system, in which the president, much of the cabinet, many members of parliament, and a range of other provincial and local administrators hail from their ranks. The Pasdaran oversee a robust apparatus of media resources, training activities, and education programs designed to bolster loyalty to the regime and prepare the citizenry for homeland defense.

But it is in the economic sphere that the Pasdaran have seen the greatest growth and diversification. Industries and commercial services ranging from dam and pipeline construction to automobile manufacturing, real estate, pharmaceuticals, and laser eye surgery have fallen under their sway, along with a number of illicit smuggling and black-market enterprises. With this vast involvement in Iran’s economy, some factions of the Pasdaran may act as a moderating force if they perceive threats to their vested commercial interests.

The Pasdaran are prone to the same rivalries found throughout Iranian politics.

U.S. policymakers should be mindful that the Pasdaran are prone to the same rivalries found throughout Iranian politics, pitting traditionalists, reformists, and others against one another. President Ahmadinejad was widely viewed as having the support of the Pasdaran when he was elected in 2005, having been a former member, yet much of his support actually came from poorer members of the Basij, a paramilitary force under Pasdaran control. More recently, sharp criticism of his tenure has emerged from powerful veterans of the Pasdaran, making his reelection in June far from certain. What is certain, however, is that any successor to Ahmadinejad must contend with the Pasdaran as a deeply entrenched institution and a powerful constituency.

The False Hope of Containment

In formulating a regional strategy toward Tehran, Washington has thus far adopted the outlines of a Cold War–style containment approach. This may rest partly on the presumption that the Sunni-Shia religious divide and other tensions naturally place Sunni Arab Gulf countries on one side of the equation and Shia Persian Iran on the other. The hope is that a bloc of moderate Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia, can check Iranian influence in the region.

Saudi Arabia, viewing Iran as a contender for symbolic leadership in the Middle East since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, has indeed tried to paint Iran as an aberration from the rest of the region. The most expeditious means of doing so has been to cast the Islamic Republic’s Shia ambitions as a threat to Sunnis everywhere. But the more fundamental disagreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran is over the regional balance of power and the role of the United States. The notion of a bloc of Gulf states opposing Iran is even more unrealistic given the doubts within those states about Saudi leadership, the disunity within the Gulf Cooperation Council, and, in particular, the tendency of Qatar and Oman to go it alone.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and Iran are showing their ability to reach an accommodation on regional order while minimizing deeper ideological and structural tensions. Iran has made overtures to Saudi Arabia about a sort of cooperative power-sharing relationship over Iraq that may mirror past coordination on Lebanon but that explicitly calls for the departure of U.S. forces. Riyadh likely sees this overture for what it is: an attempt to deprive Saudi Arabia of its external patron and relegate it to the status of junior partner in the new regional order. Instead of true cooperation, the Saudi-Iranian relationship over Iraq is likely to be defined as “managed rivalry,” with a modicum of coordination and contact to prevent an escalation of sectarian conflict, which would benefit neither side.

Because the Saudi leadership has a tendency to engage with Iran, U.S. policymakers should view Saudi Arabia less as a bulwark against Iran and more as an interlocutor. The United States should seek Saudi-Iranian endorsement of multilateral security for the Gulf. Such an arrangement would recognize Iran as a valid player but assuage Saudi and Gulf concerns about Iranian dominance. A conflict-regulating system, akin to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, bears further consideration in this regard. Cooperation in the maritime area would be a useful focus for such a forum, particularly given the potential for miscalculation and escalation in critical waterways, such as the Strait of Hormuz.

U.S. policymakers should view Saudi Arabia less as a bulwark against Iran and more as an interlocutor.

Diplomatic Windows

Negotiating with Iran poses a major challenge to the United States, but it should be done. America’s long aversion to discussions with Iran has squandered several opportunities to reduce tension: most notably in 2001, on the margins of the Bonn talks on Afghanistan, and in 2003, on the eve of the invasion of Iraq. In both cases, Iran came to the table because of gratitude and fear, two motives that may be absent today and instead replaced by a newfound sense of confidence and the perception of diminished U.S. credibility in the region.

Iran has good reason to fear external meddling in its internal affairs, given the long pattern of interference by Western powers, of which the most notorious is the 1953 coup against Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh. Western diplomats who try to strike a deal with Iranians should not be surprised if the Iranians seem obsessed with being cheated and exploited by others.

An Iranian sense of historical and current victimization is just one of the characteristics that shapes the Iranian approach to negotiating. Others include a tendency to reopen issues that both sides thought had been resolved, an avoidance of incrementalism, a tendency to defer the resolution of weighty issues, a need to affirm that concessions to their demands have been earned, and a myopic focus on maximizing short-term gains to the detriment of long-term advantage.

In other ways, however, the Iranian diplomatic landscape is hardly unique, exotic, or exceptional. Just like citizens in other states, Iranians are engaged in a set of debates about issues both profound and mundane: sovereignty, identity, modernity, economic privilege, and political power. A successful U.S. strategy toward Iran might just hinge on a more humble understanding of the country’s complexity and a more sober recognition of its normalcy. square

Related Reading

Dangerous But Not Omnipotent: Exploring the Reach and Limitations of Iranian Power in the Middle East, Frederic Wehrey, David E. Thaler, Nora Bensahel, Kim Cragin, Jerrold D. Green, Dalia Dassa Kaye, Nadia Oweidat, Jennifer Li, RAND/MG-781-AF, 2009, 230 pp., ISBN 978-0-8330-4554-6.
“Obama Offers Iran ‘New Beginning,’” Arab News, March 21, 2009, Barbara Ferguson.
The Rise of the Pasdaran: Assessing the Domestic Roles of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, Frederic Wehrey, Jerrold D. Green, Brian Nichiporuk, Alireza Nader, Lydia Hansell, Rasool Nafisi, S. R. Bohandy, RAND/MG-821-OSD, 2009, 152 pp., ISBN 978-0-8330-4620-8.
Saudi-Iranian Relations Since the Fall of Saddam: Rivalry, Cooperation, and Implications for U.S. Policy, Frederic Wehrey, Theodore W. Karasik, Alireza Nader, Jeremy Ghez, Lydia Hansell, Robert A. Guffey, RAND/MG-840-SRF, 2009, 156 pp., ISBN 978-0-8330-4657-4.
Understanding Iran, Jerrold D. Green, Frederic Wehrey, Charles Wolf Jr., RAND/MG-771-SRF, 2009, 166 pp., ISBN 978-0-8330-4558-4.