Two experienced Iran hands debriefed recent trips there Thursday: David Ignatius of the Washington Post and Robin Wright, a joint fellow at the US Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center. USIP’s Bill Taylor moderated.
Iran is entering a new era spearheaded by realists, Robin Wright pointed out. They are not out to transform Iran, but are willing to work within the system to initiate reforms. The tenor has changed, with realistic goals being set. Iran is also recalibrating its strategy, responding to events in the region like the rise of Al Qaeda franchises and the withdrawal of US from Iraq. Iran sees itself surrounded by Salafis and Sunnis. The US is no longer the enemy it once was. Followers of events in Iran too often forget about other factors, aside from US sanctions, that affect Iran’s decision-making. Rouhani is arguably more popular today than the day he was elected. In addition, he has hired savvy technocrats to solve the economic problems facing the country.
Observing that there is an appearance of political debate going on within Iran, David Ignatius said the US sanctions are often called “crippling.” Yet when one travels to Iran, it does not look like a country on its knees. Iranians are resourceful people. More than damage the current Iranian economy, US sanctions have crippled Iran’s future. This is an enormous opportunity cost that will prevent Iran from becoming a successful state until the sanctions are lifted. It will be very difficult to close a deal with Iran, but the best strategic move now would be to give Iran a taste of what the future might look like if there is a permanent nuclear agreement.
Wright agreed Iran seems to be thriving and is not crippled. It is important to be wary of assumptions about the effects of the US sanctions are on Iran. Wright described her visit to the former US embassy and how she met with one of the masterminds behind the 1979 takeover. He expressed support for reopening the embassy and a nuclear deal between the US and Iran. Realists would then be allowed to run for office more frequently and women’s rights would increase. Without gaining credibility by forging a successful deal with the US first, however, Rouhani will be unable to address other problems in Iran. There is a real sense of public support for nuclear deal.
Ignatius believes Iranian society is waiting to jump into the future and onto the world stage. He interpreted Kissinger’s famous quote “Is Iran a nation or a cause?” as meaning “Has Iran moved on from its revolution?” It seems not, at least for top-level officials. Iran is still carrying out destabilizing activities in the region. Wright concurred. Iran is one of the most nationalistic countries in the world. Iranians will continue to do whatever it takes to protect and further their national interests. However, there is a sense that Syria may not hold together while Assad is in power. Off the record, an Iranian official told her that Iran would be willing to chop off the head (Assad) in order to preserve the body (the Syrian Baath party) Iranian concern about Al Qaeda gains in Syria is real.
Ignatius believes that it is in the US interest to demonstrate how Iran could be a big player in the region if it curbs its nuclear program as well as its covert action in neighboring countries. Iran is adept at riding several horses at once. It can juggle relations with the US, Hezbollah, and Syria at the same time, demonstrating political mastery. The US would be wise to learn the same trick.