In recent presidential elections, Iranians overwhelmingly gave a reformist candidate a second term. The same weekend, President Donald Trump arrived in Saudi Arabia. Flying on to Europe, Trump might have arranged a brief stopover at Tehran's airport. He could have congratulated Hassan Rouhani, expressed hopes for improved American-Iranian relations, and flown on to Rome. Time expended: one hour.
Instead of congratulating Rouhani, Trump gave him a slap on the face. His major address in Saudi Arabia fingered Iran as the main center of Middle Eastern evil and instability and called for its further isolation.
Trump's attack was badly timed but would have been inappropriate whenever made. To call Iran the main center of evil oversimplifies a complex Middle East situation and ignores Iran's internal nuances.
Iran is governed by two separate systems which don't get along well. One is the government, headed by Rouhani and answering to an elected parliament. The other is a hierarchy of Islamic clerics now headed by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, controlling and supported by the Revolutionary Guard, an elite part of the Iranian military.
Rouhani has governed as a moderate. Several years ago he accepted limits on Iranian atomic developments in a deal with major countries including the United States. He seeks to improve relations with the rest of the world.
The system headed by Ayatollah Khamenei has opposed reforms. The Revolutionary Guard opposed Rouhani's atomic deal. In this opposition it was joined by the government of Israel and by conservative Republicans in the U.S. Congress, whose opposition was likewise unsuccessful. The Ayatollah ultimately supported the deal, but not enthusiastically.
Even dreadful regimes can be reformed. The Soviet Union and South Africa achieved major reforms under Mikhail Gorbachev, F.W. de Klerk, and Nelson Mandela. Much as we might deplore Iran's government, it too has potential for reforms and a reform-minded leader. American foreign policy should not undermine President Rouhani's ability to achieve further reforms by trying to isolate Iran and strangle its economic progress.
Iran is actually a stronger candidate than Saudi Arabia for good relations with the U.S. Unlike Saudi Arabia, Iran has elections. Women are better off. Unlike Saudi Arabia, Iran does not totally prohibit non-Muslim religions. It does not subsidize extremist mosques and preachers in Europe and the United States. None of the 9-11 hijackers were from Iran, whereas most were from Saudi Arabia, as was their ringleader, Osama Bin Laden. This does not prove that the Saudi government was implicated, but it certainly provided a terrorist incubation ground.
Aside from his attacks on Iran, President Trump's Saudi speech had a reasonable tone and articulated a defensible approach to foreign policy. A few key quotes:
"We are not here to lecture — we are not here to tell other people how to live...."
"Our partnerships will advance security through stability, not through radical disruption. We will make decisions based on real-world outcomes — not inflexible ideology. We will be guided by the lessons of experience, not the confines of rigid thinking. And, wherever possible we will seek gradual reforms — not sudden intervention."
"We must seek partners, not perfection ….."
Why not base American policy towards Iran on these points? They suggest that we should do business with Iran despite its imperfections. They suggest that we should not pressure Iran in ways that the Revolutionary Guard could exploit to resist further reforms. We already do business — and properly so — with Saudi Arabia, which is more badly governed than Iran. So why not Iran?
Like today's Iran, the U.S.S.R. had two centers of political power. One center was the Politburo of the Communist Party, headed by a General Secretary and publishing its own national newspaper, Pravda. (Personal note: as part of my work I read Pravda for 29 years.) The other power center was the Council of Ministers, a government body supposedly accountable to the national parliament, headed by a Prime Minister and publishing a newspaper called Izvestia. Like Iran's Ayatollah, the General Secretary was the most powerful person in the country.
The current Ayatollah is 77, so a successor might be needed sometime. If this is while Rouhani is president it might increase chances a reformist cleric would be selected. When General Secretary Konstantin Chernenko died in 1985, replacing him with Gorbachev kick-started Soviet reforms and helped end the Cold War. A similar political earthquake could take place in Iran. We should not treat Iran in ways which make this less likely.
Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. He received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1966, and has been a National Merit Scholar, an NDEA Fellow, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and a Fellow in Law and Political Science at the Harvard Law School. His college textbook, "Thinking About Politics: American Government in Associational Perspective," was published 1981 and his most recent book is "The Case of the Racist Choir Conductor: Struggling With America's Original Sin." His columns have appeared in newspapers in Michigan, Oregon, and a number of other states. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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