How can the US improve relations with Iran?
Mass protests have once more broken out in Iran. Whereas ordinary Iranians in 2009 were galvanised by a stolen election and led by intellectuals, these protests are spontaneous, rudderless and consequently more dangerous. Media reports suggesting a rise in the price of eggs was the final straw for a people already impoverished by unrelenting economic sanctions imposed at Washington’s behest. New Straits Times reports in the article Invading Iran will further Inflame the Middle East that Trump immediately attacked Iran for a long list of perceived slights to humanity, and in conclusion insinuated that regime change was imminent and justified. A US-led military intervention to topple the Ayatollahs, however, is a terrible idea and will permanently destabilise the Middle East.
Yet, it is clear the current US president believes modern Iran is both malignant and metastasising across the Middle East with alarming rapidity, to the detriment of American regional interests. Nevertheless, contrary to US anxieties, it is worth examining why Iran is a net positive for the Middle East. First, Trump calls Iran an agent of chaos, yet has selective amnesia about its virtuous military role in the region over the past two years. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC) and its affiliated Shia militias, in cooperation with the Russian army, have been instrumental in breaking the back of global terrorists the Islamic State (IS). IS is directly or inspirationally responsible for the murder of thousands of civilians on three continents. Until Iran got serious, the terrorist group kept routing US-armed opposition fighters and was expanding its territory at will. What was Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, doing at the time? Continually rejecting pleas from Syrian and Kurdish resistance units, besides the Iraqi government, to put US boots on the ground. He valued the Democratic Party’s electoral prospects in 2016 far more than saving Arab, Kurdish and Yazidi lives, or restoring regional order. Obama’s gamble, we know, backfired spectacularly. The IRGC, on the other hand, walked the talk and built a robust alliance of local militias under the Popular Mobilisation Forces umbrella that, with Russian help, first arrested and later began pushing back the IS advance. Ironically, the reason IS had so effortlessly blitzed the Middle East in the first place was largely thanks to the web of radical thought spun across the region by Saudi Arabia to — surprise, surprise — counter Iran.
From a sociological perspective, regime change in Iran is fraught with risk as the entire state apparatus is controlled by a small status quo. Toppling the Ayatollahs by military means will in all likelihood trigger a monumental insurgency far eclipsing the scale of Iraq’s in 2003. Why? Because ordinary Iranians may begrudge the inequalities in their society, but absolutely loathe Washington for systematically starving them of dignity in the comity of nations through unjust sanctions, travel restrictions and polarising rhetoric.
Moreover, it would be one thing if the US had a stellar track record of nation building in the 21st century, but it doesn’t. Chaos and bloodbaths have followed every American intervention on foreign soil, from Afghanistan to Iraq to Libya. To make matters worse, terrorist groups ended up filling the sociopolitical space vacated by the usurped status quo — the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and most notably, IS.
Next, there is the perceived threat Iran poses to Israel, that faultless American ally and self-declared lone democracy in the Middle East. Indeed, it is highly unlikely that Ayatollah Iran will ever make peace with Israel for all the reasons the Arab states detest their Jewish neighbour, but decline military confrontation for fear of another crushing defeat. Rarely discussed in the media, though, is the enormous leverage an antagonistic Iran offers Israeli politicians.
As evidenced by cursory research, many religious voices inside Israel remain steadfastly opposed to the existence of a Jewish state without the “Halacha” (holy law) as its supreme legal doctrine. But Israeli politicians have drastically dampened their impact by hyping Iran as the existential bogey since 1979. They have kept the national agenda focused on the parallels between Adolf Hitler and Ayatollah Iran, specifically how the latter, too, wants to wipe Jews off the face of the earth.
Still, the sabre-rattling nature of US-Iran relations need not be eternal. When Trump begins practising a foreign policy that does not fixate on sharpening contradictions, he will realise the key to reshaping Iran is by empowering its people and not further emptying their wallets while uttering hollow platitudes about freedom and democracy.
An approach akin to the Marshall Plan that won over Japan post-World War 2 through broad reconstruction programmes will yield far better results than habitually threatening Iran’s sovereignty.
As first steps, Trump should facilitate people-to-people exchanges instead of banning travel. USAID, the international development arm of his government, should post-haste commence programmes aimed at uplifting the quality of life of the Iranian people without preconditions or political agenda.
There are multiple confidence-building measures the US president can employ to thaw the deep iceberg of suspicion and hatred erected by successive generations of Iranian and American leaders. Trump self-admittedly wants to go down in history as a “doer”. This is his opportunity to forever change the American narrative about Ayatollah Iran and achieve true détente.