As the clock ticks towards 8th of August, the deadline fixed by US President Donald Trump to unveil the next stage of his policy towards Iran, a choir of Western politicians, academics and businessmen is formed to urge him to stick to the policies of his predecessors since 1979. That, in turn, has encouraged elements in the Tehran leadership to argue against any change of policy and/or behavior by the Islamic Republic on a range of issues, as spelled out in US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's 12-point statement, including the attempt to "export" revolution to Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Bahrain and Yemen among others.
Last Tuesday Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif replied to Pompeo with a 15-point desiderata of his own, indicating Tehran's choice of a delaying tactic.
Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif (pictured) has replied to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's 12-point statement with a 15-point desiderata of his own, indicating Tehran's choice of a delaying tactic. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
The pro-Khomeinist chorus builds its case on an abstract notion in which, in dealing with the Islamic Republic, the choice is only between surrendering to its every whim or total military invasion.
In her latest book "Fascism: A Warning" former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright reduces policy in Iran to a simple question: "Do we want to repeat the adventure in Iraq?"
One of her successors, John Kerry, goes even further by touring Western capitals to promote his idea that "there is no alternative to Iran's influence" in the Middle East.
That is echoed by Joshua Landis, a pro-Bashar al-Assad American academic, who claims that Iran's intervention in Syria, later backed by Russia, prevented the victory of the Syrian opposition which, he asserts, consists solely of ISIS and kindred military groups. He implies that the US and its ally Israel must be grateful to Iran for having prevented Assad's fall.
Ben Rhodes, a former National Security assistant to President Barrack Obama, echoes that sentiment in his new book "The World As It Is". He dwells on the fact that Iran has a middle class and a more developed society to cast it as a better model for the Middle East.
Translated into plainer language this means that the US should regard Iran's presence in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon as a positive development.
Dr. Landis shares the same view when he asserts in a recent article that "this is the first time in modern history that the entire north tier of the Middle East countries shares good relations". Depending on when his "modern history" begins, one could argue that the same countries also enjoyed "good relations" when they were under British and French colonial rule.
But is foreign domination the only means of developing good relations among neighbors?
More importantly, perhaps, how could one describe relations between the fractured Lebanese government, the remnants of the Assad regime and the wayward Iraqi political elite as "good" and the role that Tehran plays in all three countries as beneficial to their peoples?
Khomeinist Regime as a Model
The idea of the Khomeinist regime as a model for all Middle East is inspired by the 1960s concept of "models for development." Today, however, that concept is regarded as more of an intellectual conceit than a serious guide to socio-political analysis. Even Western democracies, though similar in many ways and sharing cultural and religious values, are patterned on many different models. There is, therefore, no reason why different nations in the Middle East should be encouraged or even forced to adopt Iran's "wilayat al-faqih" system as a model.
Whether deliberate or caused by ignorance, this misunderstanding of the destabilizing role that Iran plays in the region and beyond has led to what could only be described as political paralysis by the Western democracies and their allies at a time that the Khomeinist regime is increasingly contested by the people of Iran. That paralysis encourages the Tehran leadership to refuse internal reform and external accommodation in the service of peace and stability.
"American rulers have always dreamed of forcing us to change our behavior, and failed," Iran's "Supreme Guide," Ali Khamenei, has said. "Five US administrations took that dream to their graves. The present one shall have the same fate."
The Impossible American Dream
Khamenei's analysis is not far off the mark. Successive American presidents have worked hard to persuade the Khomeinist regime in Tehran to modify aspects of its foreign policy, so far with no success.
The reason may be the inability or unwillingness of successive US presidents, and a good part of the American political and cultural elite, to properly understand the nature of the Khomeinist regime.
Jimmy Carter believed the Khomeinist seizure of power represented the return of religion to the center of public life.
His administration described Khomeini as "a holy man" and "the Gandhi of Islam." Carter wrote letters to Khomeini "as a man of faith to a man of faith." He even ordered the resumption of arms supplies to Tehran. We all know what that did to Carter.
President Ronald Reagan, who had visited Iran just a year before the revolution, thought he knew Iranians better. He described them as "carpet merchants and dealmakers." Accordingly, he smuggled arms that the mullahs needed to stop the Iraqi army from advancing farther into Iran. He also sent a huge heart-shaped cake and a personally autographed copy of the Bible and two ultra-modern handguns as presents for the ayatollah.
One result was the Iran-Contra scandal that rocked Reagan's presidency.
Dealing with the aftershocks of that crisis, President George H.W. Bush developed no policy on Iran beyond a number of secret talks with the Rafsanjani faction that led nowhere but reassured Tehran that the American "Great Satan" had been neutralized.
President Bill Clinton saw the Khomeinist regime as "progressist," a view shared by many American liberals who think anti-Americanism is the surest sign of progressive beliefs.
Here is what Clinton said at a meeting on the margins of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in 2005:
"Iran today is, in a sense, the only country where progressive ideas enjoy a vast constituency. It is there that the ideas that I subscribe to are defended by a majority."
And here is what Clinton had to say in a TV interview a bit later with Charlie Rose:
"Iran is the only country in the world, the only one with elections, including the United States, including Israel, including you name it, where the liberals, or the progressives, have won two-thirds to 70 percent of the vote in six elections: two for president; two for the Parliament, the Majlis; two for the mayoralties. In every single election, the guys I identify with got two-thirds to 70 percent of the vote. There is no other country in the world I can say that about, certainly not my own."
Clinton and his secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, apologized to the mullahs for unspecified "crimes" committed "by my civilization" and removed a raft of sanctions imposed on Iran after the seizure of the US hostages in Tehran.
But what crimes?
Clinton summed them:
"It's a sad story that really began in the 1950s when the United States deposed Mr. Mossadegh, who was an elected parliamentary democrat, and brought the Shah back, and then he was overturned by the Ayatollah Khomeini, driving us into the arms of one Saddam Hussein. We got rid of the parliamentary democracy [there] back in the '50s; at least, that is my belief."
Clinton did not know that in Iran, which he so admired, Mossadegh, far from being regarded as a national hero, is an object of intense vilification. One of the first acts of the mullahs after seizing power was to take the name of Mossadegh off a street in Tehran.
Presidents Bush and Obama
Too busy with Afghanistan and Iraq, President George W. Bush paid little attention to Iran. Nevertheless, in his second term he, too, tried to persuade the mullahs to modify their behavior. His secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, sent an invitation, not to say a begging note, to the mullahs for "constructive dialogue." They responded by stepping up the killing of US soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq by local surrogates.
Needless to say, he did no better.
President Barack Obama went much further than any of his predecessors in trying to curry favor with the mullahs. Even in 2009, when the regime's paramilitary units were massacring people in the streets of Iranian cities during a nationwide pro-democracy uprising, Obama decided to side with the mullahs.
Obama officially recognized Iran as a threshold nuclear state in exchange for dubious concessions by Tehran within the so-called "nuke deal" that Trump has denounced.
One key reason for misunderstanding the nature of the present regime in Tehran is the failure to acknowledge that, for the past four decades, Iran has suffered from a Jekyll-and-Hyde split personality.
To be sure, as a people and a culture, Iran is attractive.
Valerie Jarett, reputed to be Obama's closest adviser, remembers Shiraz, the Iranian cultural capital and the Florence of the East, where she was born and grew up. Before the revolution, Shiraz, with its beautiful architecture, was a city of gardens and music with an annual international art festival. How could one not love Iran through it?
Today, however, Shiraz, where John Kerry's sister worked for years, is a scene of public hangings and floggings, with its prisons filled with political and religious dissidents.
The film star Sean Penn, acting as a part-time reporter, visited Iran and wrote laudatory pieces. He saw Isfahan, the great former capital of Iran, as something of a paradise on earth. Like Clinton he was impressed by "incredibly progressive" people he met. What he ignored was that Iran has been top of the world list for the number of executions and political prisoners. Right now 15,000 men and women live under the death sentence in Iranian prisons.
Another movie star, George Clooney, praises Iranian cinema as "the only original one" in the world. But he ignores the fact that the films he admires, seen in festivals in the West, are never shown inside Iran itself and that many Iranian cineastes are in jail or in exile or banned from making films.
The State and the Tool
John Kerry admires Iran because he knows it through his Iranian son-in-law, who hails from a pre-revolution middle-class family. He doesn't know that it is precisely such families that suffer most from Khomeinist terror and repression; this is why many, including the family of his son-in-law, fled into exile.
As a nation-state, Iran has no problems with anybody. As a vehicle for the Khomeinist ideology it has problems with everybody, starting with the Iranian people. The Khomeinist regime makes no secret of its intense hatred for Iranian culture, which it claims has roots in "the age of ignorance" (jahiliyyah).
To admire this regime because of Iranian culture is like admiring Hitler for Goethe and Beethoven and praising Stalin for Pushkin and Tchaikovsky.
This regime has executed tens of thousands of Iranians, driven almost 6 million into exile, and deprived the nation of its basic freedoms. It has also killed more Americans, often through surrogates, than al-Qaeda did on 9/11. Not a single day has passed without this regime holding some American and other hostages.
The Tehran regime makes no secret of its role in fomenting and sustaining the Houthi rebellion in Yemen. Fars, the news site run by the Revolutionary Guard Corps claims that the Houthis represent "part of a global resistance movement" led by Tehran.
The daily Kayhan, reputedly echoing the views of "Supreme Guide", states that Bahrain is part of Iran that was "given away" by the late Shah and must be regained.
General Qassem Soleimani, the man in charge of "exporting revolution" says he has transformed Lebanon into a "Resistance state" led by Iran. Ayatollah Ali Yunsei, senior adviser to President Hassan Rouhani, boasts that Iran now controls four Arab capitals: Sana'a, Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut. This may be hyperbole but it offers an insight into the mindset of the current rulers of Iran.
"Pro-Tehran lobbyists in the West do a disservice both to Iran and to the democracies in which they live," says analyst Nasser Zamani. "They encourage Tehran's illusions that have already led Iran into an historic impasse".
But that is not all. The same lobbyists discourage any attempt by the major powers to adopt a policy aimed at helping, persuading and cajoling Iran into restoring its identity as a nation-state and behave like one by closing the chapter of a revolution that has plunged Iran and a good chunk of the Middle east into conflict and uncertainty.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987.
This article was originally published by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.