This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.
Seldom has a conventional wisdom been so corrosive to U.S. national security or the effectiveness of U.S. policy as the assumption that factions within the Iranian government truly matter.
Every single administration since Jimmy Carter has sought to reach out to “reformists” in order to privilege them against “hard-liners.” In no case did American partners win out.
The Reagan-era “Arms-for-Hostages” scheme began as an effort to exploit divisions between so-called pragmatists and more extreme elements. Much like President Barack Obama would two decades later, President George H.W. Bush used his inaugural address to reach out to Iranian moderates. President Bill Clinton embraced the hope of reformism when his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Khatami issued a rhetorical call for a “Dialogue of Civilizations.”
In each case, the United States got played.
The Iranian promise to release hostages in exchange for spare parts? It worked—until Iran seized more hostages.
Iran’s once-covert nuclear program? It developed against the backdrop of the so-called dialogue. Not only Khatami’s advisers but also Hassan Rouhani—Iran’s current president who at the time was a nuclear negotiator—acknowledged that much of the logic was to get the United States to let its guard down.
Indeed, as he stepped down from his position as Supreme National Security Council chief in 2005, Rouhani told an assembled group of revolutionary elite that the doctrine of surprise which he oversaw worked: He would lull the United States into complacency and then strike.
“The plots and plans [the United States] had designed against the revolution or against the development of the regime and the nation were defeated. Why? It was because they were taken by surprise,” Rouhani explained. “The actions of the regime took the world by surprise and they were usually unpredictable.”
Those whom American policymakers identify as reformers seldom are, and yet diplomats and analysts not only assume they are, but also believe that being a reformer in the Iranian context means agreement with the norms of diplomacy or basic human rights.
Executions, however, skyrocketed under both Khatami and now Rouhani relative to the capital punishment rates under their respective predecessors. Or, to put it another way, as wrong as Saudi Arabia’s execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr was, Iran’s rate of executions is almost an order of magnitude higher than the Saudi kingdom’s.
The Iranian regime is doubly hypocritical, as it failed to push for Nimr’s release while he was alive because, as an adherent of the Shirazi school of thought, Nimr was dubious of the type of clerical rule that Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei embraces. For Tehran—reformers and hard-liners both—Nimr was a liability while alive even if a convenient martyr once dead.
And yet Americans continue to wallow under the delusion that factions are hooks upon which to hang American policy.
Take Nicholas Burns, a diplomat who has served administrations across the political spectrum but always advocated for further engagement with Iran. In The New York Times, he calls Rouhani a “reformist president,” but Rouhani’s own writings and electoral campaign contradict that. Burns also notes that Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was U.S.-educated. By the same logic, Muslim Brotherhood ideologue Sayyid Qutb was also pro-American.
And, if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was a reformer as so many American officials once insisted because he was a Western-educated doctor, wouldn’t the same logic mean that Haiti’s notorious dictator Papa Doc Duvalier would have been a reformer as well?
The simple fact is that sometimes adversaries use English fluency or their American experience less to embrace Western values and more to learn better how to pull the wool over the eyes of Americans.
Likewise, the notion that Rouhani’s internal struggles are just beginning is based on an assumption that he sincerely wants to wage factional struggle to moderate the regime, rather than simply project an image of moderation to relieve pressure. Again, it’s the tried and true good cop, bad cop strategy which Tehran has played to great effect.
Nor is the fact that the Guardian Council has banned 60 percent of candidates seeking to run for parliament new. When Khatami won the presidency, he was in the 1 percent of candidates allowed to run. Rouhani became president—likely with some regime massaging of the returns to give him a first round victory—with one goal: to relieve the financial pressure under which the Iranian government labored.
This is not to suggest that factions do not exist; they do in all countries. They existed in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, and they exist under Kim Jong Un in North Korea.
But just because factions exist does not mean that they represent true debate about the character or ideology of the regime. To believe they do is to be guilty of projecting a Western sense of political debate onto adversaries, and that is a recipe not for success but rather for the continued failure of U.S. intelligence and diplomacy.