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Lessons from the Past

Lessons from the Past

When it comes to Iran, the historical record carries some important lessons for today.

Michael Mandelbaum

The single most pressing foreign policy issue the Biden Administration confronts is the question of what to do about the Iranian nuclear weapons program. In 2015, the Obama Administration concluded an agreement—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—with the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the hope of keeping that country from acquiring these weapons. The Trump Administration withdrew from the agreement in 2018 and reimposed economic sanctions on Iran, which had given the United States a powerful source of leverage over the ruling mullahs in Tehran but which Obama had lifted as part of the JCPOA.

The 2015 accord had serious flaws: it did nothing to inhibit Iran’s campaign to subvert governments throughout the Middle East and dominate the region; it provided for insufficiently robust inspections to ensure that Iran was complying with its terms; and the major restraints it imposed on the Iranian nuclear program were due to expire in fifteen years—in 2030, nine years from now—leaving the aggressive, anti-American regime free to equip itself with nuclear armaments.

The new administration appears to be conflicted about the JCPOA. On the one hand, it cannot avoid recognizing the shortcomings of the original deal, or the salutary pressure that the renewed sanctions have put on Tehran. On the other hand, the Biden foreign policy team consists of people who worked in the Obama Administration and consider the JCPOA among their proudest achievements. Moreover, as a presidential candidate Biden promised to re-enter the agreement, and some members of his foreign policy team fear that, without even the modest restraints on Iranian nuclear activity that it put in place, the regime will proceed to acquire the bomb.

The administration therefore hopes it can have it both ways, suggesting that it will re-enter and then negotiate improvements to the 2015 agreement. This is an unlikely scenario: resuming compliance with the JCPOA would involve lifting many of the economic sanctions on Iran, which would severely reduce the leverage needed to improve it. Moreover, Iranian officials have said that their country will not accept any changes to the original accord and in any case will not re-enter the JCPOA without major American concessions.

Whatever Biden decides to do, the decision will necessarily form part of a broader policy toward the Islamic Republic. To be effective, that policy must take into account the nature of the Iranian regime and the history of its relations with the United States. For this purpose, a broader historical perspective is required, and a new book provides a most useful one. The Last Shah: America, Iran, and the Fall of the Pahlavi Dynasty by Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, concerns the monarch whom the clergy who now rule Iran overthrew in 1979. From the book emerge some important enduring features of the regime, and of Iranian-American relations, that bear on the current effort to thwart the Islamic Republic’s nuclear ambitions.

One pertinent point goes back almost seven decades. In 1953, a coup ousted a radical Iranian prime minister, Mohammad Mossadeq, and returned to power Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who had previously left the country. Mossadeq’s policies had alarmed Great Britain and the United States and in the coup’s aftermath the two were widely blamed for deposing him. Feelings of guilt about what they have regarded as unjustified American violations of Iranian sovereignty have affected the approaches to Iran of the last two Democratic administrations, those of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. “For many American officials,” Takeyh writes, “the pathway to smoother relations with Iran is to apologize for an event that they poorly understand.” He performs a service both to historical accuracy and to American foreign policy by setting the record straight on this episode. He shows clearly that while the British and American governments did support the coup, it was largely the work of Iranians, with the members of the country’s political and economic elite taking the lead and drawing on widespread public support. The removal of Mossadeq was neither the handiwork of the United States nor, as far as can be determined, contrary to the wishes of the people of Iran.

One of the arguments in favor of entering the JCPOA in 2015 and re-entering it now arises from a particular view of Iranian political affairs and the potential for the United States to influence them. It holds that a struggle is taking place in Tehran pitting radicals, who support repression at home and aggression abroad, against moderates, who oppose both and hope for better relations with other countries, including the United States. The 2015 agreement, according to its proponents, can tilt the balance in favor of the moderates, to America’s benefit.

In the tumultuous months during which the shah fell from power, Takeyh’s history shows, the American government consistently searched for such moderates, people who were beholden neither to the monarch nor to the Islamic radicals. (A new novel with an American operative as its protagonist, Night in Tehran, by former State Department official Philip Kaplan, captures the atmosphere of uncertainty, confusion, fear, and danger in which the downfall of the shah played out.) Many Iranians, too, hoped for a middle path between the shah and the mullahs and some of them offered themselves as the leaders of such a political course. The forces of radicalism, led by the founder of the Islamic Republic, the cleric Ruhollah Khomeini, swept them away, consolidated power, and have held it ever since, despite the existence of other political figures promising a more moderate version of Islamic government. This recurrent pattern demonstrates the imprudence of basing American policy toward Iran on the hope that what the United States does will help reformers win an internal power struggle there. Concessions intended to bolster those thought to be moderates are all too likely instead to fortify the mullahs in power.

From Takeyh’s book also emerges a cautionary lesson about trusting the promises of the officials of the Islamic Republic. A clandestine operation in 2018 conducted by Israel gained possession of a secret Iranian nuclear archive that revealed that the regime had been lying about its nuclear activities for years. The habit goes back to its origins. During its first year, Takeyh writes,

the regime broke every one of its promises. The shah’s generals, who had been promised amnesty, were executed. Liberals were cast aside and traditional clergy were forced to comply with the new strictures. Women’s rights were curtailed and religious minorities endured persecution. The Iranian people, who had been promised freedom, were soon disillusioned by an unforgiving revolution that devoured not just its own, but many of its lofty pledges as well.

A final feature of the Islamic Republic’s approach to the world that the author documents, a feature highly relevant to efforts to curtail its nuclear ambitions, concerns its view of the United States. From the beginning the mullahs have paid close attention to the American president, carefully calculating how far he is prepared to go in opposing their designs. One of the most humiliating episodes in American history began on November 4, 1979, when radicals seized American embassy personnel in Tehran. In response, as Takeyh tells it, “Khomeini kept silent for a few days. He wanted to see how Washington would respond before showing his hand.” When it became clear that the Carter Administration would not mount an immediate military response, “Khomeini went on the offensive.” He said, “America can’t do a damn thing.” He emphatically supported the hostage-taking, which lasted for more than a year, until January 20, 1981, the day that Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as Carter’s successor.

A similar pattern was in evidence in the negotiating of the JCPOA. Ordinarily in international negotiations the stronger party gets the better of any agreement. While far stronger than Iran, however, the United States obtained fewer and more modest concessions in 2015 than the balance of power between the two countries would have predicted. The most likely reason is that, although America far surpassed Iran in military might, the rulers in Tehran had concluded that the American President of the moment, Barack Obama, would never dare to use it against them. About Obama’s successor, Donald Trump, they apparently were not so sure. Although he withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018, they waited two years before responding by expanding their enrichment of uranium—which has brought them closer to having the bomb—until another Democratic administration was in prospect.

Now the burden of coping with Iran falls on Joe Biden. His administration may be able to renegotiate the nuclear deal with Iran in a way that actually makes the Middle East safer; but this will only be possible if the rulers in Tehran believe that he is willing, if necessary, to use American military superiority against them. Without a clearly communicated resolve to do so— and the recent airstrike against an Iran-supported militia in Syria that had attacked Americans in northern Iraq is a modest start in impressing such a message on the Iranian regime—the mullahs will win and Iran’s neighbors and the United States will lose, making the Middle East and the world far more dangerous places.

Michael Mandelbaum is the Christian A. Herter Professor Emeritus of American Foreign Policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, a member of the editorial board of American Purpose, and author of The Rise and Fall of Peace on Earth (2019).

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