It is rare for obscure historical events from distant countries to condition policy debates in Washington. But two events — the end of Iran-Iraq war in 1988 and Iran’s agreement to suspend its nuclear program in 2003 — seemingly affirm the international community’s approach to Iran. After all, faced with mounting pressure, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini drank the poisoned chalice and agreed to an armistice that he had long abjured. And it is undeniable that America’s shock-and-awe success in Iraq caused a fearful theocracy to suspend its nuclear program.
Such a historical narrative is as convincing as it is incomplete. The reason why Iran embarked on a judicious recalibration of its interests in both episodes stemmed not just from pressures, but also from the presence of a powerful, pragmatic coalition within the government that managed to prevail in internal deliberations.
In today’s Islamic Republic, all moderate voices have been excised from the corridors of power, and the debates of the previous decades have been displaced by a consensus among a narrow cast of militant actors.
The final years of the Iraq-Iran war were difficult ones for the Islamic Republic, which had made the demise of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq the centerpiece of its strategy. Iran had managed to sustain the war despite its acute isolation, economic difficulties and popular disenchantment.
By the late 1980s, a series of battlefield setbacks were compounded by a smaller pool of volunteers, which undercut Iran’s strategy of utilizing manpower to overcome Iraq’s technological superiority. It was then that Iran fractured, causing an important segment of the ruling elite to revisit the country’s most fundamental national decision.
It appears that by 1987, Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was speaker of the Parliament at the time, and Mir Hussein Moussavi, the then-prime minister and the currently imprisoned leader of the Green Movement, began assembling a coalition of clerical politicians, key legislators and members of the regular military to press for ending the war. Against them stood the Revolutionary Guards, who wanted to continue the war no matter what.
In Khomeini, the Guards had an important patron who appreciated their commitment to his revolutionary message. Rafsanjani and Moussavi spent a year widening their circle and gradually adding more converts to their cause. Unlike today, the Supreme Leader then trusted his moderate disciples, took their views into consideration and eventually conceded to their arguments.
It was not just the reality of pressure but the presence of a formidable internal faction that managed to sway Khomeini.
In the spring of 2003, Iran’s defiant posture concealed its concern that it might yet emerge as a target of American retribution. The speed of the U.S. attack and its quick dispatch of Saddam’s vaunted forces shocked the Islamic Republic. Iran had fought for eight years without securing even a modest change of the boundaries, and yet in three weeks, American forces had managed to march into Baghdad.
It is beyond doubt that America’s initial success caused Tehran to suspend its nuclear program. The question remains, however, why did the suspension persist long after the American enterprise in Iraq collapsed in the midst of occupational disarray and sectarian conflict. The reason is that the much-maligned reformist government stood against the pressure of the hard-liners and managed to sustain the suspension until the presidential triumph of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005.
For the reformist President Mohammad Khatami and his allies, the nuclear program was seen in the context of Iran’s overall international relations and thus had to be balanced with other concerns. Given their desire to integrate into the global order, the reformers took the threat of United Nations censure seriously.
The reformist government may have hoped to maintain both its nuclear program and its commercial relations, but once threatened with sanctions it quickly came to terms with the West.
The reformers, who put cooperation with the international community above nuclear empowerment, were willing to concede to the demands of the great powers. Although it is customary to deride Khatami and the reformers as fickle and weak, they did stand against Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the hard-liners in insisting that Iran had to adhere to its international obligations.
The suspension may have begun when America invaded Iraq, but it ended when reformists left the government.
Today, Iran is ruled by a supreme leader who brooks no dissent, countenances no alternative perspectives and seems obsessed with nuclear science. Gone are pragmatists and reformers who once used their status and power inside the government to edge Khamenei away from confrontation. That is the key difference between today’s impasse and previous historical encounters with the Islamic Republic.
All is not lost. The task at hand remains to devise an imaginative coercive strategy that moves beyond economic penalties and exploits Khamenei’s political vulnerabilities in a manner that compels him to expand his coalition and reach out to more moderate elements. Only then can Iran be counted on to negotiate and adhere to a viable arms control treaty.
By Ray Takeyh, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.