(TIME) | March 15, 2010
By Trita Parsi
Iran is the 21st century equivalent of 1930s Russia — a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. The Iranians haven’t stumbled upon this mystifying state coincidentally, and the enigma isn’t the result of outsiders’ failure to try to understand them. Rather, the Iranian government has a deliberate policy aimed at confusing the outside world about its goals and decision-making processes. “There is an intention out there to confuse,” a noted Iranian professor told me in Tehran a few years ago. The rulers in Tehran think that opacity and the perception of unpredictability buy them security.
Given that intent, it is hardly surprising that Washington has had such a difficult time formulating a successful Iran policy. Right now, the Obama Administration is embarking on the sanctions track, pursuing both a U.N. Security Council resolution, as well as measures by a coalition of the willing that would go beyond anything imposed by the U.N. The idea is that a tough sanction regime would hit the Iranian government — and especially the Islamic Revolutionary Guards — while sparing Iran’s population. (See the top 10 players in Iran’s power struggle.)
Yet despite what they say, few in Washington believe sanctions alone will alter Iran’s behavior. They have never worked as well as they might in Iran; rhetoric has only served to raise tensions further. The experience of the Bush Administration shows that the combination of sanctions and rhetoric about regime change — remember the “Axis of Evil?” — helped strengthen the hands of Iran’s hard-liners. It vindicated Tehran’s paranoia and reduced options available to the U.S. If the Iranian regime thinks that the real aim of U.S. policy is to topple it, it is hardly likely to make the conciliatory policy changes — for example, on its nuclear program — that the U.S. seeks.
So what should Washington do? A starting point should be to recognize that the U.S. is no longer dealing with an Iran that merely simulates indecisiveness. On the contrary, Iran seems genuinely irresolute and paralyzed by the Khamenei government’s loss of legitimacy and continued conflicts both within the élite and between the government and the people. (See pictures of Iran’s presidential elections and their turbulent aftermath.)