Lazy Iran Policy

Commentary | July 26, 2011

One of the biggest mistakes in decision-making for war and peace is over-simplification. This is one conclusion of a profound and sadly overlooked book from 1984 called “Ideology of the Offensive” by Jack Snyder. Europe and the United States appear to have fallen into this trap of over-simplification with their Iran policy.

The danger is that policy-makers overlook the limits of their knowledge and discount the possibility that they may be inflexible. According to the book, “most public policy problems entail considerable complexity and uncertainty”. We know most elements of the problem “only in an approximate way”. The strategist develops “relatively simple but effective techniques for scanning and organizing information about the problem and for structuring and evaluating different options”. “Discrepant information is either ignored or incorporated into the belief system in a way that minimizes the need to change the system’s structure”.

The belief system (orthodox doctrine) about Iran is dominated by the idea of a “rogue state”. In the 1990s, the Clinton Administration would put Iran and Libya in that category, with others. George Bush put Iran, Iraq and North Korea into the “axis of evil”. These terms may be rhetorically useful for speech writers but they are desperately unhelpful and counter-productive for policy-makers.

President Obama tried to break the hold of such a rigid and doctrinaire approach to Iran in his Nowruz speech of 19 March 2009 but failed to do so. The explanation for failure of that overture lies not in Iran’s lack of meaningful response, but because it was just easier for senior officials in the United States and Europe to continue with the doctrinaire approach.

The suppression of anti-government demonstrations in Iran after the 2009 presidential elections only stiffened the appeal of the orthodoxy for Western officials. The persistently rejectionist approach and bellicose language of a handful of Iranian leaders toward Israel also buttressed the power in the West of the single orthodoxy about Iran. In the Western official view, the only way to deal with Iran is to see it as a rogue state. No other perspectives should intrude.

The main reason why policy-makers prefer a doctrinaire and rigid approach to Iran is that it usefully disguises the basic weakness of their position, both in respect of Iran and in respect of the region as a whole. The United States and Europe now have very few levers of power and influence anywhere in this strategically vital region and appear to many people to be in retreat, both through withdrawal of military forces and through alienating key allies on the Arabian peninsula. Moreover, domestic political orthodoxies in Europe and the United States (about subjugating foreign policy to human rights issues) and domestic interest groups (Iranian expatriates and pro-Israel groups) make it so much easier to stick with the Iran orthodoxy in foreign policy.

But by any objective standard, our policy toward Iran is lazy, is stuck in a rut and simply does not correspond to our needs. A change in policy is urgently needed. It has to be driven by a reassessment of those needs. Iran’s importance today to the West is several degrees of magnitude greater than it was a decade ago, but we have more rigid confrontational policies than at that time and we have even less room for maneuver. In addition to a reassessment of our needs, we need to search more robustly and creatively for new levers of influence. Continued and intensifying isolation of Iran defeats any opportunity for influence. Can we afford to treat Iran as a pariah state or do we need it? If we waiting and hoping for regime change, that may be bad policy because we have no way of knowing whether it will come before or after the next crisis.

Click here to read Austin's piece in New Europe