The election in Iran earlier this month was a shocker: “Rebuke to hard-liners” read one headline. “Iran election yields surprising outcome,” read another. Hassan Rowhani, a “moderate” Shia cleric noted for advocating more constructive relations with the West, including an increase in nuclear transparency, won with more than half the vote. Amid increasing tensions between the West and Iran, Tehran’s support of Bashar Assad in Syria, and fears of a wider Sunni-Shiite war in the Middle East, Rowhani’s election came as welcome news. President Obama commented, “I think it says that the Iranian people want to move in a different direction.”
Some observers, including Iran-obsessed leaders in Israel, responded to the election with skepticism — warning that, whatever Rowhani’s intentions, his scope of action will be severely limited by Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, and the hugely powerful Revolutionary Guard. But Rowhani, taking office in August, replaces the crackpot Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The new president’s purposes and power will soon begin to show themselves. Yes, Khamenei and Iran’s military elite will press him from one side. But we must not forget the other side: The responses that Rowhani draws from the wider world will press on him as well.
That is where an old question about American foreign policy reflexes comes in. The all-trumping need to demonstrate unflinching resolve in the face of every conceivable threat can itself have unintended consequences, especially if the refusal to flinch becomes the refusal to change. The national security establishment, perhaps for good reasons, makes its assessments and operational plans based on worst-case thinking. Being poised to respond more to bad things than good can seem like the height of prudence.
Yet the result can be an institutional myopia. Positive openings can be missed, and worst-case planning can help the worst case happen.
America’s present problem with Iran was exacerbated by a major missed opportunity in 2001. Washington-Tehran relations were still in the “Great Satan” phase — the period of mutual demonization that began with the hostage crisis of 1979-81. The positive surprise came after the 9/11 attacks, when Iranian President Mohammad Khatami declared, “On behalf of the Iranian government and the nation, I condemn the hijacking attempts and terrorist attacks on public centers in American cities which have killed a large number of innocent people. My deep sympathy goes out to the American nation.”
It was not just sympathy. Iran decisively supported the US offensive against the Taliban in Afghanistan and signaled its readiness to join in fighting Al Qaeda. But America’s old negative reflex reasserted itself. Five months after 9/11, George W. Bush slapped Iran with the “axis of evil” label, setting loose the worst-case dogs again.
But the story can go another way, for the United States has overcome its gravitation toward worst-case scenarios before. Most telling was when Ronald Reagan, defying his hawkish inner circle, found it possible to respond positively to Mikhail Gorbachev’s overtures. True, Reagan insisted upon verification as well as trust. But in the Cold War context, the trust he mustered was astonishing. And the Cold War ended.
In contrast, one of Reagan’s predecessors had been presented, a generation earlier, with a like possibility when Joseph Stalin died in March 1953. Moscow’s Politburo elite immediately pressed Soviet allies in China and North Korea to end the Korean conflict, and sent feelers to Washington, seeking detente. Yet in the United States, domestic anticommunism was at a fever pitch, and President Eisenhower rejected a summit meeting with Stalin’s successor. Instead, he escalated American anti-Soviet chicanery — including, fatefully, a CIA coup that August against an elected Iranian government seen as a tool of Moscow.
Worst-case thinking precluded the possibility that the post-Stalin Kremlin could be different. The CIA was blindsided when the Soviet establishment itself denounced Stalin’s inhuman legacy. A golden opportunity for an early thawing of the Cold War was missed.
Last year, worst-case thinkers were advocating a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Even President Obama warned that the window was closing on diplomacy. Yet if any sort of military action had been taken against Iran, this month’s surprising electoral triumph of the moderate Rowhani would never have occurred.
Now that Tehran has taken this turn, it behooves Washington to take a turn, too — in the way it imagines the future. The dangerous dynamic of power politics does not always have to go from bad to worse. Acknowledging a positive possibility can make it real.