Iranian Moderates: The First Casualties of Trump’s Pyrotechnics
The country's anti-American hardliners are vindicated, as Soleimani's killing endangers hope for real political change.
Sunny skies over the Middle East this week. Donald Trump’s killing of Qassem Soleimani has prompted the Iranians to announce that they’ll no longer abide by the curtailments on their nuclear program imposed under the agreement they negotiated with the West in 2015. That isn’t the end of the nuclear deal but it has deflated it significantly. Meanwhile, much of Iran, not just the accursed clerics, are out to mourn Soleimani’s death and demand revenge. Iranian forces have since fired missiles at American military bases in Iraq, while Trump has responded with a 420583013853rd round of sanctions.
Don’t worry though, America’s foreign policy hawks assure us, all is well. Soleimani’s assassination was worth it, they say, because now Iran understands there will be consequences for its misdeeds. Their militias attacked our embassy, and because they’ve paid a steep price, they’ll be less likely to come after us in the future. But when has it ever worked out that way? When Ronald Reagan bombed Libya in 1986 following a terrorist attack at a West Berlin discotheque that killed an American, Moammar Gaddafi didn’t back down; he remained a maestro of terrorism and two years later was fingered for the destruction of Pan Am Flight 103 over Scotland. When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, Iran didn’t cower; it sent fighters across the border to attack American troops and carved out significant influence for itself among Iraqi Shias.
Over and over again, we assume these pyrotechnic messages will intimidate the bad guys, and over and over again, the bad guys hit us right back. No, the only guarantee after Soleimani’s death is that the very Iranian aggression hawks claim to deplore will continue. Iran has lost a leader with a wide political and cultural footprint, one who was viewed by many as a guardian angel against ISIS; they had no choice but to retaliate. They certainly aren’t about to signal weakness by setting Hezbollah adrift or surrendering their influence in Bahrain or pulling out of Iraq.
The United States, in contrast, I would argue, has relinquished something very valuable. The biggest casualty of Trump’s drone strike last week wasn’t Soleimani himself, but the best alternative to war we had: the political option, whereby the United States either supported or at least did nothing to hinder the moderates within Iran’s government in the hopes of making Tehran friendlier to us over time. This approach was nowhere near as gratifying as blowing up a convoy. It came with no guarantee of success. It was Burkean in the most popular sense of the word, which is to say, organic, gradualist—it would have taken a long time. Yet given the calamities that have followed America’s more muscular interventions in Iraq and Libya, it was also the best course on offer. Its loss deserves its own display of public mourning.
In 2013, Hassan Rouhani was decisively elected Iran’s president with more than 50 percent of the vote, avoiding a runoff. Rouhani was widely viewed as a moderate, and his ascent was a repudiation of both the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which was aligned with more hardline and vocally anti-American candidates, and his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who had ceaselessly antagonized the West. Rouhani explicitly rejected “extremism,” upbraided Iran’s unpopular morality police, pledged to free political prisoners, and called for more dialogue with the world. He was endorsed by former president Mohammad Khatami, the doyen of the Iranian reformist cause.
The jewel of Rouhani’s liberalization program was the nuclear deal that Iran went on to negotiate with the United States and five other Western nations. The agreement proved broadly popular in Iran. In the country’s 2016 legislative elections, the moderates, organized under an umbrella called the List of Hope, made significant gains in Iran’s parliament, winning every seat that represented Tehran. Two musty hardliners on the Assembly of Experts, Iran’s clerical body, were also ousted. Then, one year later, Rouhani himself was reelected in a contest widely viewed as a referendum on the nuclear deal. Rouhani fended off a challenge from Ebrahim Raisi, a conservative judge who championed a so-called “resistance economy,” meaning a more protectionist and self-sufficient system that minimized interaction with the West.
It seemed like Iran had a democratic mandate to track in a more moderate and even pro-American direction. But according to the neocons, this entire premise was flawed: in Iranian politics, they argued, there aren’t actually any moderates at all. The reason was the Guardian Council, a 12-member Iranian body that before every election disqualifies those candidates viewed as insufficiently loyal to the Islamic Revolution and the supreme leader. In practice, this has resulted in purges of reformers, especially those viewed as in any way sympathetic to the Green Revolution of 2009. Rouhani and his allies, the hawks reason, can’t be real moderates, or the Guardian Council would have expelled them. Iran’s elections are thus little more than barking contests between packs of extremists—”moderate” really means “moderately anti-American.”
It’s a valid point. Democracy, after all, is only one component of the Iranian state, which is scaffolded to preserve the values of the Islamic Revolution and cement the power of the clerics. But to argue that there are no real political differences among Iran’s candidates is to ignore what’s right in front of your face. Rouhani really did support economic openness; Raisi really did embrace isolation; that’s a serious distinction, the sort you can wage a national campaign over. The Guardian Council is not so brazen as to completely flatten any semblance of debate. And the fact that Rouhani won twice in a tilted system underscores another point: the supreme leader himself came around to the nuclear deal. In fact, he endorsed it, albeit reluctantly and amid a raft of reservations.
The hope was never that Iran was going to cast off its clerics in a great, heaving shrug. It was that maybe, slowly, over time, as a numerous younger generation rose to power, one that had no memory of the Shah or the Islamic Revolution, the Iranian government could be steered in a more responsible and less hostile direction. The nuclear deal could herald further diplomacy. Global commerce could undermine the IRGC, which actually benefits from sanctions because they can establish monopolies in the vacuums created by lack of trade. Yes, there was plenty of risk involved. If Iran’s economy didn’t pick up quickly enough, Rouhani’s approach might have been discredited and Iranians might have sidled back towards the lupine hardliners. But it was still a hell of a lot more sensible than gambling on another idiotic regime change war.
Now that approach is almost certainly dead. Why would Iran want to reach out to a nation that just assassinated one of its top officials (and arbitrarily pulled out of an arms control agreement, and placed it in an “axis of evil,” and shot down its civilian airliner…)? The killing of Soleimani has given the moderates much less room to maneuver—and sure enough, Rouhani himself is now pronouncing that Americans will face consequences “not just today, but in the coming years.” It’s also vindicated the extremists—they warned that Washington couldn’t be trusted and we proved them correct. We don’t appear to be doomed to war, what with the Iranians stressing that their last retaliation will be their final one and Trump now flinging sanctions rather than bombs. But a golden opportunity, for a more responsible seat of Shiite power in the Middle East, for a needed check on Saudi recklessness, has been squandered.
Maybe an Iran reformed through politics was always a unicorn. An Iran reformed through force definitely is.