Jason Rezaian proposes adopting new terms for describing the internal divisions in the Iranian government:

It makes much more sense to classify Iranian political actors according to two types of worldview: insular or outward-looking. There are leaders who believe the Islamic republic operates best in isolation, and there are those who believe that the country needs to be more fully engaged with other countries, particularly Western ones. This is the real tension in the Iranian system.

One doesn’t have to support either to understand that those are the opposing forces within the regime in Tehran.

Acknowledging this obvious distinction would go a long way in creating an atmosphere of discourse that’s less emotionally charged and more conducive to solving the challenges that Iran presents.

Rezaian makes several good points, and there could be real value in rethinking the labels we use to describe the divisions in other regimes. We could probably benefit from thinking of these divisions in terms of pragmatism and ideological inflexibility as well. The officials that are most often described as relative moderates in the system are distinguished by both their “outward-looking” attitude and their willingness to make practical compromises. By the same token, the hard-liners are “insular” and rigid in their views. However we choose to name these competing forces, what matters is that we understand that they exist, their political disagreements are meaningful, and their internal competition has been and will be shaped to some extent by our government’s Iran policy.

Iran hawks in the U.S. make a point of ignoring and collapsing the differences that exist between political factions in Iran because they prefer to see and talk about the regime as monolithic and unchanging. In general, our own hard-liners aren’t interested in understanding what goes on inside Iran except insofar as they can exploit it to justify more aggressive policies, and because many of them support regime change they don’t care about the internal politics of something they want to destroy. Because their preferred policies of isolation, sanctions, and hostility undermine the “outward-looking” and pragmatic forces inside the regime and bolster the “insular” and inflexible forces, they prefer to deny that the former really exist. If they are acknowledged at all, they are dismissed as window dressing or, as Pompeo so crudely front men for a corrupt religious mafia put it, “front men for a corrupt religious mafia.”

Iran hawks deny the existence of relative moderates in the regime for much the same reason that they hate the nuclear deal. Just as the nuclear deal deprives them of a pretext for hostility and conflict, the existence of relative moderates in the regime makes it more difficult to portray the regime in the worst possible light in order to isolate and punish Iran. That is why they denounce a successful nonproliferation agreement as the worst deal ever made and deny the real differences that exist within the regime. They consider both to be obstacles in their effort to stoke tensions and seek confrontation with the Iranian government, and so they work to sabotage the one by reneging on the deal and to undermine the other through sanctions.

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