While the Guards’ use of fear and coercion might be able to indefinitely sustain the Islamic Republic’s internal contradictions, this should not be mistaken for popular legitimacy. In an impassioned speech during a 1986 congressional hearing on South African apartheid, then Senator Joe Biden told Secretary of State George Schultz that America’s “loyalty is not to South Africa, it’s to South Africans!” Similarly, the Biden administration’s commitment to reviving the Iran nuclear deal should not obscure the fact that America’s loyalty and interests lie not with Iran’s regime, but with its people.
Building the Tunnel
No matter which route the Biden administration chooses, America’s Iran strategy will continue to trigger fierce global disagreement, given the high stakes. It directly impacts the security and well-being of not only tens of millions of Iranians but also tens of millions of Syrians, Iraqis, Lebanese, Yemenis, Israelis, and Gulf Arabs—people who view Iran as either an indispensable ally or an existential threat. For opponents of the Iranian regime, no amount of U.S. pressure will be sufficient; for allies and supporters of the Iranian regime, no amount of U.S. pressure is justified.
In a 2019 essay in The Atlantic, Jake Sullivan—now Biden’s national security adviser—wrote that “the U.S. needs to adopt the foreign-policy version of the serenity prayer: Grant us the wisdom to know the difference between those things we can change and those we cannot.” Throughout America’s 42-year absence from Iran, successive U.S. administrations have at times failed to understand this distinction. Americans can constrain Iran’s nuclear and missile programs; we cannot eliminate them. We should stand for civil and human rights in Iran; we cannot engineer regime change. We can limit and expose destructive Iranian policies in the Middle East; we cannot expunge Iranian influence from the region. We can attempt to manage our differences with Iran; we cannot force a rapprochement with a regime that needs us as an adversary.
As in all dictatorships that lack democratic mechanisms for renewal and use greater repression as their primary tool for managing dissent, history is not on the side of the Islamic Republic. While most modern economies try to better understand how to promote technological innovation, combat climate change, and foster diversity, Iran’s elderly clerical rulers sell fossil fuels to sustain and export an intolerant revolutionary ideology. Iranian officials themselves admit that the resulting brain drain costs the country $150 billion annually, far more than the country’s oil revenue. This economic, political, and social malaise will eventually force a reckoning that U.S. policy should be designed to facilitate, not impede.
The tragic history of modern Iran, and U.S.-Iran relations, evokes the late Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres’s observation about the prospects for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. “The good news is there is light at the end of the tunnel,” Peres said. “The bad news is there is no tunnel.”
After four decades of the Islamic Republic, the light in Iran is a young, dynamic, educated society that aspires to live like South Koreans, not North Koreans—prosperously and at peace with the world. Although the tunnel from Iranian theocracy to Iranian democracy might take years to build, its completion is the single most important key to transforming the Middle East.