Talking Iran in DC

Last week, The Atlantic Council introduced its new project focusing on Iranian influence in the Middle East. The Atlantic Council is a widely respected think tank and does some excellent work on Iran, but you won’t even need to read past the title of this new series to know that this isn’t going to be an example of policy excellence.

The project, “Pushback: Exposing and Countering Iran,” is a product of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. It debuted last Thursday, August 14, with a two-panel launch event at the Atlantic Council’s Washington, DC, headquarters near McPherson Square. I was in attendance.

If you thought the Atlantic Council’s reputation would prevent this event from devolving into a demonization of Iran based on old stereotypes and sweeping assumptions, well, you’d be wrong. According to the announcement, “This series examines the drivers, prospects, and constraints underpinning Iran’s efforts to undermine US policy in the Middle East and restructure the regional order to its liking.”

It would take too long to go through all the problems and bad assumptions associated with this project in general and these panels in particular, so a few examples will have to suffice.

The biggest and most obvious one was also the most shocking. Of seven experts spread over two panels, not one of them could credibly be called an Iran specialist. By this, I don’t mean to suggest that the panelists aren’t smart or experts in their stated fields, but for an event nominally focused on Iran, there was very little discussion of the country itself. Instead, the organizers opted for a hodgepodge of regional and field-matter experts, ranging from a Shia militant researcher (who was clearly more knowledgeable about Arab affairs than Persian ones) to weapons experts to international security generalists. There was even a Yemen specialist. With the exception of Zalmay Khalilzad, the former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq and later the UN during the George W. Bush administration, none were Persian speakers. One panelist — I won’t say who — alluded to a past reading of Khomeini as a qualification for speaking about Iranian motivations and intentions in the region.

Ironically, for an event with the word “Pushback” in the title, none of the panelists challenged the baseline assumption that Iranian behavior is motivated by anything other than extremist religious belief and/or animus toward the United States and the West. Rather, they all premised their proposals about how to deal with Iran on the idea that Iran’s only goal is to increase its dominance — or, synonymously, establish some kind of “hegemony” — over the Middle East.

This is, needless to say, a gross oversimplification, albeit one that is all too common in most Iran discussions. The vague terminology — “hegemony” or “dominance” — allows an easy out for anyone who wants to speak about Iranian intentions without actually bothering to wade into the murky waters of internal Iranian political rivalries and debate. For example, does Iran establishing hegemony over the region mean subjugating Saudi Arabia or other GCC countries to its will? Or does “dominating” the Middle East entail exporting the Islamic Revolution to each and every country in the region, eventually turning them all into Iranian client states? Furthermore, does this mean that aggressive expansionism enjoys universal support across the Iranian government and public? WHO KNOWS? What is certain is that Iran’s own security concerns and threat perceptions are unimportant in this discussion. All that matters is that Iran is out there, and they are up to no good.

One way this line of thinking manifests itself is in what I like to call the “Iranian boogeyman” argument. This is the idea that pretty much anything that happens in the Middle East is part of a secret Iranian masterplan, pushed by an invisible Iranian hand. Those who press this narrative rely primarily on circumstantial evidence and usually take on a conspiratorial tone in making their case. As one panelist put it, you can see the pattern of Iran’s vast network of Shiite militias if you just know where to look (social media, apparently). It’s like a magic eye poster: if you look at any Middle East problem at just the right angle, the secret Iranian image will reveal itself to you.

At one point, the panel came dangerously close to a moment of self-realization when one of the participants reflected on the complexity of the Iranian political landscape, suggesting that perhaps it was a mistake to attribute everything that is happening in Iraq and Syria to clandestine Iranian influence. The same panelist then said maybe it would be better to look at Iran as a collection of many different competing factions and interests, and that perhaps the Revolutionary Guards Corps’ goals differ from those of Hassan Rouhani and the government. This line of thought was quickly dismissed by the rest of the panelists.

This is not to say that Iran does not have any malign influence in the Middle East, or that it is not playing important military roles in both Iraq and Syria. It very much is. The point that I’m trying to make is that there has to be a middle ground when discussing Iran and that the tendency to view Iran in only binary terms makes solving the problems they create and challenges they pose immensely harder, if not impossible. Having voices with real expertise and nuanced perspectives is the first, most basic step toward achieving this goal.

Strangely enough, one of those voices was in the room that day, although she wasn’t sitting on the stage. The Atlantic Council’s Barabara Slavin, the Director of the Future of Iran Initiative, was in the audience. Slavin does excellent work on Iran, and she played an important role in the discussion by posing two of the most insightful and challenging questions to the panelists during the Q&A sessions. In the second panel, she prefaced a question to the American Enterprise Institute’s Ken Pollack, coauthor of a new report on Iran entitled “US Strategy Options for Iran’s Regional Challenge,” by noting that his report was “all stick and no carrot.” She observed that the only choice his report offered for solving the Iranian challenge was between shooting off a finger, a hand, an arm, or head. She then asked, “Have you considered engagement?” Pollack replied that room for engagement was “implicit” in his call for increased confrontation.

Interestingly, when Slavin was confronted about the funding for this new project on Twitter several days later, she was quick to distance herself from it:

I don’t know what the funding mechanism is for this project, nor do I have any indication on what its plans are for the future. It is definitely something to keep an eye on since the material they produce and disseminate has the potential to influence policymakers in important positions in and around DC.

For now, I’ll just offer one more word of warning: beware anyone selling a “simple” Iran, either in concept or solution. Iran is a complicated place with a rich — and occasionally dark — history. Knowledge of this past is vital for understanding modern Iranian motivations and strategic outlook. It cannot be dismissed. To put it slightly differently: if anyone tells you that they’ve “read Khomeini” and therefore understand Iran, your best bet is to simply walk away.

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