Admiral William J. Fallon (Ret.), Former Commander of Central Command
Keynote Speech at the Conference of the American Iranian Council on:
The Changing Middle East: New Challenges, Players
and Implications for US-Iran Relations
Washington DC | Omni Shoreham Hotel | June 7, 2011
Admiral William J. Fallon (Ret.), Former Commander of Central Command
Given the political and social upheaval sweeping the Middle East in recent months, taking a look at Iran, and more specifically, the relationship between Iran and the U.S. in the context of this change is timely.
The state-to-state interaction between the two countries since the 1979 revolution and overthrow of the Pahlavi dynasty has been testy to say the least. There has been lots of talk over the decades, particularly in the U.S., about changing this adversarial and distrustful relationship, but little modification has resulted. Yet it appears, at least on the surface, that many people in Iran retain some affection for Americans. Certainly the robust Iranian-American community fosters good relations between people of both countries and spearheads initiatives aimed at reconciliation. Among the few Americans who seem to care about Iran, no ingrained animosity toward the Iranian people is apparent.
Why has there been no improvement in relations between the governments? What impact, if any, will the changes currently sweeping the regions near Iran have on our relationship? What can we expect in the future?
I think that many here today could tick off a long list of reasons for the lack of progress in response to the first question and we’ll touch on some of these issues in our discussion.
Let’s focus on the present and what current and recent developments might portend for the future.
The uprisings, in what has been popularized as the “Arab Spring” have shaken the established political hierarchy to its core, and in some cases removed it. What follows remains to be seen as the exuberance of success in the streets fades into the reality of unresolved political, economic, social and security challenges. In Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Libya, Yemen, Syria and other places, huge throngs of people have protested against the established order with varying degrees of success. No matter the ongoing state of play, messages of dissatisfaction with the status quo have been delivered and received in ways unimaginable six months ago.
Certainly there are differences in specific issues in each of the affected countries - and their neighbors in the region. But common factors include authoritarian governments, economic inequities, political discontent and repression and human rights violations, all being highlighted and communicated by the application of new technology in the form of social networking media.
Although Iran is at the Eastern geographic extremity of the upheavals to date, the implications for governments that share elements in common with those affected should be obvious. In Iran, with memories of the so-called “Green Revolution” of 2009 still fresh, these events must be giving pause to the leadership, but might provide encouragement to the estranged.
On the other hand, using the zero sum logic characteristics of recent U.S.-Iran relations, some aspects of the regional upheaval are likely celebrated in Tehran. Elements of the Iranian leadership are no doubt cheering the discomfort on the part of the U.S. in regard to potential regional political and security relationship changes. Specifically, I would cite the departure of long time U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak, the inconclusive conflict in Libya, the clumsy response in Bahrain and the disaffection of Saudi leaders with U.S. actions in response to the populist uprisings.
Returning to the question of the impasse in American-Iranian relations, let’s review some of the key factors of the stalemate and then explore the potential influence of recent events in the Middle East.
One point worth remembering is the difference in historical perspectives between an Iranian society with Imperial dynasties and cultural achievements spanning millennia and long standing influence in the Persian Gulf region. American history, notwithstanding its meteoric rise to prominence, is less than three centuries old and its’ real interest in the region dates only from World War II and subsequent.
American efforts to maintain the Pahlavi dynasty, combined with longstanding conservative Persian Islamic aversion to secular influences, provided key aspects to the legitimacy of the 1979 Revolutionary takeover of the government by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
The ideology of the new regime was specifically anti secular and anti-American (as the embodiment of Western culture) encouraging revolutionary activity and martyrdom to preserve Shia Islam, guided and guarded by the supreme Ayatollah and his successors.
This revolutionary zeal manifested inside Iran and carried out with direct Iranian support by surrogates of the regime outside the country, for example by Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Sadrists in Iraq, has been particularly distasteful to America. In the U.S. view, these activities have encouraged terrorism, fostered instability and undercut U.S. efforts to stabilize a region plagued with sectarian and political tension and conflict.
The takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran and long term captivity of its occupants by Iranian “students” was a particularly embarrassing episode for Americans.
Subsequent U.S. support for Iraq during the decade long Iran-Iraq War and the tragic shoot down of an Iranian airliner fueled continuing animosity during the 1980’s.
Challenges and threats by Tehran against the U.S. and Israel followed by recriminations in kind have marked recent years, plus the notable addition of the Iranian nuclear program. Ostensibly in support of an alternative energy source for Iran, the program has expanded enrichment far beyond what might be expected of a peaceful development objective, and been conducted largely in secret, in violation of numerous UN Resolutions, dramatically ratcheting up tension in the region.
The largely economic sanctions imposed by the UN and some individual nations mostly in response to Iranian intransigence have undoubtedly slowed the nuclear development program and also had an adverse economic impact on people in Iran. The true effect of these sanctions is difficult to judge due to Iranian internal resiliency, contravention and offsetting assistance by non-compliant nations.
Questions about the intent, extent and progress of Iranian nuclear development have been a lightening rod and focal point for polarizing debate in the region and around the world. What, if anything, to do about ongoing Iranian activity in this area has been the source of endless discussion and speculation.
In recent months, the combination of technical issues in the Iranian nuclear program apparently slowing development efforts, the diversion of attention to regional issues related to the “Arab Spring” and internal economic priorities in both countries have reduced the rhetoric and intensity of focus on this principal nexus of contention. How long this central issue remains eclipsed by other factors is a good question. Not very long, I expect.
With so many things happening in different countries, the combination of events may result in unanticipated consequences. Let’s look at some specifics. At the top of my list are economic factors. Indeed, a column by Mary Beth Sheridan in Sunday’s Washington Post reported the results of a recently completed survey of Egyptians which indicated support for their revolution was “mainly because of their poor economic situation, not because they yearned for democracy”.
The average Iranian citizen may be a bit better off than his Egyptian counterpart but the economy is heavily dependent on the oil sector and highly inefficient by most reports. Discontent and unrest, fueled by economic concerns have surfaced in the past but a large public sector workforce and a demonstrably effective internal security force intolerant of dissent mitigate against this scenario unless the Iranian economy takes a severe hit.
Some people in the U.S. were cheered by the large street demonstrations in 2009, thinking that the discontent might topple the regime, ushering in a new era of U.S.-Iranian relations. These hopes were fueled by extensive media hype citing the use of social networking technology. This rosy expectation for change ran into the reality of a large, harshly effective crackdown by government security forces augmented by Basij militia volunteers. Events also demonstrated the widespread support that the regime enjoys from key elements of Iranian society
Certainly, there are fissures and fractures within the ruling elites in Iran. The recent standoff between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Parliament over the leadership of the Oil Ministry is an example. These differences are internal but a consequence of the Arab Spring is that all governments in the region are looking closely at their own internal stability-to ensure regime preservation.
A second order effect of either the competitive squabbling between elites in Tehran or an overriding focus on internal security could be less focus, commitment and priority on the nuclear program-whatever its real objective.
A challenge for U.S. leaders in grappling with Iran is a lack of understanding of the complexity of the country and the influence, or lack of, wielded by elements in the society. One wonders at the interplay between clerics, the President and his Cabinet, the Parliament, the Bazaari merchants and the military. The influence of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the “Guardians of the Revolution”, seems to be on the upswing as they permeate virtually all aspects of the society. Are there real differences of opinion or shades of the same color? And do they affect decision-making?
A key dynamic of the U.S.-Iranian interplay has been the historically close relationship between Washington and Tel Aviv on the one hand, and the seemingly endless stream of anti-Israeli vitriol from Tehran on the other. Reinforcing the verbal harangues has been long standing military support and training for militants in Lebanon and Gaza by IRGC Quds Force personnel.
A potential indirect result of change might affect these relationships as events around the Middle East unfold. The brutal crackdown on protestors in Syria, a key Iranian ally and conduit for arms and other support to Hezbollah and Hamas has yet to fully play out.
The new Egyptian leadership helped broker a reconciliation of sorts between Palestinian factions and reopened a key border crossing into Gaza, as well as initiating some overtures to Iran.
An interesting development is the reported appeal by Saudi Arabia to Islamic states worldwide to close ranks in an alliance against Iran. The motivation allegedly being dissatisfaction with U.S. support for Sunni dominated countries and concern about the majority Shia uprising in neighboring Bahrain.
If, how, and when these elements influence the U.S.-Iran relationship remains to be seen. As noted previously, several historical factors and decades of reinforced enmity are at work in maintaining the status quo. Occasional attempts to lead the parties to a more conciliatory path have been rebuffed. Most recently, the Obama Administration engagement initiative.
A basic reality is the plethora of issues in front of both governments. For the U.S., the domestic economy, the wind down of operations in Iraq, the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, relations with China, etc., all demand time and energy and the Iranian relationship is not currently near the top of that list.
Clearly there are common interests in the region and the world. Improvement in relations will likely occur with the realization that the interests of each people are better addressed with engagement and cooperation rather than antagonism and hostility. There is no clear path to this preferred alternative any time soon. But the unprecedented scope of regional change may yet have profound influence on the relationship.
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