The Trump administration is tasked with a number of issues on the foreign policy front, perhaps none more nuanced and challenging than formulating a policy toward Iran.
The regime in Tehran continues to present policy dilemmas with regard to its nuclear program, its hegemonic policies in the region, its expanding network for armed militias and its missile program. One of the key questions posed to this administration will be whether engagement with Iran and pursuing an Iran-friendly policy will ultimately bear fruitful results.
The call to engage Iran and empower the so-called “moderates” there is one of the most persistent policy positions in Washington, and will get louder in coming weeks as we approach the Iranian presidential “elections” taking place on May 18. The premise that friendly policies could empower the “moderates” has been recycled repeatedly by a large number of pro-engagement pundits and Iran experts in Washington for the past three decades, and is based on two facets.
First is the ill-conceived hope that a moderate will emerge in Iran and reform the regime and change its foreign policy. Second is the false assumption that the hostilities between the U.S. and Iran are not the result of Iranian radical foreign policies but the outcome of mistrust and misunderstanding, caused by America’s belligerent attitude toward Iran.
These Iran-friendly advocates argue that if the U.S. adopts a less hostile approach and instead tries to gain the trust of Iranian leaders, they will reciprocate, the moderate factions will be empowered, the Iranian regime will gradually reform itself, and Iran will become a responsible regional power abiding by international rules.
The search for illusionary moderates in Iran has significantly and strategically influenced past and current U.S. policies on Iran. This attitude toward Tehran was best described by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates during a speech in 2008:
“I have been involved in the search for the elusive Iranian moderate for 30 years. (Laughter.) Every administration since  has reached out to the Iranians in one way or another and all have failed. Some have gotten into deep trouble associated with their failures, but the reality is the Iranian leadership has been consistently unyielding over a very long period of time in response to repeated overtures from the United States about having a different and better kind of relationship.”
Such misconceptions about the Iranian regime motivated President Reagan to seek a friendship with the “moderate” Rafsanjani and convinced him to secretly send his national security adviser to Tehran in the mid-1980s. It was also a reason for Bill Clinton’s conciliatory approach toward the so-called “reformist” Mohammad Khatami and, later, pushed George W. Bush in 2002-2003 to coordinate the invasion of Iraq with the Iranian envoys.
Barack Obama was no exception to this rule. In order to gain the trust of the Iranian leaders, he ignored the historic popular uprising in 2009 that lasted almost a year and brought the regime to the brink of collapse. While millions of Iranians were in the streets, thousands were arrested, beaten, raped and tortured and hundreds were killed; Obama ignored this defining moment and continued his overture toward the regime. Obama believed that reaching a nuclear deal with Iran would transform the regime and change its foreign policy.
In an interview in 2015, Gates clarified the former president’s thinking about Iran and declared: “I think that the pursuit of the (nuclear) agreement is based on the president’s hope that over a ten-year period with the sanctions being lifted that the Iranians will become a constructive stakeholder in the international community. That — that as their economy begins to grow again, that — that they will abandon their ideology, their theology, their revolutionary principles, their meddling in various parts of the region. And, frankly, I believe that’s very unrealistic.”
Eager to reach a nuclear deal with Iran, the Obama administration made generous and unnecessary concessions to Iran in nuclear talks and remained a passive observer as Iran intervened in Syria on a massive scale and participated in the slaughter of Syrians. The situation became significantly more radicalized in Syria as the moderate opposition groups became increasingly weakened and extremist elements such as ISIS and al Qaeda-affiliated groups grew stronger.
Obama ignored the divisive and repressive activities by Iranian proxy militias in Iraq as well as the catastrophic policies of Iran-backed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. As a result, the Sunni-populated regions rebelled against the central government. By the spring of 2014, ISIS forces, which had grown strong in Syria, exploited the situation in Iraq and took over important parts of the country including Mosul.
Contrary to Obama’s expectations, the nuclear agreement and the lifting of the economic sanctions emboldened Iranian hardliners, and the regime has grown more aggressive in pursuing its radical agenda in the region.
The Trump administration should remember the devastation caused by the U.S. failure to develop, implement and sustain a cohesive, balanced and prudent policy toward Iran in the past three decades. The cost of this failure has been the significant loss of credibility and influence in the region, loss of commerce, loss of the trust of the Iranian people, and last but not least, the loss of the lives of American men and women serving in Iraq.
A root cause of this confusion has been widespread illusions about the nature of Iranian internal factions and the real power of the so-called moderates. A brief glance at the history of engagement with the regime provides ample evidence that it is not only a fruitless policy but one rooted in illusion and disconnected from the historical record.
Hassan Dai is a human rights activist, political analyst and editor of the Iranian American Forum.