Excerpt: Guardians of the Revolution

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Chapter 7: The Satans

During the second decade of the revolution, the United States remained a looming presence for Iran, and its policies were debated in the parliament, presidential office, universities, and the streets. On the surface, policymakers in both Tehran and Washington seemed to recognize that the prevailing acrimony was not serving their mutual interests. Rafsanjani was not beyond reevaluating U.S.-Iran relations and exploring the possibility of some type of accommodation. However, ideological pressures and disagreements on regional developments prevented the emergence of a more rational relationship between the two states. At times, the door would be cautiously opened, and the politicians from both countries would gingerly peek inside, only to retreat for fear of a domestic backlash.  

Whatever pragmatic impulses Iran may have displayed toward the United States, its approach to Israel remained mired in ideological stridency and the competition for power in the post–cold war Middle East. The decade of the 1990s was a watershed era in the region. On the one hand, the incumbent Arab regimes began to shed the mantle of intransigence and genuinely contemplated a peace compact with Israel. On the other hand, the decade also witnessed the rise of Islamist movements determined to inflict violence on both Israel and its Arab interlocutors. Both Tehran and Jerusalem sensed ample opportunities in the new Middle East: Israel sought a diplomatic settlement with its neighbors while Iran seemed determined to empower the Islamist militants.  

Iran’s policy would move beyond the rigid revolutionary parameters of Khomeini’s tenure. A new pragmatic faction led by Rafsanjani understood that the radical spasms of the previous decade had too often undermined Iran’s national interests. However, this tendency had to coexist with the imam’s dedicated disciples, who continued to occupy important seats of power. The pitfalls of ideology and strategic antagonisms caused Tehran and Washington to line up on opposite sides of the region’s conflicts. Indeed, the 1990s witnessed some of the most acute confrontations between the United States, Israel, and Iran.  

The Debate

As the Islamic Republic considered its approach to the United States, its internal debate quickly transcended geopolitics and took place in a distinctly cultural terrain. For many hard-liners within the clerical estate, the challenge of the United States was not limited to a strategic rivalry but also involved an assault on Iran’s national identity. The notion of Western imperialism seeking to superimpose its mores on Iran is nothing new: Throughout the twentieth century leftist and secular writers bemoaned America’s encroachment. Yet the postrevolutionary elite on a quest to revive traditional customs and religious values was particularly sensitive to America’s cultural temptations. While previous intruders and invaders of Iran had sought wealth and power, the American challenge was at once more perplexing and more pernicious. For Iran’s hard-liners, the United States remained the “Great Satan” and “the global arrogance,” whose influences had to be resisted.  

No one more clearly embodied these sentiments than Ali Khamenei. For the supreme leader, the United States was always devious and arrogant, and its policies were mere cover designed to advance its nefarious purposes. To preserve the integrity and authenticity of Iran’s Islamic path, one had to resist America’s blandishments and forego the rewards that resumed relations might offer. Khamenei made his suspicions clear: “America appears with a deceitful smile but has a dagger behind its back and is ready to plunder. That is its true nature.” In the end, Khamenei perceived that Iran “has nothing to talk to them about and no need for them.”  

Iran’s ruling mullahs have an impressive propensity to document their thoughts in a variety of speeches, articles, and published texts. As clerics who underwent extensive scholastic training to achieve their status, they have a professorial reverence for the written word and spend an inordinate amount of time publishing their memoirs and opinions while still in office. In 1996 the supreme leader demonstrated that penchant when he published an important book, Farhang va tahajum-i farhangi, which was largely devoted to dissecting America’s cultural attacks on Iran. Khamenei betrayed his thesis early: “We have to believe that we are subject to the cultural assault of our enemies.” Iran’s Islamic revolution constituted the Muslim world’s most momentous defiance of the West. For this reason Iran was subjected to America’s pressures and censure. For Khamenei, it was not Iran’s behavior but its uncompromising embrace of an Islamist ideology that had provoked Washington’s animus. Given its vanguard role, the Islamic Republic had to persist with its struggle against America’s machinations, however long and costly that struggle might be.  

The hard-liners were particularly worried about the impact of renewed ties on Iran’s vulnerable youth. They equated the young Iranians’ fascination with America’s cultural products with yet another U.S. plot to colonize Iran intellectually. The speaker of the parliament, Ali Akbar Natiq-Nuri, captured this sentiment by differentiating between the United States and previous empires, stressing that, while in the past, armies and armadas were the preferred imperial tools, today “they dominate by attacking thoughts and ideologies and promote their culture of corruption and decadence.” The Islamic Republic tirelessly launched unsuccessful campaigns against satellites and communication networks. Such devices, according to the head of the Guardian Council, Ahmad Jannati, were like “poison poured in the mouth of people.” Although Iran might benefit from an economic relationship with the United States, it was feared that America’s presence would have a debilitating impact on the revolutionary commitment of the younger generation, which was already moving away from the imam’s ideals.  

Given their suspicions of the United States and fears of a cultural onslaught, for the hard-liners, opposition to the United States was not just a calculated foreign policy move but also a means of preserving the revolution. The United States was seen as a formidable threat not only because of its armed forces and its regional ambitions but also because of the lure of its ideals and seductive culture. America was the one nation with the capacity to subvert Iran’s character and turn the masses against the republic. As we have seen, secular intellectuals had long complained about the process of Westernization, but the reactionary mullahs, unsure of the Islamist loyalty of their subjects, found the concept of the West at once more frightening and more ominous. Any engagement that brought the menace of America closer to the land of Islam was a danger that had to be avoided.  

The hard-liners’ incendiary rhetoric, however, conceals the emergence of pragmatic elements that sought to balance the theocracy’s ideological claims with its practical imperatives. Rafsanjani and his allies sensed a possibility for a more compartmentalized relationship with the United States, whereby Iran would resist America’s cultural influences yet resume cooperative commercial dealings. Rafsanjani may have been the leader of this cohort, but he was by no means its only representative. Technocrats in the ministries, university professors, and liberal clerics realized that the altered international landscape necessitated setting aside self-defeating animosities. Given the needs of the reconstruction program and Washington’s commitment to defend the Persian Gulf in light of Saddam’s aggression, they saw a more reasonable relationship as a national necessity. The pragmatic forces displayed far more confidence in the resilience of Iran’s indigenous culture and believed that the Iranian people were quite capable of maintaining their identity and dealing with foreigners at the same time.  

As the executive in charge of the country’s economy, Rafsanjani challenged the conservatives’ core conviction that Iran’s independence was contingent on its self-sufficiency and even isolation. “There is so much machinery in the country that depends on foreigners to a large degree. There are so many projects which cannot be completed with the country’s own resources,” declared Rafsanjani. These views naturally called for a different relationship with the United States, whose approbation was necessary for Iran’s integration into the global economy.  

Once more, though, Rafsanjani did not display the courage of his convictions and failed to directly confront his conservative detractors. Given Iran’s contested political terrain and the provocative nature of improving relations with the “Great Satan,” Rafsanjani too often insisted that the United States must take the first step and demonstrate its goodwill before Tehran could reciprocate. Such expressions of respect implied tangible concessions, such as releasing Iran’s assets, which had been frozen at the time of the hostage crisis, and relaxing the increasingly burdensome sanctions imposed by the Reagan administration. Once granted such dispensations, Rafsanjani felt he could press the conservatives toward a modification of their views. Indeed, this would remain a perennial Iranian argument, namely, that any improvement of relations must begin with measurable American compromises. For both Democratic and Republican administrations such demands would prove untenable.  

Rafsanjani’s pragmatism was further debilitated by the limits of his imagination. Despite his professions of moderation, Rafsanjani wholeheartedly shared the conservatives’ disdain for Israel. As we have seen, in the 1980s he went so far as to publish a book that stressed the inauthentic nature of Israel and the spurious reasons marshaled to justify its establishment. To be sure, Khamenei ordinarily opted for a more inflammatory approach, frequently calling for the eradication of Israel and contesting the narrative of the Holocaust.8 Ultimately, however, there was rarely much difference between the president and the supreme leader. Both opposed diplomatic efforts to resolve the Arab-Israeli dispute. Iran would pay a price for its animosity in terms of sanctions and the opprobrium of being designated a terrorist sponsor. However, in the end, the regime seemed to calculate that the benefits it derived from its posture outweighed the penalties.  

The remarkable aspect of the theocracy’s approach to the Jewish state was its constancy. Indeed, the tone and tenor of the debate remained largely unchanged from what they had been in the 1980s. Far from distancing themselves from Khomeini’s malicious legacy, the clerical rulers proudly guarded their patrimony. The Islamic Republic even claimed that Israel was a greater threat to the cohesion of the Islamic world than the United States. The mullahs’ antagonism toward Israel did not stem from any specific policy disagreements but from its mere existence. As a prominent conservative paper noted, the United States some day may “cease to be a major enemy, but as long as the Zionist regime exists in any part of Palestine, the struggle will continue.”9 Such rhetoric was not designed to placate a particular constituency or garner the acclaim of Arab street but reflected the deep-seated ideological objections that the clerical community has long harbored.  

At this point the U.S. policy also suffered from its own conceptual failures. Haunted by the Iran-Contra affair, successive administrations rarely opted for a creative approach. The fact that Iran was not the main concern of the United States lessened the need for an inventive policy. Iraq and the Arab-Israeli peace process would consume much of America’s effort and leave little time for the prickly theocracy. Although at various junctures, policymakers were intrigued by the changing nature of the Islamic Republic, in the end, untangling the Iranian puzzle proved too cumbersome. After tentative approaches, the United States inevitably settled on a policy of containment, however flawed and ineffective that policy may have been.  

As Tehran contemplated its approach to Washington, it did so with a divided house. A powerful segment of the clerical leadership simply refused to consider an alternative relationship with the “Great Satan.” Struggling to define a coherent policy, the Rafsanjani administration ended up embracing the notion that the only way to break the internal stalemate was for the United States to take the first step. Of course, Rafsanjani would at times move beyond such rigid parameters, only to be rebuffed by clerical backlash and American indifference. In the meantime, Iran maintained its unbending opposition to Israel and continued to denounce the Jewish state in an incendiary manner. Such rhetoric could have been cast aside had it not been complemented by Iran’s support for a variety of militant and terrorist organizations plotting against Israel. The Islamic Republic seldom appreciated the contradiction inherent in calling for better ties with the United States and undermining the security of one of America’s most important allies.  

The Bush Administration and the Limits of Realism

George H. W. Bush assumed the presidency at a time of momentous changes around the world. The end of the cold war, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the resounding victory over Saddam made a new Iran policy a low priority. Seldom has an administration been more judicious in managing an entire range of foreign policy challenges, as the once discredited president is now widely acclaimed for his deft handing of a multiplicity of crises. The task of reconfiguring European security and devising a new Middle East order made the Islamic Republic a second-tier issue. Still, Iran could not be ignored or wished away.  

The Bush administration’s practical realism augured a potentially different relationship with Iran. In his inaugural address, Bush promised Tehran that “goodwill begets goodwill,” a clear signal that proper behavior might entail a revised U.S. policy. However, in the end, the contentious issues that had historically divided the two countries would bedevil the initial pragmatism evident in both capitals. A fairly predictable cycle was one more at hand—at the beginning of nearly every administration there is hope for a less hostile relationship with Iran. Soon stubborn realities, domestic politics, and the usual misunderstandings intrude, leading to charges and countercharges of who was responsible for squandering the lost opportunity.  

Given the absence of links between the two states, Iran began to convey its messages to Washington in a more indirect manner. In 1990, in an explosive article in the newspaper Ittila’at, Vice President Ata’Allah Muhajirani called for the resumption of interactions with the United States: “If we do not give priority to the interests of the state and the revolution, we will end up losing an opportunity for our revolution, our state, and our people.”11 In essence, Muhajirani claimed that, given the power of the United States and its dominance over global affairs, a posture of defiance ill served Iran’snational objectives. In a clever move, Muhajirani cast his arguments in religious terms and emphasized that the Prophet of Islam often negotiated with the enemies of God. A policy of considered dialogue could potentially lead to the release of Iran’s frozen assets and even pave the way for greater integration into the world economy. The vice president stressed that the revolution did not intend Iran’s complete isolation, particularly at a time of economic interdependence and rapid communications. Given Muhajirani’s official position and close ties to Rafsanjani, it appeared that his article was meant to test the waters in both Tehran and Washington.  

The heretical notion that Iran might require better relations with the United States unleashed the full force of clerical denunciation. Kayhan, the mouthpiece of the hard-liners, castigated Muhajirani for suggesting that the United States was the key to “solving all our problems.” The radical parliamentarian Ali Akbar Muhtashami’pur, in a typically strident gesture, noted that compromise with the United States would threaten Iran’s “identity, revolutionary prestige, and image.”13 The limited overture by Muhajirani had provoked a conservative rebuke with a concerted media campaign that depicted such views as the sinister designs of hidden hands. Despite these reactions, Rafsanjani pressed ahead, and ironically Lebanon became the arena of possible cooperation between the two nations.  

In the late 1980s Lebanon was undergoing its own transformations, as the region finally paid closer attention to a civil war that had been raging for nearly fifteen years. In October 1989, under Saudi mediation, the Taif Accord offered a power-sharing arrangement to Lebanon’s confessional communities. Although Iran and Hezbollah initially denounced the agreement, they both eventually conceded to its logic. More temperate figures such as Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah stressed the impracticality of Islamic rule in a religiously diverse Lebanese society. An exhausted population was ready for peace, and Hezbollah’s relevance was contingent on its acceptance of the new realities. Hezbollah’s participation in the 1992 elections constituted its belated willingness to advance its objectives within the prevailing system. An Iran preoccupied with its own concerns was also reconsidering its priorities and began pressing for stability as opposed to continued sectarian confrontation. Hezbollah’s decision to take part in the elections was partly facilitated by Khamenei, who gave his blessing to those calling for engagement in the political process rather than its outright rejection.  

In a direct signal to the United States, Rafsanjani took the lead: “I wish to say—I address the White House—that Lebanon has a solution; the freedom of the hostages is solvable.” In the aftermath of the Iran-Contra affair, Washington was not eager for secret meetings and quiet bargains and instead relied on the United Nation’s emissary, Giandomenico Picco, to serve as a mediator. The pace of the release of the American hostages proved painfully slow, as Rafsanjani found it difficult to establish a consensus either in Tehran or Beirut. The final hostage was not released until 1991, thereby provoking the Bush administration’s complaints about the lack of Iranian goodwill. An exasperated Bush betrayed his frustrations by noting that the United States and Iran were “no closer at this moment” to a different relationship. In the delicate diplomacy of putting together the necessary factions in Iran and Lebanon, Rafsanjani could placate neither the United States’ legitimate concerns for a quick release of its citizens nor his clerical detractors, who pointed to America’s failure to acknowledge his efforts. In the end, a variety of intervening events would overshadow Iran’s cooperation in Lebanon and lead to renewed confrontation.  

As we have seen, the Gulf War provided opportunities for both parties to assume a different posture and establish better relations. Iran had hoped that its neutralism and its practical assistance to the allied war effort would bring about some type of American reciprocity. However, the strategic differences between the two states remained largely unmediated by the conflict. The Islamic Republic was not willing to forfeit the waterways to American predominance and continued to press for the eviction of all foreign forces. Khamenei insisted that the “region’s security is the business of regional nations.” This was not just an innovation of the Islamic Republic, as successive generations of Persian monarchs had asserted the same hegemonic claim. Such gestures were completely unacceptable to the American architects of a “new world order,” who perceived that the stability of the international system and the resolution of its many conflicts was the responsibility of the remaining superpower. In its triumphant mood, Washington was hardly willing to yield the security of the Persian Gulf to an antagonistic Iran.  

Indeed, after its successful defeat of Saddam’s armies, the United States began moving its foreign policy in a direction that was bound to disappoint Iran. Beyond the ill-fated Damascus Declaration, the Bush administration embarked on a massive militarization of the region not just through its own deployments but also through vast arms sales to the Gulf emirates. Since a coherent Gulf security architecture eluded the United States, the Bush team settled for bilateral arrangements with the sheikdoms, complemented by nearly $23 billion in weapons sales by 1991. Both Washington and Tehran failed to adjust their ambitions in a manner that would not only improve their relations but also establish a durable foundation for the long-term stability of the Persian Gulf. The tensions between the two states soon moved beyond the Gulf waters, as they embarked on very different policies in the wider Middle East.  

The early 1990s were a heady time for the Bush administration. It had easily evicted Saddam from Kuwait and redeemed the most fundamental tenet of international law: state sovereignty. After the war, Washington sought to craft a regional consensus behind an Arab-Israeli settlement. A new Middle East would be born, one that focused its energies and resources on economic development and political modernization. The time for resolving the four-decade conflict, which had provoked so many senseless wars, was finally at hand.  

The Madrid International Conference, which convened in October 1991, was the capstone of American diplomacy. The conclave featured not just Israel and its Arab neighbors but also the European community and the still extant Soviet Union. The meeting was to establish a framework for resolving the Arab-Israeli dispute, as well as a mechanism for dealing with issues such as economic growth, arms control, and environmental concerns. But as American diplomats gathered to contemplate the future, the old Middle East lurked in the background, holding fast to its animosities and antagonisms.  

The United States was not the only power that sensed new opportunities in the region. As the mullahs gazed across the Arab world, they saw an entire range of Islamist parties challenging the decrepit Arab ruling class and seeking to reclaim the Middle East for the path of God. Islamism as a political force appeared in the ascendant with the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria, al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya in Egypt, and Hezbollah in Lebanon all contending for power. The complexion of political opposition appeared to be changing, with Islamic fundamentalist groups displacing Arab nationalist parties. For a clerical regime at odds with both the United States and the Arab states, the new fundamentalist surge was a unique chance to assert its influence and demonstrate its appeal. Iran offered material assistance to Islamist opposition forces in places as varied as the Persian Gulf and North Africa.  

In defiance of Washington, Iran organized a counterconference to Madrid that featured all of the leading rejectionist states and radical Islamic organizations. In addition to the usual denunciations of the United States and Israel, the clerical rulers focused their ire on the incumbent Arab regimes. Rafsanjani led the charge: “The weak and miserable Arab governments have agreed to negotiations with Israel, thinking their problems are finished. These signatures haven’t the least value.” Khamenei followed suit by claiming that the Arab leaders’ participation would cause them to be “hated by their nations.” The problem was that the more Iran allied itself with Islamist movements and plotted against the peace process, the more difficult it became for any American administration to develop confidence in its pledges of moderation.  

Consistent with its recent history, Iran soon expressed its hostility through terrorist attacks. On March 17, 1992, a bomb destroyed the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, killing twenty-nine people. Two years later Argentina became the scene of another Hezbollah attack as a bomb devastated a Jewish center and killed eighty-six civilians. Hezbollah would not be Iran’s only instrument of terror, as the Islamic Republic established close ties with Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. It must be stressed that these groups had their own motivations for striking Israel and were not pliable agents of the mullahs. A shared determination to obstruct the peace process brought Iran and the militant Islamists together, for they all perceived that Israel’s integration into the region would work against their interests. Iran and the Islamist groups established mutually reinforcing relationships, as the terrorist organizations were provided with Iranian logistical support while Tehran could strike at Israel indirectly—and thus with a degree of impunity.  

Israel was not the only target of Iranian-sponsored terrorism. Tehran now emerged as a benefactor of Islamist parties struggling against Arab monarchies and dictatorships. Hezbollah unquestionably remained the principal jewel in Iran’s crown, but the theocracy was hardly parsimonious in establishing ties with fundamentalist forces seeking to supplant the prevailing secular order. Along with Sudan and Syria, Iran managed to sustain the fires of Islamic militancy that were raging throughout the Middle East.  

In the end, despite initial anticipations, the theocratic state and the Bush administration failed to usher in a new relationship. Washington’s hope for improved ties with Tehran soon disappeared, as its post–Gulf War preoccupations with restructuring the Middle East brought it into direct confrontation with Iran. The U.S. policy was not without its failures of imagination, however. A more inclusive approach to security in the Persian Gulf might have enticed the clerics toward further cooperation. The reality remains that Iran was not rewarded for its constructive behavior during the Gulf War or its assistance in the release of the American hostages in Lebanon. Once the resolution of the Arab-Israeli dispute became America’s foremost regional priority, an antagonistic approach toward Iran was nearly inevitable.  

For its part, Tehran perceived an entire range of U.S. policies as deliberately designed to limit its influence and contain its power. From Iran’s perspective, the strategic gains that resulted from Saddam’s defeat in the Gulf War would quickly evaporate if a new Middle East came into existence. Excluded from America’s Gulf security discussions and squeezed by a peace process that was bound to isolate it, Iran fought back by cultivating ties with rejectionist forces that were similarly at odds with America’s mandates. Despite his belief that Iran could benefit from better ties with the United States, Rafsanjani shared the conservatives’ animus toward the peace process. And once Washington identified the clerical regime as the main obstacle to the execution of its strategy, conflict was bound to displace diplomacy.  

The Clinton Administration and the Politics of Peacemaking

The first post–cold war election in the United States witnessed a repudiation of the Bush presidency and its emphasis on international relations. An economically hard-pressed population hoping for a peace dividend turned to Governor Bill Clinton and his pledge to refocus national energies on domestic concerns. The challenges and quandaries of the Middle East would now belong to a Democratic administration that would soon develop its own expansive vision for the region.  

Having soured on George Bush, Rafsanjani once more hoped for a different policy from the United States. In its typical manner, the Islamic Republic began sending subtle signs through press commentary. The Tehran Times, a newspaper with close ties to the Foreign Ministry, editorialized that “any sign of goodwill will be responded [to] by goodwill on the Iranian side.” Rafsanjani soon moved beyond press feelers and openly declared that improved relations “would not be in contradiction with Iran’s objectives.”  

It is hard to see how much authority or leeway Rafsanjani actually had since his position was soon assailed by the conservatives. The Kayhan thundered against naïve leaders who believed that Iran’s problems would be solved only if the country reestablished relations with America. Yet another conservative stalwart, the Risalat, went so far as to stress that Iran’s integration into the global economy was bound to undermine its quest for self-reliance. Instead of directly confronting the hard-liners, Rafsanjani hoped that Washington would somehow rescue him from his dilemma. The president seemingly felt that, armed with a dramatic gesture of reconciliation from the United States, he could deflect domestic criticisms and press ahead. Alas, such gestures of unilateral concessions to the Islamic Republic were not about to come from the Clinton White House.  

The new American administration assumed power with its own criticisms of its predecessor’s policies. Freed from the task of containing the Soviet Union, the United States no longer needed to make tawdry bargains with unsavory states. The focus of U.S. policy was democratic enlargement and the establishment of ties with like-minded states. Regimes that were outside the democratic community of nations were to be ostracized, contained, and isolated. These “outlaw states” with their despotic internal arrangements and revisionist foreign policies did not adhere to the norms that America sought to uphold. The Islamic Republic found itself in a difficult position confronting an administration focused on individual rights, democratic representation, and moderate international affairs.  

The personalities and policies of the Clinton administration portended further difficulties for Iran. The new secretary of state, Warren Christopher, came into office with his own long and thorny legacy with the mullahs. As the lead U.S. negotiator during the hostage crisis, Christopher had developed well-honed animosities toward Iran. Among his first acts was to condemn the clerical regime: “Wherever you look, you find the evil hand of Iran in this region.” Buttressed by a team of colleagues that included many staunch advocates of democracy, the secretary of state’s antagonism militated against reaching out to Tehran.  

The two states’ differing regional priorities further reinforced the trend toward confrontation. The Clinton team came into office sensing a unique opportunity to resolve the conflict between Israel and its neighbors. The process that was launched in Madrid and complemented by secret Oslo negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians finally placed the elusive breakthrough within sight. In many respects, Iran policy was a function of the broader context of Arab-Israeli relations, and the barometer that measured Iranian moderation was its approach to the peace process. Christopher made his antagonisms clear: “The enemies of peace are determined to kill this historic chance for reconciliation. As we promote peace, we must also deal with the enemies of peace.” Moreover, the Clinton administration was wary of the experience of its two Republican predecessors, in which sporadic negotiations with Iran had failed to solve the fundamental problems between the two nations. It was time to invest in diplomatic efforts to achieve a workable peace instead of aspiring to the chimera of reconciliation with a deeply problematic theocracy. 

The eventual U.S. policy became known as “dual containment,” the notion that the United States would no longer lean toward either Iran or Iraq in sustaining a balance of power in the Persian Gulf. As Martin Indyk, a senior White House official, explained:  

We do not accept the argument that we should continue the old balance of power game, building up one to balance the other. We reject that approach not only because its bankruptcy was demonstrated in Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. We reject it because of clearheaded assessment of the antagonism that both regimes harbor towards the United States and its allies in the region. And we reject it because we don’t need to rely on one to balance the other.  

Given America’s unrivaled power and the unsavory nature of both Saddam’s Iraq and theocratic Iran, Washington wanted to shape the essential parameters of Gulf politics while simultaneously isolating its regional competitors. With regard to Iran, “dual containment” would translate into economic warfare, as the United States would not only curtail its own trade with Iran but also pressure its allies to limit their commerce.  

“Dual containment” was a peculiar departure from traditional U.S. policy, which at least acknowledged that Iran and Iraq were significant regional states whose influence had to be shaped by an active U.S. policy.34 Since the departure of the British forces from the Persian Gulf, the United States had hoped that Iran and Iraq would balance out and contain each other. In the 1970s, it was the shah who took the lead in preserving the security of the Gulf by checking the ambitions of the Ba’athist state. In the 1980s, the United States and much of the international community buttressed Saddam’s war machine in order to negate the revolutionary ambition of the radical theocracy. “Dual containment” discarded that admittedly problematic task of relying on one objectionable state to counterbalance another. Instead, Washington now embraced the presumption that it could preserve stability in the Persian Gulf largely by itself. This entailed not just a substantial U.S. troop presence but also a massive infusion of arms into the region. The problem was that America’s allies had a limited appetite for confronting Iran. In a further blow to regional stability, America’s intrusive establishment in states such as Saudi Arabia stimulated militant Islamist forces aggrieved at an alien presence in proximity to Islam’s holiest shrines.  

The discord between the United States and Iran was nowhere more evident than in the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Oslo hit Tehran like a thunderbolt. Iran’s inflammatory attacks became even sharper as Arafat’s “treachery” was condemned from pulpits and podiums throughout the Islamic Republic. Khamenei castigated Arafat as “that puny ill-reputed blackguard,” whose crime was greater than Anwar Sadat’s acceptance of the Camp David Accords. According to Iran’s supreme leader, Sadat had at the very least betrayed the Arab cause for the sake of territory, whereas Arafat had obtained only a series of promises that would never be implemented. In the meantime, 270 Iranian parliamentary deputies signed a letter that emphasized their continued commitment to the “annihilation of Israel from the world map.” Iran did not curb its incendiary rhetoric, however, and in fact became the patron of the radical Islamic forces struggling against a Middle East that was seeking to come to terms with its past.  

The tragic history of the region repeated itself once more. Given the asymmetry of power between Israel and its opponents, spectacular suicide bombings designed to shock the Israeli public and galvanize the Palestinian population became the preferred tactic. Under the auspices of Hezbollah, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad conducted attacks that the clerical rulers in Tehran often applauded. Iran would never claim actual responsibility for these gruesome acts of terror, but it also made no secret of its approval. Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Vilayati plainly stated that “Iran is the main supporter of Hamas and Hezbollah and their struggle against Israel.”  

It is important to comprehend that Iran’s objective in assisting the rejectionist forces was not merely the creation of mayhem in Israel but also the intimidation of Arab rulers. As Islamist groups emerged defiant and triumphant, they captured the public’s imagination across the Middle East. In turn, Arab governments hesitated to move forward. The typically timid Arab regimes were already concerned about their constituents’ inflamed opposition to the Oslo Accords. The terrorists’ popularity caused these states to recoil from giving Israelis and Palestinians the support they needed as they embarked on the precarious exercise of peacemaking. Iran and its allies thus created a situation in which Arab leaders became passive observers rather than responsible stakeholders in one of the most important turning points in the region’s recent history.  

Despite decades of inflammatory denunciations of the Jewish state by the Iranian clerical class, the year 1996 witnessed a particularly callous act. Iran, which had seldom displayed good public relations acumen, chose to celebrate the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Jumhuri-i Islami exclaimed that everyone throughout the world was “rejoicing over the slaying of this bloodthirsty Zionist.” Natiq-Nuri blamed the assassination on Israel itself: “Zionists should have known when they open the door to terrorism that they themselves would be victims of the plots they hatched for others. The assassination of Rabin was followed a few months later by a devastating series of bombs in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem that killed fifty-nine civilians. The Israeli politicians, led by the new prime minister, Shimon Peres, blamed Iran for Hamas’s violent outburst. Although operational linkages are difficult to substantiate, given Iran’s routine resort to terrorism and its close ties with Palestinian militants, the charge of its complicity gained widespread acceptance. The campaign of terrorism finally unhinged the power of the Labor Party, as the conservative skeptics of the peace process, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, assumed leadership in Israel. Not for the first time in the history of the Middle East would violence derail the promise of peace.  

At a time when the United States and Iran were at loggerheads, an expanding level of trade had gradually evolved between the two nations. Through various subsidiaries, U.S. firms continued to export to Iran while America emerged as one of the largest purchasers of Iranian oil. Given the intensifying tensions between the two states and pressures developing within Congress, the Clinton administration was bound to consider a more strenuous sanctions policy. To avert such a possibility, Iran sought to offer a tantalizing billion-dollar oil exploration deal to the American firm Conoco. As with the Iran-Contra affair, many have interpreted this offer as an attempt by Iran to pursue a more pragmatic policy toward the United States. Certainly, for Rafsanjani and his allies the deal had the advantage of potentially easing tensions with the Clinton White House, which was growing impatient with Iran’s machinations. However, a more compelling motivation seems to have been an attempt by Iran to sustain its lucrative commercial relations with U.S. subsidiaries without necessarily adjusting its objectionable policies.  

The Conoco offer reflected the limits of Rafsanjani’s authority and imagination. The deal was a crass means of influencing an administration mainly concerned with Iran’s support for terrorism and its opposition to important U.S. objectives. This is not to suggest that Rafsanjani was insincere about his desire to reach out to the United States, as he plaintively confessed that “We invited an American firm and entered a deal for a billion dollars. This was a message to the United States that was not properly understood.” However, no commercial incentive could have assuaged a Washington establishment that was attributing its peace process frustrations to Iranian intrigue. The proper path for placating the United States would have been for Iran to abandon its opposition to Israel and the diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict between Jerusalem and its neighbors. However, given Rafsanjani’s own attachment to these policies, all he was prepared to do was offer an oil deal.  

The response of the Clinton administration was to cease all trade with Iran. Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Robert Pelletreau defended the imposition of the sanctions by claiming that this was the best means of making Iran pay “for flouting the norms of law-abiding nations.” This theme was echoed by Undersecretary for Political Affairs Peter Tarnoff, who similarly stressed that these prohibitions were designed “to counter Iran’s rogue activities.” Iran’s policy toward the United States was caught in a set of contradictory pressures that ensured its failure. On the one hand, Iran’s reactionaries, who had ample institutional power at their disposal, continued to persist with their anti-American crusades. Rafsanjani seemed disinclined to challenge policies that did so much to antagonize the United States. In a corresponding gesture, the U.S. position steadily hardened, further undermining calls from clerical pragmatists for the relaxation of tensions.  

This economic pressure on Iran took an extraterritorial dimension in August 1996, when the president signed into law the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA), which sought to punish international firms that invested more than $20 million in Iran’s energy sector. It is important to note that many of these initiatives were coming out of the Republican-controlled Congress, including an absurd measure by Speaker Newt Gingrich to allocate $18 million for the overthrow of the Islamic Republic. Nonetheless, ILSA did give the president the option of a waiver that he could employ if he deemed it in the nation’s interest. The Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, which called on the United States to penalize European and Japanese firms, caused a predictable uproar among the allies. The call for secondary sanctions violated America’s own often-declared commitment to free trade, complicated its dealings with its important partners, and had virtually no impact on the volume of Iran’s commerce. ILSA would never be invoked by successive administrations even as they acquiesced to its periodic renewal. The legislation may have reflected Congress’s frustrations and hostilities toward Iran, but it was ultimately too provocative and divisive to serve as a viable tool of American diplomacy.  

The nadir of relations between the two states came with the terrorist attack on the Khobar Towers, which housed American servicemen in Saudi Arabia. As the previous chapter explains, strong circumstantial evidence tied Iran to the bombing, which was carried out by its Saudi surrogates.  

The resort to terrorism not only further estranged Iran from the United States but also strained its relations with the Gulf monarchies. For a country seeking to escape its isolation, the Khobar Towers bombing was a dramatic step back. 

By the end of Rafsanjani’s tenure, it was difficult to make the case that his diplomacy toward the United States was either judicious or imaginative. Certainly the pragmatic president continued to hold out hope for a different relationship with the United States. Iran’s proper behavior during the Gulf War, its assistance in the release of the American hostages held in Lebanon, and its press feelers to the newly inaugurated Bush and Clinton administrations were neither modest nor useless gestures. However, Iran also pressed for the eviction of U.S. forces from the Persian Gulf area and used terrorism against the United States and its Israeli and Arab allies. Rafsanjani cannot escape blame, as he readily joined the conservatives in the execution of many of these policies. Too often Rafsanjani’s conciliatory moves were negated by his own conduct.  

In retrospect, Iran could not fully transcend the legacy of its founder and the revolution’s innate antagonism to the “Great Satan.” Rafsanjani believed that he could break that pattern of hostility if Washington would offer him a meaningful package of economic incentives. Armed with these concessions, perhaps he could have arrested Iran’s descent toward radicalism. In the opaque backroom politics of the Islamic Republic, the president believed that he might have been able to persuade the supreme leader that a constructive relationship with the United States could do much to enhance Iran’s national interests. In this sense, Rafsanjani may have underestimated Khamenei’s and the hard-liners’ attachment to anti-Americanism as an enduring pillar of the revolution. At any rate, such unilateral and preemptive gestures were not forthcoming from Washington.  

Although there is much in Iran’s approach that can be criticized, it is still difficult to make a good case for America’s coercive containment doctrine. Ultimately, U.S. sanctions and military deployments on Iran’s periphery failed to compel the theocracy to adjust its policies. The Bush and Clinton administrations perceived in the post–cold war environment an opportunity to realign the politics of the Middle East. Although such grand transformations are often attributed to George W. Bush, his predecessors sensed that, with the end of the cold war and the Oslo process, they could unlock the doors to a new Middle East. Such an altered region would focus its energies on issues of economic interdependence and political renewal as opposed to its ancient feuds and conflicts. There was little room in this reconceptualized Middle East for recalcitrant regimes such as the Islamic Republic. Despite occasional flirtations with engagement, Iran was seldom offered a path toward rehabilitation, as its influence was seen as too unsavory and its government too reactionary for redemption. The American animus, Rafsanjani’s reticence, and the hard-liners’ antagonism made a pragmatic approach unworkable. Rafsanjani should be credited with seeing how Iran’s animosity toward the United States was subverting its national interests, but in the end, he proved a feeble agent of reform.