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Iran and the United States On The Brink

By Marvin Zonis

As someone who has been immersed in the study of Iran for nearly 60 years, I am mightily confused by the policies of the Trump administration.

The President speaks of his eagerness to talk with Iranian leaders. But his Secretary of State and National Security Adviser clearly advocate different policies. Secretary of State Pompeo has listed 12 conditions Iran must meet before talks can begin – conditions that are clearly anathema to the Iranian government and therefore unattainable. National Security Advisor Bolton has long advocated regime change and bombing Iranian nuclear facilities. As recently as 2015 he spoke to a conference organized by the Mujahedin-e Khalq, an Iranian opposition group advocating the overthrow of the regime.

What Iran confronts is not only these mixed messages. Instead of trying to analyze the thickets of U.S. words, Iran has to cope most immediately with the most punishing sanctions ever imposed on any country.

Let me tell you of my understanding of how I believe Iran will respond to those sanctions.

Iran will not succumb to threats.

The revolution of 1978-1979 was fueled by the belief that Iran had been manipulated by foreign powers for at least two centuries and that the shah had been beholden to the U.S., if not actually its puppet. During the 444 days in which Iran imprisoned U.S. diplomats, Ayatollah Khomeini came up with the slogan, “American can’t do a damn thing against us.” That slogan became an Iranian calling card. Later, President Ahmadinejad repeated it frequently in response to U.S. opposition to Iran’s nuclear program.

Iran will not succumb to the hardships resulting from U.S. sanctions

Iraq invaded Iran in 1980 and the result was an eight-year war in which Iran ultimately sued for peace. The hardships experienced during the war were far more severe than the burden from U.S. sanctions. This is not to trivialize the effects of those sanctions. Iranian oil exports have fallen to less than 500,000 barrels per day. Inflation in May 2019 was running at 52% from the same month a year earlier. The Iranian rial has collapsed against the dollar. The official rate available to government departments to import food is set at 42,000 rials to the dollar. But one the street – the black market – it takes 130,000 rials to buy a dollar.

The hardships will not lead to a mass uprising against the regime

Iranians are great patriots. They are Iranians, first and foremost. When they suffer from the actions of outsiders, they rally around their own government. This is a lesson the United States should have learned decades ago. After the end of the second World War, the United States conducted a survey to determine the effects of the strategic bombing of Germany. Contrary to expectations, the bombing of German cities led to Germans rallying around their own government and actually prolonged the war. Germans hated United States for making their lives miserable.

Iranian leaders have not lost their sense of legitimacy

In the end, governments fall when their leaders come to believe that their rule is illegitimate. Governments hold so many advantages over their opponents – armies and police forces, money, and international recognition among many others, it is hard to see how any regime loses power. The shah, for but one example, fell when he himself gave up on his own rule. There is not a scintilla of evidence that the Iranian governing elites believe they have failed. In fact, the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei continues to celebrate the “revolutionary values” of the regime.

The Iranian government has powerful repressive capabilities and the will to use them

Massive protests erupted in Iran in 2009 after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was announced the winner of the presidential elections. Hundreds of thousands of protesters saw the results as fixed and took to the streets in cities and towns across the country. The regime declared the demonstrations illegal and closed the universities, blocked websites and shut down mobile phone systems. Then they called out the police and the Basij or Mobilization – groups of men organized by local mosques across the country and outfitted with clubs and chains. They viciously beat the protesters and arrested thousands who were then tortured in jail. That repressive capability is still available to the regime and would be turned out to suppress any popular uprising.

In short, Iran and the United States are at an impasse. The immediate result is a dangerous escalation by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards to break out of that impasse. The dangers of further escalation are all too real. President Trump’s calling off a raid in retaliation to the downing of an American drone in the Strait of Hormuz was a wise decision averting what would have been a tit-for-tat response by Iran.

The best way to break that impasse is not through military strikes but a turn to a central Iranian cultural mechanism for dealing with conflict. You see that mechanism at work in any traffic accident in Tehran where drivers are even more reckless than Italian drivers. The result is not an infrequent fender bender. Then the two drivers will leap out of their cars and start shouting at each other, threatening a fist fight, all the while casting sidelong glances at the assembled crowd. Finally, someone from the crowd will step forward and intervene to calm the irate drivers and work out some sort of acceptable arrangement.

The U.S. needs to find another country to intercede in this fight. The logical intercessor is Oman. The Sultan of Oman was the intercessor that began the negotiations between Iran and the U.S. that led to the 2015 nuclear accord. It is past time to get Oman back to its previous role to avert a much more dangerous turn to violence by Iran and the U.S.

Marvin Zonis is Professor Emeritus at the Booth School of Business, The University of Chicago, and can be reached at marvin.zonis@chicagobooth.edu