Page 2 of 2 Iran-US: A study in misperceptions
By Hossein Askari
does not dictate policy. Just look at the Iranian economy under Ahmadinejad. It
is a total mess (as was the case even before Ahmadinejad, though less so). Its
policies and practices are just off the wall. Ahmadinejad does not even follow
the law of the land; the Iranian government is supposed to adhere to the
disposition of oil revenues, replenishing the Oil Stabilization Fund when
revenues are high and weaning the government from oil revenues over a period of
10 years. Instead, Ahmadinejad spends oil revenues freely, in many instances
without parliamentary approval, to support his own political base.
The Supreme Leader devoted almost his entire Iranian new year address in 2008
to Iran's economic failures and the need for urgent reforms. While the Supreme
Leader may be clearly disappointed with Iran's economic performance and the
economic injustice under Ahmadinejad, he does not see it as his role or in his
interest to interfere directly in the day-to-day running of the government.
Instead, he tries to blunt, shape and change the president's policies (or
parliamentary debate) through carefully worded speeches, by acting through
members of parliament and especially through the speaker of parliament,
individual clerics and through the powerful oversight body, the Guardian
Council. If the Supreme Leader absolutely wants to change a particular policy,
he clearly can in today's Iran, but he has largely chosen not to as this would
bring him into the fray and expose him to guilt by association in the case of
unpopular policies and failure, and to widespread criticism.
In Iran, the president develops and implements policies. He is not the ultimate
head of state. Also important is the fact that there are other checks and
balances to his power: the parliament, the Guardian Council, the military
(including the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps - IRGC), and the security
services. The president selects his cabinet, but needs parliamentary approval
before members of his cabinet are installed in office. Ministers are by and
large powerless to adopt any major change in policy on their own; and deputy
ministers are basically afraid to take any decision without approval of their
The Iranian parliament, or Majlis, holds lively debates and passes laws that
may not please the president or the Supreme Leader. But bills passed by the
Majlis do not become law unless approved by the Guardian Council (12 members -
six clerics and six jurists). In effect, the Guardian Council holds veto power
over all legislation adopted by the Majlis. It can veto bills if it deems that
these are contrary to Islamic law or to the constitution. While all 12 members
vote on the laws being compatible with the constitution, only the six clerics
on the council vote on compatibility with Islamic law. Bills found lacking are
sent back to the Majlis. If the Guardian Council and the Majlis cannot resolve
their differences, then the matter is sent to the Expediency Council for final
The role of the military (including the IRGC) in Iran goes beyond the
military's standard role in most other countries, that of defending the country
against external threat and aggression. This is because the sacrifices of the
military during the Iraq war are important to most Iranians, especially those
who are roughly 40 years of age and older, people who were directly and in
their own lifetime touched by the war.
Although the IRGC reports to the Supreme Leader, the support of the IRGC in
particular carries a great deal of sway in Iran. In recent years, and
especially under Ahmadinejad (himself a former member of the IRGC), the IRGC
has increasingly secured lucrative civilian government contracts, enhancing its
economic importance at the expense of the private sector and overall economic
In Iran, as in a number of other countries, the security services are outside
of the control of elected leaders and defy their oversight. Iran's security
services are directly under the control of the Supreme Leader and his office.
They are a force that no president controls and a force that can limit and
override presidential powers in areas of foreign policy and national security,
in ways that are hardly ever transparent, even to those inside Iran.
In the case of Iran, because of regional conflicts and the massive US presence
with regime change in Iran as its policy, the security services are afforded
even more latitude and deference than in most other countries. Many of the US
complaints about the lack of transparency in Iran may simply be Washington's
inability to penetrate Iranian security services. If so, Iranians are doing
their jobs well.
While most Iranian clergy have left Iran only to visit the Islamic holy places
in Saudi Arabia and Iraq, the majority of the key technocratic decision-makers
continue to be Western educated. But these post-revolutionary leaders who came
to the West (especially to the US) for their university education, viewed their
educational goals much more narrowly and returned to Iran as soon as their
formal education was completed.
A crash course in Diplomacy 101 would tell a US president that he or she needs
top-notch advisors if the US wants to have successful negotiations with another
country. These advisors should have the background and experience to brief and
advise a president at every step of the negotiations. In the end, negotiations
are akin to a game of poker. Knowledge about the adversary (history, culture,
upbringing, etc) is key in helping to understand an adversary's goals,
motivation, limitations and strengths.
Equally important, one must intimately know the individuals who are in
positions of power, the decision-makers and those who are negotiating.
Negotiations are always with individuals. Where are these individuals in the
Iranian power structure? What are their guarded views on a broad range of
issues? What is their personal background? How can one interpret their
reactions and mannerisms? All of this information is necessary if one is to
have the advantage in a game of poker.
But such knowledge requires intimate contact over time with a number of people
with whom Americans (American-born or Iranian-born) have little or no contact.
In some cases, such as a very senior member of Iran's intelligence services,
Americans would not even know whom they were meeting. Does the US have a cadre
of advisors and experts that could provide briefings embracing these and other
aspects of background information for negotiating with Iran?
Since September 11, 2001, there has been a proliferation of Middle East experts
on everything from Islam, terrorism, and yes, on Iran. It is on these newly
minted policy experts on Iran that US decision-makers (the White House,
Congress, the State Department, the Defense Department and the Central
Intelligence Agency) ostensibly rely for guidance and direction in dealing with
Iran. Who are these Iranian experts? They fall into two broad groups: those of
Western origin and those of Iranian origin.
In the case of those of Western origin, many speak very little or no Farsi,
some have never visited Iran, most have not visited Iran since the revolution,
even fewer have met a broad spectrum of Iranians in Iran and none to my
knowledge have gone to Iran to interact with senior clergy, cabinet ministers,
members of parliament and Iranian national security leaders on anything
remotely approaching a regular basis. So do we have any US-born experts on
In the case of Iranian-born experts living in the US, again many have not
visited Iran since the revolution and have thus not had an opportunity to
interact with a broad spectrum of the populace. I would venture to say that not
even a handful has had extensive interactions with senior clergy, cabinet
ministers and Iranian national security leaders. Many Iranian Americans
publicly appear to be more American than Americans; and this invites suspicions
of their impartiality in Iran.
Mostly critical, many Iranian-born Americans have their own personal agenda (as
did perhaps Ahmad Chalabi in the case of Iraq); they dream of going back and
recovering their lost wealth, or even better, ruling the country and getting
even more wealth than they had before the revolution and thus become
susceptible to Iranian manipulation. They may have accepted money from the
Iranian government or comprised their public views and opinions to secure
financial rewards. So are there even a handful of learned and trustworthy
Iranian-American experts on Iran?
How should advisors and experts be vetted? How can this be rectified? How can a
US president or secretary of state get better advice? Whether there are
legitimate experts and advisors on Iran in the US has yet to be determined, but
at least the government should try to assess their qualifications as many lives
and US welfare may depend on their advice if they are listened to and their
advice is taken.
For anyone who is consulted by the US government as an expert on Iran the
following information, in addition to normal information contained on a resume,
should be disclosed: level of competence in the Farsi language; course of study
in areas such as history, politics, religion and economics specifically about
Iran; writing and research on Iran; aggregate time spent in Iran, and the
number, nature, length and dates of visits to Iran; names and nature of
relations with key leaders, decision-makers and especially those in security
services; whether they, or their family, have accepted or are seeking financial
return and rewards in Iran; and reasons why there might be a remote chance of a
possible conflict of interest (financial, professional or otherwise) on policy
recommendations or predictions.
Does the US government even care about the quality of advice? Do the White
House and other branches of the US government even bother to ask, let alone
demand, this kind of information of individuals on whom the lives and fortunes
of the US depend? Or are experts just chosen because of a book, a professional
article or appearances on TV and radio? Given that there's so much at stake, do
the White House, the State Department, the Defense Department, other US
government agencies or the US Congress vet these "experts?" My answer to this
question would be an emphatic "no", knowing some of the "experts" who have been
doing some of these high-level briefings on Iran at the White House and on
Given this state of affairs, it is no wonder that no progress has been made in
enhancing US-Iranian relations for nearly 30 years. The process has been akin
to the blind leading the blind. Can US efforts at rapprochement be even
considered as serious?
All the while, the average Iranian feels increasingly threatened by the US
presence in Iraq and is becoming more and more nationalistic as the US
president continues to publicly threaten Iran with his various options,
including military action. US public threats against Iran only re-enforce
Iranian nationalism, lend further support to the mullahs in Teheran, and are in
turn a sign of how little US policymakers and US "experts" on Iran understand
Iran. It seems that in Washington the basis for dealing with Iran will continue
to be the appropriate mix of carrot and stick with little understanding of the
possible reaction of the intended recipients of the carrots and sticks.
In the end, the cynics may be right: experts and advisors are only pawns, pawns
in a charade that justifies the politicians' endgame, with true expertise and
understanding beside the point.
Hossein Askari is professor of international business and international
affairs at George Washington University.