"But what does Iran want?" This was the question frequently hurled at me during a series of lectures and meetings in the United States recently. It indicated the desire of those who posed it to find "a reasonable way" to avoid a conflict that many now regard as inevitable.
To critics of President George W. Bush the Tehran's policy of deliberate provocation is a result of Washington's failure "to understand what Iran really wants." One questioner even claimed that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad owed his election as president of the Islamic republic to "Bush's intransigence" which supposedly weakened the "moderates" in Iran.
Many answers to that question are already in circulation.
One answer, echoing the views of the Council on Foreign Relations, is that the Islamic republic is, in fact, crying out for attention. The Tehran leadership resents being shut out of the regional geopolitics at a time of upheavals prompted by regime changes in Kabul and Baghdad.
But how credible is such an analysis?
Not much. Tehran was given a place at the table when the future of Afghanistan was shaped in Bonn in 2002. But that did not prevent it from doing its bit of mischief on the side. Tehran's influence has also been present in post-Saddam Iraq from day one, in the shape of Shiite groups and personalities close to the Iranians by blood, marriage, and political affinity. And, yet, that has not prevented Tehran from financing and arming maverick groups, including the one led by Moqtada Sadr, against Iran's long-time friends in the new Iraqi leadership.
Another answer in circulation is that the Islamic republic, scared of being attacked, is acting as a bully to scare off would-be aggressors. But that does not hold much water either.
The Islamic republic and the US signed an accord in Algiers in 1980 that committed Washington not to endanger the Khomeinist regime. That undertaking was similar to the one given by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 not to destabilize the Castro regime in Cuba.
Although the Islamic republic did not ratify the Algiers accord through its legislature, successive US administrations have taken care not to infringe it. (The accord is often cited to prevent US citizens from suing the Islamic republic for acts of terrorism, hostage taking, and confiscation of property, in American courts.)
Thus the claim that Iranian leaders are aggressive because they fear attacks by the US is false. So far, no American administration has initiated a low— intensity campaign against the Islamic republic, let alone target it with a "regime change" program.
The Islamic republic, however, has not respected the accord by pursuing its low-intensity war against the US and its allies in the region.
Yet another answer to the question is provided by those who subscribe to the myth of "Iran's legitimate grievances". According to that myth, the US changed Iran's "democratic regime" in 1953, angering the Iranians who now want an apology in lieu of actual revenge. That myth is too stupid to merit a detailed debunking here. But even supposing that the US had done what it is supposed to have done, can anyone believe that the present rulers are angry because Iran lost the "democratic regime" it never had?
Can anyone in his right mind present the present rulers of Iran as champions of democracy?
In any case, at least two prominent US politicians bought into that myth and did offer "apologies" to the present rulers where none was warranted. President Bill Clinton's Secretary of State Madeleine Albright did so in 2001 at a banquet organized by a lobby group for the Islamic republic in New York. A few months later it was the turn of Clinton himself who, as always, did one better by apologizing not only for the mythical intervention of 1953 but also " for all the wrongs that my culture has done to you", thus assuming responsibility for the many wars that Russia and Great Britain had fought against Iran in the 19th and 20th centuries — wars in which the United States had played no part.
The Albright-Clinton apologies prompted Muhammad Khatami, who was the president of the Islamic republic at the time, to propose a form of detente and peaceful coexistence between Iran and the United States. In 1984 the same Khatami had written that the Islamic republic and the US were at war and could not think of peace because a truly Muslim state could never consider itself at peace with an "infidel" power.
Nevertheless, Khatami did work hard to foster his version of detente. That prompted the Clinton administration to come up wit the idea of a "Grand Bargain".
The "Grand Bargain" as Khatami saw it would create a mini-Yalta under which the Islamic republic and the US would divide the Middle East into their respective zones of influence. Tehran would be recognized as "the regional superpower" with a dominant position in Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Armenia, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. It would also preserve its special relationship with Oman, the only country to have signed a security pact with Iran. The US would further acknowledge Iran's presence in the United Arab Emirates, chiefly Dubai.
In exchange, the Islamic republic would not interfere with the flow of oil from the Gulf, would tone down its opposition to the Israel-Palestine peace efforts, and would not use terrorism against the US and its allies. Under the "Grand Bargain" the US would end up as the dominant power in Egypt, Jordan, Israel, the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, Azerbaijan, and Turkey.
The problem is that the "Grand Bargain" is no longer on the table.
The Islamic Majlis (Parliament) in Tehran has passed a law making any substantial dialogue with the US illegal. And Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Khatami's successor as president, is not interested in making any deals with the US that he regards as a "sunset" power. Ahmadinejad is in inspirational contact with the "Hidden Imam" whose return he believes is drawing nigh.
Ahmadinejad believes that the world is heading for a clash of civilizations in which Islam, led by Iran, will triumph over the "infidel" led by the United States. Ahmadinejad publicly states his policy as "a Jihad to reshape the world and ensure Islam's universal dominance."
Smug foreign policy wonks in the US might dismiss all that as "delusional fantasies." They may be right. But don't forget that Ahmadinejad also sees Bush's claim that the US is mandated by God to bring democracy to the Middle East as "a delusional fantasy."
The Council on Foreign Relations cannot liberate itself from the typical deal maker's mentality. It cannot conceive of a regime and a movement that put their messianic mission above conjectural maneuvers and compromises. They do not understand movements and regimes that, given something, would demand more because they believe that they should have it all.
Let us return to the question: What do the Iranian leaders really want?
The answer is simple: They want nothing in particular; they want everything!