The Reaganesque Approach to Iran? Embrace the Moderates
In a moment hardly imaginable just a few years earlier, Ronald Reagan, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Mikhail Gorbachev during a 1988 visit to Moscow’s Red Square, warmly embraced the communist leader in front of a cheering crowd. Minutes later, in another stark turnaround, Reagan recanted his indictment of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire,” dismissing his provocative comments of five years earlier as nothing more than a vestige of “another time, another era.” Three years later, the Soviet experiment collapsed.
Despite Reagan’s dramatic shift away from confrontation, open hostility, and a policy of “maximum pressure” on the Soviets, far too many contemporary foreign policy hawks — including U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and various neoconservative commentators — invoke the “wrong” Reagan to justify a confrontational, bellicose approach toward Iran.
In doing so, they overlook the simple fact that Reagan’s direct and intensely personal diplomatic engagement with the moderate, reform-minded leader of a repressive, authoritarian superpower ushered in the peaceful end of the Cold War. Reagan’s contemporary boosters, in their rush to portray him as the quintessential foreign policy hawk, also frequently forget that Reagan took significant flak from his own hard-right flank in response to his close, personal diplomatic engagement with his Soviet counterpart. In short, Reagan’s hawkish proponents embrace a deeply flawed interpretation of history: “maximum pressure” and “rollback” had very little to do with the ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union. Drawing on extensive archival research, we now know that such confrontational posturing, in fact, had very little effect on Soviet decision-making and, in all likelihood, prolonged the Cold War. Indeed, there is little reason to doubt that, were he in office today, Reagan would delight in bucking the “hard-liners” pushing for “maximum pressure” on Iran and sit down — once again — at the negotiating table with the moderates currently in power in Tehran.
Far from inducing the Iranians to negotiate or catalyzing regime change in Tehran, the Trump administration’s confrontational policies are yielding the opposite results. Bolton and Pompeo’s antagonistic approach, born out of a misreading of Reagan’s endgame with the Soviets, are emboldening and enriching the most conservative, virulently anti-American elements in Iran. Worse yet, the Trump administration is undermining the moderate government currently in power in Tehran. The prevailing atmosphere of hostility and confrontation has severely undercut President Hassan Rouhani’s efforts to rein in the assorted conservatives and hardliners spoiling for conflict with the United States.
Perhaps more importantly, the administration’s hostile approach is resulting in a “rollback” of the Gorbachev-style reforms recently enacted in Iran. In short, the Trump administration’s embrace of the “wrong” historical Reagan, coupled with an incorrect reading of the collapse of the Soviet Union, is yielding results that make diplomatic engagement like Reagan’s with Gorbachev an impossibility with Iran. With near-zero odds of the Iranians sitting down to negotiate, the hawkish elements of the Trump administration have eliminated any chance of catalyzing the types of truly transformational changes that brought down the Soviet Union. Indeed, instead of subverting and undermining a moderate government that has enacted Gorbachev-style changes, a truly Reaganesque approach to Iran would see the Trump administration publicly praising — as Reagan did with the Soviets — such nascent reforms and those enacting them.
The Collapse of the Soviet Union: Reagan Wins Best Supporting Actor
Ronald Reagan famously entered office embracing a bombastic, confrontational approach toward the Soviet Union. Midway through his first term, however, Reagan noted that his “own attitudes about the Soviets were changing.” In a brief passage jotted down in his personal diary in 1984, Reagan succinctly foreshadowed his pivotal supporting role in ushering in the peaceful collapse of the (one-time) “evil empire.” Following a White House meeting with a foreign head of state with deep diplomatic experience in the Soviet Union, Reagan recounted learning from his guest that, despite the Soviets’ “expansionist philosophy, they are also insecure and genuinely frightened of us.” Critically, Reagan wrote that “if we opened them up a bit, their leading citizens would get braver about proposing changes in their system.” Concluding his diary entry, Reagan resolved “to pursue this” approach, presaging an immensely consequential shift in American foreign policy.
Reagan, embracing this new diplomatic script and guided by a deeply personal desire to abolish nuclear weapons, gradually abandoned his trademark antagonistic approach toward Moscow. When a reform-minded politician emerged to lead the Soviet Union in 1985, Reagan found the partner in diplomacy that he had been seeking. Ultimately, Reagan’s steadfast dedication to “opening up” the Soviets through direct, deeply personal diplomatic dialogue gave his Russian counterpart the political latitude to enact the economic and social changes to the Soviet system — perestroika, glasnost, demokratizatsiya — that ushered in a peaceful end to the Cold War.
The Soviet Union and the Islamic Republic: Reformers (Occasionally) at the Helm
Comparisons between the Soviet Union and present-day Iran are inevitably imperfect, but the two share a number of striking similarities. Post-revolutionary Iran, like the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War, is a politically and socially repressive, economically stagnant “basket case.” A ruthless internal security force protects a web of systemic corruption and safeguards the political status quo in Iran, just as one did in the Soviet states. Iran’s domestic security apparatus, very much in the Soviet mold, also staunchly guards against the emergence of popular economic and social reform movements, perhaps most vividly illustrated with the brutal crackdown on the moderate Green Movement. As such, short of externally imposed regime change, true transformation in such systems can only be initiated in a top-down manner by a leader sufficiently willing and able to do so.
When a reform-minded politician ultimately emerged to lead the Soviet Union, Reagan jumped at the opportunity to fully pursue his previously furtive attempts at diplomatic outreach to successive Soviet leaders. Mikhail Gorbachev, much like current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, assumed power with a mandate to address deep-seated economic challenges and a readiness — at tremendous political risk — to negotiate with the United States. In his efforts to stimulate the Soviet economy, Gorbachev, like most moderates in Iran, had no intention of ushering in the collapse of the overarching political system. Of particular note, Gorbachev was not chosen to lead the Soviet Union because of his reformist agenda, which was largely unknown to the Politburo when he assumed power. This runs contrary to the notion that the Reagan administration’s massive arms buildup of the early 1980s caused panic in the upper echelons of the Soviet political establishment and scared the Politburo into elevating a radical reformer to leadership.
Similarly, in a series of noteworthy analytic errors, no shortage of hawkish analysts dismissed Gorbachev’s reforms as “meaningless.” Reagan’s Central Intelligence Agency director, for one, assessed that Gorbachev and those around him “are not reformers and liberalizers, either in Soviet domestic or foreign policy.” Those assessments proved spectacularly incorrect, as Gorbachev’s reforms ultimately catalyzed the collapse of an authoritarian superpower. Contemporary parallels no doubt apply to Rouhani’s “moderate” and “reformist” bona fides. Far too many conservative analysts conveniently ignore Rouhani’s Gorbachev-style economic reforms and the constraints — albeit limited — that the Rouhani administration has placed on the conservative, anti-U.S. elements in the Iranian military establishment. The hawks also disregard Rouhani’s Gorbachev-esque crusade to root out endemic corruption in the Iranian “deep state.”
Gorbachev also had to contend, as Rouhani does today, with a constant barrage of criticism and subversion from the conservative, virulently anti-American hardliners within his own government. In particular, Gorbachev faced a relentless push by hardline communist apparatchiks to pursue several costly weapons programs in response to Reagan’s massive defense buildup. Gorbachev, unalterably determined to reduce Soviet defense spending, would have none of it; Soviet military spending, contrary to numerous U.S. intelligence assessments, did not increase or decrease significantly in response to Reagan’s defense spending spree.
Similarly, while Reagan’s contemporary champions frequently invoke his policy of “rolling back” the Soviets’ military adventurism, they ignore that Gorbachev in fact did the rolling back. Gorbachev did so over the vehement objections of conservative hardliners in Moscow and, critically, despite the confrontational approach of the early Reagan administration which, according to Gorbachev and several other key players, had no bearing on Soviet decision-making. In much the same vein, Iranian adventurism in the Middle East is unlikely to be tempered by a U.S. campaign of “maximum pressure.” Indeed, if the robust multilateral sanctions regime applied by the United States and its allies during the Obama administration had no discernible effect on Iranian military activity in the region, the Trump administration’s application of unilateral sanctions — without the support of key U.S. allies — is unlikely to achieve a dramatically different result.
Ultimately, despite persistent challenges from Soviet and American hardliners, Reagan’s embrace of Gorbachev laid the groundwork for historic reductions in nuclear arms and empowered Gorbachev to enact the reforms that catalyzed the peaceful collapse of an authoritarian, economically backward state.
Reagan and Iran: Embracing the Moderates
Given the profoundly positive results of Reagan’s diplomatic engagement with Gorbachev, there is little reason to doubt that Reagan would employ a similar strategy toward Iran if he were in office today. Indeed, Reagan’s approach to Iran in the mid-1980s may also be instructive in this regard. In the summer of 1986, in a bold move that would ultimately fuel the Iran-Contra scandal, Reagan dispatched his senior national security aides to meet secretly with a group of Iranian moderates in Tehran. While the immediate goal of Reagan’s outreach to the Iranian delegation — led by none other than current President Hassan Rouhani — was to secure the release of American hostages held by Iranian proxies, Reagan hoped for a much more ambitious outcome: improved relations with post-revolutionary Iran. Indeed, according to Reagan, “reestablishing a friendly relationship with [Iran] was very attractive.” Perhaps more importantly, Reagan referred to the current president of Iran and his compatriots as a group of “moderate, politically influential Iranians,” while more recently, a number of respected veterans of U.S. intelligence agencies concurred with Reagan’s assessment of Rouhani as a “moderate.”
While the secret discussions between Reagan’s team and the Iranians ultimately faltered, Reagan and his aides demonstrated a nuanced understanding of the various political factions and fissures among the conservative, pragmatist, and reformist political camps in Iran. The Reagan team’s 1986 meeting also allows for some particularly insightful inferences regarding Rouhani. For one, the Israeli government was the Rouhani camp’s conduit to the Reagan administration. So, at some point — and perhaps only for the sake of convenience — Rouhani tolerated working with the Israelis, a bold move for a senior Iranian official only seven years after the Islamic Revolution. Similarly, the Israelis — again, at least at one point — had enough confidence in Rouhani to introduce him to representatives of the Reagan White House. Perhaps most strikingly, Rouhani was willing to risk his life in a bid to improve Iranian-U.S. relations, as Reagan’s envoys feared that Rouhani would have been executed had he and his cohort been caught having unauthorized contact with American officials.
While Rouhani, in his current role as president, has less authority over his hawkish antagonists than Gorbachev had over Soviet hardliners, it is eminently reasonable to conclude that Reagan, were he in office today, would once again circumvent Iran’s Supreme Leader and engage directly with Rouhani. After all, if Reagan was willing to engage with Rouhani’s moderate camp when they were relatively unknown political entities, Reagan would likely re-engage Rouhani in his current position as head of the Iranian government, especially given Rouhani’s record of enacting Gorbachev-style economic reforms and a demonstrated commitment to negotiating in good faith. Of course, Iran’s Supreme Leader could ultimately quash any outreach to the West and doom efforts to enact truly sweeping reforms in the Islamic Republic but Reagan, ever eager to engage diplomatically, would likely have taken the risk.
Given Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s advanced age and perceived ill health, Reagan would also seek to shape the post-Khamenei Iranian political landscape in a manner that undermined conservative factions in Tehran and empowered outward-looking moderates like Rouhani. In a remarkable parallel to the current state of Iranian politics, Reagan wrote that his administration had “spent a great deal of time thinking about possible scenarios for Iran’s future once [previous Supreme Leader] Khomeini was gone,” and that he and his advisers “wanted to ensure that the next government in Iran was moderate and friendly.”
Considering a robust undercurrent of pro-American public opinion in Iran, Reaganesque diplomatic rapprochement with a moderate Iranian leader would greatly increase the odds that another reformer — possibly more Gorbachevian than Rouhani — is elected to the Iranian presidency in 2021. The Trump administration’s re-imposition of sanctions, threats, and provocative displays of military might, on the other hand, are far more likely to see an anti-Western conservative elected when Rouhani’s term is up, erasing any and all progress toward meaningful reform made under the Rouhani administration. Internal Iranian politics aside, given Reagan’s intense personal desire to abolish nuclear weapons, he would likely leap, as he did with the Soviets, at any chance to negotiate — and uphold — an agreement preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
More broadly, while Reagan’s fervent belief that his defense buildup would cause the Soviets to spend themselves into ruin ultimately proved misguided, Reagan was adamant about negotiating with rival foreign powers from a “position of strength.” Were he facing Iran today, Reagan might recognize that, given the United States’ military superiority vis-à-vis Tehran, his most basic precondition for diplomatic engagement with an adversarial foreign power had been met –– without the need for provocative deployments of military forces. Moreover, Reagan’s shift from confrontation to diplomatic engagement with Moscow was predicated, in large part, on his (eventual) recognition that the Soviets genuinely feared an offensive attack by the United States. A similar wariness surely exists in Tehran today, which Reagan would be keenly aware of.
Reagan vs. Trump’s Hawks
Ultimately, Ronald Reagan embraced two vastly divergent foreign policy visions over the course of his presidency. In his first years in office, Reagan hurled bombastic, bellicose rhetoric at a rival foreign power while pursuing a massive defense buildup rooted in ideological confrontation and hostility. After learning more about his adversary, however, Reagan reversed course to embrace direct, deeply personal diplomacy. In the years following Reagan’s death, hawkish historical revisionists have lionized the aggressive, bellicose Reagan of the early 1980s as the “winner” of the Cold War. Reagan, however, did not “win” the Cold War by launching belligerent broadsides or by “outspending” the Soviets. Reagan helped end the Cold War by melding his desire to encourage liberal reforms in an authoritarian state with a fierce determination to abolish nuclear weapons via the negotiating table.
Unfortunately, the Trump administration’s approach to Iran has been wholly antithetical to Reagan’s endgame with the Soviets. Instead of diplomatically “opening up” and undermining the worst aspects of an “evil empire” from within, the administration’s actions have accomplished the exact opposite. President Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the landmark 2015 nuclear agreement, among other provocative moves, is empowering the most corrupt, repressive, and anti-American elements in Tehran. In particular, the re-imposition of a sweeping sanctions regime largely benefits the conservative, anti-Western leadership of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Similarly, President Rouhani, the only moderate remotely willing and able to enact any semblance of Gorbachev-style reforms in Iran, has been under sustained political siege from his conservative political opponents. In the wake of the Trump administration’s actions, Iranian hardliners can now point — with some credibility — to their mantra that the United States cannot be trusted.
Contrary to the historical revisionism embraced by the hawks in the Trump administration, were Reagan occupying the Oval Office today, there is little reason to doubt that he would jump at any opportunity to throw a diplomatic lifeline to a reform-minded leader like Rouhani, especially one who risked his life to secretly meet with Reagan’s own envoys in a bid to improve relations with the United States.
The Gipper, after all, enjoyed bucking his hawkish advisers, once whispering to Gorbachev, “I bet the hard-liners in both our countries are bleeding when we shake hands.”
Marik von Rennenkampff served as an analyst with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation. Previously, he was a post-graduate scholar at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory where he researched the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran.