Hugh Shelton, who was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1997 to 2001 and led the invasion of Kosovo, says the U.S. has been far too tolerant of Iran’s two-faced behavior and needs to form a policy based on current realities.
In an article for US-based newspaper The Washington Times, Shelton argued that “there is a yawning gap between U.S. words and actions toward Tehran that has been noted by the regime in Tehran and has, in fact, empowered its bad behavior.”
Iran, led since 2013 by the nominally reformist President Hassan Rouhani, has continued to destabilize the Middle East region through its interventionist and self-serving actions, he said.
Since Rouhani’s election Iran has remained the country with the world’s highest execution rate per capita (it executed over 2,600 people last year) and has not shrunk away from regional military interventions. Recently it was revealed that Iran’s operations in Syria may be well beyond all previous estimates by western observers with as much as $100 billion poured into supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Shelton is not alone in remarking the gulf between Iran’s stated goals and its actions; numerous independent critics of Iran have emerged in recent years to criticize western governments’ permissive attitude towards Iran’s oppressive domestic policy and opportunistic geopolitics. At the “Free Iran” rally in July near Paris, countless international delegates condemned Iran’s actions, even though many of their countries take a soft line towards Iran.
Part of Tehran’s strategy to leverage an incoherent U.S. policy towards Iran is to position itself as combatting terrorism, says Shelton.
“For example,” he says, “in late December Tehran hosted an International Islamic Unity Conference. The Iranian rhetoric leading to the conference demonstrated its eagerness to latch onto Western fears of Islamic terrorism, and to spin those fears in favor of its own ends. On its face, these sorts of remarks play into the notion that Mr. Rouhani is a moderating influence within his theocratic government. But they only accomplish this end if we deliberately ignore Mr. Rouhani’s behavior.”
Iran has positioned its military involvement in Syria and Yemen as combatting international terrorism. Although Iran’s interests and motivations may be clear to some outside observers, governments are often hesitant to condemn Iran due to its vital geopolitical importance and because of the extensive rehabilitation efforts Tehran has made in recent years to bolster its image.
The U.S.-led “Iran Deal”, adopted in 2014, was underpinned by hopes that opening negotiations between Iran and western governments could promote moderate voices within Iran and a softening of the hardline theocratic regime that has been in power since 1979.
Although Tehran has repeatedly subverted these hopes through severe political repression, violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions by its testing of ballistic missiles, and policies that some analysts argue has further destabilized an already volatile region, to condemn Iran could be viewed as an admission of failure by the U.S. and its allies.
Shelton’s stance–which is similar to that espoused by U.S. Democratic Party presidential candidate Hillary Clinton–is that a firmer policy towards Iran, consistent with western values of freedom and democratic government, would put necessary pressure on Tehran to reform itself or to fall apart. Shelton believes that western governments need to seriously consider the alternative offered by the Iranian opposition, as well.
Many western governments may be forced to reconsider their stance towards Iran as awareness grows about Tehran’s actions. But at a moment when Tehran is internally divided and the Iranian opposition has seen an unprecedented surge of support, proponents of political change in Iran do not wish to see governments hesitate further.