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Why does Washington always get Iran wrong?

Rouhani's resounding victory sheds light on at least three factors contributing to a systemic misreading of Iran.

Last Modified: 01 Jul 2013 09:30
Trita Parsi

Trita Parsi is President of the National Iranian American Council and author of A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama's Diplomacy with Iran.
Reza Marashi

Reza Marashi is Director of Research at the National Iranian American Council.
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Rouhani won Iran's presidential election with more than 50 per cent of the vote on June 14 [AFP]

Trying to predict political developments in Iran can be a humbling experience, even for the most seasoned students of Iranian politics. The unexpected electoral victory of centrist Hassan Rouhani serves as a reminder of this stark reality. The Washington Post editorial board boldly proclaimed before the elections that Rouhani "will not be allowed to win".

Some said the elections were irrelevant because whatever the outcome, Khamenei would be the winner. Yet the frequency with which conventional wisdom in Washington gets Iran wrong is striking. Why is that? And how can Washington's ability to read Tehran be improved?

Rouhani's resounding victory sheds light on at least three factors contributing to a systemic misreading of Iran.

Conventional thinking in Washington regularly suffers from three critical flaws. The first, assumption blindness, is the inability to recognise the implicit assumptions underlying one's analysis, which leads to a failure to reassess those assumptions when the analysis is proven wrong.

Washington is seemingly unaware of the deterministic power of its assumptions. This assumption blindness prevents consideration of alternative scenarios, which helps explain why Washington is so often surprised by Tehran. There is a strongly held view, for instance, that Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wields complete power. Working backward, many Iran analysts argued the candidate perceived to be Khamenei's favourite - Saeed Jalili - would win.

But once the unexpected occurred and Rouhani's victory was a reality (and Jalili came in a distant third), the faulty assumption of Khamenei's power was not questioned. Belief in his omnipotence remained strong. Instead, the following question was asked: Why did Khamenei "permit" Rouhani to win? Assumption blindness prevented the confidence in Khamenei's power to be reviewed and instead led the analysis in an almost conspiratorial direction: Whatever happens, it's because Khamenei wills it.

...nothing demonstrates the Washington establishment's distance from the realities on the ground in Iran more than its belief that no force could bring about this unexpected result other than the US itself.

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While there is no doubt that the supreme leader wields the highest individual authority, it is equally clear that he relies on a number of councils as well as formal and informal institutions to advise him on foreign policy and national security.  As a result, most decisions are made in a permanent interaction between diverse and sometimes competing power centres. 

Perhaps more importantly, conventional thinking in Washington did not provide room to consider the idea that the Iranian people understood the power dynamics in their own country better than anyone abroad. Few believed that Iranians could outmanoeuvre Khamenei, leaving him with no choice but to succumb to their wishes. Since these outcomes didn't fit the assumption about Iran, they couldn't be envisioned. 

Assumption confusion

Whereas assumption blindness prevents the reassessment of assumptions, the second flaw, "assumption confusion", is the treatment of untested assumptions as empirically proven conclusions. In the above case, it stems from the treatment of Khamenei's omnipotence as a foregone conclusion from the outset. His unchallenged power is treated as a fact rather than a supposition.

Finally, the Iran discourse in Washington also suffers from "variable blindness". Valuable information about Tehran's decision-making, internal deliberations and reasoning is scarce. Since the factors shaping Tehran's calculation are unknown "unknowns"- to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld - Washington tends to attribute all developments in Iran to the few variables it can observe.

The "smoking gun"

For instance, Obama administration officials have said that sanctions should be credited for Rouhani's victory. The "smoking gun" is the observable pain inflicted by sanctions, which then is implicitly assumed to have convinced Iranians to cast their votes for a centrist candidate. Of course, nobody in Washington argued before the election that the logic of sanctions was to pressure people to vote for different leadership. After all, that couldn't be possible according to Washington's belief system since Khamenei determines the outcome of the elections, not the people.

With little access to data describing and explaining the play-by-play political developments around the elections, Washington's variable blindness led it to explain the election outcome through the one variable it knew: US sanctions.

Washington's assertions regarding sanctions and the elections have baffled analysts and civil society actors in Iran. To them, the fundamental difference between the elections in 2013 and 2009 is that Khamenei couldn't cheat this time, lest he risk the collapse of his regime. Not because of the sanctions, but because the rifts within the regime from the disputed reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad remain deep and unhealed.

Reformist strategists told us of this reality more than two years before the elections - and before the imposition of Obama's "crippling" sanctions. And we pointed it out a few days before the elections as an argument as to why cheating could be suicidal for Khamenei this time around.

Indeed, the Iranian people had plenty of reasons to vote against the conservatives, and didn't need sanctions to convince them to do so. What was lacking was the push to persuade them that their votes wouldn't be ignored as they were in 2009. That push was provided only a few days before the elections - not by sanctions - but by the campaigning of former Presidents Mohammad Khatami and Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Variable blindness

The variable blindness leading to over-reliance on sanctions as a catch-all explanation of favourable developments in Iran produces two counter-factual scenarios: First, absent sanctions, the logic reads, Iranians would have happily voted for the conservatives, blissfully unaware of the disaster that eight years of Ahmadinejad had brought unto them. And secondly, had Washington imposed even more sanctions on Iran, an even greater election outcome would have been produced.

Perhaps the Iranians would have elected Mother Teresa rather than Hassan Rouhani.

As a friend in Tehran pointed out, the variable blindness that credits Rouhani's victory to sanctions is ironically the latest installment of the conspiracy theories of Daei Jan Napoleon, one of Iran's most important and beloved works of modern fiction: Everything that happens in Iran and to Iranians is because of the machinations of others.

Perhaps nothing demonstrates the Washington establishment's distance from the realities on the ground in Iran more than its belief that no force could bring about this unexpected result other than the US itself. The actions of the Iranian people appear not to figure into Washington's analysis at all.

The election of Hassan Rouhani has provided both sides an opportunity to pause and rethink their approach to each other. This may prove to be crucial in bringing an end to a looming lose-lose confrontation. But before the US and Iran can change how they behave towards each other, they have to change how they think about and analyse one another. 

Reza Marashi is Director of Research at the National Iranian American Council.

Trita Parsi is President of the National Iranian American Council and author of A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama's Diplomacy with Iran.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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