Two decades ago in the run-up to the Iraq war, the State Department sponsored the “Future of Iraq Project.” The idea was simple: With change being inevitable, the State Department sought to gather Iraqis in various working groups to discuss specific problems. Despite the ambition of some officials, the project was neither a post-war plan nor a mechanism to put Americans first, but rather was a way to inform thinking and identify talented Iraqis who might contribute to post-war reconstruction.
In October 1989, President George H.W. Bush issued a National Security Directive calling upon all elements of the U.S. government to prepare for an inevitable transition in the Islamic Republic and the reintegration of Iran into the international community. The ball was in Tehran’s court, and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei fouled out.
Iran Isolation Continues
As a result, Iranians suffered for three additional decades. They will soon have a second chance. Rather than continue to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by pouring resources into a regime that has no popular legitimacy, the Biden administration should take a lesson from the elder and junior Bush administrations and call upon Iran to prepare itself for a post-Islamic Republic future.
It is now time for a “Future of Iran Project.” The women’s revolution may not have ousted the regime, but it has de-legitimized it. Succession looms as Khamenei faces his own mortality. While the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) can enforce with the gun what they cannot win in hearts and minds, Iranians have had enough of an ideology and model that has failed. Iran is a rich country. Most Iranians want a stable currency, first-world infrastructure, normality, and a better life for their children. The IRGC might delay a transition, but they will not be able to put the lid on the pressure cooker forever.
Setting Up for a Future for Iran
There should be no external Iraq-like regime change in Iran, but that does not mean that Washington should be indifferent. A “Future of Iran Project” would be more about preparing Washington than Tehran. The generation of businessmen, diplomats, and spies who knew Iran from Peace Corps service or study in Iranian universities has retired, if not died. While change inside Iran will come from within, an Iran reborn will need tremendous investment immediately.
The Iranian diaspora is a treasury of expertise. In terms of both education and per capita income, Iranian Americans are far more successful than other American ethnic affinity groups. They are also a wealth of information as many maintain family ties to those remaining inside the country.
Rather than drive out alternative views from his team and seek single-mindedly to pursue a failed nuclear strategy, Special Envoy Robert Malley—or any successor the Biden administration might appoint—should instead focus on tapping the intellectual wealth Iranian-Americans represent to answer questions such as: How might a new Iran attract foreign investment? What would an equitable commercial law for Iran look like?
What sort of environmental regulation and reforms do Iranians now need? What labor protections should a new Iran enact? How might Iranians and the international community track the assets stolen and embezzled by the Office of the Supreme Leader and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps? Does Iran need a truth and reconciliation commission to examine either its external or internal operations? If so, how might it operate?
How might Iran best tackle inflation? What might a reconciliation conference look like and what constitutional models might Iranians consider?
When change comes to Iran, it will be far more sudden than anyone now expects. It behooves not only Iran but also the entire region to be prepared. It is time for a paradigm shift in Washington and, more broadly, the West. Rather than remain mired in Iran’s past, it is time to prepare for Iran’s future.
Author Expertise and Experience
Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).