Iran > Gateway to Iran > Key Myths and Facts about Iran

Key Myths About Iran - And the Facts

U.S. policies towards Iran have failed to achieve their objectives. A key reason for their failure is that they are rooted in fundamental misconceptions about Iran:


MYTH: President Ahmadinejad calls the shots on nuclear and foreign policy

FACT: President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has grabbed the world's attention with his inflammatory and sometimes offensive statements. But he does not call the shots on Iran's nuclear and foreign policy.

  • The ultimate decision-maker is Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the commander-in-chief of Iran's forces. Despite his frequently hostile rhetoric aimed at Israel and the West, Khamenei's track record reveals a cautious decision-maker who acts after consulting advisors holding a range of views, including views sharply critical of Ahmadinejad.
  • That said, it is clear that U.S. policies and rhetoric have bolstered hard-liners in Iran, just as Ahmadinejad's confrontational rhetoric has bolstered hard-liners here.

MYTH:  The current regime is frail and ripe for regime change.

FACT: there is no significant support within Iran for extra-constitutional regime change.

  • There is seething discontent among millions of Iranians in the aftermath of the June 12th elections in Iran -- elections that many view as patently fraudulent.  But the discontent is being suppressed.  The Revolutionary Guard is  squarely behind the Supreme Leader.  And the protests in Iran are about making their votes for President count, not fundamentally altering the regime.
  • However discontented they may be, Iranians also recall the aftermath of their own revolution in 1979: lawlessness, mass executions, and the emigration of over half a million people, followed by a costly war.
  • Iranians also recall, much more recently, the outcome of U.S.-sponsored regime change in Afghanistan and in Iraq.  They want no part of it, and will rally to resist any outside intervention.

MYTH: U.S.-sponsored "democracy promotion" will promote democracy in Iran

FACT: Instead of fostering democratic elements inside Iran, U.S.-backed "democracy promotion" has provided an excuse to stifle them.

  • That is why champions of human rights and democracy in Iran agree with the dissident who said, even before the June elections, "The best thing the Americans can do for democracy in Iran is not to support it."
  • That observation is doubly true today, as the leadership of Iran looks for every pretext to taint the protestors as lackeys of outside forces.
  • So far, no one believes them.  America's best interest lies in keeping it that way.

Myth: Iran is clearly pursuing nuclear weapons.

Facts: Actually, there is no evidence in the public domain that Iran is currently testing a weapon, making a weapon or even enriching uranium to a level that could be used in a nuclear weapon.

  • The conflict with Iran is not over any observable pursuit of nuclear weapons, but over its insistence on enriching uranium to low levels that are not suitable for weapons use at a declared facility under IAEA seal and surveillance.
  • Iran insists that this enrichment is purely for nuclear energy use, and we have no clear evidence with which to refute that claim.
  • This is very different from the situation in North Korea, which has already tested a nuclear weapon.
  • Iran's enrichment is a valid concern because it will shorten the lead time for developing a nuclear weapon should Iran decided (or have decided) to do so in the future.  But enrichment to low levels under safeguards is not the same thing as pursuing a nuclear weapon.
  • For starters, countries have a right to enrich uranium for peaceful use, and Iran cannot be indefinitely denied that right.

Myth: Iran responds favorably to economic pressure

Fact: This myth draws sustenance from the  2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), which cited economic pressure as a principal motive for Iran's decision to suspend its nuclear weapons program in 2003.

That study offers no evidence, however, to support its conclusion, and the historical record suggests that factors other than economic sanctions may have been more influential in that decision:  America (briefly) seemed invincible then, and its forces were encamped next door to Iran.  Iran was governed by a reformist President who managed to persuade the Supreme Leader to give diplomacy a chance.

Whatever the explanation, the unique opportunities that surfaced during that period were squandered.  The Bush Administration responded with no compromise and no reciprocal opening.  Iran's top leadership responded to this rejection by concluding that capitulation to U.S. pressure merely begets more pressure. Reformists were booted out. Iran resumed enrichment and has been impervious to sanctions ever since.

Now, even hard core proponents of sanctions acknowledge that the current top leadership of Iran appears to feel empowered, rather than threatened, by conflict with the West. more


MYTH: The Iranian leadership's religious beliefs render them undeterrable

FACT: The recent history of Iran makes crystal clear that national self-preservation and regional influence - not some quest for martyrdom in the service of Islam - is Iran's main foreign policy goal. For example:

  • In the 1990s, Iran chose a closer relationship with Russia over support for rebellious Chechen Muslims.
  • Iran actively supported and helped to finance the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.
  • Iran has ceased its efforts to export the Islamic revolution to other Persian Gulf states, in favor of developing good relations with the governments of those states.
  • During the Iran-Iraq War, Iran took the pragmatic step of developing secret ties and trading arms with Israel, even as Iran and Israel denounced each other in public.

MYTH: Iran has vowed to wipe Israel off the map

FACT:  This claim is based on a translation of a remark by President Ahmadinejad in a speech on Oct. 26, 2005.  What he actually said was, "This regime occupying Jerusalem must be eliminated from the pages of history."

He clearly was talking about eliminating a regime, not a population.  And as he later explained (or was forced to explain) he was calling for regime change through demographics and referendum, not war: "I assure you there won't be any war in the future . . . let the Palestinians participate in free elections and they will say what they want (alluding to the fact that Palestinians will soon outnumber Jews in the area occupied by Israel)."

Supreme Leader Khamenei likewise clarified shortly afterwards: "the Islamic Republic has never threatened and will never threaten any country."  In fact, Ahmadinejad had used exactly the same formulation to refer to the passing of the USSR, which obviously did not involve any attack by Iran.   And he was repeating, verbatim, an exhortation made by the late Ayatollah Khomeini decades ago, which also never resulted in any corresponding action by Iran.

No one believes you should simply take foreign leaders' words at face value.  But if you're going to quote words, don't quote them selectively.  And do note that none of these statements have altered Iran's policy -- which, for decades, has been to deny the legitimacy of Israel; to arm and aid groups opposing Israel in Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank; but also, to promise to accept any deal with Israel that the Palestinians accept.


MYTH: Iran is implacably opposed to the United States

FACT:  Iran won't accept preconditions for dialog, but Iran's leaders have made overtures to the United States in the past, that the Bush Administration rebuffed.

  • Right after 9/11, Iran worked with the United States to get rid of the Taliban in Afghanistan, including paying for the Afghan troops serving under U.S. command. Iran helped establish the U.S.-backed government and then contributed more than $750 million to the reconstruction of Afghanistan. Iran expressed interest in a broader dialogue in 2002. Instead, it was labeled part of an "axis of evil."
  • An even more forthcoming offer was tabled in 2003, though the bona fides of that opening have been questioned.
  • In 2005, reform-minded President Khatami was replaced by the hardliner, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But the same Supreme Leader who authorized earlier overtures is still in office today and he is on record stating that "the day that relations with America prove beneficial for the Iranian nation, I will be the first one to approve of that."
  • That said, caution is in order, particularly today.  Politics in Iran have polarized after the  June elections.  The rhetoric of Ahmadinejad has grown, if anything, harder edged and more arrogant than before.  And the Supreme Leader seems solidly in his corner.
  • This may be nothing more than a verbal show of strength to conceal their actual position of weakness, given the divisions within senior leadership.  Or it may signal a hardening into a posture of perpetual belligerence.
  • Time will tell.  Either way the right course now is clear: keep the offer of dialog open and genuine.  Give the hardliners no external enemy to use as bogey-man to distract attention at home or abroad from their own misdeeds.
  • It is the most effective pressure American can apply.

Myth: Iran and the United States have no basis for dialogue

FACT:  Those who favored refusing Iran's offer of dialogue in 2002 - when they thought the U.S. position so strong there was no need to talk -- now assert that our position is so weak we cannot afford to talk.

Wrong in both cases. Iran is eager for an end to sanctions and isolation, and needs access to world-class technology to bring new supplies of oil and gas online. Both countries share an interest in stabilizing Iraq and Afghanistan, which border Iran. Both support the Maliki government in Iraq, and face common enemies (the Taliban and al-Qaeda) in Afghanistan. Both countries share the goal of combating narco-trafficking in the region.

These opportunities exist, and the two governments have pursued them very occasionally in the past, but they have mostly been obscured in the belligerent rhetoric from both sides.