Formulating a policy toward Iran may be one of the new US administration’s most challenging tasks, as Tehran continues to present policy difficulties, including the nuclear program, its expanding network of armed militias, and its missile program.
Engaging and appeasing Iran’s “moderates” is a persistent position being espoused in Washington. As the Iranian presidential “elections” taking place on May 18 grow closer, the idea that “friendly policies” will empower the “moderates” has been repeated by a large number of Iran experts in Washington.
“First of all,” says Hassan Dai, editor of the Iranian American Forum in his article for The Hill, it’s an “ill-conceived hope that a moderate will emerge in Iran and reform the regime and change its foreign policy.” Secondly, he calls it a false assumption that, “the hostilities between the U.S. and Iran are not the result of Iranian radical foreign policies but the outcome of mistrust and misunderstanding, caused by America’s belligerent attitude toward Iran.”
He adds, “These Iran-friendly advocates argue that if the U.S. adopts a less hostile approach and instead tries to gain the trust of Iranian leaders, they will reciprocate, the moderate factions will be empowered, the Iranian regime will gradually reform itself, and Iran will become a responsible regional power abiding by international rules.”
Although the search for moderates in Iran seems to have been an illusion, nevertheless it has significantly and strategically influenced past and current U.S. policies on Iran. Robert Gates, former Secretary of Defense, described this attitude toward Tehran during a speech in 2008, “I have been involved in the search for the elusive Iranian moderate for 30 years. Every administration since  has reached out to the Iranians in one way or another and all have failed. Some have gotten into deep trouble associated with their failures, but the reality is the Iranian leadership has been consistently unyielding over a very long period of time in response to repeated overtures from the United States about having a different and better kind of relationship.”
President Reagan sought a friendship with the “moderate” Rafsanjani and Bill Clinton’s approach toward the so-called “reformist” Mohammad Khatami was conciliatory in nature. George W. Bush in 2002-2003 to coordinated the invasion of Iraq with the Iranian envoys. Barack Obama was no exception to this rule. Former President Obama believed that the nuclear deal with Iran would transform the regime and change its foreign policy.
Gates talked about the former president in an interview in 2015. He said, “I think that the pursuit of the (nuclear) agreement is based on the president's hope that over a ten-year period with the sanctions being lifted that the Iranians will become a constructive stakeholder in the international community. That — that as their economy begins to grow again, that — that they will abandon their ideology, their theology, their revolutionary principles, their meddling in various parts of the region. And, frankly, I believe that's very unrealistic.”
The nuclear deal and its lifting of sanctions only emboldened Iranian hardliners, contrary to Obama’s expectations, and the regime became more aggressive in its agenda for the region.
The Trump administration should keep in mind the past three decades of failures in policy toward Iran. Hassan Dai says, “The cost of this failure has been the significant loss of credibility and influence in the region, loss of commerce, loss of the trust of the Iranian people, and last but not least, the loss of the lives of American men and women serving in Iraq.”