Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Iran Thoughts

As is usually the case, it's kind of difficult to really tell what is happening on the ground in Tehran and around the country. What we do know is limited due to our own ignorance about Iranian politics and structure, limited foreign news media, and the opaqueness of the Iranian ruling power.

That being said, the facts on the ground seem clear: There was an election for the presidency that was a total sham. We know it was a sham because the attempt to defraud the Iranian public wasn't particularly subtle or well thought out (exactly matching voting patterns across the country, the loser losing his own home district, etc) to the point that one has to wonder if the ruling religious dictatorship was utterly suprised by the result. They shouldn't have been. There was limited polling data indicating that the "moderate" Mousavi was a sure winner as well as an estimated 8 million new voters, most of whom were Mousavi-ites.

But this is really getting into the weeds as far as I'm concerned because I'm simply not expert enough to authoritatively comment on Iranian politics. If you're interested in that sort of thing, the Washington Note is doing banner work in reporting what's going on. Or the Huffington Post, which is going beyond the pale in its efforts to get accurate on the ground information.

What I want to talk about is the impact on US foriegn policy. First, a bit of a primer on Iran's government. Then how this event impacts our interests and approach.

Iran, like a lot of virtual dictatorships, uses the guise of "democracy" as a way to placate its population. People feel good about voting, feel like they have a role in the development of their country, and generally don't riot in the streets as long as their voice gets heard. This is an important point in Iran in particular as the last time the students took to the streets it ended with a new, anti-West, radically Muslim regime. So I would expect the Ayatollah to have a bit of indigestion at seeing a new generation of students marching in the streets.

At any rate, Iran is functionally ruled by the Ayatollah and his twelve wise men (and his 86 member Assembly of Experts, but who's counting). In a word, dictatorship. This matters because no matter the final outcome of the current "green revolution", the US will still be dealing with a radicalized, anti-Western government that would only marginally moderate its tone internationally with Mousavi as its president. So, Mousavi wins, no more speeches at the UN about the how the Holocaust never happened.

From the perspective of US interests, Iran only matters in two, perhaps three, issues. The first is nuclear policy. Since George Bush's famous "Axis of Evil" speech, Iran has been in the forefront of US national consciousness. This is mostly because of their rather clandestine nuclear program. The Bush policy on Iran was one of indirect threats and diplomatic ignorance or shunning (as in, just ignore the problem, not stupidity). Obama has taken a more direct approach, suggesting high level talks, the establishment of diplomatic relations, and perhaps even the removal from the State Department's Terrorist list. (While he may not have directly said that, eventual removal from the List would be the logical result of what Obama has proposed). All of this was predicated on Ahmadinejad winning reelection.

Now that there is greater uncertainty, US foreign policy makers are in abuzz about what this all means for the US negotiating tactic vis-a-vis the nuclear program. This article in Time makes the argument that Iran Czar Dennis Ross and others actually hope that Ahmadinejad remains president because it's easier to negotiate with a hardliner that a reformer. I know, it seems counterintuitive. And, well, it is. But their argument is that if negotiations fail, which they probably will since the Ayatollah is calling the shots at the end of the day, it's easier to levy foreign policy "sticks" against a hardliner than a reformer. Essentially, a "reformer" presents a PR problem for Western diplomats while the continued presence of a hardliner clears the path for aggressive sanctions.

While I understand this argument, I find it to be a fairly bad one. On the one hand, a "moderate" Iranian president is fairly far outside of our understanding of what the word "moderate" means. There will be no rapproachment with the west if Mousavi is the ultimate victor. Nor will there likely be an end to the nuclear program. Iranian moderation occurs in inches, not miles and to expect otherwise is to invite folly.

But there is an advantage to having a more moderate Iranian president. At the moment, the US has basically no leverage over Iran. The much talked about sanctions have no support from Russia and others. Sanctions regimes are like leaky dams; first a leak, then a flood. For all the hard work that Dennis Ross and his crew have put in, there is essentially no chance that an effective, enforceable sanctions regime gets enacted.

Further, as much as Obama would like to engage in diplomatic rapproachment, there's very little chance that that happens with Ahmadinejad for the very reason I mentioned above: he's a Holocaust denier and if anything is ananthema in US politics, it's that. For all Obama's talk during the election, Hillary Clinton is calling the shots on this one and she's not about to jeopardize Obama's political standing by allowing him to buddy up with Israeli Public Enemy Number 1.

So I fail to see how Ahmadinejad winning would be a good thing for US foreign policy unless you're a radical neocon who actually wants to invade another country.

On the other hand, a Mousavi win would enable some level of diplomatic engagement and could, perhaps, open Iran up to US oil investment, our number 2 strategic interest. Again, I don't propose that this could or would happen overnight. These sorts of things take time. But the one policy area that the Iranian president does have significant influence over is economic policy and I could see a world in which Mousavi argues for opening up to the West as a means to improving a rather dismal domestic economy. I have no real evidence to back up this claim but, on balance, it's an awful lot more likely with Mousavi than Ahmadinejad, no?

This is also the type of policy that I believe the US would jump at. Obviously, from our perspective, business is first and foremost at all times. But even beyond that, the upper echelons of Clinton's State Department are staffed with Clinton era loyalists - that is - those who believe that engagement with China had a moderating effect on the country and helped to bring it into the community of nations. While that may be in some dispute (China hasn't moderated much and it frustrates our efforts to promote freedom, human rights, and democracy across the globe), there is certainly a belief that China is no longer our enemy because of its huge vested interest in our economic well being. (Of course, the Chinese are savvy realists and know that their huge investment in our economy has given them more leverage over us than it has given us over them, but that's another story altogether.)

Now, faced with an opportunity to replicate engagement in Iran, it seems to me that the US foreign policy establishment would (or should) prefer Mousavi to Ahmadinejad simply because we know that engagement yeilds more positive results than containment (see Iraq, Hussein, etc). Or, to put it more succinctly, after the first Gulf War, the entire world backed the idea of sanctioning Saddam Hussein's Iraq and yet, he repeatedly defied the UN levied regime, oppressed his own people, and created a greater PR disaster for the West by promoting images of poor Iraqis suffering because of the sanctions. If that sanctions regime failed so spectacularly when it had global support, then why is it rational to suggest a new regime leveled against Iran with much more uneven support would work?

In the end, I believe that Obama and Clinton are as on top of these issues as one can be. As responsible leaders, they've withheld all but the most innocuous statements so as to limit the regime's ability to accuse them (or every dictator's favorite bogeyman, the CIA) of playing a role in the protests. And as responsible adults, they seem to be waiting this out much like world leaders waited out the sham election of George Bush in 2000. At the end of the day, there is very little the US can do at the moment aside from monitor the situation and plan out the various scenarios that could come to fore.

As foreign policy practitioners, Obama and Clinton undoubtedly see both sides of the coin: If Ahmadinejad wins, they can roll with their targeted sanctions strategy. If Mousavi wins, they can roll with their engagement/rapproachment strategy. In fact, the only risk of screwing this up is by doing what John McCain suggests and that's acting too quickly with less than clear measures (he always was a rash, old chap, wasn't he). At the end of the day, though, I think, given the choice, it's much, much more rational to prefer a moderate than a hardline, Holocaust denying radical.

(The third US interest in Iran, which is much less attainable, is Iranian support for terrorism. I don't include this because the US has shown, repeatedly, that this is only a marginal interest. Our longstanding friendship with Saudi Arabia is the best example. The Kingdom is the world's biggest state sponsor of terror, yet we continually and convienantly ignore that fact because they got lots of black gold. The same could be true of Iran, especially if oil becomes scarce and/or prices continue to rise.)



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