Over at the Foreign Policy Association's website, Sean Goforth has ginned up a handy new acronym to describe the latest constellation of threats to U.S. national interests:
Ever since "axis of evil," broad characterizations of geopolitical threats have been considered impolitic, if not ignorant.... The hesitation to label a global threat as such is now sacrificing substance for political correctness. Venezuela, Iran, and Russia constitute a VIRUS of instability that threatens the United States and Western order. This recognition is needed, but the US should learn from past mistakes and avoid a hard-line path similar to the one that resulted from branding "axis of evil."
Clearly, there's some rhetorical tension in that paragraph. One the one hand, VIRUS is just an awesome acronym, and Goforth deserves some props for coming up with it. Seriously, it's catchy, it effectively captures the relationship between the salient actors, and it sounds quite menacing. I can already picture the cable news teasers and one-liners:
"After the break: can the Obama administration combat the VIRUS?"
"When we come back: is the VIRUS running rampant across Latin America?"
"Coming up: forget Tiger Woods, Sean Penn is in danger of spreading the VIRUS!"
The thing is, Goforth concludes with his recommended policy responses to the VIRUS coalition. And they appear to be.... pretty much what's being done right now:
[T]he VIRUS alliance is playing a sophisticated game of brinksmanship. Venezuelan government documents suggest that Chavez hopes to get the US to perceive an immediate threat and overreact, igniting a series of events that will eventually collapse "the empire." More realistically, if Colombia or Israel, key American allies, were to misstep and launch a limited-scale attack against Venezuela or Iran it would further boost anti-Americanism and add weight to claims of imperialism. A final objective appears to be presenting a dilemma that will drive a fissure between the US and Israel, a prospect that Iran's nuclear program may well realize.
Responding to the VIRUS needn't require one bold policy. Talk of regime change should be scuttled for sure-it only justifies more arms purchases and feeds anti-American rhetoric. And focusing just on Iran is feckless. Iran is embedded in an alliance that cobbles Russia's diplomatic protection with a network that spreads "business" investments across three continents to serve strategic purposes.
Instead of antagonizing the VIRUS the United States should seek inoculation through savvy diplomacy that breaks the bonds between its constituent members, which is a realistic objective because Venezuela, Russia, and Iran don't share deep-seeded cultural or economic ties. Luckily for Western security, the VIRUS' venom is being diluted by economic realities on the ground: unemployment is extremely high in all three nations, and Iran and Venezuela have the world's highest rates of inflation. If oil trades at moderate prices, Chavez and his "brother" Ahmadinejad will be left to account for their failure to bring development, though Putin's popularity seems assured no matter how badly the Russian economy sours.
So, according to Goforth, the proper U.S. response to VIRUS appears to be:
A) Don't overreact or overreach;
B) Try to split the constituent members of the VIRUS through assiduous diplomacy; and
C) Be patient and let these economies collapse under their own weight.
Is there anything different betwqeen these policy recommendations and what the Obama administration is currently doing? The only new thing here is the idea of letting oil prices stay relatively low to prevent new infusions of cash into the coffers of these regimes -- although, truth be told, this isn't really that new an idea.
I suspect, however, that Goforth's policy recommendations will not garner much attention. I expect the VIRUS acronym, on the other hand, to spread across the foreign policy community like... well, you know.
The Financial Times' indefatigable Goeff Dyer has an excellent story about Israel's efforts to lobby Beijing to take a tougher line on Iran. Actually, that's really just the news peg for a story about the myriad ways in which Beijing is becoming enmeshed in Middle East politics:
Beijing... has to weigh up a growing web of other interests in the Middle East which could have some influence on its approach to sanctions.
Indeed, parts of the foreign policy establishment in China are warning that it would be against the government’s interests in the Middle East to get too close to Iran.
China should not “undertake to please Iran and at the same time hurt the feelings of the Arabs and other countries,” said Yin Gang, a Chinese expert on the Middle East in a recent article.
Israel is part of that web of interests. Although China has taken a pro-Palestinian position in international forums and is critical of Israel’s nuclear capability,Beijing has over the years had an unusually close relationship with Israel, which has been a key military supplier.
“The relationship with Israel is an important one,” says Willem van Kemenade, a China analyst who has written a book on Iran’s relations with China....
According to diplomats, Beijing has been quietly lobbied by Saudi Arabia, which has been its biggest supplier of oil for most of the past decade and which has warned of the dangers a nuclear Iran would pose to Middle East stability.
Chinese analysts admit that a nuclear arms race in the Middle East could pose a risk to its energy security.
Yet China has interests in Iran that go beyond energy investments.
Chinese scholars mention that China’s own nuclear weapons capability was achieved in the face of western sanctions. Chinese leaders share with Iran a suspicion of what they regard as western interference in their domestic politics.
Many Chinese observers consider the unrest in Iran to be partly inspired by US interests. China also sees Iran as a future partner in a Middle East in which the US is less dominant....
There is also the added question of China’s Muslim population. After the riots in Xinjiang last summer, China was criticised for its treatment of its Uighur minority by Turkey and by two Iranian ayatollahs.
Given how sensitive Beijing is about political radicalisation of Muslims in Xinjiang by people outside the country, “the incident was a warning to Beijing that it must exercise caution when dealing with Iran’s political and religious elites”, according to a recent report by the International Crisis Group.
So, just to review:
1) China is cozying up to a powerful country on the periphery of the Middle East;
2) Because of its religion and periodically bellicose foreign policy, that country is viewed as an outsider by the Arab Middle East;
3) This country is pursuing internal security policies that would generously be described as "controversial" by the rest of the world;
4) It's Middle East policy can have pronounced effects on China's own domestic politics;
5) All the while, Chinese energy dependence on the region is increasing rapidly.
Welcome to the Middle East, China!!
When I read the first few sentences of David Kay's National Interest essay on Iran and nuclear inspections, I said, "uh-oh":
There is a global consensus that any agreement with Iran on ensuring its nuclear program is for civilian purposes only will have to involve inspections to verify its disarmament. But as a former weapons inspector, I have very bad news for you: a weapons-inspection regime in Iran will not work. Inspections themselves are most effective when both the state being inspected and the inspecting countries are fully on board—and even then there are limits. An inspection regime can never ensure full disarmament.
David Kay knows a lot about inspections, so this looked to be depressing reading.
As I read the rest of the essay, however, it dawned on me that while Kay's point was correct, it was also banal. Of course inspections will not be foolproof.* The thing is, I don't think anyone really believes that to be true. Indeed, Kay provides no evidence or quotations for the "global consensus" that inspections will be perfect.
You would also think, from that first paragraph, that Kay believes that inspections have no utility. But then we get to this section:
[T]he purpose of IAEA oversight remains one of the most misunderstood elements of discussions about establishing an effective international inspection and verification regime. Inspection and verification are often thought of as ways to prevent a state from developing nuclear weapons. This is certainly not the case, and what’s more, it would be well beyond the capabilities of any conceivable inspection regime tasked with this verification mandate. If a country decides to break its international obligations and proceed with a nuclear-weapons program, the only options are military action by other countries or the acceptance of an atomically armed state. Inspectors simply do not have the military force that would be required to dissuade Iran or any other nation determined to breach its obligations and acquire nuclear weapons....
Instead, the goal is to create the equivalent of a strong plate-glass window that Iran would have to shatter if it were to embark upon a militarily significant nuclear program—and that inspectors could be reasonably expected to detect that shattering.
Um... that's exactly what I think are the purpose of IAEA inspection. The first metaphor that came to my mind was "tripwire," but you get the idea.
Kay's essay is extremely odd. Any realistic appraisal of IAEA safeguard inspections would posit that they are an imperfect but useful method of divining Iran's intentions with regard to their nuclear program. I'm pretty sure that is Kay's assessment as well. The entire tenor of his essay, however, seems designed to deflate some mythical belief in the power of inspections that no one possesses.
*Readers are encouraged to suggest other hyperbolic feats of strength that IAEA safeguard inspections cannot accomplish.
Anyone else intrigued by this BBC report?
Imposing more sanctions on Iran over its nuclear programme would not be a quick enough solution, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister has said.
Prince Saud al-Faisal said the threat posed by Iran demanded a "more immediate solution" than sanctions....
Speaking at a joint Riyadh news conference with Mrs Clinton, Prince Saud said: "Sanctions are a long-term solution. They may work, we can't judge.
"But we see the issue in the shorter term maybe because we are closer to the threat... So we need an immediate resolution rather than a gradual resolution."
While the Saudi minister did not detail his vision of a quick solution in public, it is likely that options were discussed behind closed doors in the meeting between Mrs Clinton and King Abdullah, says the BBC's Kim Ghattas, who is travelling with the top US diplomat.
Um.... beyond appeasement, what exactly are the policies that could lead to an "immediate resolution" of the Iranian nuclear program?
Seriously, I'm stumped on this point. All of the possible "immediate" options on the table -- Israeli airstrike, a Saudi deterrent capability -- seem equally ludicrous.
UPDATE: This Financial Times story by Abeer Allam appears to be an attempt at clarification:
Saudi foreign policy official told the French press agency on Tuesday that the kingdom was not advocating military action when Prince Saud said that sanctions were not a solution.
Riyadh was arguing that the Middle East peace process was a faster and more effective means to ease tensions in the region, the official said.
”There is no point in our spending all our time on sanctions which will not have an effect in the short term. We need something more tangible,” the offical told AFP.
”We don’t want a military strike ... A military strike, we still believe, will be very counterproductive,” he said. (emphasis added)
Um..... I agree that sanctions are not a quick fix, but does anyone, anywhere believe that the Middle East peace process will be faster than other policy options? Anyone?
Here is a quick list of things that I believe will happen more quickly than a successful Middle East peace process:
1) Cold fusion;
2) Bermuda wins gold medal in men's luge;
3) Miley Cyrus nominated for Best Actress Oscar
30th 31st anniversary of the Iranian Revolution, lots of people are clearly out in the streets of Tehran and other major Iranian cities. Andrew Sullivan has/will have posts galore on the Green protests -- and I have every confidence that the Leveretts will have a post up soon minimizing the significance of said protests (UPDATE: they do not disappoint).
As I've posted on Iran, I've been intrigued by all of the commenters arguing back and forth on the precise power of the Green movement. Some have argued that the current regime is doomed; some have argued that it's much ado about nothing.
So, here's my question to those readers -- what observable evidence would convince you that your analysis is wrong? If supporters of the Green
Revolution movement only saw evidence of anti-government protestors in the hundreds, would that convince you that the regime will be standing for quite some time? For those who believe the regime is here to stay, would millions in the streets chanting "Death to the Dictator" make you think twice about your assumptions?
Think hard about this question and post your answer in the comments.
UPDATE: Just to provide an example, this excerpt from a NIAC post bolsters the Leverett position on Iranian state strength:
It’s still very early to be drawing conclusions from today’s events, as people are still out in the streets. But one thing I’m struck by is just how much the government has been in control today. Sure, they chartered busses and lured tens of thousands to the official government rally with free food, but they have also managed to keep the opposition activities largely on their terms today.
The government’s strategy is to depict the protesters as a small group of rioting thugs, burning trash cans and disrupting order for their own radical, “foreign-backed” agenda. Toward that end, they have been very effective at keeping the demonstrations today dispersed and nervous — less of the “million man march” and more like Seattle WTO protesters. Above all else, the ruling elites know the danger of big crowds: strength in numbers takes over and individuals no longer feel like they will be held accountable for their actions, thus their demands get more radical and their tactics more extreme; this forces a harsher backlash from security forces, possibly including using lethal force. And then that’s the ball-game. That’s exactly what happened in 1979, and Khamenei learned that lesson well enough that he’ll do his utmost not to repeat it.
So today’s events (like previous ones) have seen security forces disrupt crowds before they can coalesce into a large group, arresting numerous individuals as a way of controlling the crowds before they get out of the police’s hands....
Interestingly, many accounts we've been hearing involve protestors being hesitant to wear green, flash a V for victory sign, or even chant openly out of fear of backlash from security personnel. In some cases, particularly at Azadi square where Ahmadinejad addressed the official government rally, security forces scanned the crowd for any signs of "green" activity, and quickly pulled people out of the group as soon as they were given cause.
Steve Walt effectively vivisects Adam Lawther's op-ed yesterday on the alleged positive externalities that an Iranian nuclear bomb would have on the Middle East and American foreign policy. Rather than dogpile on, I'm going to go meta again.
I'm intrigued by what op-ed editor David Shipley is trying to do on the Iran debate. Lawther's op-ed is hardly the first strange op-ed on Iran to appear in the past few months. We've also had Alan Kuperman's analysis for why bombing Iran is such a good idea, and the Leverett's pay-no-attention-to-the-protestors-behind-the-curtain argument for enhanced engagement with the current Iranian leadership.
As the links above suggest, I'm not a fan of any of these arguments. That said, I am a fan of having these arguments inserted into the public discussion over Iran. Ever since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, a common lament has been that was no public debate about the wisdom of different policy options. Both foreign policy mooseheads and scholars have highlighted this pre-invasion consensus. These analyses might be somewhat exaggerated, but I think it would be difficult to deny that in the opinion pages of the major newspapers, the deck was somewhat stacked in favor of military action.
My hunch is that Shipley is thinking: "Won't Get Fooled Again" He wants as heterogeneous an array of views as possible as the Iran situation develops.
There is something laudable about this if it's true -- it's exactly what the Times op-ed page should be doing as a foreign policy crisis unfolds. My only concern is the caliber of reasoning in these op-eds. They are, as Walt put it, "silly arguments." On the other hand, if these ideas are vetted and then shot down, maybe the foreign policy community actually knows what it's talking about this time around.
Mario Tama/Getty Images
I, for one, am glad that the foreign press is brave enough to cover what America's mainstream media is not -- the U.S. government's complicity in causing the Haitian earthquake. Never mind that the foreign media echo chamber aparentluy started with a false rumor -- with luck, our MSM will now start asking the tough questions.
Why, you might ask? What is America's motivations to trigger Haiti's earthquake and then intervene with massive aid in the hemisphere's poorest country? Well, there are different theories bandied about.
Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez suggests that this was a practice "drill," designed to test the earthquake weapon before targeting Iran (though see the update below). Very clever!! It is unclear whether Chavez believes that this is a test of the "demonstration effect" variety or not. It is also unclear just how such an earthquake would actually destroy Iran's nuclear program -- the 2003 Bam earthquake certainly didn't.
This Canadian-based Centre for Research on Globalization's Ken Hildebrandt offers the following ingenious explanation:
You've likely guessed my suspicions about recent events. I'm not saying this is what occurred, though it's sure a possibility to be considered in my view.
This could hardly have happened at a more convenient time. The president's ratings are plummeting, and his bill to subsidize the insurance industry has essentially divided the nation in two.
What better way to lead the people into believing we're one big happy family than to reunite former Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush along with Obama in a joint humanitarian effort?
This is so convenient... and brilliant!! It makes perfect sense that the Obama administation would try to kill upwards of 200,000 Haitians in order to bring the country together as one! Because, clearly, in recent years, natural disasters have bolstered the standing of U.S. presidents!! Certainly, a calamity in Haiti would work even better! If only Rush Limbaugh had played ball....
What I love about conspiracies like these is the careful balancing of smart and stupid that the key actors have to possess in order for the plan to work as described.
Question to readers: how far and how wide will this meme travel?
UPDATE: I just received the following from a atrategic communications advisor to the Venezuelan Embassy in the United states:
In response to your recent post on Foreign Policy’s website, I just wanted to clarify that President Hugo Chavez never associated himself with the theory that a
U.S.weapon had caused the earthquake in . Haiti
The claim was made by a blogger on the website of a state-run yet independent television station. At some point thereafter, someone jumped to the conclusion that President Chavez had agreed or repeated the claim, which is absolutely not true. President Chavez did argue against an increased
U.S.military presence in , but at no point did he question what had caused the earthquake or aligned himself with any conspiracy theories to that effect. Haiti
I was wondering how the Leveretts would respond to the Ashura protests from last month. Now I have my answer: an op-ed in the New York Times in which they argue "The Islamic Republic of Iran is not about to implode. Nevertheless, the misguided idea that it may do so is becoming enshrined as conventional wisdom in Washington."
Their op-ed is worth a good hard look, precisely because it does push back against the conentional wisdom in Washington. It's not the popular thing to say that the Obama administration should double down on engagement, and I respect that they're willing to make the exact same arguments for engagement that they did before the June protests.
However, it is also worth remembering Drezner's Eleventh Commandment for Policy Wonks: just because you're going against the conventional wisdom doesn't mean you're right.
As the Leveretts note on their blog site, "It is hard to do serious political analysis of a contested political environment when one is, in effect, 'rooting' for one of the contestants." So true* -- but scanning their op-ed, the Leveretts appear to have their own rooting interest. Consider these two paragraphs:
[A]ssertions that the Islamic Republic is now imploding in the fashion of the shah’s regime in 1979 do not hold up to even the most minimal scrutiny. Antigovernment Iranian Web sites claim there were “tens of thousands” of Ashura protesters; others in Iran say there were 2,000 to 4,000. Whichever estimate is more accurate, one thing we do know is that much of Iranian society was upset by the protesters using a sacred day to make a political statement.
Vastly more Iranians took to the streets on Dec. 30, in demonstrations organized by the government to show support for the Islamic Republic (one Web site that opposed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election in June estimated the crowds at one million people). Photographs and video clips lend considerable plausibility to this estimate — meaning this was possibly the largest crowd in the streets of Tehran since Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s funeral in 1989. In its wake, even President Ahmadinejad’s principal challenger in last June’s presidential election, Mir Hossein Mousavi, felt compelled to acknowledge the “unacceptable radicalism” of some Ashura protesters.
The possibility of a backlash to the Ashura protests is certainly an interesting one, and should be explored further. I want to focus on the numbers bandied about in these two paragraphs, however. The first graph suggests that the number of protestors on Ashura ranged from 2,000 to "tens of thousands," placing those as the acceptable bounds. OK, but multiple news outlets, including the New York Times, have mentioned "hundreds of thousands of Iranians" out on the streets on that day. It seems a bit odd to cap the upper bound at "tens of thousands."
The second paragraph suggests a million supporters came out on December 30th in Tehran to support the government, citing one website. OK, but there are other press reports that suggested a much lower number -- "tens of thousands," according to the Los Angeles Times. Again, it seems odd not to suggest the range of estimates.
[UPDATE: as Andrew Sullivan, Scott Lucas, and several commenter have observed, a distinction should be made between government workers told to march without repercussions, and the hundred of thousands risking their lives challenge the Khamenei regime.]
Again, I'm not saying that there were more Ashura protestors than government protestors -- I too would like to see the data on this question presented in an objective manner. I am saying that the Leveretts seem to be cherry-picking their protest numbers -- which makes me seriously doubt the objectivity of the rest of their analysis.
UPDATE: I see that
my FP overlords FP's editors have the good sense to publish Hooman Majd's assessment of the situation in Iran, which is well worth reading -- as is Robin Wright's analysis of recent opposition manifestos in the Los Angeles Times.
ANOTHER UPDATE: Kevin Sullivan at RealClear World is correct to point out that the Leveretts are asking the right analytical questions in their op-ed -- questions others have also been asking. Based on the way they've
skewed framed their data, however, I simply don't put much faith in their answers.
LAST UPDATE: The Leveretts respond in the comments section -- and be sure to check out the follow-ups as well.
*And I should now fully disclose that I've received funding and/or affiliation and/or membership from at least
six seven eight of the organizations now blacklisted by Iran's Ministry of Intelligence (hat tip: Steve Clemons, whose New America Foundation received the double-dip, along with the International Republican Institute).
Andrew Sullivan has been blogging about Iran juuuust a wee bit the past 48 hours. Now he asks a question:
The Green Movement has strongly resisted all sanctions against Iran, and even more passionately opposes any military strikes. If Israel strikes, it will effectively kill the Iranian opposition movement, and set off a global wave of Jihadism which will kill many American soldiers and civilians. So how to respond to the Revolutionary Guards' continuing and mounting brutality?
He also links to some useful Spencer Ackerman posts, which contains the following two points of interest:
What to do? I think two big questions need to be asked. First, how are the sanctions supposed to work? Is the idea to squeeze the elite coalition ruling Iran just hard enough to get the current leadership to cut a deal? Or is the idea to cause enough discontent with the regime such that it collapses, and then a deal can be struck with the next regime?
The process by which sanctions are supposed to work matters. If the hope is to still do business with the current regime, then targeted or "smart" sanctions make more sense. They're less likely to impact the broader Iranian population -- though, like precision-guided munitions, there will always be collateral damage.
If the goal is regime change, well, then broad-based sanctions might make more sense. If these reports are any indication, then it appears that the Khamenei regime is alienating an ever-larger swath of the population. Obviously, the regime could try to use the prospect and implementation of broad-based sanctions as a way to rally around the flag. If the regime's popular support is badly eroding, however, and that erosion is partly explained by economic hardship, then you want sanctions to target a somewhat larger segment of the populace.
Of course, as I've said before, this is all sophistry unless you get Iran's major trading partners on board. And my hunch is they won't go for the "heavy" sanctions option. This is a shame, because at this point, I think it's the option that's somewhat more likely to work.
Let's not kid ourselves, however: we're talking about policy options that will change the probabilities by a few percentage points either way. There is no magic bullet -- or bomb, for that matter -- on this policy quiestion.
Am I missing anything?
Two articles worth reading this AM:
1. Ali Ansari's history of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps in The National Interest. Ansari explains exactly how the IRGC has become intermeshed with the Iranian economy, and what that means going forward. His key point: it's not about the ideology anymore:
Though the IRGC started its life as a defender of the revolution, over time the organization has become increasingly involved in commercial interests. Divisions within the Revolutionary Guard, particularly between its veterans and their heirs, have deepened. Now in bed with an increasingly radicalized elite in Iran, the IRGC seems to be less about protecting the people of the country and more about protecting its own material interests. Iran is rapidly becoming a security state.
2. Blaine Harden's Washington Post story on the fallout from North Korean protests of the government's controversial currency reform last month. Yes, you read that correctly, North Korean protests. The good parts:
Grass-roots anger and a reported riot in an eastern coastal city pressured the government to amend its confiscatory policy. Exchange limits have been eased, allowing individuals to possess more cash.
The currency episode reveals new constraints on Kim's power and may signal a fundamental change in the operation of what is often called the world's most repressive state. The change is driven by private markets that now feed and employ half the country's 23.5 million people, and appear to have grown too big and too important to be crushed, even by a leader who loathes them....
The currency episode seems far from over, and there have been indications that Kim still has the stomach for using deadly force.
There have been public executions and reinforcements have been dispatched to the Chinese border to stop possible mass defections, according to reports in Seoul-based newspapers and aid groups with informants in the North.
Still, analysts say there has also been evidence of unexpected shifts in the limits of Kim's authority.
"The private markets have created a new power elite," said Koh Yu-whan, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul. "They pay bribes to bureaucrats in Kim's government, and they are a threat that is not going away."
Why did something like this take 40 years? This is an overdetermined answer, but I have to think that the DPRK leadership has become so materially impoverished that North Koreans with ambition have decided that they are better off going outside the syatem rather than trying to achieve a bureaucratic sinecure.
The common thread in both stories? Ideological zeal only takes you so far, even in a totalitarian society. Market forces will worm their way into even the most theocratic or communist societies. What will be interesting is how those getting rich will respond to political instability, even as they have profted from the existing rules of the game.
The New York Times' Robert Worth and Nazila Fathli take a bold step for inference in their story on Iran's demonstrations:
Unlike the other protesters reported killed on Sunday, Ali Moussavi appears to have been assassinated in a political gesture aimed at his uncle, according to Mohsen Makhmalbaf, an opposition figure based in Paris with close ties to the Moussavi family.
Mr. Moussavi was first run over by a sport utility vehicle outside his home, Mr. Makhmalbaf wrote on his Web site. Five men then emerged from the car, and one of them shot him. Government officials took the body late Sunday and warned the family not to hold a funeral, Mr. Makhmalbaf wrote.
Whoa there, big fella. Talk about jumping to conclusions! Sure, this looks suspicious, but I can think of several other plausible reasons for why this could have happened:
See, these are all plausible alternative storylines, and should be investigated thoroughly before calling this a "political assassination."
My FP colleague Marc Lynch has dissected Alan Kuperman's New York Times op-ed on the wisdom of bombing Iran. Lynch takes great pains (more on that in a moment) to rip apart Kuperman's argument so I don't have to, but I can't resist pointing out the most tendentious point in the essay:
As for the risk of military strikes undermining Iran’s opposition, history suggests that the effect would be temporary. For example, NATO’s 1999 air campaign against Yugoslavia briefly bolstered support for President Slobodan Milosevic, but a democratic opposition ousted him the next year.
Now, this assertion contains facts, but is so radically incomplete as to be f***ing insane.
To add a bit of detail: maybe, just maybe, the reason Slobodan Milosevic was ousted had less to do with the bombing itself, but because the Serbian leader completely capitulated to NATO's demands on Kosovo after eight weeks of airstrikes. The bombing angered those already on the outs with Milosevic; the acquiescence after costly punishment angered Serbian nationalists and technocrats. So it wasn't just the bombing that affected Serbian politics -- it was Milosevic's decision to alter Serbian policy in a manner favorable to NATO.
So, yes, if the Iranian leadership does what Kuperman wants them to do after being bombed -- acquiesce on the nuclear program -- then yes, they'll be gone. Now, raise your hand if you think the current Iranian leadership will respond to a bombing campaign by shifting their position closer to the U.S. position.
So, yes, this is a pretty silly op-ed, and the New York Times wasted an awful lot of column inches on it. Go ahead, heap some calumny on them. *
The Obama administration almost certainly doesn't want to make such a wrong-headed move --- but, then, there are a lot of things which the Obama administration doesn't want to do but has been forced into by political realities (Gitmo, the public option, escalation in Afghanistan) and intentions aren't enough. Many people may have assumed that the legacy of Iraq would have raised the bar on such arguments for war, that someone making such all too familiar claims would simply be laughed out of the public square. The NYT today shows that they aren't. I suspect that one of the great foreign policy challenges of 2010 is going to be to push back on this mad campaign for another pointless, counter-productive war for the sake of war.
I would interpret things differently. Changing the policy status quo is really, really hard, and it's normally pretty easy to gin up significant political opposition to any proposed change. The status quo on Iran is that we're not bombing them , so I expect that to continue for a good long while.
Indeed, the reactions to this op-ed remind me of the panic among progressives in 2007 that the Bush administration was gearing up to bomb Iran. The truth was somewhat different.
By all means, critique Kuperman's argument. But let's not pretend that Dick Cheney is still vice president, or that Bill Kristol can start a war with a Weekly Standard column. The world really has changed a bit.
*UPDATE: The more I think about the massive flaws in this op-ed, the more I'm beginning to wonder if this wasn't a strategic move by the New York Times op-ed page editors to subtly undercut the neoconservative argument for war. Indeed, I would not describe the GOP links to the essay as terribly enthusiastic. I do love Tom Gross' characterization of it as, "dry and academic and long (it runs to two pages online)." Yes, because if you can't make the case for military action in under 400 words, there's just no point in bothering.
Nader Mousavizadeh, a special assistant to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan from 1997 to 2003, writes in The New Republic that the United States should prioritize democratization over de-nuclearization in Iran:
The fracturing of the Islamic Republic’s traditional elite, and the persistence and power of Iran’s democratic awakening six months later, make clear that a regime change is under way in Iran--one that is indigenous, sustainable, democratic in spirit, and peaceful in its means. It is the most promising development in the broader Middle East in the past quarter-century. Rather than being viewed as a sideshow, the uprising should be at the core of every policy decision regarding Iran. Western leaders should ask themselves just one question whenever faced with a new set of measures toward Iran: Will they help or hurt the Green Movement?
For all the concern about a fitful and still highly vulnerable nuclear program, a far greater prize is now in sight: a freer society and an accountable government under the rule of law. An opportunity now exists to encourage the evolution of a democratic Iran--through careful, calibrated, and principled policies that refuse to be baited by the crude and bellicose behavior of a usurper president.
Now, I'm sure Flynt Leverett and other purebred realists would vehemently disagree with this assessment. And I'm sure that William Kristol and other neoconservatives would vehemently agree with this sentiment.
For the rest of you, does this preference ordering make sense? To me, it seems that you need to take the following variables into account:
None of this is to say that a carrt-and-stick appoach on the nuclear issue is going to work either. If you're comfotable with risk, an approach that marginally boosts the likelihood of a Green Revolution taking place might be the best play.
I bring up these questions, however, because it's possible that a carrot-and-stick approach that prioritizes the nuclear issue over the regime change issue is the best of a really lousy set of policy options.
Seth Robinson has a interesting essay over at The New Republic that explains why Russia is loathe to sanction Iran over nuclear issues. The key part:
How does Russia benefit from its nuclear cooperation with
? Simple economics provides a compelling first answer: The Russian economy has not only reaped the benefits of the Bushehr deal, but it has also been bolstered by the sale of fuel and the potential sale of additional reactors. What's more, the nuclear project is only one of many economic agreements between the two countries. Total bilateral trade hovers around $2 billion, as Iran Russiasupplies with consumer goods, oil and gas equipment, and military technology. Iran Russiaalso enjoys privileged access (along with China) to 's Southern Pars gas fields.... Iran
Iranis still a powerbroker in the Caspian oil trade; its position on the Caspian Sea, which is estimated to hold more than 10 billion tons of oil reserves, makes it an important and influential partner for . Russia has been extensively involved in coordinating transnational oil and gas deals, arranging transportation of exports with a number of regional states. Tehran Russiais in a position to use its good relations with Iranto challenge 's efforts to create new pipelines and foreign direct investment in the Caspian region. Washington Iranhas already proven an effective regional ally for Russia--in addition to cooperating on energy deals, Tehranhas pointedly refrained from criticizing Moscow's Chechnyapolicy and has held strategic meetings with on the Taliban. Moscow
Finally, Russian nuclear cooperation with
Iranprovides the Kremlin with leverage over the . United States remains guarded against Western advances into its "near abroad," and has fought to keep neighboring states from being brought into the NATO fold. By dangling the Iranian nuclear issue in front of the Moscow United States, may believe it has a means to maintain regional dominance. Russian leaders have already extracted concessions from Moscow Washington, as the United Statesrecently altered plans for missile defense in Polandand the . Yielding on the Czech Republic Iranissue would strip Moscowof the ability to coerce the and damage its own ability to reassert local influence. United States
The first reason is both sufficient and compelling; I'm not entirely sure I buy the latter two. Iran's nuclear program gave the United States just cause to insert missile programs into Eastern Europe in the first place -- so Iran's nuclear ambitions have caused as many problems for Russia's near abroad as they have ameliorated. As for the Caspian argument, it's not clear how a Russian-Iranian axis challenges U.S. energy diplomacy in the region. If anything, that axis probably incentivizes the smaller energy producers to find a viable pipeline alternative that flows outside of Moscow and Tehran's orbit.
That said, the economic interest argument is pretty powerful. So, does this mean sanctions would be fruitless? Not necessarily. The paradox about economic sanctions is that although allies are more reluctant to coerce each other, they are also more successful once they make the decision to coerce. At the same time, successful sanction efforts almost always end at the threat stage. So if Russia ever signaled that it would seriously contemplate a cut-off in bilateral exchange, the Iranians would be likely to concede before implementation.
This is the outcome the Russians would prefer the most -- a mild threat from the P5 + 1 prods Tehran into taking just enough action to avoid further isolation, and any further implementation of sanctions.
But I could be wrong. Persuade me in the comments.
My latest bloggingheads diavlog is with the New America Foundation's Flynt Leverett, who co-authored an op-ed last week that didn't sit too well with me. We discuss the Leveretts' proposal for a grand bargain with Iran and all of its implications.
I come away from the diavlog even more skeptical of the Leverett proposal -- the more I listened, the more I thought that:
Opinions will vary, however -- give it a listen and let me know what you think in the comments.
So, how should you interpret the first round of P5 +1 negotiations with Iran that took place yesterday?
The hard-working staff here at drezner.foreignpolicy.com would never want its readers to view material outside their ideological comfort zone -- that would be crazy talk. Therefore, please go down this list of different ideological approaches to Iran and read only the one that fits you.
Liberal internationalism: An excellent first round of talks. At a minimum, the Iranian pledge to permit IAEA inspectors into its Qom facility, and the agreement to have fuel encriched outside of Iran, help to lessen fears of a breakout capability. This shows how a multilateral approach, linked to the threat of sanctions, can successfully bring Iran into a cooperative relationship with the West.
Neoconservatism: These talks were a feckless and futile exercise. Iran agreed "in principle" -- which means that it will likely not honor its pledges. This also covers part of the uranium that we know about, and only the facilities that we know about. Anyone who thinks that this lying, odious, anti-Semitic regime is showing all of its cards on the nuclear question is deluding themselves. The only thing these talks will accomplish is sapping the will of Americans to use any means necessary to overthrow the regime.
Realism: Iran's concessions reinforce the point that this regime a perfectly rational actor that is worthy of even deeper engagement. We still have no evidence that Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons, so we should not go looking for red herrings that do not exist. A deal can be made with this government once we are able to ignore how its rulers treats its own citizenry. Any failure from here on in is entirely the fault of Israel and the Israel Lobby in the United States.
So, did I miss anything?
You know how so many in the blogosphere bitch and moan about the ability of neoconservatives to get their policy proposals published even after screwing up on Iraq?
I'm kind of curious how these people feel about Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett's op-ed in the New York Times today about Iran. I mean, this is a scant few months after they served as apologists for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad after the controversial June election. I guess the Leveretts know Gwen Pollard well.
Others can debate whether the Leveretts deserve the prime real estate on the NYT op-ed page. I'd like to focus on the fact that the op-ed itself makes no f***ing sense whatsoever.
Let's take a look at it, shall we?
[T]he meeting on Thursday in Geneva of the United Nations Security Council’s five permanent members and Germany with Iran (the “five plus one” talks) will not be an occasion for strategic discussion but for delivering an ultimatum: Iran will have to agree to pre-emptive limitations on its nuclear program or face what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calls “crippling” sanctions.
However, based on conversations we’ve had in recent days with senior Iranian officials — including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — we believe it is highly unlikely Iran will accept this ultimatum.
Oh, wow... senior Iranian officials told the Leveretts that they would not concede? Well, I'd definitely take that at face value. I'm sure these were the same people who told the Leveretts that Ahmadinejad was the legitimate victor back in June. Clearly, these are reliable sources with zero incentive to dissemble to regime-friendly pundits in the United States. And it's not like they have anything to hide. Oh, wait....
American officials tend to play down Iranian concerns about American intentions, citing public messages from President Obama to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, as proof of the administration’s diplomatic seriousness. But Tehran saw these messages as attempts to circumvent Iran’s president — another iteration, in a pattern dating from Ronald Reagan’s Iran-Contra scandal, of American administrations trying to create channels to Iranian “moderates” rather than dealing with the Islamic Republic as a system.
Wow again. See, I would view these exchanges with Khamenei as attempts to talk to the person with actual control over Iran's nuclear program, as opposed to the guy who rants on and on about how the Holocaust was just a big myth.
Indeed, the Obama administration is "dealing with the Islamic Republic as a system" -- and they are trying to talk to the people with genuine foreign policy power. The Leveretts, on the other hand, seem to be convinced that the only way to talk with Iran is through Ahmadinejad.
Unfortunately, the Obama administration was enticed by the prospect of regime-toppling instability in the aftermath of Iran’s presidential election this summer. But compared to past upheavals in the Islamic Republic’s 30-year history — the forced exile of a president, the assassination of another, the eight-year war with Iraq and the precipitous replacement of Ayatollah Khomeini’s first designated successor, Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, with Ayatollah Khamenei — the controversy over this year’s election was hardly a cataclysmic event.
Seriously, how did this paragraph get past the op-ed editors? First of all, beyond a rhetorical flourish or two and asking Twitter to hold off on their scheduled maintenance, what exactly did the Obama administration do to foment regime-toppling instability? Second, if the largest street demonstrations since the 1979 revolution don't qualify as a big event, what would convince the Leveretts of the import of the June election? More YouTube videos? Hand puppets?
Instead of pushing the falsehood that sanctions will give America leverage in Iranian decision-making — a strategy that will end either in frustration or war — the administration should seek a strategic realignment with Iran as thoroughgoing as that effected by Nixon with China. This would require Washington to take steps, up front, to assure Tehran that rapprochement would serve Iran’s strategic needs.
On that basis, America and Iran would forge a comprehensive framework for security as well as economic cooperation — something that Washington has never allowed the five-plus-one group to propose. Within that framework, the international community would work with Iran to develop its civil nuclear program, including fuel cycle activities on Iranian soil, in a transparent manner rather than demanding that Tehran prove a negative — that it’s not developing weapons. A cooperative approach would not demonize Iran for political relationships with Hamas and Hezbollah, but would elicit Tehran’s commitment to work toward peaceful resolutions of regional conflicts.
This seems as propitious a moment as any to cave to popular demand that I articulate some thoughts on the sanctions question with regard to Iran. I would expect some somewhat more utility in the sanctions process than the Leveretts. If the U.S. can foster cooperation among the P5 + 1, and the Iranians see the extent of this cooperation, then I think they'd be willing to deal. That's not an easy proposition to pull off, and would require both diplomatic skill and will. That does not mean it should't be tried, however. Even the effort to build momentum in the Security Council might prompt serious bargaining from the Iranians.
I would also like to know how the Iranian opposition feels about sanctions. If they reject them as a policy tool, well, that's a good argument against their imposition. On the other hand, if this is a replay of South Africa, then that's something else to consider.
One final point -- the analogy with Nixon's opening to China makes zero sense in the current context. Nixon was trying to outflank the Soviet Union during the Cold War by cozying up to their most powerful bordering state. What the Leveretts seem to be proposing is a multilateral move to bring Iran in from the cold -- which benefits Russia and China far more than it benefits the United States. In other words, I'm not sure how a Nixon strategy works in the P5 + 1 framework.
I suppose that the Obama administration could attempt secret shuttle diplomacy with Iran to outflank Moscow and Beijing. Such a gambit would infuriate our European allies and push Israel into panicking, however -- and I'm not sure that's worth whatever strategic gains would be had by a rapprochement with the regime in Tehran.
So, to review, I give the Leverett op-ed an "I" -- for being inchoate, inconsistent, and idiotic.
The Financial Times' Simeon Kerr and Harvey Morris report on one of those stories that the Bush administration would have killed for about, oh, seven years ago:
The United Arab Emirates has seized a ship secretly carrying embargoed North Korean arms to Iran, say diplomats.
The interception comes at a sensitive time. North Korea has invited the US for bilateral talks on nuclear issues and the UN Security Council’s western members are pressing for greater Iranian co-operation over its nuclear programme.
The UAE has reported the seizure of the vessel to the UN sanctions committee responsible for vetting the implementation of measures, including an arms embargo, imposed against North Korea under Security Council resolution 1874, according to diplomats in New York. The committee, chaired by Turkey, has made no formal announcement about the case.
Diplomats at the UN identified the vessel as the Bahamian-flagged ANL-Australia. The vessel was seized some weeks ago. The UN sanctions committee has written to the Iranian and North Korean governments pointing out that the shipment puts them in violation of UN resolution 1974.
The authorities seized “military components”, but the vessel has since departed, a person familiar with UAE thinking said. The seizure took place in the UAE, but not the shipping hub of Dubai, the person added.
So, in the past two years, North Korea has been linked to arms build-ups in Syria, Myanmar, and Iran.
Come to think of it, maybe it's not an Axis of Evil so much as North Korea desperately trying to export the one thing they make that has market value.
Reports like these are actually good news, I suspect. It suggests that the enhanced sanctions regime is making it tougher for North Korea to export its ilicit wares. Which means that the status quo favors the other members of the Six-Party Talks more than it favors Pyongyang.
Gosh, maybe there's something to this containment idea.
UPDATE: More info on the shipment itself here.
Laura Secor writes in the New Yorker about the bass-ackward effects of the Iranian government's decision to televise the show trials. I think she misses a key point, however:
Since the disputed Presidential elections of June 12th, about a hundred reformist politicians, journalists, student activists, and other dissidents have been accused of colluding with Western powers to overthrow the Islamic Republic. This month, a number of the accused have made videotaped confessions. But the spectacle has found a subversive afterlife on the Internet. One image that has gone viral is a split frame showing two photographs of former Vice-President Mohammad Ali Abtahi. Before his arrest, on June 16th, he is a rotund, smiling cleric; in court on August 1st, he is drawn and sweat-soaked, his face a mask of apprehension. The juxtaposition belies the courtroom video, making the point that the only genuine thing about Abtahi’s confession is that it was coerced through torture.
Show trials have been staged before, most notably in Moscow in the nineteen-thirties. Typically, such rituals purge élites and scare the populace. They are the prelude to submission. Iran’s show trials, so far, have failed to accrue this fearsome power. In part, this is because the accused are connected to a mass movement: Iranians whose democratic aspirations have evolved organically within the culture of the Islamic Republic. It is one thing to persuade citizens that a narrow band of apparatchiks are enemies of the state. It is quite another to claim that a political agenda with broad support—for popular sovereignty, human rights, due process, freedom of speech—has been covertly planted by foreigners.
I don't doubt that the broad-based nature of support for change is one reason the show trials have rung hollow. Still, isn't this a case where the medium is the message?
Stalin's show trials were not broadcast on television -- they were reported in state-run newspapers or aired, edited, over state-run radio. This gives the state much greater editorial powers than a live television transmission. Furthermore, as Secor's first paragraph suggests, it's the non-verbal cues that come from television that completely undermine the intended effect of the spectacle.
It is possible that, in the future, more sophisticated CGI effects will allow governments the capacity to digitally edit these images, a la The Running Man, to maximize the desired effect (i.e., making Abtahi look as healthy as he did pre-incarceration). For now, however, such efforts would only look like bad plastic surgery. No, I don't think televised show trials really work at all.
Beyond Iran, have show trials ever worked in the television era? This is a real question, readers. About the only modern example I can think of where a televised trial of a political leader has broken the back of a movement was Turkey's capture and trial of Kurdish Worker's Party (PKK) leader Abdullah (“Apo”) Öcalan. Öcalan's complete about-face and rejection of violence during his trial had an effect on the PKK.
I'm not sure the parallel holds up, since most Turks held genuine antipathy for Öcalan and the Kurds. So, the question remains open -- can show trials ever cement an authoritarian government's legitimacy?
In a legen -- wait for it -- dary blog post, Belle Waring mentioned the pony problem in public policy. Namely, "an infallible way to improve any public policy wishes. You just wish for the thing, plus, wish that everyone would have their own pony!"
I bring this up because of David Sanger's New York Times story about the prospects of imposing a gasoline embargo on Iran:
The Obama administration is talking with allies and Congress about the possibility of imposing an extreme economic sanction against Iran if it fails to respond to President Obama's offer to negotiate on its nuclear program: cutting off the country’s imports of gasoline and other refined oil products....
But enforcing what would amount to a gasoline embargo has long been considered risky and extremely difficult; it would require the participation of Russia and China, among others that profit from trade with Iran. Iran has threatened to respond by cutting off oil exports and closing shipping traffic through the Strait of Hormuz, at a moment that the world economy is highly vulnerable.
The rest of the story is kind of irrelevant -- because without China and Russia, this is just a theoretical exercise. In fact, here's a good time-saver: if you read any story about a gasoline embargo o Iran, just scan quickly and get to the part where the reporter explains how and why Russia and China would go along. If it's not mentioned, the story is inconsequential.
If you want China and Russia to agree to sanctions, should you wish for the free pony as well? Here the growth of dissent in Iran complicates an already complicated picture. I'm betting that Moscow and Beijing have observed the "Death to Russia!" and "Death to China!" chants among the protestors. This is likely going to make them even more reluctant to do anything that undermines the current regime (even if this hurts their long-term interests). Which a gasoline embargo would most certainly do.
Do I think a gasoline embargo is a good idea? Absolutely. Do I think it will happen? No, I don't.
Just as TNR's
precise transcription of Denis McDonough's talking points long disquisition about the Obama administration's policy planning process comes out, Roger Cohen unfurls his long-form essay in the New York Times Magazine about the administration's thinking on Iran, the Middle East, and U.S. foreign policy.
Here's the bigthink of Cohen's essay:
Just how far Obama is ready to go in engagement’s name has become clearer in Iran. At the time of that Thursday demonstration, almost a week after the election, the toughest thing he had found to say about the turmoil was that the suppression of peaceful dissent “is of concern to me and it’s of concern to the American people.” He had also equated Ahmadinejad with Moussavi, from the U.S. national-security standpoint, because both support the nuclear program, even as people died for the greater openness that Moussavi espoused.
A sobered America is back in the realpolitik game. A favored phrase in the Iran team goes, “It is what it is.” Now the question is whether such an approach can yield results. Can Ross honor his own precept to match objectives with “available means”? To the nuclear clock has been added a democracy clock, complicating every diplomatic equation. An Iran of mullahs and nukes has morphed, for many Americans, into the Iran of beautiful, young Neda Agha-Soltan, cut down with a single shot while leaving a June 20 demonstration, a murder caught on video that went viral. Whatever Obama’s realism — and it’s as potent as his instinct for the middle ground — a president on whom so much youthful idealism has been projected can scarcely ignore the Neda effect.
All well and good, but there's a nugget buried in Cohen's tale that wories me juuust a bit. As fans of Laura Rozen are aware (and if you're not a fan, you should be), Barack Obama had a disappointing meeting with Saudi King Abdullah last month:
[T]wo sources, one a former U.S. official who recently traveled there and one a current official speaking anonymously, say the meeting did not go well from Obama's perspective. What's more, the former official says that Dennis Ross has told associates that part of what prompted Obama to bring him on as his special assistant and NSC senior director for the "Central Region" last month was the president's feeling that the preparation for the trip was insufficient.
Ok, except that after reading Cohen's story, I can't help but wonder whether Ross was part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Here is Cohen's description of Ross' meetng with the Saudi King -- which occured six weeks before Obama's:
On April 29, in Dammam, in Saudi Arabia’s eastern province, Ross sat down with King Abdullah. He talked to a skeptical monarch about the Obama administration’s engagement policy with Iran — and talked and talked and talked. When the king finally got to speak, according to one U.S. official fully briefed on the exchange, he began by telling Ross: “I am a man of action. Unlike you, I prefer not to talk a lot.” Then he posed several pointed questions about U.S. policy toward Iran: What is your goal? What will you do if this does not work? What will you do if the Chinese and the Russians are not with you? How will you deal with Iran's nuclear program if there is not a united response? Ross, a little flustered, tried to explain that policy was still being fleshed out.
When the Saudis are accusing you of being all hat and no cattle, you know you have a problem.
Seriously, let's think about this from Abdullah's perspective for a second. A new envoy comes to chat filled with new plans and ideas on Iran. Except it turns out that these new plans and ideas haven't been filled out exactly -- key contingecies haven't been thought through, etc. For a leader who had to deal with eight years of George W. Bush, this had to sound a lot like U.S. foreign policy déjà vu. Why should he have been more forthcoming with Obama.
So, just to be clear, Obama found that meeting unsatisfactory -- and as a result he brings in the guy who might have laid the groundwork for the unproductive meeting?
Look, Ross is a smart guy, and he might have ust had a bad day when he met with Abdullah. But there are times when the Obama administration, for all the talk about embtracing realpolitik,* doesn't sound terribly realist at all.
*Granted, there are other points in the essay where the administration sounds positively Waltzian.
I know so little about rap music* that I can't directly comment on Marc Lynch's marathon post on Jay-Z and American hegemony. [You could comment on Beyoncé, though, right?--ed. Let's just say that I am in complete agreement with Marc that this is one of the most awesome display of soft power on the Internet]
Which made me think about what's going on in Iran again. Najmeh Bozorgmehr's Financial Times story today suggests that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei can't seem to find the necessary proxy to push back against his opposition:
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, warned the country’s opposition leaders on Monday that they faced “collapse” if they continued to incite protests over the disputed presidential election.
The warning came amid an unprecedented war of words between the regime’s senior leaders and looked like a retort to Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, the influential former president who has backed the opposition. Mr Rafsanjani said on Friday the country was in “crisis” and the regime had to regain people’s trust....
“The [political] elite should be careful,” warned Ayatollah Khamenei. “They [the opposition leaders] are in an exam session; a big exam. Failing in this exam does not mean getting one [academic] year behind. It will lead to [their] collapse.
“Anyone under any title and position who pushes the society toward insecurity would be a hated figure in the eyes of the majority of Iranian nation,” he said, in a clear reference to the top opposition figures including Mr Rafsanjani.
Meanwhile Mr Ahmadi-Nejad, who has been largely silent on the unprecedented dispute over his re-election, is preparing to swear in his new cabinet (emphasis added).
Pretty ominous words from Khamenei, to be sure -- but it's interesting that he's the guy who has to make these threats. In doing so, Khamenei has brought himself down to the level of Rafsanjani and Khatami. Like Jay-Z, I'm not sure he can maintain his hegemonic leadership status without throwing away almost all of the structural power that comes with being acknowledged as the Supreme Leader. Now he just looks like the rapper with the biggest posse.
Of course, the supreme irony is that Khamenei might have triggered his invitable downfall by pulling out all the stops to bolster a proxy.
Question to readers familiar with Iran, rap, and IR theory -- did the above make any sense whatsoever? Because at this very late hour, the parallels seem surprisingly strong.
*Seriously, I'm not acting faux out-of-touch here. This is the last rap song I remember enjoying from beginning to end.
This bit from the Los Angeles Times' account of today's Tehran protests is veeeeeeeeerrrrrry interesting.
At times the two camps appeared to be shouting directly at each other, exposing the still-festering election rift within Iranian society and the political establishment underneath both at the Friday prayer enclosure on the university campus and on the streets outside.
As Mousavi supporters chanted "Death to the dictator," against Ahmadinejad, his supporters chanted "Death to opponents" of Khamenei.
As hard-liners repeated their signature cries of "Death to America" and "Death to Israel," riled-up Mousavi supporters overpowered them with chants of "Death to Russia" and "Death to China," the Islamic Republic's powerful United Nations Security Council protectors.
This little exchange underscores the fact that the United States is not the only great power with a stake in the outcome of what happens in Iran.
That said, one wonders if Russia and China will respond by doubling down on the current regime -- i.e., aiding and abetting Khamenei, Ahmadinejad, and the Revolutionary Guards in order to ensure a friendly Iran.
If this happens, 2009 could be a bizarro-world replay of 1953, when the United States backed a coup in Tehran order to ensure a U.S.-friendly regime. That move gave the United States 25 years of a friendly Iranian government, immediately followed by thirty years of a hostile Iranian government.
Readers, does this analogy hold up?
The following is not rocket science, but rather International Relations 101. Still, I hadn't seen it anywhere else, so here goes:
In both countries, conservative elements of the established regime conducted what was, essentially, a coup d'etat. In both cases, the coup-plotters used both legal and extralegal means to cement their hold on power. These actions have triggered mass demonstrations in the streets of Tehran and Tegucigalpa. Both governments are rather paranoid about external influence on their regime. And, in some domestic politics version of the security dilemma (I hereby label this the "sovereignty dilemma"), that paranoia about external meddling is merely fuelling greater international attention to their domestic affairs of state.
Now, what are the differences? They boil down to a few important distinctions:
What does this mean? It means that realist and liberal logics will work together in Honduras and against each other in Iran. The Organization of American States could never reverse a regime change in, say, Brazil -- but multilateral coordination will have an effect on Honduras. Indeed, the fact that Honduras is relatively small is what makes it easy for the OAS to muster some consnsus on the issue. Furthermore, in contrast to larger countries, the effect of multilateral sanctions on Honduras would be pretty significant.
In Iran, on the other hand, conflicting strategic interests prevent any kind of great power concert that could push for domestic change. It's also far from clear whether anything short of a gasoline embargo would really have an appreciable impact on the regime in Tehran.
So, holding everything else constant, the odds are that the coup in Honduras are more likely to be reversed than the coup in Iran.
Bear in mind, however, that life never holds everything else constant.
The first two paragraphs of "Will Iran be President Obama's Iraq?" by Flynt Leverett, Hillary Mann Leverett, and Seyed Mohammad Morandi:
Although bloody images continue to be replayed on American television, the protests that broke out in Tehran following Iran’s presidential election on June 12 are, predictably, dwindling. They are fading because further demonstrations would no longer be about alleged election irregularities but, rather, would be a challenge to the Islamic Republic itself — something only a small minority of the initial protesters support.
While the protests are subsiding, days of round-the-clock, ill-informed commentary in the United States have helped to “sell” several dangerously misleading myths about Iranian politics. Left unchallenged, these myths will inexorably drive America’s Iran policy toward “regime change” — just as unchallenged myths about Saddam Hussein’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and ties to Al Qaeda paved the way for America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The Leverett's certainly provide one possible reason for the dwindling number of protestors.
But... um... how to put this... could another reason be the fact that, last week, the police and Basij did little to interfere with the daylight protests, whereas this week the organs of the Iranian state have made it clear that they are prepared to kick the ever-living s**t out of demonstrators?
As Andrew Sullivan points out, the degree to which the Leveretts seem genuinely giddy about Ahmadinejad staying in power is bordering on the bizarre.
Rob Farley wrote a excellent post last week explaining the crucial decision-making nodes during a social uprising against a repressive regime.
Basically, people power revolutions only work in changing the regime if one of two things happen. First, if the government decides not to pull the trigger on its citizens, then the state loses its trump card ad falls. Second, if the coercive apparatus either resists or splinters in the wake of an order to pull the trigger, then things get much more messy, but the government usually falls.
Looking at Iran right now, I don't think either condition is holding. Sunday's events strongly suggest that the Khamenei regime is willing to kill to stay in power, though how much killing remains open to question (as horrific as the YouTube videos have been, there has not been any large-scale slaughter yet).
As for the coercive apparatus, the signs are that they will hang together rather than hang separately. The Revolutionary Guards just upped the ante:
Threatening to crush dissent, the powerful Revolutionary Guards warned protesters Monday that they would face a “revolutionary confrontation” if they returned to the streets in their challenge to the presidential election results and their defiance of the country’s leadership....
A Revolutionary Guards statement Monday told protesters who took to the streets in a week of demonstrations to “be prepared for a resolution and revolutionary confrontation with the Guards, Basij and other security forces and disciplinary forces” if they continued their protests, news reports said.
I have seen no indication that other components of the coercive apparatus -- non-Revolutionary Guards military, police, Interior Ministry, etc. -- are either cracking or defecting from the regime. And as Laura Secor points out, "Although the country’s constituency for democracy is vast and growing, the regime has a constituency, too, and it is passionately loyal and heavily armed."
There are only two cards left to play for the opposition. If they double down on street protests, it forces the Basij and Revolutionary Guards to start killing in large numbers, and that could cause a splintering of the state.
The other card is Rafsanjani's. If he uses his institutional power to discredit Khamenei via the Assembly of Experts, then it raises further legitimacy questions. Rafsanjani's been pretty quiet as of late, however, and I suspect his risk-aversion will keep him quiet regardless of the long-term consequences.
Am I missing anything?
Although it is not yet clear who shot "Neda" (a soldier? pro-government militant? an accidental misfiring?), her death may have changed everything. For the cycles of mourning in Shiite Islam actually provide a schedule for political combat — a way to generate or revive momentum. Shiite Muslims mourn their dead on the third, seventh and 40th days after a death, and these commemorations are a pivotal part of Iran's rich history. During the revolution, the pattern of confrontations between the shah's security forces and the revolutionaries often played out in 40-day cycles.
The first clashes in January 1978 produced two deaths that were then commemorated on the 40th day in mass gatherings, which in turn produced new confrontations with security forces — and new deaths. Those deaths then generated another 40-day period of mourning, new clashes, and further deaths. The cycle continued throughout most of the year until the shah's ouster in January 1979.
The same cycle has already become an undercurrent in Iran's current crisis. The largest demonstration, on Thursday of last week, was called by opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi to commemorate the deaths of protesters three days after they were killed.
Shiite mourning is not simply a time to react with sadness. Particularly in times of conflict, it is also an opportunity for renewal. The commemorations for "Neda" and the others killed this weekend are still to come. And the 40th day events are usually the largest and most important.
We can and should argue about the ability of the Iranian state to contain the effects of new media technologies. In a strategic sense, however, the government has already failed with the posting of the Neda videos. They've given the opposition a focal point around which to rally.
To repeat a theme: this does not mean that Ahmadinejad and Khamenei will fall from power (See: Tank Man, Goddess of Democracy). What it means is that even if they maintain their grip on power, they have lost all of their legitimacy.
[A] Rubicon may indeed have been crossed, with no going back to "the way things were" in Iran. That certainly seems to be the consensus. But I also wonder if it might be a bit of wishful thinking. There's a tendency to imbue events as-they're-happening as more important than they may turn out to be. To take just the color revolutions to which it has been so trendy to compare the situation in Iran: Ukraine's "Orange" and Georgia's "Rose" (not to mention Kyrgyzstan's "Tulip") were certainly major events, but the hype that they generated at the time far surpasses the attention that those countries, modestly different though their governments might be, attract today.
I think more useful comparisons would be Tianenmen or, better, the monks' uprising in Burma in late 2007. What these examples -- or even, as I suggested before, those of Kenya or Zimbabwe -- show us is the possibility of an outcome distinct from Drezner's either-or (or both) model. At the time, many thought that Burma's junta couldn't possibly survive such a brutal onslaught against the country's most venerable institution. But...it survived. In Iran, the possibilities are simply too many to predict: Khamenei may retrench, and allow Ahmadinejad to take the fall; or, the two of them may make some sort of minor concession to the protestors; or again, they could simply wait until the crowds peter out. Revolution is not inevitable. In such an interesting situation, nothing is.
As someone leery of historical analogies and fond of nuance, I would like to agree with what John is saying. Except that I don't.
First, I think it's pretty clear Khamenei is not going to retrench. The moment he said that Ahmadinejad's victory was a "divine victory," he sealed his position on the matter. He can't back down now. I'm pretty sure supreme leaders in Iran don't change political tack because of mass protests -- it undercuts their claim to be, you know, supreme leaders. In his latest sermon, Khamenei is doubling down on his bet with Ahmadinejad.
Is there any other way this ends without one camp or the other abjectly losing? I don't think so. Minor concessions will not mollify the protestors. A "compact"-like solution doesn't work terribly well here, since the factions don't trust each other enough to believe that force won't be used down the road. A re-run of the election won't work, because Khamenei's been digging in his heels and can't back down now. A straight-out Revolutionary Guards-style coup is possible, but that's going to come with a lot of bloodshed.
Second, I think Boonstra is slightly misreading my post. I'm not sure that Ahmadinejad and Khamenei will be out of power soon. What I am pretty sure of is that the only way they're going to stay in power from hereon in is through a display of brute force on a Tiananmen-like scale.
Third, Boonstra raises a valid question, which is whether a genuine regime transition would really mean all that much. Color revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan have not necessarily amounted to all that much. Similarly, I see that Steve Walt has reverted to "regime type is irrelevant" arguments with regard to Iranian foreign policy.
Hmmm....... nope, not persuaded. There are two big differences in the case of Iran. The first is that, unlike all the other color revolution countries, Iran is a regional heavyweight. Every other color revolution government had to worry about a more powerful neighbor who liked the old regime better staring them down. Iran is a more powerful and less divided country. This does not mean that realipolitik pressures will not apply -- but it does mean that they are less binding than in the case of, say, Ukraine. And because of Iran's material power, a possible Green Revolution matters more in more strategic areas, like the Persian Gulf.
On the nuclear question, I take Walt's points, but I'm not sure how relevant they are after the past week. Post-regime transition governments have been quite willing to give up nuclear programs in the past -- Brazil, Argentina, South Africa, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine, to name a few. Steve cites polls that show strong Iranian support for the nuclear program -- but those same polls also show strong opposition to creating nuclear weapons.
Iran's security interests will remain paramount to any new government, of course. But I do wonder just how much of Iran's insecurity has been a product of the current regime's own making. Would a Mousavi/Rafsanjani regime be as insecure about its staus in the region?
If, on the other hand, Khamenei and Ahmadinejad manage to keep their grip on power, I can't see them ever giving up their grip on their nuclear program, no matter what is on the table in negotiations.
I'll leave this as an open question to readers -- to what extent would a post-Khamenei Iran have a different attitude towards its nuclear program?
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.