Friday, June 19, 2009

Parsing Iran

. Friday, June 19, 2009

Like many others, I have been glued to the Glowing Pixel Screen for any news coming out of Iran. I have been hanging on every word of @PersianKiwi -- whom Attackerman called the "World's Most Important Journalist" at present -- as if they were prophecy. I've been tracking the "Inside Iran" Twitter feed for days. All of it is certainly romantic, and I certainly feel greatly for the disenfranchised, but they train us to be unfeeling, objective, scientific automatons here at UNC*, so I have spent a lot of time thinking about a simple question: what does it really all mean?

Stephen Walt asks a question that only a realist could:

Here's a hypothetical question for you to ponder. Which world would you prefer: 1) a world where Ahmadinejad remains in power, but Iran formally reaffirms that it will not develop nuclear weapons, ratifies and implements the Additional Protocol of the NPT, comes clean to our satisfaction about past violations (including the so-called "alleged studies"), permits highly intrusive inspections of Iran's nuclear facilities, and ends support for Hamas and Hezbollah as part of a "grand bargain" with the West; or 2) a world where Mir Hussein Mousavi -- who was the Ayatollah Khomeini's prime minister from 1981 to 1989 -- wins a new election but then doesn't alter Iran's activities at all?

Walt acknowledges that this is a false choice that likely does not reflect reality, but his point is clear: the pragmatic choice isn't necessarily the emotionally appealing one. As such, it frames the discussion nicely.

As it turns out, something closer the reverse of Walt's hypothetical is true: Ahmadinejad is the hardliner who refuses to allow inspections of the nuclear program or engage the West on weaponization. Mousavi, while reiterating Iran's legitimate rights to nuclear energy under the NPT, has strongly signaled a willingness to engage the West on weaponization and inspections:

Time: You haven't spoken much about foreign policy during the campaign. If you're elected, will your foreign policy be different from the one that exists now, especially toward the U.S.?

Mousavi: The meaning of foreign policy is not just relations with one country. The U.S. is one of the countries in that group. The criticism that I've had is that we have not used the vast potential that we have to create good foreign policy. In our foreign policy we have confused fundamental issues and matters that are in our national interest with sensationalism that is more of domestic use.

Time: With a change in government, do you think there may be a change in Iran's stance on its nuclear energy program?

Mousavi: We may change our methods. In regard to nuclear energy, there are two issues. One is our right to nuclear energy, which is non-negotiable. The second issue is related to concerns about the diversion of this program toward weaponization. Personally, I view this second part, which is both technical and political, as negotiable. We will not accept our country's deprivation from the right to nuclear energy.

Note that Mousavi opposes Ahmadinejad's fiery rhetoric, dismissing it as "sensationalism" intended for domestic audiences. In general, he campaigned on a platform of engaged, moderate, and pragmatic foreign policy. That does not mean that he and Obama would become BFFs, but it does indicate a greater possibility for rapprochement.

Mousavi has also criticized Ahmadinejad for the "wipe Israel off the map" remark (that whole video interview is worth watching. He does not support a two-state solution, but rather political reform in the model of South Africa after apartheid, i.e. strong minority rights including political voice for the Palestinians). This, perhaps, is not the answer that many in the West would most prefer, but it is surely an improvement over Ahmadinejad's approach. In the same video, he promises "direct talks" with the United States, which Ahmadinejad has similarly repudiated.

In truth, the election was probably much more about domestic policy than foreign policy. I am not an expert on Iran's domestic politics, so I don't want to speculate too much, but Mousavi campaigned on a platform of women's rights and other social issues, (kind of) liberal economic reform and a repudiation of Ahmadinejad's crude populism. All of which can be supported without betraying pragmatic realism.

I don't want to overstate things: Mousavi is very much part of the Iranian establishment. He has not spoken against Hamas or Hezbollah, nor promised an end to Iranian support for those groups. Any changes he might make to Iranian policy would probably marginal, not radical. That doesn't mean that they wouldn't be largely positive; just that it would be easy to make more make of his "reformist" reputation than is really there. Sweeping changes to Iran's policies or institutional structure were never on the table. Or, at least, they shouldn't have been; as Drezner notes, the game has changed in the last week:

I'm pretty sure a Rubicon has been crossed in Iran that can't be uncrossed. This isn't 1999 and 2003 -- too many days have passed with the Khamenei regime on the defensive. The regime as it existed for the past twenty years -- hemmed-in democracy combined with clerical rule -- is not going to be able to continue. With the largest protests of the past week scheduled for tomorrow, I think this ends in one of two ways: the removal of Ahmadinejad and Khamenei from power, or bloodshed on a scale that we cannot comprehend.

Actually, come to think of it, those two outcomes are not mutually exclusive.

This has been my gut feeling since about Monday. But I don't think it's a foregone conclusion: Rafsanjani and the Assembly of Experts have yet to speak out. This could turn into an internal battle between Rafsanjani and Khamenei that occurs behind closed doors in Qom. If Rafsanjani wins, the state of Iran could be transformed into a more republican entity. Or the political structure could stay the same, but with Khamenei and Ahmadinejad replaced by Rafsanjani and Mousavi. If Khamenei wins, the country could turn into a fully theocratic dictatorship. Or the status quo could remain in place. I don't think anybody really knows what the feasible outcomes are at this point.

Finally, I'll ask my own hypothetical question for the realists: If you had the choice between two Irans that had basically the same foreign policy, which would you prefer: 1) an Iran in which the government was stable, legitimate, and had the support of a majority of its people; or 2) an Iran in which the government ruled dictatorially by suppressing popular movements, restricting the press, rigging elections, and demonstrating a willingness to do whatever is necessary to remain in power (including killing large numbers of people), and faced the potential of collapse and/or civil war at any time?

I'll take the government that is accountable to its people.

*Not at all true, but so runs the stereotype about American IPE.


Parsing Iran
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