What Next With Iran?

  • Jun 22, 2009

    It is hard to counsel patience, particularly in a climate of artificial deadlines, instant media, and steadily larger gaggles of squawking heads. So far, however, President Obama has shown the right degree of restraint, while laying the groundwork to react as the outcome of events in Iran become clear enough to decide on the best policy.

    The situation would be different if the United States or any outside power had a magic wand, or if any of the lies regarding foreign interference being told by Khamenei and Ahmadinejad were true. The fact is, however, that the United States cannot suddenly intervene in Iran, American political rhetoric is not going to change Iranian facts on the ground, and there is no clear opposition outside Iran worth backing.
    Asymmetric

    It is one thing to do everything possible to support a successful change in power if a new and more pragmatic government does emerge out of Iran’s turmoil. It is quite another to put Iran’s people and internal opposition at risk by rushing out to either encourage them to take risks out of the belief outside help will come or to delegitimize their efforts because this plays well in American domestic politics.

    A Time for Transparency and Truth

    So what can the United States, the West, and outside powers do to help? One key action is to take a public stance of continued restraint. Let Khamenei and Ahmadinejad further discredit themselves with false claims and xenophobic nonsense. Wait to take open action until it is clear what kind of official action can really make a difference.

    What can be done more quietly, however, is to encourage the world’s media and Internet services to provide the most realistic and detailed coverage possible, and to fight every Iranian effort to close off Iran and suppress the facts on the ground. In some ways, this is best done by encouraging other governments to encourage their media. The best and most objective U.S. coverage will always be suspect until U.S.-Iranian relations put an end to decades of official mistrust.

    At the same time, this is the moment to provide background briefings on any special intelligence insight into the legitimacy of the vote; to explain how undemocratic Iranian “democracy” really is; and to provide the facts on Iran’s economy that its leadership downplays or ignores and data on its efforts at arrests and repression.

    This is not a time for rhetoric and propaganda, but it is a time for transparency and truth. The United States should do everything it can to help the world’s media understand the facts, both now and in the weeks and months to come. It is also a time to trust the media to use that data and supplement it on its own. The United States should not try to manage information operations; it should seek to provide information.

    If Iran’s Leadership Does Change

    If the turmoil in Iran does produce a major change in the leadership, the United States should be prepared to react immediately. It should go beyond a call for dialogue. It should offer immediate positive benefits and not focus on the issues that have divided Iran and the United States.

    Both nations have a clear and immediate interest in focused cooperation in dealing with Afghanistan and Iraq in ways that help them achieve stability and independence and defeat the kind of religious extremism that is a common threat to the Iran, the United States, every Arab state, and all of Iran’s other neighbors. A sudden, “grand bargain” seems likely to be impossible, but real progress may be an option in more limited areas.

    The United States should immediately and formally recognize the importance of the change in regime, state that Iranian affairs are a matter for Iran, and call for relations based on full recognition of Iran’s right to security. The United States should offer to ease or lift economic sanctions, particularly those that put more pressure on Iran’s people than its regime. It should not ease sanctions that affect Iran’s arms and nuclear imports, and should resist any such efforts by other countries. It should, however, make it clear that it recognizes Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear power and nuclear enrichment as long as this occurs under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspection and the terms of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). It should also encourage the Gulf states, including Iraq, to hold a security dialogue with Iran.

    What it should not do is underreact to a real shift in the regime simply because it will be so difficult to characterize the new leadership, and because that leadership will inevitably be drawn from within elements of Iran’s current power structure. It is one thing to wait in mid-crisis and another to let uncertainty turn into paralysis once a key turning point has actually occurred. Moreover, making such offers has minimal risk. It takes time to implement them. If Iran takes real advantage of such openings, then everyone wins—including all of Iran’s neighbors. If Iran’s new leader games or ignores such U.S. actions, the United States will have ample time to react, and Iran’s neighbors will see that it was not the United States that failed Iran, but rather Iran’s new leaders.

    This does not mean ignoring Iran’s nuclear activities, hostility to Israel, opposition to the Arab-Israeli peace process, interference in Iraq, ties to Syria and nonstate actors, and buildup of irregular warfare capabilities, or temporarily taking them off the table. These are issues the United States can discuss with Iran as soon as Iran is ready. It does mean giving Iran’s new leadership time and immediate reason to believe that it can actually deal with the United States.

    Strategic patience is the prelude to real, lasting, and more serious progress. So is the understanding that the United States may also not get all it wants—particularly in terms of Iran’s nuclear and military programs, and its actions toward its neighbors and Israel. The United States may well have to settle for making things “better,” but this will be far more productive than waiting for “perfect,” particularly if the United States makes progress with Iran that is firmly grounded in realism rather than in hope.

    And if It Does Not...

    Sadly, the most likely scenario is that the regime remains the same. If so, the continued rule of Khamenei, and Ahmadinejad’s continued role in the presidency, will mean that the United States, Iran’s neighbors, and the world will face all of the problems with Iran they faced before the election. If so, this will require a different kind of strategic patience.

    One thing that Obama administration should not do is return to the illusion of trying to change the regime directly from the outside or through some covert backing of opposition movements inside Iran. The only outside exile movements that begin to have meaningful status are centered on the Mujahadeen-e-Khalq (MEK) (aka People’s Mujahedin of Iran or PMOI), which is affiliated with the National Council of Resistance of Iran. This is a movement with a long history of terrorism, including the murder of U.S. officers and officials during the time of the Shah. It served as a tool for Saddam Hussein, and now is a cult centered on its leaders, the Rajavis. Like some Iraqi exile groups in 2003, it has no real strength or credibility, and in spite of its domestic political efforts, it is a movement that only the dumbest and most irresponsible members of Congress and think tanks could support.

    What the Obama administration should do is keep up a constant effort to expose the true nature of the regime, its repression, and its failures. Once again, it will be far better to help the world’s media provide truth and transparency independently than by trying to run a propaganda effort or information operation. Such an effort should also be continuing, as open as possible, and uncompromising. It should not preclude dialogue with Iran’s existing regime. The United States gains nothing from isolating Iran and loses a great deal in terms of a lack of contact with Iran’s people. However, any dialogue should be narrowly focused on areas of clear mutual interest, and the United States should make no compromises over its truth and transparency efforts to obtain short-term gains in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Gulf.

    If there is any effort that the United States should take directly aimed at the regime, it is to encourage both Shi’ite and Sunni Islamic scholars to come more directly with the legitimacy of the concept of a “supreme leader.” What did Khomeini actually do, aside from creating social repression and extending the Iran-Iraq War for four extra, bloody years? How did a weak and inadequate religious scholar like Khamenei come to be supreme leader? What does any of this do to advance any aspect of Shi’ite and Islamic beliefs, and is the record to date better than the tradition of “quietism” except when the regime commits major abuses? These are not questions any non-Shi’ites or non-Muslims can answer. They are questions that the actions of Iran’s supreme leaders to date have given the entire world the right to ask.

    More broadly, the United States should make it clear that it will not compromise its key interests in the region. The United States should work with its allies, key states like Russia and China, and the other Gulf states to show that the security measures the United States takes in the region are only intended to deal with the excesses of the Iranian regime. There are positive actions the United States should take. It should reevaluate its sanctions and legislation to make it clear that it is doing everything possible to help the Iranian people in spite of such a regime. It should show that there are real, detailed, and major incentives available if the regime changes its conduct. It should also make it clear that the United States will not invade Iran or exercise any military options until it is clear to the world that Iran actually has a nuclear force that is a major threat.

    At the same time, the United States should prove to the region that it is keeping a strong forward U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) presence in the Gulf, and that it is working with the Gulf states to contain Iran, and with the Arab states to check Iran’s influence in dealing with Hezbollah and Hamas. It should show that it will support a secure Israel while it seeks a full Arab-Israeli peace. It should offer the region missile defenses and extended deterrence to counter the threats and opportunism that come out of Iran’s regime. In doing so, it should demonstrate that Iran’s existing leaders cannot “win” through any of their actions; they can only escalate the level of containment and risks to Iran. In doing so, the United States should also demonstrate that it is constantly listening to the states in the region, and key outside states, and is treating such efforts as a partnership and not as policies it is seeking to impose.

    There are no quick and easy answers to the present regime in Iran, if it survives. This does not mean there are not effective answers if the United States acts decisively and consistently over time.