Iran’s June 12 presidential elections have precipitated Iran’s greatest domestic political crisis since the 1979 revolution. The following MESH members responded to an invitation to comment on ramifications of the turmoil, with special reference to U.S. policy options: Daniel Byman, J. Scott Carpenter, Hillel Fradkin, Josef Joffe, Mark N. Katz, Martin Kramer, Walter Laqueur, Michael Mandelbaum, Philip Carl Salzman, and Raymond Tanter.
Daniel Byman :: The Obama administration made a decision to engage Iran well before it seemed like Ahmadinejad even had a chance of being unseated as president, so it is no surprise that the doubts over the current elections are not leading the administration to change course. The brief hope was that a Mousavi victory would usher in a government that would end Iran’s nuclear program and welcome closer ties to Washington. This was always unrealistic: Mousavi himself was not a cuddly figure, the nuclear program is popular across Iran’s elite, and Khatami’s experience as president painfully showed that conservative forces could easily undercut any attempt to reach out to the United States. So we are back to dealing with a conservative regime, albeit one whose legitimacy is dented. The silver lining to the cloud of dashed democratic expectations is that the odds of engagement succeeding are probably similar if not better under the conservatives, however noxious their overall policies.
In addition to their genuine hostility to U.S. policy, conservatives feared that moderates would exploit the political benefits of improved relations with the United States, which would be widely popular in Iran. With Ahmadinejad’s victory, however, conservatives are in power across of Iran’s institutions: any benefit of improved relations would go to them. In addition, conservatives could be confident they would control the pace of any rapprochement. Moreover, Iran’s economy is also declining, and even a return of higher oil prices will not rescue it. Battered economically, and with doubts about the regime’s legitimacy after the fraud at the polls, perhaps the regime will look for ways to improve its political position—like opening up to the United States—that would take the wind out of rivals’ sails. (Okay, this is a big perhaps.)
Some of the same logic, of course, held years ago as well, and it is likely that the rivalries in Iran and pervasive hostility of the conservative elite will prevail. Predictions of a rapprochement are made constantly, and they so far have always been dashed. With Iran, the safe bet is always against improved ties to the United States.
Yet it would be a mistake not to try for fear of failing. To capitalize on the regime’s newfound legitimacy concerns, Washington will have to recognize that efforts by Tehran to reach out may be accompanied by hostile rhetoric or other actions designed to shore up the conservative base. In addition, Tehran will prove especially sensitive to calls for regime change or other challenges to its legitimacy. Separating rhetoric and reality will prove difficult, and, as we try to glean insights into the regime’s thinking, Iran’s nuclear program continues to move forward.
J. Scott Carpenter :: Autocrats the world over rely on elections to provide them with a veneer of legitimacy. Quite why this matters to them so much is something I’ve never fully grasped. Still, when even a horrendously flawed electoral process yields results that the Supreme Leader must further manipulate, what’s left of the system’s legitimacy degrades precipitously. Moral authority—if not the state’s monopoly on force—is lost and proves difficult to recapture, especially in tough economic times.
President Obama should take advantage of this moment of regime weakness to increase pressure on Tehran. This will require him to side strongly with the Iranian people and recognize the farce that these elections were. It does not mean using the phrase “regime change.” Instead he and other democratic leaders from around the world should speak to the hopes of individual Iranians who were robbed of a better future when the Supreme Leader undercut his own sham process. The Khamenei regime promises nothing but more misery and malaise; we in the international community offer something much better: opportunity and access.
In doing this, one of Obama’s key target audiences should be European public opinion. For some reason, Europeans seize much more forcefully on images of the Basij beating old women and students than on the prospects of mushroom clouds over Warsaw. Of course, siding with the Iranian people won’t do much to sway either Moscow or Beijing, especially as the latter recently managed to sweep Tiananmen under a Chinese carpet, but stiffening European spines is a first priority to applying sanctions with any teeth.
Beyond recognizing the need to sharply change his rhetoric, the President should now realize his engagement strategy as defined so far is bound to fail. To this point, the strategy has been predicated on a direct approach to the Supreme Leader as the sole decision maker within the system. If we can get directly to the Supreme Leader, the argument goes, he can be convinced through a combination of carrots and sticks of the merits of accommodating the West’s demands on the nuclear file. Within this strategy has been the implicit belief that the nature of the regime doesn’t matter. After the past few days, however, it should be clear how preposterous such a notion is. A regime prepared to shoot its own citizens to preserve itself will not negotiate away its nuclear program to the “Great Satan” and can’t be trusted even if it did. Engagement with this regime simply will not work. So what is Plan B and when do we implement it?
Hillel Fradkin :: There is little doubt that the Iranian regime has suffered some dents in its legitimacy, both through the election campaign and its outcome. During the campaign itself, the leading candidates—Ahmadinejad and Mousavi—flung charges against one another of such vehemence and character as to taint the regime, its history and legacy. As for the elections, the speed with which the results were announced—speed which seemed physically impossible given the number of ballots cast—called those results and the fairness of the election into question. So too did the announced landslide for Ahmadinejad, which confounded expectations of a much closer race and brought hundreds of thousands of Iranians into the streets of Tehran in protest. In the short term the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has compounded the problem of legitimacy by first blessing the announced results as a “divine assessment” and then turning—in response to the protests—to the Guardian Council to perform a legally permitted review of the conduct of the elections.
It is of course uncertain what its verdict will be, although the safest bet is that it will confirm Ahmadinejad as the winner. There can be little doubt that he will pursue a radical and revolutionary policy. But can the controversy over the elections be turned to the ends of American interests, especially the attempt to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and even the interests of the Iranian people? Perhaps.
The necessary first step is for President Obama to speak out forcefully on behalf of democracy in accord with his own well-established statements in that regard. He should express his support for the Iranian people in stronger terms than he did in his Iranian New Year’s message. This would be tantamount to denying that Ahmadinejad was the legitimate representative of the Iranian government or its people.
Whether this would have some substantial and long-term effect within Iran itself—for example the “color” or “velvet” revolution which Iran’s leaders have claimed to fear and oppose—is very hard to know, but this is the most propitious time to try to find out. In the event that Iran continued to be disturbed by internal opposition, the United States would have laid the groundwork to lend whatever support was practicable.
Such an approach would require some alteration of current American policy. Practically speaking, it would mean an end to the effort to establish a dialogue with the Iranian government, which was unlikely in any case, and which now lacks the grounds of having a legitimate interlocutor. This would permit the administration to move quickly to what was likely to be the next stage of its policy: the attempt to impose “crushing sanctions,” Secretary of State Clinton’s phrase. The success of this effort always depended upon our capacity to persuade others to support such a regimen. Although that may still be difficult—as it was in the past—the dubious legitimacy of the Iranian government might now make that easier. For it could now be represented as a “rogue regime” from every point of view. And even if it should fail, the United States would have laid the ground for the proposal of other options.
Josef Joffe :: You’ve heard about the “electronic herd” as moniker for those investors and venture capitalists who buy and sell exactly what the fad du jour demands. But what about a close relative, the “mooing media,” which so often reports what it wants to see?
And so with Iranian election. Behold this immortal headline on the editorial page of the International Herald Tribune: “The Velvet Revolution, ” followed by cheery prediction that “whatever its outcome, this (dramatic) expression of the popular will carries the promise of better times.”
“Hope Breeds Hype” would have been the better headline, followed by the warning to resist the “North Tehran” syndrome. In this fanciest section of the Iranian capital, they speak English, wear Chanel dresses under their chador and believe in the imminent demise of a despised regime. (In Tel Aviv, it is the “Sheinkin Street Syndrome,” where your basic foreign correspondent talks to artists, Meretz activists and assorted lefties before he files his story on “Change, Hope and the Peace Process” or on the evils of the Netanyahu regime.)
If these good folks had dug deeper and wider, if they had gone into the slums or countryside, they would not have confused a few cute girls who show lots of ankle and hair or a university rally with a “velvet revolution.” If they had read their Hanna Arendt, Franz Neumann or Lenin, they would have been still more skeptical about the incipient decrepitude of the Ahmadinejad regime. If they had studied the history of the Iranian revolution, they would not have called Mr. Mousavi a “reformer” instead of a “disgruntled conservative,” ditto Messrs. Karrubi and Rezai. Their battle against the past and future president was a very mild remake of what happens in any revolution: a falling out among chiefs.
The electoral outcome is no “velvet revolution” at all, though—give honor where honor is due—the “Iranian street” was more vocal and courageous than at any time since the crushed student revolt of 1999. But remember the election of 2005, when Ahmadinejad garnered a mere 19.5 percent in the first round, and then beat former president Rafsanjani with almost 62 percent. This time, Ahmadinejad won right away, and by one point more.
Of course, there was systematic (and brazen) fraud. Why else had the election authorities “counted” millions of ballots right after the polls had closed? On the other hand, Iran is not Enver Hoxa’s Albania (where he came in at 97.8 percent each time), and so Ahmadinejad’s massive majority could not have been completely rigged. As went North Tehran, the country did not. But the regime did not want to take any chances, and so added to vox pop without having to falsify it. Think Richard Daley the Elder, not Enver Hoxa.
The more interesting news is the opposition to Ahmadinejad in the “Holy City” of Qom, the spiritual headquarters of the 1979 revolution. The vocal protests of many clerics lead to a fascinating speculation: The old theocratic revolution is dead, power has passed to the—let’s call them—”secularists.” They are still bearded, but they wear suits or the battle dress of the Pasdaran, the Revolutionary Guards. They don’t trade in fatwas, but in economic privileges. Their weapon of choice is not the Quran, but the Kalashnikov, and their badge is the Iranian flag and not the green of the prophet (the battle insignia of Mr. Mousavi).
Let’s carry speculation on step farther. On Monday, the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei ordered an investigation into what Mousavi calls outright voting fraud. Whence we might conclude: The old clerical guard has understood the true import of the electoral verdict. It was a putsch at the ballot box, masterfully executed by Ahmadinejad and his henchmen, and it was directed not so much against the students and the wealthy denizens of Niavaran and Shemiran, but against Khamenei and his religious cohorts. It is Robbespierre vs. Danton, who had led the uprising against the King in 1792.
If this assessment is correct, we will see a lot more strife in the days to come. In the end, it might lead to a Persian Napoleon and his military dictatorship. And why not a “little war” to stabilize the new autocracy? These are dark thoughts, and like all historical analogies, they may be wildly off the mark. So over to Barack Obama, who has staked his first months in office on wooing the Islamic world in order to give a boost to moderates and liberals. Round one goes to the reactionaries.
Mark N. Katz :: The prolonged protests in Tehran against the Iranian regime’s claim that Ahmadinejad was overwhelmingly re-elected president have raised the possibility that Iran might be on the verge of a democratic revolution. The widespread belief that election results were falsified has triggered successful democratic revolutions in several countries, including the Philippines, Serbia, Georgia, and Ukraine. Such protests, though, do not always succeed, as has been seen in Burma (Myanmar), Armenia, Azerbaijan, and elsewhere.
I have previously argued at MESH and elsewhere that a rapprochement between the United States and Iran’s authoritarian regime would be in American interests. The democratic transformation of Iran, though, would be far more beneficial for the United States (and, of course, for Iran). A democratic Iran might become an American ally or, if not that, friendlier to the United States than Tehran has been since 1979. A democratic Iran could also be expected to push Hamas and Hezbollah in a democratic direction, or perhaps even sever its ties with them. Further, while a democratic Iran could be expected to continue the atomic energy program that Tehran began under the Shah, it would presumably be more willing to accommodate the concerns of the international community than the Islamic Republic has been.
With all these possibilities at stake, the Obama administration’s restrained, “even-handed” reaction to the disputed Iranian election results may appear quite odd. This cool reaction, though, may be the best way for Washington to help the cause of Mir Hossein Mousavi—the presidential candidate who is charging electoral fraud. Greater public American support for him could be seized upon as an excuse by Khamenei and Ahmadinejad to discredit him as an American agent. Expressing support for a transparent process instead of a specific politician may avoid this problem—especially since there may be little that the United States can actually do to help Mousavi right now.
As past occasions have shown, whether or not widespread popular protest against perceived electoral fraud results in democratic revolution or not depends on whether elements of the security services defect from the regime to the democratic opposition. The defection of even a few key personnel can quickly cascade into the defection of much of the security services and the immobilization of the rest. But without these initial key defections, the democratic opposition cannot hope to prevail, and its protests will sooner or later (and more probably sooner) be crushed.
It is virtually impossible, of course, for the United States to engineer the key security service personnel defections away from the regime and to the opposition during the brief window of opportunity that may be available before the democratic opposition is crushed, if security force defections don’t take place. What the United States can do, though, is quietly signal that it is prepared to work with those security service forces that do defect and to not seek their destruction. This is because organizational survival and personal advancement are often just as or even more important motives than the desire for democracy for officers considering defection to the democratic opposition in such situations.
Even if the regime succeeds in crushing the democratic opposition, its self-confidence is likely to decline and its internal divisions to remain and even grow. In similar circumstances elsewhere, some elements inside an authoritarian regime have made common cause with democratic forces outside of it. Helping them do so may be the sort of long term project that the United States could discreetly help with—whether or not Washington goes forward with attempting to achieve détente with the Islamic Republic.
Martin Kramer :: There are days when I’m supremely grateful that I’m not paid to make policy decisions. Those who must make them on Iran have much more information than I have, but it probably still won’t be enough, so that in the end, analogies will play as large a role as analysis. Already much of the public in the West has embraced the analogy between Iran’s protests and the “color revolutions” of Europe. The potential for error there is great: Iran’s politics are sui generis even in the Middle East. But there’s a bit of room for such an error, because the regime doesn’t have nukes. If it had them, we’d be biting our nails instead of tweeting on Twitter.
Harvard’s Stephen Walt, on his blog, made an assertion that exposes the fundamental weakness of the realist claim that the outcome doesn’t matter, at least to us: “In the end, what really matters is the content of any subsequent U.S.-Iranian rapprochement, not the precise nature of the Iranian regime. If diplomatic engagement led to a good deal, then it wouldn’t matter much who was running Iran.” Walt is right when he goes on to say that Mousavi, specifically, may not be a vast improvement over the Khamenei-A’jad duo. But in keeping up Iran’s end of any “good deal,” does it really not much matter who runs the country? In our own lives, we prefer to do business with reputable dealers, as opposed to known scam artists, thieves, and forgers. The meaning of this past week is that the ruling mob has been exposed, and that alternatives aren’t entirely unimaginable. No one should get their hopes up, but the moment Khamenei, A’jad, and even Mousavi aren’t the entire universe of options, there’s every reason to put engagement on hold.
And since it’s always better to have options, perhaps the United States should act to promote them. “The Americans do not have the experience or the psychological insight to understand Persia.” That was Ann (Nancy) Lambton, the great British Iranologist, back in 1951. (She thought Mossadegh could be readily overthrown; the Americans at first thought otherwise. She was right.) So it’s a long shot. But there may be an opportunity here, and perhaps even awkward Americans—now with an additional sixty years of experience and a president with psychological insight—can find it.
Walter Laqueur :: Has the legitimacy of the Iranian regime been seriously dented? The regime was no doubt surprised and even shocked by the intensity of feeling against Ahmedinajad by so many in the capital, but there seems to have been much less resistance outside it. The country is split ,but the levers of power (and the weapons) seem to be firmly in the hands of the regime, and this is all that matters at the present time. Mousavi, in any case, is part of the regime, not a true reformer, at best half-hearted; his fervent supporters are bound to be disappointed. A rotten compromise to solve the present crisis seems quite likely. The decomposition and eventual breakdown of the regime are bound to happen but they will take time.
Perhaps there was fraud in Iran, but most outside observers were apparently not aware how easily elections can be won in authoritarian regimes without even using the grosser forms of fraud such as stuffing the ballot boxes. If part of the population is illiterate, a desirable outcome of the elections becomes even easier to achieve. As far as now known, there was no outright forgery on a massive scale in the elections in the fascist and communist regimes in Europe.
The U.S. approach? What approach? I suspect Washington has accepted, knowingly or not, an Iranian regime in possession of nuclear weapons. No substantial help to slow the process can be expected from Europe, Russia and China. Military action will not be used, and its use by Israel will not be accepted.
No thought seems to have been given to what American policy should be once this stage has been reached. Should there be a grand bargain with Iran, accepting some or all of its “legitimate demands,” including its wish to extend its influence throughout the Middle East? Or should America support the anti-Iranian forces? I suspect there will be a little bit of appeasement and a little bit of resistance, some engagement and some disengagement, all the options will be tried in an attempt to muddle through until (or unless) something wholly unforeseen will happen.
Michael Mandelbaum :: The principal goal of American policy toward Iran is to prevent that country from acquiring nuclear weapons. The Obama administration proposes to accomplish this through direct negotiations with the Iranian regime. Success is unlikely, but it is less unlikely if greater international pressure is brought to bear on that regime. The administration should therefore use the stolen election, and the outrage it should provoke in the democratic West, to try to persuade the Europeans to agree to tougher economic sanctions on Iran.
It would be helpful to have the Russians and the Chinese join in such an effort, but the events surrounding the election are not likely to prompt either to do so. The governments in Moscow and Beijing are no doubt just as appalled as the Europeans at what has happened, but for different reasons: the Russians because of the way the regime in Tehran has botched a rigged election, the Chinese at Tehran’s decision to hold an election at all.
Ultimately, Iran will cease to be a major strategic problem for the United States only if the current regime falls and is replaced by one less resolutely opposed to Western interests and values. Here the events of the last several days count as good news. Dictatorships fall when the governing elite loses the will to rule (as in Eastern Europe in 1989) or when it is sharply divided. The candidate from whom the election appears to have been stolen must represent a segment of the governing structure, otherwise he would not have been permitted to run in the first place. The unfolding conflict in Iran therefore pits not only the society against the rulers but also one part of the ruling clique against another. The United States can probably have little or no influence over internal Iranian politics, but anything American policy can do to widen this second division (the regime itself can be counted to do everything necessary to expand the first one) is worth doing and should be done.
Philip Carl Salzman :: Watching the Iranian elections is like watching a Model United Nations or a Mock Supreme Court The issues are real and important. The passions are deeply felt. The divisions reflect divisions among the population. But the decisions have no effect whatsoever in the real world.
The elections, to change the metaphor, are like shadow plays or puppet shows: it is the manipulators behind the scenes who make the actors move, or negate the movements of the actors. In Iran, it is the Supreme Leader, the Council of Guardians, the Expediency Council, and increasingly the Revolutionary Guard who call the shots.
We have already seen this play, starring reformist President Khatami. Whatever the president and the reformist Majlis tried to do, the real rulers denied. Elected officials are mainly a façade, giving faux-democratic respectability to the regime. Yes, to an extent, elected officials provide a face to the regime, and do have some influence over internal matters, such as economic measures. But on the greatest matters of substance, they are entirely powerless.
Why should we pin any hopes on the Iranian elections? Does it matter all that much whether the face of the regime is sweet and smiling or angry and frowning? The regime will be the same.
What if, as many suspect, the current election, allegedly won by Ahmadinejad, was itself manipulated? The supporters for other candidates, like participants in a Mock UN, are incensed that, as they believe, the rules were violated and the results unfair. In this case, with electoral cover gone, the regime stands naked, its reality exposed. Naive Iranians will be disappointed and angry.
What about hopeful foreign leaders and diplomats? What has changed for them? Nothing. If they did not know what they were dealing with before, they were not only hopeful, but naive.
What approach to Iran would be most beneficial for the United States? Again, let’s look at past experience: When did Iran last do something agreeable to the United States? Iran stopped their nuclear program when the United States invaded Iraq, fearing that Iran might be next. When the threat appeared to recede, Iran reactivated their nuclear program. It thus seems that Iran responds to a serious threat by pulling in its horns. If the United States wants Iran to stop its nuclear bomb and missile program, reduce its terrorist support throughout the Middle East, and ease the pressure on its neighbors, then Iran must feel that the cost of pursuing its current path would be too high. President Obama must show the stick, and be ready to use it.
Raymond Tanter :: The unfolding drama on the streets of Tehran raises key issues of whether Iranian instability will threaten survival of the ruling ayatollahs and if it is possible for a diplomatic breakthrough with them on Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons status in light of growing political instability.
Two schools of thought conflict in addressing these two issues.
One approach holds that although election fraud represents something of a setback for Iran’s “illiberal democracy,” efforts at engagement should be continued. Just as such analysts were wrong in presuming the regime would be constrained from cheating to maintain power, they falsely assume that representative institutions legitimize the rule of the ayatollahs in a less-than-liberal democracy.
A second school, of which the Iran Policy Committee is a contributor, finds that Iran does not have even a “limited” or “illiberal” democracy. Rather than deriving legitimacy from the people, the ayatollahs rule by assertion that clerics should rule because they are representatives of God on earth.
Regarding the issue of whether illegitimate elections in Iran are a point of departure for a breakthrough in Western diplomacy, such an assertion overlooks the role revolutionary ideology plays in motivating the Iranian regime to pursue its nuclear weapons program. Whether Iranian elections are legitimate is irrelevant to the regime’s pursuit of the bomb.
To motivate the Iranian regime to bargain in good faith requires leverage. An unused point of leverage against Tehran is for the West to reach out to its main opposition as it reaches out to the regime.
The Iran Policy Committee performed a content analysis of leadership statements regarding all major Iranian opposition groups. The study showed that the Iranian regime pays attention to the Mujahedeen-e Khalq (MEK), the main Iranian opposition group, 350 percent more than all other opposition groups combined. In view of this surfeit of attention, it is reasonable to infer that Tehran fears the MEK as a threat to the survival of the regime.
Reaching out to the Iranian opposition, which is based in Iraq but has an extensive network in Iran, would be a common point of leverage for Washington and moderate Arab allies of President Obama to counter Iranian regime expansion in the region. Rather than a binary choice of pressure or engagement, an approach that incorporates the Iranian opposition would allow for a coherent policy of coercive diplomacy. Such a policy is likely to be more effective than either pressure or engagement alone.