Daniel W. Drezner

What’s next for U.S. foreign policy on Iran?

What’s next for U.S. foreign policy on Iran?

As you can tell from my last post, I think here’s an excellent chance that the status quo persists in Iran, with a small chance that the entire edifice crumbles in the wake of a social movement unafraid of security forces.  What does this mean for U.S. foreign policy towards Iran? Here’s a dirty little secret — this might actually be the best possible outcome for the Obama administration. 

Well, not for the next few days. The administration is going to have to tap-dance for the next few days in order to avoid the Schylla of a "Chicken Kiev" moment and the Charybdis of going all in with the reformers only to see them crushed. 

After that, then what? Well, I think the only way the reformers win is with Khamenei going down, which would mean a genuine regime change, which is a game-changer. A new Iranian regime is not going to give up its nuclear program lightly, but I do suspect that negotiations with a reformist regime would be pretty fruitful. 

What if, as I suspect, the current regime keeps its grip on power?  Well, the Obama administration still has a stronger hand to play.  Here’s why: 

1)  Tehran’s influence in the region is going to ebb. Iran’s power in the Middle East in recent years has emanated from a mix of hard power (nuke progam, oil, support of Hebollah) and soft power (Ahmadinejad’s economic populism, ranting against corrupt Arab elites, and general pugnaciouness towards Israel).  Regardless of the result now, the election has killed their soft power in the region.  This doesn’t mean that Iran’s influence disappears — see all the hard power stuff.  Still, with each passing day of protests, Ahmadinejad looks more like a bully than a leader of a transnational social movement. 

2)  Multilateral coordination just got easier.  Just as with North Korea, it gets ever easier for the United States to create a united front among its allies and other great powers when dealing with Iran going forward.  The reaction in the West has been pretty uniform on the election results.  When the nuclear negotiations break down — and they will break down — it should be easier to coordinate both the security and foreign policy responses.

3)  No more two-level games for Iran. If Mousavi had won outright, the Obama administration would have been in a serious bind on the nonproliferation question. The president of Iran doesn’t control the nuclear program; the supreme leader controls it. With Mousavi as the public face of Iran, however, it would have been tougher for the Obama administration to describe Iran as unyielding when it refused to make any serious concessions on its nuclear program.  Furthermore, Mousavi could always ask the Obama administration to back off on the nuclear question because of hardliner resistance back home. That gambit won’t play, now.

This doesn’t mean that nuclear negotiations will go swimmingly — I expect they will fail.  What it does mean, however, is that the rest of the world will be hard-placed to blame the end of the negotiations on the Obama administration.  Iran is going to look like the intransigent actor from here on in. 

Just to be clear:  I’m not saying that this outcome is a great one for the United States.  Washington has a weak hand to play.  My point is that, compared to the counterfactual of an Iran with Mousavi as its public face and Khamenei remaining the true leader, this is somewhat preferrable. The "pleasing illusions" of clerical power in Iran have now been stripped bare.