Iran’s uprising is good leverage on the nuclear issue

Iran’s uprising is good leverage on the nuclear issue

By Peter Feaver

One important thing seems to be missing in President Obama’s commentary on Iran and much of the commentary about Obama’s commentary: We want to create and deepen fissures within the Tehran regime — check that, we need those fissures — because that is the only plausible way that a diplomatic deal on the nuclear file could be struck.

At key moments in recent days, as Obama has struggled to salvage his Iran policy from the street riots of Tehran, it has appeared that he is waiting/hoping for someone, anyone, to consolidate power there so that he can get back to the urgent business of sitting down for lengthy negotiations. But those negotiations only have a chance of bearing fruit if our Iranian interlocutors believe that their negotiating position is a decaying one — that the deal they could strike now is better than the deal they could strike later. Otherwise, they will keep "negotiating" and wait for the better deal. That is why an ascendant Iran — one with oil and natural gas revenues soaring and a fully consolidated hard-liner regime in uncontested domestic control — is a lousy negotiating partner. It would simply dictate unfavorable terms to us on a take it or leave it basis and keep progressing steadily towards nuclear weapons status. We could get a "deal," but it would be the sort of "deal" advocated by those who essentially argue, "let’s just learn to love the Iranian bomb."  

To make diplomacy work, what is needed is a sweet spot of pressure that shifts the Iranian calculus to the opposite stance, where the deal they feel they can strike now is better than the deal they could strike later because their negotiating position is eroding. Now, achieving this sweet spot is difficult, because the Iranian decision-making system is closer to a unit-veto system than ours — factions find it easier to block action than to mobilize for action. Thus, at least at lower degrees of fissures, the wider the fissures, the greater the pressures towards inaction (fruitless negotiations). However, it is reasonable to hope that at extreme levels of fissures, the cross-cutting pressures might tilt the other way. Or, rather, it is unreasonable to hope that any other plausible Iranian negotiating partner would give us a deal we would want, and so this is our best shot at steering between two undesirables: military action or living with an Iranian nuclear weapon.

Financial sanctions that activates business pressure on the regime and thereby deepens fissures within the political elite seemed to be our best shot at fissure-exacerbation, but the Bush administration struggled to get sufficiently tough economic sanctions. The Obama team wasn’t making much progress on this front either, even though their erstwhile Iran czar, Dennis Ross, understood it was a necessary ingredient.

Well, the ham-handed way the Ahmadinejad faction manipulated the election results has managed to exacerbate faction fissures within the Tehran regime beyond any level seen in recent years. Obama is right that, insofar as the nuclear file goes, and insofar as the world as it was a week or so goes, a consolidated Ahmadinejad presidency would not have been much worse than a consolidated Mousavi presidency: Ahmadinejad is discernibly worse, but neither would have been a very good negotiating partner.

But a lot has happened in the past week, and it is not at all clear that the Mousavi of today is "much of a muchness" with Ahmadinejad. He is no nuclear dove, but he could be a Gorbachev-like figure whose tolerance for partial reform to reignite the revolution has the unintended effect of sowing the seeds of the regime’s own destruction. At a minimum, the populist outrage Mousavi has stirred means that the election (and resulting protests, of course), far from consolidating power within Tehran, is pushing the regime closer to the cracking point. A regime that is cracking from within may be the only one that would accept a nuclear deal we could live with. To be sure, that sort of deal would have to offer face-saving fig-leafs to let the hobbled regime "declare victory" — but a cracked regime is the only kind that would have the requisite strategic horizon to accept it.

So the administration should be doing whatever it can to let those fissures widen. Obama is right that he has to be careful not to act in a ham-handed way that lets the Ahmadinejad faction rally Persian hyper-nationalism with bogus charges of American meddling. He should choose his words artfully, and not treat Iranians to the type of rhetorical abuse that they heap on us with on a daily basis, for instance. But our interests here are clear: the regime should be seen as discredited for discreditable action, and even if Khamenei succeeds in installing Ahmadinejad over Mousavi, as seems likely (but by no means certain), we want the faction that has mobilized the street protests to be as strong as possible.

It is not clear that the Obama team has figured out how best to accomplish this. It is not even clear that they understand this is what needs to be done.