Daniel W. Drezner

The stakes in the Great Game are getting awfully high

The stakes in the Great Game are getting awfully high

I’ll be on the road most of tomorrow, so blogging might not be possible.  Before I go, however, it’s worth considering the ways in which the ongoing social uprising in Iran is tripping up great powers other than the United Ststes. 

There have been some interesting developments here — particularly with regard to Russia.  Andrew Sullivan posts the following from a reader: 

Famed film director, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, on behalf of Mousavi’s campaign, was on BBC just now, He accused Ahamdinejad of giving up Iran’s rights in Caspian Sea and other areas in the last 4 years and now is enjoying Russia’s firm backing. Then he called it a Russian Coup! He said he has information that high ranking Russian advisers are teaching Ahmadinejad’s thugs as to how to oppress the opposition effectively. This is Mohsen Makhmablf, not just any director. Already Iranians are gathering in front of Russian consulate in Toronto.

Over at TNR, Julia Ioffe takes a look at Russian press coverage of the election — and more intriguingly, the Russian government’s rapidly evolving relationship with Ahmadinejad: 

[T]he winds are changing. Obama has taken a less militant tone with Tehran and with Moscow. Medvedev, lately showing more sleight of hand than his predecessor, seems to have finally picked up on the world’s extreme skepticism about the election results and the growing seriousness of the unrest in Iran.

Here’s what happened: Slated to arrive in Yekaterinburg on Monday for the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit (Iran is an observer in the group, which is a sort of answer to NATO in Asia), Ahmadinejad postponed his trip because of the situation at home. When he finally arrived yesterday, Ahmadinejad found that his two-hour tete-a-tete with President Dmitri Medvedev had been canceled due to the president’s "overly-saturated schedule." Instead, he shook hands in front of the cameras with Medvedev, whose spokesperson insisted that this fleeting encounter was nothing more than a flicker "on the sidelines." As Gazeta noted in its main headline on Iran of the day, "Ahmadinejad Can Wait."

I’m not sure this backtracking will be terribly adroit.  If Ahmadinejad and Khamenei fall, methinks it’s going to be pretty easy for the new Iranian leadership to Google this AP story:   

"It’s quite symbolic that the Iranian president arrived in Russia on his first foreign visit since re-election," Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said at a briefing. "We see that as a sign that the Russian-Iranian relations will advance further."….

Ryabkov said the election was Iran’s internal affair, but he endorsed Ahmadinejad as the victor.

"We welcome the fact that the elections have taken place, and we welcome the newly re-elected Iranian president on the Russian soil," he said. "We see this visit as a reflection of partner-like, neighborly and traditionally friendly relations between Moscow and Tehran."

A pure realist might argue that regardless of who is in power in Iran, the bilateral relationship with Russia will remain strong.  A week ago, I would have agreed with this position.  Now, however, we’re talking about a regime transition, as opposed to the simple change in government that would have taken place with a clean Mousavi victory last week.  And new regimes remember who helped their domestic adversaries in the past. 

An Iran led by a representative government unfettered by the clerics is a game-changer on several levels.  If a new Iranian regime wants to talk turkey with the Obama administration, then the United States suddenly needs Russia a whole lot less.  Authoritarian states everywhere will become much more nervous about contagion effects.  I’m not sure how the Sunni regimes in the region would react to a liberalizing Iran, but I’m betting that they wouldn’t like it.  Come to think of it, the effect on Iraq is unclear as well, but I’m pretty sure there would be some effect.  I’m trying to game out how it would affect energy markets, and my head hurts from trying to weigh the cross-cutting effect on all of the variables.   

As the previous paragraphs suggest, 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.