Stephen M. Walt

On the unrest in Iran: Don’t just do something, stand there!

On the unrest in Iran: Don’t just do something, stand there!

I don’t know where the latest unrest in Iran will lead — and neither does anyone else — but it seems like the regime is losing whatever legitimacy it had left and may also be losing its capacity to squelch dissent with displays of force. (As before, Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish has lots of videos and commentary on events there.) The outcome of this sort of challenge is inherently difficult to forecast, as it is nearly impossible to know ex ante when a critical “tipping point” might be reached. At a minimum, the regime has clearly gotten significantly weaker since the contested election last summer.

Here are some cautionary lessons to bear in mind. First, we do not know enough about internal dynamics in Iran to intervene intelligently, and trying to reinforce or support the Green Movement is as likely to hurt them as to help them. So our official position needs to measured and temperate, and to scrupulously avoid any suggestion that we are egging the Greens on or actively backing them with material aid.

Second, this is an especially foolish time to be rattling sabers and threatening military action. Threatening or using force is precisely the sort of external interference that might give the current regime a new lease on life. If you’d like to see a new government in Tehran, in short, we should say relatively little and do almost nothing. I don’t object to making it clear how much the U.S. government deplores the regime’s repressive measures, but this is one of those moment where we ought to say less than we feel.

If you’re looking for a useful historical analogy, think back to the “velvet revolutions” in Eastern Europe. Neoconservatives used to argue that the rapid and mostly peaceful collapse of communism proved that rapid democratic transformations were possible in unlikely settings, and they used that argument to justify trying the same thing in Iraq. (We all know how well that turned out.) In fact, the velvet revolutions were a triumph of slow and patient engagement from a position of strength. The upheavals in Eastern Europe were an indigenous phenomenon and the product of containment, diplomatic engagement, and the slow-but-steady spread of democratic ideals through the Helsinki process and other mechanisms. And the first Bush administration was smart enough to keep its hands off until the demise of communism was irreversible, which is precisely the approach we ought to take toward Iran today.

Finally, as I mentioned a few days ago, we should not assume that a Green triumph in Iran would eliminate all sources of friction between Iran and the West. A new government would probably seek to continue Iran’s nuclear enrichment program and will certainly want a secure (read: superior) position in its own neighborhood. In practice, that means trying to achieve an imbalance of power in its favor, which will make the U.S. uncomfortable. If the clerical regime falls and we continue to insist that Iran stop enriching uranium and conform to our policy preferences, that will convince many Iranians that the United States is irrevocably hostile to their country and not just to the current regime. So I hope somebody in the Obama administration is starting to think about a) what we do if the Green Movement succeeds, b) what we do if it fails, and c) how to keep hawks in the United States and Israel from making things worse.

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