Marc Lynch

So what now on Iran?

So what now on Iran?

It isn’t easy to be the pessimist on Iran’s Green Movement. Everyone wants to support the brave protestors and most everyone hopes to see them prevail over an increasingly thuggish regime. I do. But over the last few weeks, Washington DC seemed to have talked itself into something more — a belief that Iranian regime change was actually nigh, and that such regime change from below was actually more likely and easier than a negotiated deal on the nuclear program. I’ve been skeptical in public and private…I’ve been watching Arab regimes survive in the face of popular dissatisfaction for decades, and have seen all too clearly that while Middle Eastern regimes aren’t good at much, they’re pretty darned good at staying in power. Still, over the last few weeks I’ve read countless articles, and been told conspiratorially by many Iran-watchers, that February 11 would be the breakthrough for the Green Movement. And now it’s pretty clear that it wasn’t. So what now?

Today’s fizzle shouldn’t have surprised anyone, even if many hoped for more. We shouldn’t read too much into it, even if expectations had been raised. But the prospects for regime change have seemed to me less likely over time rather than more likely. During those chaotic first days after the "election" fiasco, there may have been the chance for a massive cascade to change things before the regime could rally itself. But it survived that (and would have, probably even more easily, has the Obama administration publicly taken a position). Since then, it has systematically repressed and divided the opposition, harrassed its leadership and members, and taken steps to shore up its instruments of control. The internet may or may not have played a decisive role in fueling the Green Movement, but either way the regime is now prepared to shut it down when necessary. The Shi’a tradition of commemorations and major national anniversaries do offer focal points for organization and mobilization, but it also tells the regime exactly where and when to expect protest activity. In short, I fully believe that the Iranian regime is more unpopular and less legitimate than ever before — but just don’t see it as especially vulnerable at the moment. 

That’s why I think the Obama team has been absolutely right to refrain from "banking on a protest movement which may sputter out or be crushed." It lacks, as one might say, "the satisfying purity of indignation." But it’s the right call. We need to accept the limits of American influence over events in Iran. That doesn’t mean that the U.S. shouldn’t push for human rights and criticize repression — I think that the administration should support public freedoms in Iran just as it should across the Arab world (and beyond). But it shouldn’t count on a regime change from below which will largely be shaped by internal Iranian dynamics and not by American posturing.

What are the alternatives? Some seem to want a grand Presidential speech declaring solidarity with the Green Movement. These are often the same people who used to mock Obama’s faith in his own rhetoric, but no matter — people change, as do circumstances.  Would such a speech help? I doubt it. This would actually be a domestically popular move…but would have real costs which Obama is wise to avoid. It may embolden the protestors, but they are already plenty motivated on their own. It would be making an implicit promise that the U.S. would protect them if they tried to do more — a promise which almost certainly could not be redeemed. It would also make it all the easier for the regime to demonize and discredit the opposition as American pawns and puppets. I just don’t see much hope that indigenous regime change, with or without overt U.S. encouragement, is going to be the magic bullet… but think it’s marginally more likely if the U.S. doesn’t insert itself in the middle and make itself the issue.

The growing drumbeat for war remains as irresponsible and poorly reasoned as ever. I find it reassuring that Obama’s advisers describe the main goal of their strategy as avoiding war. I would be thrilled if I could never again be forced to listen to someone explain how war is the only logical choice, the costs won’t be that high and the gains enormous. But then I’d have to get out of the foreign policy business, because advocates of war always make such arguments. An American or Israeli military strike would be risky, would have massive human costs, would be devastating for the rest of Obama’s grand strategy, would likely lead to dramatic turn for the worse in Iraq, would have significant (if temporary) effects on the global economy, and would likely strengthen the regime rather than weaken it. It should not be considered a serious policy option.

Nor do I think that there’s a grand bargain to be had at the moment. There might have been in the opening months of Obama’s Presidency, had he made different choices and approached the problem with a fresher conceptual framework. There were a lot of good ideas out there early on, about putting Iran into a wider regional framework and breaking down the rigid binary oppositions of the Bush era. We’ll never know whether the electoral crisis killed the chances for momentum or whether the strategy of simultaneously engaging and preparing for sanctions when engagement failed was doomed from the start. But there’s no going back, and the die is cast.

So that leaves us with negotiations and sanctions… which don’t seem to have great prospects right now, but at least avoid the worst outcomes of the other approaches.  The sanctions would likely work better if they remain carefully targeted and tightly linked to negotiating strategy (i.e. the White House approach) rather than being primarily expressive and driven by domestic politics (i.e. the Senate’s version). Engagement should be combined with a consistent message of U.S. support for public freedoms and human rights, which could raise the international and domestic costs of the regime’s repression without tarnishing the opposition movement by association. The overall focus should be on ways to build the conditions under which a negotiation strategy can work — no easy task, but the best option available. In general, we’d all do better if we could focus public discourse less on hopes for regime change and war, and more on the less sexy but more helpful question of how to make a negotiations strategy work.