Iran: What now?

Three Middle East experts weigh in on the situation in Iran, and what the United States should do about it. Versions of the first two comments were originally posted to a private listserv and are reprinted here with permission: F. Gregory Gause III: I know that it is way early, and we have to see ...

By , a former managing editor of Foreign Policy.
A Iranian riot-police officer sprays tear-gas at a supporter of defeated Iranian presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi attacking him with a police stick during riots in Tehran on June 13, 2009. Hardline incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won a crushing victory in Iran's hotly-disputed presidential vote, according to official results that triggered mass opposition protests. AFP PHOTO/OLIVIER LABAN-MATTEI (Photo credit should read OLIVIER LABAN-MATTEI/AFP/Getty Images)

Three Middle East experts weigh in on the situation in Iran, and what the United States should do about it. Versions of the first two comments were originally posted to a private listserv and are reprinted here with permission:

F. Gregory Gause III:

I know that it is way early, and we have to see how things develop, but let’s assume that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the clerical elite get away with the power grab. What does Washington do? Put the outreach to Iran on hold?

I’ll start with a provocation: I think that the diplomatic outreach should continue as it started. It would be great if there were real democracy in Iran and the United States did not have to deal with the execrable incumbent president. But American interests here are not about Iranian domestic politics. They are about Iran’s role in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Gulf, the Arab-Israeli arena, and the nuclear program.

I acknowledge that it would be much easier to come to some understanding on these issues with a different, more representative Iranian government. But it looks like we might not get that. So the United States might as well try to engage the incumbents in order to see if it can get some kind of deal on at least some of these issues that will help avoid a confrontation down the road.

America deals with all sorts of governments whose domestic arrangements are, to put it mildly, less than compatible with American ideals. (The Saudis are Exhibit A.) I think that’s how to deal with Iran.

F. Gregory Gause III is professor of political science at the University of Vermont and author of Oil Monarchies: Domestic and Security Challenges in the Arab Gulf States.

Wayne White:

As a former advocate of robust engagement with Iran, I will throw my two cents into the discussion suggested by Greg Gause, if somewhat hesitantly at this early stage of what is unfolding in Tehran.

I would have preferred to wait to see the full extent of the evidence (or lack thereof) concerning what appears to be a relatively more determined and forceful power grab in Tehran before doing so, but what real harm is there in airing some of my concerns — concerns that incline me toward an admittedly rather tentative conclusion at variance with that of my friend Greg Gause?

In order to have an effective dialogue, the other party must have a certain measure of credibility. One must be able to trust that such a dialogue is being conducted in reasonably good faith, not just a far less promising “going through the motions” affair. If we have witnessed an unprecedented, bare-knuckled power grab overseen by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, what does that tell us about his inclinations about meaningful compromise on the nuclear issue?

In Iran, there always has been, of course, some separation between domestic and foreign affairs, as with many largely authoritarian governments. Yet, it could be that Khamenei is considerably more hard-line on the nuclear issue than was previously thought. I realize that his motivations for engaging in what many say now has been unusually interventionist behavior to keep Ahmadinejad in office almost certainly would have been domestic, but can we exclude the possibility that the nuclear account played into this as well — or other issues that could well come up in a more generalized dialogue with Iran?

As a result, I question the prudence of simply plowing ahead on engagement as if nothing has changed the potential state of play between Tehran and Washington (if our worst fears pan out about what has happened in Iran). One reason, albeit certainly not the only one, that I have been a strong advocate of dialogue is to avert an Israeli attack on Iran. Because of that factor alone, many readers might be unmoved by what I’ve tapped out above.

However, whereas I had no qualms about engagement before — even had Ahmadinejad been largely legitimately elected — I now do have a measure of hesitation (pending, of course, a full accounting of what has transpired concerning the election). Unless the shock in so many quarters over the election’s outcome turns out to be largely the result of wishful thinking on the part of those who yearned to be rid of an Ahmadinejad presidency (me included), I do not believe the equation remains necessarily unchanged regarding engagement.

Should the worst interpretation of the election and its aftermath turn out to be true, even I might conclude in time that those adverse developments are still outweighed by the need for engagement. At the moment, though, I am experiencing some hesitation about simply waving aside what we may have witnessed in Iran and moving forward toward serious negotiations with such a government.

Wayne White is an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute and was head of the State Department’s Iraq intelligence team from 2003 to 2005.

Trita Parsi:

Few doubt that the results presented by the interior minister are rigged. In fact, there are increasing questions as to whether the votes were ever even counted. If this were really a landslide in favor of Ahmadinejad, where are those 63 percent of the people right now? Shouldn’t they be celebrating their victory on the streets?

Clearly, the anti-Ahmadinejad camp has been taken by surprise and is scrambling for a plan. Increasingly, given their failure to get Khamenei to intervene, their only option seems to be to directly challenge — or threaten to challenge — the supreme leader.

Here’s where the powerful chairman of the Assembly of Experts, Mousavi supporter Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, comes in. Only this assembly has the formal authority to call for Khamenei’s dismissal, and it is now widely assumed that Rafsanjani is quietly assessing whether he has the votes to do so or not.

It may be that the first steps toward challenging Khamenei have already been taken. After all, Mousavi went over the supreme leader’s head with an open letter to the clergy in Qom. Rafsanjani clearly failed to win Khamenei’s support in a reported meeting between the two men Friday, but the influential Ali Akbar Mohtashamipour, who heads the vote-monitoring committee for Mousavi and fellow candidate Mehdi Karroubi, has officially requested that the Guardian Council cancel the election and schedule a new vote with proper monitoring.

The implications for Washington’s agenda, meanwhile, could be extensive. Although the United States is pursuing diplomacy with Iran in its own self-interest, electoral fraud (or the perception of fraud) complicates this strategy. And if political paralysis reigns in Iran, valuable time to address the nuclear issue through diplomacy will be lost. The White House’s posture thus far is a constructive one — while it cannot remain indifferent to irregularities in the elections, it must be careful never to get ahead of the Iranian people and the anti-Ahmadinejad candidates.

Finally, the Iranian-American community is deeply concerned about the situation. Sporadic protests have been taken place worldwide, including in Washington, D.C. Last week’s campaigning — with unprecedented debates, genuine grassroots mobilization, and major voter participation in the elections — raised hopes that Iran was moving in a democratic direction, but the developments of the past 24 hours have dramatically changed the mood in the community.

Trita Parsi is founder and president of the National Iranian American Council and author of
Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the U.S.

Update (2):

Joe Cirincione weighs in:

This is not the election result anyone but Iranian and Israeli hardliners hoped for. But all is not lost. While the Iranian leadership remains the same-at least for now-trends in the country and the region may still help President Obama’s strategy to contain and engage Iran.

Post election, the Obama administration faces the same diplomatic challenges with Iran as before — chief among them containing Iran’s nuclear program. While Mir Hossein Mousavi, the reformist hope, might have been able to reverse the fierce nationalistic politics Mahmoud Ahmadinejad injected into the Iranian nuclear issue, the ultimate arbitrator of Iran’s policy is neither man, but the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. 

As Carnegie Endowment scholar Karim Sadjadpour notes, “We should be clear about what we’re dealing with.  Just as we deal with Assad’s Syria and Mubarak’s Egypt, we now have to deal with Khamanei’s Iran.” 

Despite the unfortunate result, the process of engagement must continue and the illusion of quick military or coercive options rejected. We do not negotiate with countries as a reward, but as a normal part of statecraft. The new challenge is to balance support for reformist and democratic movements in Iran with strategic diplomacy with Iran’s leaders.

Senior administration officials struck the right chords with their comments over the weekend. “The administration will deal with the situation we have, not what we wish it to be,” said one senior official. The task remains the same — we must engage Iran in order to contain its nuclear program and channel its regional ambitions.

Obama’s pragmatic approach should follow three simultaneous tracks: bilateral and multilateral talks over regional issues of common concern (Iraq and Afghanistan, chief among them); formal P5+1 talks with the other Security Council members and Iran on the nuclear program; and bilateral discussions on the broader US-Iranian relationship. 

Contrary to what critics may argue, this does not imply caving in or giving away the store. This is hard-headed strategic diplomacy that has worked in the past to convince other countries to end nuclear. There are three developments that offer some promise that such an approach could succeed with Iran. 

First, the election has exposed deep fissures in Iranian society and deep distrust of the ruling regime. Despite their triumphalist rhetoric, Iran’s leaders must be troubled by the growing opposition to their dictatorial rule.  The BBC reports that the situation inside Iran “is becoming unpredictable and potentially explosive.” There is no telling where this could lead. Even if the protests subside, pragmatists among the elite may now push for greater accommodation with the West — including compromise on the nuclear program — in order to open trade and relieve the national economic distress that fueled Mousavi’s unlikely rise.

Second, the continued pursuit of nuclear weapon capability carries risks for Iran. An Israeli military strike is one, but more ultimately menacing may be the reaction of Iran’s Muslim neighbors. In the past three years, over a dozen Middle Eastern states have suddenly expressed interest in their own civilian nuclear programs, including Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. This is not about reducing their carbon footprint, it is a hedge against Iran. Iran’s leaders have an interest in ending this nascent nuclear arms race before it is faced with multiple, nuclear-armed adversaries.

Third, Obama’s Cairo speech demonstrated the renewed appeal of American ideals and began to rebuild ties to the Muslim world damaged by the brutal and unnecessary invasion of Iraq. Obama can back up his words with deeds through bold cuts in U.S. and Russian arsenals to show that the is serious about the global elimination of nuclear weapons, with serious efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with support for the democratic aspirations of all Muslim people, and with the continued withdrawal from Iraq and new campaigns against violent extremism in Afghanistan and Pakistan that do not rely primarily on military attacks. If he can take these steps, Obama could undercut the appeal of Ahmadinejad’s brand of anti-Americanism in the greater Middle East.

The patience and balance that Obama has show thus far in his Iran approach must continue. There was never any indication that the president thought this was going to be quick or easy. The Iranian nuclear program built up a fierce momentum in recent years thanks to Bush’s bungled efforts to overthrow the regime. It will take some years to slow and reverse this deadly direction.

Joseph Cirincione is President of Ploughshares Fund and author of
Bomb Scare:  The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons.

UPDATE: FP‘s David Rothkopf weighs in. “Since governments rather than general populations control nuclear programs, shouldn’t the recent events give us reason to reconsider our recent drift toward acceptance of Iran’s nuclear aspirations?,” he asks.

Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Blake Hounshell is a former managing editor of Foreign Policy.

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