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The Race for Iran

HAS IRAN SPURNED A SERIOUS, OR CYNICAL, U.S. OFFER REGARDING ITS NUCLEAR PROGRAM?

In response to our post, “Is the U.S. ‘Offer’ to Iran on Medical Isotopes a Pretext for More Coercive Action?”, it was suggested on another website that the current worldwide shortage of medical isotopes is only temporary and that, therefore, the Obama Administration’s offer to ensure that Iran has the opportunity to purchase medical isotopes on the world market is both serious and well-motivated.  We thought that these points deserved a response and further amplification from us, particularly in light of the Western media’s easy penchant for accepting at face value the Obama Administration’s claim that its generous “offers of engagement over Iran’s nuclear ambitions” have been “spurned” by Tehran.

In a narrow sense, the current shortage of medical isotopes is likely to be temporary, in that the return of Canadian and Dutch reactors to service later this year will boost the supply of Molybdenum-99.  But this kind of shortage is now occurring on a regular basis—there were similar “temporary” shortages in 2007 and 2008.  This trend reflects the ongoing reality of a tight international market for medical isotopes, characterized by growing worldwide demand for these materials and a finite number of small and aging research reactors that supply them, as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has documented.  Moreover, the kind of shortage that the world is experiencing now, even if “temporary” in a narrow sense, will recur; just last year, the IAEA warned that “the issue of medical isotope supply shortages stands to be a recurring theme”.

The only plausible long-term solutions to the problem are to construct additional, new research reactors and to upgrade existing reactors that have not been involved in isotope production so that they can fulfill that purpose—which is precisely what Iran has been working to do with the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR).  Relying solely on imported medical isotopes (as the United States does, consuming by itself half of the available world supply in the process) is wasteful (especially for a developing country like Iran) because of the short (literally hours-long) half-life of the materials involved.  Furthermore, to suggest, as the Obama Administration does, that Iran can continue to rely completely on the international market for medical isotopes with confidence of assured supply is simply not consistent with the realities of that market.  And, we have yet to see a persuasive refutation of the point on which we quoted Geoffrey Forden

“The real benefit to Iran for completing this deal, however, will not be the savings of a few million dollars or even the savings of nearly half the imported diagnostic radioisotopes from unavoidable wastage due to decays during shipment.  The real savings will be the foot up Iran gets in its health care from starting to develop its own nuclear medicine industry.  The discrepancy between the use of diagnostic isotopes in Iran and the developed world can, and should, be dramatically reduced, as it should for the entire world.”

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

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MISREADING KHAMENEI’S APPROACH TO THE UNITED STATES AND IRAN’S GEOPOLITICS

 

Most of the Western media failed to report on Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s annual, live Nowruz (Persian New Year) address yesterday in his hometown of Mashhad.  Instead they took conventional snippets from his earlier pre-recorded message for state television.  In doing so, the Western media have again missed important content and context regarding Khamenei’s approach to dealing with the United States and Iran’s geopolitics.

The critical point in Khamenei’s live address this year was his reiteration of last year’s ground-breaking offer:

“We [the Islamic Republic] have no history with the new [U.S.] administration and president.  We reserve our judgment. If you change, our conduct will change as well.” 

But, this year, Khamenei questioned Obama’s determination to change the core substance of America’s approach to the Islamic Republic and emphasized that Iran would not be swept up in Obama’s emotional but, from Khamenei’s perspective, substantively empty rhetoric of “change”.  Khamenei said:

“I don’t know who the decision makers in the U.S. are –the President, Congress, others behind the scenes—but what I do know is that Iran has acted on the basis of logic…we do not act emotionally with regard to the issues important to us.  We make decisions on the basis of calculations, rather than emotions.”

To be well understood, Khamenei’s live Nowruz address this year needs to be read in conjunction with his live Nowruz speech in Mashhad last year.  Last year’s address came on the heels of President Obama’s attention-getting 2009 Nowruz video message, which had been released just a couple of days before.  In that video message, Obama had directed his remarks to “the people and leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran” (actually referring to the country by its official name) and proclaimed that:

“my administration is now committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us, and to pursuing constructive ties among the United States, Iran, and the international community.”  Even more importantly, Obama noted that “this process will not be advanced by threats.  We seek instead engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect.” 

Multiple Iranian sources, official and otherwise, have told us that Obama’s words were positively received in Tehran.  In fact, Obama’s message directly prompted Khamenei’s offer two days later in his 2009 Mashhad speech: “You change, and we shall change as well.”  On the day that Khamenei made this statement, we were attending a Middle East security conference in the region, at which one of the other participants was a former Iranian diplomat with considerable high-level experience in the Islamic Republic’s policymaking circles, who had effectively stepped out of public life following President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s initial election in 2005.  When Flynt read, from his Blackberry, an English translation of Khamenei’s pledge that if “you change, we will change as well”, our Iranian colleague’s eyes grew wide and he exclaimed, “This is already very positive!”  

As we have written previously, during our recent trip to Tehran, our Iranian interlocutors underscored the significance of Khamenei’s declaration that if “you change, we will change as well”.  In particular, our interlocutors emphasized that this statement represented a calculated and rapid response to Obama’s 2009 Nowruz message from the Islamic Republic’s highest level of authority.  Some of our interlocutors pointed out that Khamenei’s formulation—which left it up to Obama to determine what “change” in American behavior or policy he was prepared to pursue—was deliberately crafted to maximize Obama’s room to maneuver. 

Against this backdrop, Khamenei’s speech in Mashhad yesterday clearly reveals the depth of Iranian disappointment with the course of U.S. policy since last March.  More specifically, the speech conveyed considerable anger about perceived American support for the domestic opposition that emerged following the Islamic Republic’s June 12, 2009 presidential election, continued U.S. involvement with violent separatist movements that continue to carry out terrorist attacks inside Iran, Obama’s failure to break with a 30-year history of American efforts to isolate, press, and undermine the Islamic Republic, and what Khamenei sees as American deceit. 

Referring to Obama’s rhetoric about the Islamic Republic, Khamenei noted in his address yesterday that

“the United States says ‘Let’s forget the past, we want to negotiate with Iran…we are extending our hand.’  What kind of hand?  If it is an iron hand concealed in a velvet glove, that has no positive meaning for Iran.  [The United States] sends greetings for a holiday but at the same time accuses Iranians of supporting terrorism and nuclear weapons, which is against the Koran…They are saying, ‘Let’s negotiate…build relations.’  They use the slogan of ‘change.’  Well, where is this change?  What has changed?  Make it clear to us—what has changed?” 

Then, in contrast to his approach in last year’s live Mashhad speech, Khamenei yesterday spelled out the kinds of changes that Iran needs to see in U.S. policy in order to believe that Obama is serious about wanting to put U.S.-Iranian relations on a more positive trajectory:

“Has your hostility to the Iranian people changed?  Where is the sign of that?  Have you released the Iranian assets?  Have you lifted the unjust sanctions?  Have you stopped the mud-slinging, the accusations and the propaganda against this great nation and its leaders who rose from among the people?  Have you stopped your unconditional defense of the Zionist regime?  What has changed?  They use the slogan of change, but in fact there is no evidence of change…Change in words is not enough, not that we have even seen such a significant change in words so far.  There should be real change.  You say, ‘We want to change our policy.  But we will change our tactics, not our goals.’  This is not real change.  It is deceit.  Real change should be evident in actions.” 

Clearly referencing Obama’s statement last year that diplomacy between the United States and Iran “will not be advanced by threats,” Khamenei said yesterday in Mashhad:

“As long as the U.S. government continues its conduct, its actions and its policies against us, as it has done for the past 30 years, we will be the same people we have been in these 30 years.  You say ‘We will negotiate with Iran and exert pressure on it.’  This is a threat combined with enticement.  Our people resents such talk.  It is unacceptable to talk to our people like this.” 

In closing, Khamenei seemed to say that, if America does not change the substance of its policies towards the Islamic Republic, Iran will go its own way:  “If you do not change, our people has become, over the past 30 years, more resilient, stronger and more experienced”.  In this context, it is important to read Khamenei’s lines in Mashhad yesterday about America’s deteriorating strategic position: 

“The situation in which the U.S. government has found itself is detrimental to both the American people and its government.  Today, you are hated throughout the world… The reason is that you treat the world as if you were its guardians.  You talk with arrogance and you want to impose your will on the world.  You interfere in the affairs of other countries.  You employ double standards in the world… Stop your arrogant tone of speech and your condescending conduct.  Stop your patronizing behavior.  Don’t interfere in the affairs of other countries.” 

These words reflect a growing perception among Iranian political and policymaking elites that the United States is a power in steep and accelerating decline.  They are also almost certainly calculated to appeal to elites in rising, non-Western powers—China, Russia, Brazil, India, and in the Arab world—as well as Turkey, which have their own concerns about American arrogance and unilateralism, and assert strict definitions of sovereignty and non-interference in sovereign states’ internal affairs as a defense against perceived U.S. double standards and inclination to meddle in the affairs of other countries. 

In this context, Obama’s Nowruz message for this year, which came in a video released by the White House on March 20, seems willfully oblivious to what it would actually take for the United States to achieve a genuine realignment of U.S.-Iranian relations.  Obama glosses over his failure to capitalize on the prospective opening created by his forward-leaning rhetoric about Iran that characterized the early months of his presidency with one of the oldest rhetorical tricks in the book—blame the other guy.  Noting that “Iran’s leaders have sought their own legitimacy through hostility to America”, Obama challenges those leaders—“we know what you’re against; now tell us what you’re for”.  He then places the onus for the failure of U.S. engagement with Iran squarely on the shoulders of the Islamic Republic’s leaders: 

“For reasons known only to them, the leaders of Iran have shown themselves unable to answer that question.  You have refused good faith proposals from the international community.  They have turned their backs on a pathway that would bring more opportunity to all Iranians, and allow a great civilization to take its rightful place in the community of nations.  Faced with an extended hand, Iran’s leaders have shown only a clenched fist.” 

Taking a page from President George W. Bush’s playbook, Obama continues by praising domestic political opposition in the Islamic Republic: 

“Last June, the world watched with admiration as Iranians sought to exercise their universal right to be heard.  But tragically, the aspirations of the Iranian people were also met with a clenched fist, as people marching silently were beaten with batons, political prisoners were rounded up and abused, and false accusations were leveled against the United States and the West, and people everywhere were horrified by the video of a young woman killed in the street.” 

Obama concludes with a judgment that “over the course of the last year, it is the Iranian government that has chosen to isolate itself, and to choose a self-defeating focus on the past over a commitment to build a better future.”  In this rhetorical context, how can President Obama expect Tehran to take seriously his statement that “our offer of comprehensive diplomatic contacts and dialogue stands”?  What is the substantive agenda for such a dialogue—something that the Islamic Republic has explicitly expressed an interest in defining?  How has President Obama modified the U.S. posture toward Iran to show that he is truly serious about strategic rapprochement?  (Khamenei’s remarks and our conversations with Iranian officials would suggest that Tehran has not observed any such modifications.) 

In an asymmetric relationship such as that between the United States and the Islamic Republic, for the United States to insist that Tehran must show that it is “serious” about improved relations before Washington takes concrete steps of its own is a recipe for guaranteed diplomatic failure.  If U.S. rapprochement with Iran is now a strategic imperative for America and its allies—as we very strongly believe it is—then Washington needs to be focused on what it will take to achieve rapprochement, not on artificial and self-defeating “tests” of Iranian seriousness.  If Richard Nixon had taken the same approach to the People’s Republic of China as Obama is taking to the Islamic Republic of Iran, the United States might still not have an embassy in Beijing.    

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

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If Colin Powell Says It, Will Washington Listen?

powell

Former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell stated the obvious in an interview with Bloomberg today:

I don’t see a set of sanctions coming along that would be so detrimental to the Iranians that they are going to stop that program. The Iranians are determined to have a nuclear program. Notice I did not say a nuclear weapon. But they are determined to have a nuclear program, notwithstanding the last six or seven years of efforts on our part to keep them from having a nuclear program.

Readers will recall that Secretary Powell’s presentation to the United Nations in 2003 was key to legitimizing the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq.

Powell generally keeps a low public profile. Hopefully his comments today will compel Washington to ask itself tough questions about precisely what it hopes sanctions will achieve.

– Ben Katcher

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Is the U.S. ‘Offer’ to Iran on Medical Isotopes a Pretext for More Coercive Action?

 

Earlier this week, journalists highlighted U.S. Deputy Secretary of Energy Dan Poneman’s statement that the Obama Administration had

“offered to facilitate Iran’s procurement through the world markets of the medical isotopes its citizens need”, but that “Iran’s leaders apparently prefer to reject the most responsible, cost effective, and timely options to ensure access to medical isotopes in order to advance their nuclear program”. 

Without question, they went on to quote Poneman that Iran’s

“announcement last month that it will start enriching uranium to nearly 20 percent U-235 is a transparent ploy.  It has nothing to do with trying to help Iranian cancer patients who will need medical isotopes later this year”. 

Poneman’s statements picked up on themes previously articulated—also without question by journalists—by Glyn Davies, the U.S. ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency.  Davies asked rhetorically, “Why is Tehran gambling with the health and lives of 850,000 Iranian cancer patients in pursuit of ever more dangerous nuclear technology”, noting that “this move is callous and chilling”.  Davies asserted to the Associated Press that, “to address the humanitarian needs of Iran’s people, we are prepared to facilitate Iran’s procurement of medical isotopes from third-country sources”, arguing that this U.S. proposal represented a “faster, cheaper, and more responsible alternative than enriching to 20 percent”.  In an interview this month with CNN’s Christiane Ammanpour, Davies reiterated that

“there’s an international market for medical isotopes.  There are ways for Iran to purchase them if they need to purchase them, once this research reactor’s fuel runs out.  That’s a far safer way to proceed than for Iran, which has never before manufactured fuel for any sort of nuclear reactor, to try to do it on its own on a rush basis”. 

But journalists should have asked Poneman and Davies basic questions: Will or can the U.S. sell Iran the medical isotopes it needs? If not, why not? Who else in the international community will or can sell Iran the medical isotopes it needs?  And, the journalists could have done some basic research themselves.  They would have turned up a fundamental obstacle to implementing the Obama Administration’s “offer”—there is a currently, and has been for some time, a worldwide shortage of medical isotopes, which is going to get even more acute in the foreseeable future

Around the world, there are five reactors that commercially produce Molybdenum-99, the basic source material for one of the world’s most widely used medical isotopes.  Currently, Iran imports all of the Molybdenum-99 it uses; about half of that is wasted in transit as the Molybdenum decays, a waste which could be avoided if the Molybdenum was produced locally.  Although Iran has completed construction of an installation for producing radioisotopes at the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), it needs to refuel the TRR soon in order to proceed with plans for domestic production of medical isotopes.

For a useful overview of Iran’s plans for medical isotope production–which implicitly calls into question the accuracy of statements by Poneman and Davies about the cost effectiveness for Iran of importing medical isotopes as opposed to producing them domestically–see this first rate analysis by Geoffrey Forden on www.armscontrolwonk.com.  This analysis concludes

“Iran has developed plans to use naturally occurring uranium as a “target” for producing an important medical diagnostic isotope of molybdenum, an isotope whose decay product can be used to scan for cancers in bone, heart, lung, and kidney. Iran already imports a sizable quantity of this pharmacological radionuclide but producing it indigenously would not only save Iran a considerable amount of money each year, much more than it would pay for the fuel for the reactor it would use to produce it, but also allow a more efficient use of this short lived isotope by preventing the decay of nearly half of the amount bought before it even reached the patients…

The real benefit to Iran for completing this deal, however, will not be the savings of a few million dollars or even the savings of nearly half the imported diagnostic radioisotopes from unavoidable wastage due to decays during shipment. The real savings will be the foot up Iran gets in its health care from starting to develop its own nuclear medicine industry. The discrepancy between the use of diagnostic isotopes in Iran and the developed world can, and should, be dramatically reduced; as it should for the entire world.”

None of the reactors that commercially produce Molybdenum is in the United States.  One of the five reactors, in Canada, has been off line since last year; a second, in The Netherlands, is about to go off line.  These two reactors supply more than 80 percent of the molybdenum used in the United States.  The reduction of supply from the Canadian reactor has already had a significant impact on medical practice in the United States; a survey of more than 700 American hospitals conducted last year by the Society for Nuclear Medicine found that 80 percent of these hospitals were delaying procedures for cancer and cardiac patients because of an isotope shortage.  The Society of Nuclear Imaging issued a statement earlier today saying that, with the Dutch reactor also going off line, the U.S. medical community will experience “one of the most significant disruptions ever” in the supply of a molybdenum derivative that is normally used in 14 million nuclear medicine tests in the United States each year.  While arrangements are being made to bring molybdenum produced at a reactor in Poland onto international markets for medical isotopes, nuclear medicine professionals say that this will only marginally alleviate the ongoing shortage.     

So where, exactly, is Iran supposed to buy new quantities of medical isotopes, and how, exactly, would the United States help to facilitate such purchases, when American medical facilities are not able to procure sufficient quantities of the relevant materials?  It is truly disappointing that journalists who covered Poneman’s remarks earlier this week and Davies’ previous comments on the subject failed to ask these most basic and obvious follow-up questions.  But that would have required them to have learned from their reporting failures in the run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq and to engage in real reporting about an Iran-related issue.

We have written several times on www.TheRaceForIran.com about the back-and-forth between Washington and Tehran about proposals for refueling the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR).  As we have argued, the Obama Administration has unnecessarily taken what should be a straightforward technical issue—how Iran can secure new fuel for the TRR without exacerbating international concerns about the perceived proliferation risks of its nuclear activities—and turned it into a highly politicized effort to forestall the theoretical possibility of an Iranian “breakout” capability for a year, during which the Obama Administration would try to sort out the internal inconsistencies in/unresolved questions about its own Iran policy. 

Unsurprisingly, as long as basic questions like the “acceptability” of enrichment on Iranian soil are not resolved, Iran is unwilling to accept, without some modifications, the so-called ElBaradei proposal for refueling the TRR via a “swap” of new fuel for a large part of Iran’s current stockpile of low-enriched uranium.  In his remarks earlier this week, Poneman said that, with the ElBaradei proposal, the United States and other governments “responded positively and creatively to Tehran’s initial request for assistance in refueling the Tehran Research Reactor with a fair and balanced proposal designed to meet Iran’s humanitarian needs for medical isotopes and being to build mutual trust and confidence”. 

But Tehran had originally asked the IAEA to help it purchase new fuel for the reactor, in a manner thoroughly compliant with Iran’s safeguards obligations.  From Tehran’s perspective, the international community’s willingness to move ahead with such a transaction would have built Iranian trust and confidence in pledges by the United States and other countries to help the Islamic Republic enjoy the full benefits of peaceful nuclear technology—including the capability to produce medical isotopes in Iran.      

So, now, with their too-clever-by-half gambit having failed, senior Obama Administration officials are engaged in a concerted effort to win a “public diplomacy” battle with Tehran over the issue.  In that effort, the charge that Iran is cavalierly indifferent to the fate of its cancer patients has apparently been deemed a valuable talking point.  But, is it just a talking point, or is it another pretext for the Obama Administration to take America’s Iran policy in more coercive directions?            

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

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IRAN’S GREEN MOVEMENT APPROACHES IRRELEVANCE: WHY DOES WASHINGTON CONTINUE TO GAMBLE ON IT?

 

Photo from AR Photo/Julie Stegeman

The standing of Iran’s so-called Green Movement is a deeply serious matter, with potentially profound implications for America’s Iran policy. Since the Islamic Republic’s June 12, 2009 presidential election, it has become widely accepted among Iran analysts in the United States and the Western political class more broadly that the emergence of the Green Movement in the wake of that election represents a fundamental challenge to Iran’s current political order.

As we have discussed previously, the Obama Administration is increasingly incorporating “support” for the Green Movement as a factor in its policymaking calculations about Iran. Congress is now becoming engaged with legislative proposals to make “regime change” the explicit goal of America’s Iran policy and to provide material support for Iranian oppositionists—just as Congress and President Clinton enacted the Iraq Liberation Act in 1998, formally defining regime change as the goal of America’s Iraq policy and providing a wide range of material assistance to Iraqi opposition groups.

But, if the Green Movement is not what many Iran analysts and other foreign policy and political pundits have cracked it up to be, adopting such a policy course with regard to Iran would be, to recall Talleyrand’s memorable observation, “worse than a crime”; it would be a “mistake”—a mistake with potentially devastating consequences for the United States and its interests in one of the most strategically vital parts of the world. We have argued since last June that the Green Movement is not the ascendant political force that its Western champions would have us believe.

Recent events in Iran provide further evidence for the proposition that the movement, in fact, is fading fast into strategic irrelevance. Yesterday, March 16, was celebrated in Iran as chahār shanbeh sūri—an ancient Persian festival marking the beginning of preparations for the celebration of Nowruz, the traditional Persian New Year, on March 21. (Chahār shanbeh sūri means “Wednesday” in Farsi, and sūri means both “festival” and “red”; the celebration of chahār shanbeh sūri takes place on the eve of the last Wednesday of the Persian calendar year.) Chahār shanbeh sūri, like Nowruz itself, marks not only the turn of the Persian New Year but also the revival of spring. From time immemorial, Iranians have celebrated the holiday with fire—making bonfires and jumping over them or, in the modern period, shooting off firecrackers. (Some of our Iranian friends complain about how much money their kids compel them to spend each year on fireworks to celebrate chahār shanbeh sūri.) Since the Iranian revolution in 1979, there has always been some measure of tension between the Islamic Republic’s religious worldview and the Iranian public’s enthusiasm for observing chahār shanbeh sūri, which is clearly pre-Islamic in its origins. But, each year, Iranians continue to celebrate chahār shanbeh sūri to mark the beginning of their New Year holidays. In recent years, some Iranians have gone beyond the limits of the law in their celebrations—just last year, there were reports of younger people burning tires and garbage bins and even tossing Molotov cocktails at police.

Both in Iran and outside the country, Green Movement partisans anticipated that, this year, chahār shanbeh sūri would be an occasion for the movement to show the depth and breadth of its social support and recover from its failure to elicit overt demonstrations of popular support on February 11, the anniversary of the Islamic Republic’s founding.  In the run up to the February 11 observance this year, Green Movement supporters talked about how the movement would mobilize hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people in the streets of Tehran, marking the “beginning of the end” of the Islamic Republic. But February 11 came and went with very small numbers of actual protestors on the streets. (It was this result which prompted our favorite sentence in Michael Crowley’s recent effort to critique our work on Iran in The New Republic; after summarizing our analysis of Iranian domestic politics since the June 12, 2009 presidential election, Crowley seemed to feel obliged to write, “It’s not obvious that this analysis is wrong—especially in the wake of a disappointing Green turnout…on the anniversary of the 1979 Iranian revolution.”)

Iranian contacts tell us that, this year, chahār shanbeh sūri was quieter than usual—almost certainly because, a few days before, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a public statement reiterating that the holiday had no basis in the Islamic religion and prompted various types of “harm and corruption” that it would be “appropriate” to avoid. And, once again, a major public commemoration or holiday has taken place in Iran, and the Green Movement has failed to make its presence felt to any significant degree. According to The Guardian, which had a live blog providing “real time” coverage of events on Tuesday afternoon and evening in Tehran, the Tehran fire department reported 164 “incidents” or calls for “fire service”, some involving homemade fireworks; perhaps a few dozen people were arrested, but without any clear indication that they were arrested for political protest as opposed to apolitical rowdiness. Even pro-Green Movement journalists like Nazila Fathi of The New York Times had to acknowledge that “given the traditional pyrotechnics of the occasion, [the] number [of people reported injured] was not unusual”.

Still, opposition websites tried to present the participation of thousands of people in these celebrations as a sign of the Green Movement’s “success”, while Nazila Fathi proclaimed from, we presume, Toronto, in a completely unsourced lead that should not have survived responsible editing, that “Iranians defied a ban on events marking a traditional festival on Tuesday, turning an annual celebration into a show of antigovernment sentiment”. One of our Iranian friends compared this to the Green Movement calling on people to drive around Tehran during rush hour and then claiming “victory” because of the traffic. The Guardian concluded that, all in all, “the opposition must be disappointed not to have witnessed a greater show of strength”.

Clearly, the Green Movement is not, at this point, a social force with any significant potential to impose fundamental change on the Islamic Republic’s political order by operating “outside” that order. Events on the ground continue to confirm our assessment that the social base for the Green Movement is shrinking, not growing. Most Iranians, it seems, lead normal lives, focused on their families, jobs, their children’s educations, etc., and are not attracted by the prospect of sustained political and social disruption. Even those Iranians who want to see the Islamic Republic evolve in ways that Westerners might see as more “liberal” are not hankering for another revolution.

The future course of Iranian politics will be charted within the parameters of the Islamic Republic, not by efforts to overthrow it. Of course, there are individual political figures and political factions that associated themselves with Mir Hossein Mousavi’s presidential candidacy and, later on, with the Green Movement and who will continue to play roles in Iranian politics. But these political figures and factions have not helped themselves by their association with the Green Movement. For reformists, in particular, their performance in the run up to and the aftermath of the Islamic Republic’s June 12, 2009 presidential election will be an additional burden for them to overcome as they attempt to regain greater salience in Iranian politics.

As we noted earlier this month, after our return from a visit to Tehran, “there is no significant elite challenge to the current political structure”. Mousavi is increasingly marginalized. This week, with Nowruz looming, Mousavi could only note on his website that “we have to call the next year the year of patience and endurance until the aims of the Green Movement are achieved”. But, at this juncture, what, precisely, are those aims, and how do “patience and endurance” constitute a strategy for achieving them? Former parliament speaker Mehdi Karroubi has even less of a public following than Mousavi. Former President Khatami has already demonstrated during his career that he does not want to challenge the core constitutional elements of the Islamic Republic’s political order; in recent weeks, he has been largely silent in public.

With regard to former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the current head of both the Assembly of Experts and the Expediency Council, we wrote as early as last June that it was foolhardy for Western analysts to hypothesize that he was prepared to challenge fundamentally the authority of Ayatollah Khamenei as the Supreme Leader or lead a behind-the-scenes effort to remove him. The personal ties of the two men go back too far to permit that, and their political ties have been forged and tested across long periods of great adversity. That forecast was absolutely on the money; while we were in Tehran late last month, the Assembly of Experts convened for one of its regular, twice-a-year meetings. In his opening address, Rafsanjani said clearly that “those who care for the revolution must clarify their position vis-à-vis supporters of regime change and opponents of the Supreme Leader, and must regard him as the center of unity” (emphasis added).

This analysis will, no doubt, prove discomfiting, even disturbing for many who read it. But it is correct, which is the only test that should matter where analytic judgments are concerned.

The record of most Western analysts in interpreting and predicting the course of Iranian politics since the Islamic Republic’s June 12, 2009 presidential election has been, to put it gently, disappointing. It is also altogether too reminiscent of the analytic failures, wishful thinking, and determination to find a “smoking gun” when one did not exist that fed the U.S. decision to invade Iraq. To those Western analysts and political pundits who made their personal aspirations for the course of Iran’s political evolution the basis for their analytic judgments, we would respectfully ask, what is your evidence that the Green Movement is not shrinking before our eyes? What is your evidence that the Green Movement is capable of affecting political outcomes in the Islamic Republic over the next several months or even the next few years in a strategically significant way?

These questions matter, and need to be addressed seriously. The United States cannot afford more “mistakes” in the Middle East.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

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