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The Race for Iran

LEADERSHIP FAILURE: HILLARY MANN LEVERETT ON OBAMA’S HISTORIC BLUNDER ON PALESTINIAN STATEHOOD

Today, Hillary went on Al Jazeera to critique President Obama’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly; see video embedded above (click on picture to play).  The segment focuses on Obama’s remarks about the Palestinian issue, but the speech, see here, virtually in its entirety, is a testament to Obama’s failure as a foreign policy President. 

With regard to Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama told the world that the “tide of war is receding”.  The disingenuousness of this statement is especially galling in light of the fact that last month was the deadliest for U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 10 years; last week, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul was under siege for nearly 24 hours.  And, of course, just yesterday, former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani , who was spearheading current President Karzai’s negotiations with the Taliban, was killed by a suicide bomber in his own home. 

If the “tide of war is receding” in Afghanistan, it is certainly not because violence is down. 

Indeed, it is increasingly clear that the United States is headed for a significant strategic failure there—a failure which Obama could have avoided but, instead, embraced in a desperate quest for a few months political cover to his right

But it is the Palestinian issue that highlights the extent of Obama’s craven ineptitude.  In his address to the General Assembly last year, see here, Obama declared that, within the coming year, there should be “an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations—an independent, sovereign state of Palestine, living in peace with Israel”.  (This was the sole “applause line” in the speech.)  One year later, Obama used his speech today (which elicited, literally, no applause from the General Assembly as it was delivered) to lead the charge against United Nations recognition of a Palestinian state.  And, as with his remarks about Afghanistan and Iraq, the level of intellectual dishonesty in Obama’s comments about Palestine was astounding even for a politician running for re-election

Obama advanced a tired argument that American and Israeli elites who have no interest in an Israeli-Palestinian settlement have put forward for at least the past 20 years: that it is up to Israelis and Palestinians, “not us”, to want and find their way to a peace agreement.  Obama’s posture completely begs what should be the foremost consideration for any American President:  that the United States needs a credible Middle East peace process, which actually leads to a legitimate and sustainable peace, for its own interests.  Even though this is what U.S. interests require, Obama is not prepared to do it—and only because Israel, under the Netanyahu government, does not want it. 

And why is Netanyahu so exercised about this?  Because UN recognition (even as a non-member observer state) would allow Palestinians to access the International Criminal Court, through which they could begin marshaling real international pressure on Israel regarding its settlements in occupied territory and its treatment of civilians living under occupation.      

Instead of doing what American interests (which, in this case, would also be the right thing), Obama is prepared only to exhort the parties to “sit down together, to listen to each other, to understand each other’s hopes and dreams”.  But the failure of Israelis and Palestinians to reach a genuine settlement of their conflict is not due to each side’s lack of understanding of the other’s “hopes and dreams”

–Israelis and Palestinians understand each other’s “hopes and dreams”—or, more precisely, each side’s minimum demands—very well. 

The problem is that neither side is prepared to meet the other’s minimum demands:  the Palestinians because doing so would mean surrendering essential requirements for legitimate statehood, the Israelis because doing so would be politically uncomfortable.    

There was, of course, much hope in many quarters that when Obama first came to office, he really wanted a Palestinian state, that he understood the strategic significance for the United States of a credible Middle East peace process.  But, when he had an extraordinary political mandate—when he had a 75 percent approval rating and two million people stood on the mall, on a cold January day (a significant portion of them weeping to see an African-American become President of the United States)—the man who pledged as a candidate to end the “mindset” that had led the United States down a tragically wrong-head path in the Middle East appointed people like Hillary Clinton, Tom Donilon, and Dennis Ross (not to mention Vice President Joe Biden) to key foreign policy positions. 

Obama could go to the Security Council and personally cast America’s vote for Palestinian statehood.  By doing so, he might actually improve America’s position in the Arab and Muslim worlds.  But he will not do that.  As one of our regular contributors pointed out recently (as Hillary noted on al Jazeera, and for which we are grateful), Obama’s failure to do so will, no doubt, be identified by future historians as a major turning point (for the worse) for America’s position in the Middle East.

And, while Obama abjures his responsibilities as the person (nominally) in charge of American foreign policy, for politically craven reasons, he is not even reaping any political benefit from it.  Is Prime Minister Netanyahu now going to start telling his American supporters to help get Obama re-elected?  Will his approval ratings in Israel or among ardently pro-Israel constituencies in the United States now go up?  Will Rick Perry stop running to the right of Obama on Middle East issues? 

One can understand political cravenness, even as one is appalled by it.  But cravenness that does not even bring some expedient benefit surpasses understanding.  

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

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AMERICA’S QUIXOTIC QUEST FOR HEGEMONY IN THE MIDDLE EAST

Earlier this week, Flynt spoke at a New America Foundation event, “Beyond Primacy  Rethinking American Grand Strategy and the Command of the Commons,” which can be watched by clicking on the video embedded above.  Flynt responded to a paper presented by two MIT doctoral students proposing a new American military posture.  Flynt’s remarks  focus on the foreign policy context for defense policy decisions; he argues that until the United States abandons its quixotic and counterproductive pursuit of hegemony in place like the Middle East, it will not be possible for Washington to take rational decisions about America’s military posture and defense policy.  For those who want to go directly to Flynt’s remarks, fast forward to around the 30.33 mark on the video.

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

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9/11, THE UNITED STATES, AND THE ISLAMIC REPUBLIC: WHO’S WINNING THE WAR ON TERROR?

Earlier this week, as part of Al Jazeera’s coverage of the 10th anniversary of 9/11, Hillary appeared on Al Jazeera English to talk about the war on terror and American foreign policy, see here.  She made a series of points that warrant serious discussion by Americans as they reflect on the 10-year record of their country’s still ongoing “global war on terror”:

First, Hillary argues that the “Bush Doctrine” of preventive war, far from having been repudiated, remains central to U.S. foreign policy.  People have applied the label, “Bush Doctrine”, to other aspects of the George W. Bush Administration’s approach to the war on terror—e.g., countries are either “with us or with the terrorists”, states that harbor or support terrorists are indistinguishable from terrorists themselves, and democracy promotion as the way to “drain the swamp” in which terrorists breed.  But surely the most salient is, as Hillary describes it, a self-proclaimed American prerogative to start a war against a country “on the basis of the possibility that there could be, at some down the road years from now, an attack on the United States” emanating from that country.  While Barack Obama campaigned for the presidency promising not just to end the war in Iraq, but to end the “mindset” that got the United States into that war, he has, with his Libyan intervention, extended the notion of preventive war to encompass “preventive humanitarian intervention”.

Second, Hillary argues that Americans have yet to confront the myth, promulgated by the Bush Administration and embraced by virtually all of America’s political class, that al-Qa’ida attacked the United States because they “hate our values”, because Americans allow women to drive and proclaim religious toleration.  But, Hillary points out, the record on this issue is clear:  al-Qa’ida did not and does not care what Americans do in their “infidel homeland”; it cares about “what we were doing over there”, in the Middle East and the Muslim world more broadly.  She notes that the impact of American foreign policy in “fomenting, generating, recruiting terrorists overseas” (a question that then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld himself posed, asking in a leaked Pentagon memo whether the United States was creating more terrorists than it was capturing and killing) “was never answered by the Bush White House, and is still not being answered by the Obama Administration today”.

Third, there is still a “fundamental state of denial, not just among Republicans and Democrats when they are in office, but among the American foreign policy elite”, about what most people in the Muslim world and much of “what we used to call the Third World” really want.  Hillary argues that what countries in the Muslim world and the global South really seem to want is “independence”, and part of that is “an independent foreign policy, something that adheres to the culture, values, beliefs, and concerns of their citizens”.   But American foreign policy elites are still not prepared to acknowledge this.  They continue believing that, “given the choice, people will not choose to be independent.  They will choose to be secular, first and foremost, and pro-American”, even if this means signing up “for a U.S. policy of rendering their own citizens to places to be tortured, even if it means working with the Israelis to keep a civilian population under siege in Gaza, we still somehow think that people will choose to do that”.  She explains how, for example, this belief is an important factor driving current U.S. policy toward Syria.

Finally, she notes how “countries like Iran, with an independent foreign policy”, are “going to be able to work with [these newly independent states in the Middle East] more effectively than the United States”.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

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WHY THE MYTH OF IRAN’S “STOLEN” ELECTION STILL MATTERS

(The cartoon above was typical of the misleading coverage of Iran’s 2009 election. In fact, ballots in Iranian elections are neither physically transported to nor counted at the Interior Ministry in Tehran. Ballots are counted in each polling station, by election officials and candidate observers. The counts are transmitted physically and electronically to the Ministry which aggregates national results. It is the electronic transmission of counts from polling stations that allowed the Ministry to announce results as they came in from the field after polls closed on June 12, 2009. It was compelled to do this by Mir Hossein Mousavi’s public claim he had been informed by the Ministry that he had won—a statement made while polls were still open, Iranians were still voting and not a single ballot had been counted.)

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The Arab awakening has revived Western speculation about “what could have been” in the Islamic Republic of Iran if only the United States had provided more tangible support for Mir Hussein Mousavi and the Green Movement in the wake of Iran’s June 12, 2009 presidential election.  Central to that speculation is an account of Iran’s election as one of the great frauds in modern political history.  This account has been promulgated by agenda-driven Iran “experts” in the West, expatriate Iranians with an animus against the Islamic Republic, and major media outlets. Some of us have gone to considerable lengths to point out that the narrative does not have a single piece of hard evidence supporting it.  But the myth of Iran’s “stolen” election maintains its hold over a significant percentage of American and other Western elites. 

Now, the myth’s champions are claiming that their preferred narrative has gotten a new lease on life with the release, via Wikileaks, of Dubai 0249, a cable from the State Department’s “Iran Regional Presence Office (IRPO)” dated June 15, 2009 (three days after the election) and classified SECRET NOFORN (meaning it was considered so sensitive that it should not be shared with foreign governments).  In this cable, which appears over the name of IRPO’s director, America’s Dubai-based Iran watchers opine that “the allegations of widespread fraud [about the Iranian election] have merit”.  This has been heralded by Foreign Policy as “conclusive evidence” that “the Green Movement was right:  Iran’s election was fraudulent”; it has been similarly feted by other pro-Green partisans in the West as providing “sharp, valuable insight into the assessments of America’s best-trained observers of Iran”.   

But the cable does nothing of the sort.  In fact, reading it makes one wonder whether “America’s best-trained observers of Iran” are even minimally competent in basic statistics or their knowledge of the Islamic Republic’s political history. 

The cable starts off with the bold assertion that “the numbers released by the Ministry of Interior, for all four candidates, contravene known voting patterns in Iran’s recent history”.  Really?  What patterns are those?  The State Department’s top Iran-watchers identify three; all, as stated in the cable, are either factually incorrect or grossly misconstrued. 

First, the cable misleadingly compares the 2009 election results with those from the 2005 presidential election.  More specifically, the cable emphasizes the first round of the 2005 election, when former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and then-Tehran mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad outpolled five other candidates to move into a runoff, over Ahmadinejad’s landslide second-round run-off victory over Rafsanjani.  The cable’s authors posit that “Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005, primarily on the back of a strong rural turnout and a significant popular backlash to his principal opponent” [Rafsanjani].  Fair enough, as a description of the second round.  But the authors then claim that only the roughly 20 percent of the vote that Ahmadinejad won in the first round in 2005 should be considered as “his base of support”; from this premise, for the 2009 results to be plausible requires “that Ahmadinejad’s base roughly quadrupled”.     

This analysis is structurally flawed, to a point of outright incompetence.  Viewed through the prism of the first round in 2005, Ahmadinejad’s 2009 tally is bound to seem grossly inflated.  But relying on that comparison is tantamount to arguing that, because Barack Obama won just 38 percent of the vote in a competitive, multicandidate caucus in Iowa in January 2008, he could not possibly have won 54 percent of the state’s vote in the two-man general election against John McCain 10 months later.  Methodologically-sound polls conducted by both Western and Iranian polling organizations make clear that, from the outset, Iran’s 2009 presidential election was effectively a two-man contest, between the incumbent Ahmadinejad and former Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi.  The much more appropriate and informative point of comparison for the 2009 outcome is with the second round in 2005; putting those two sets of results side by side, one sees that Ahmadinejad’s share of the vote in 2009 (62.5 percent) is virtually identical to the share he took in his 2005 landslide victory over Rafsanjani (61.7 percent).  

Second, America’s Dubai-based Iran watchers claim that the 2009 results departed implausibly from various ethnic groups’ previous voting behavior.  They deem it incredible that, while the ethnically Lori former parliament speaker Mehdi Karroubi “gained 10 percent of the vote in 2005 and swept his home province of Lorestan”, in 2009 “he captured less than one percent of the vote nationwide and just 4 percent in Lorestan”. 

But, as noted, the 2009 race was, in contrast to the first round in 2005, effectively a two-man contest.  In particular, the relevant methodologically-sound polling data showed Karroubi’s support in low single digits throughout the campaign, up until the eve of election day.  Just as, on a nationwide basis, many Iranians decided in 2009 not to “waste” their votes on a candidate they did not believe could win, a significant portion of Iran’s Lori community made the same calculation.  A painstakingly thorough analysis of the official results shows that Karroubi, in fact, benefited from an ethnic “bump”, doing five times better in Lorestan than nationally (nearly 25 times better in his native district of Aligodarz).  The bump, though, was not enough to offset diminished support for his candidacy from voters judging that he was going to lose. 

There is also no historical basis to assume that Lori voters “defecting” from Karroubi would automatically turn to Mousavi.  Lorestan is one of Iran’s more deeply traditional and socially conservative provinces; a majority of its voters supported the conservative Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri in the 1997 presidential election, bucking a strong national trend for the reformist Mohammad Khatami. 

Similarly, America’s Dubai-based Iran watchers are incredulous that, in Iran’s three Azeri-majority provinces, the ethnically-Azeri Mousavi “lost two to Ahmadinejad and barely won a third; historically even minor presidential candidates with an Azerbaijani background win these provinces.  It is worth noting that Mousavi lost his home province, East Azerbaijan, despite his candidacy’s significant resonance amongst his fellow Azeri Iranians.”

The level of factual inaccuracy and unsubstantiated analysis reflected in the quoted passage is impressive.  In fact, there is no clear history of Azeris voting on ethnic lines in Iranian presidential elections.  There have been relatively few candidates of Azeri origin, and they have not always fared well among their ethnic kinsmen (e.g., Mohsen Mehralizadeh only carried 29 percent of the Azeri vote in 2005).  The Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, is half Azeri; there is no reason to think that Azeris were looking to cast ballots against “the system”.  (By contrast, this was almost certainly a key factor driving electoral behavior in Sistan-Balochistan, Iran’s only Sunni-majority province, where Mousavi carried a majority of the vote.)  Like Karroubi in Lorestan, Mousavi did better in Azeri-majority areas than nationally, but not enough to offset weak performance elsewhere. 

One wonders on what the assertion that Mousavi’s candidacy had “significant resonance amongst his fellow Azeri Iranians” was based.  We can be sure it was not based on the authors of Dubai 0249 having spent time on the ground in Iran’s Azeri-majority areas taking the pulse of local populations.  We can also determine that it was not based on methodologically-sound polling data, which showed basically what the official results showed:  Mousavi got a bump among ethnic Azeris, but not enough to give him huge super-majorities among Azeri voters. 

Against the Iran watchers’ bald and unsubstantiated assertion, it is important to note that Ahmadinejad had real sources of strength in Azeri-majority areas.  Before entering electoral politics, Ahmadinejad had been a district governor in East Azerbaijan and a populist governor general in Ardabil.  In the second round of the 2005 presidential election, against Rafsanjani, Ahmadinejad won substantial majorities of the votes cast in all three Azeri-majority provinces.  In 2009, his margin of victory in Ardabil and East Azerbaijan was smaller than in 2005, and he narrowly lost in West Azerbaijan (where his percentage of the vote was roughly 47 percent).  The notion that Mousavi was assured of victory in all three Azeri-majority provinces was never more than an assumption; it was certainly never grounded in either history or current reality.   

Third, the authors of the cable claim that, given the spike in turnout for the 2009 election, to have won, Ahmadinejad would have to have “captured a significant share of the urban vote and the silent majority—the exact people who stayed home in the past few elections rather than vote for Ahmadinejad or his political allies”.  One cannot be sure what the authors mean by “significant share of the urban vote”.  The official results show that Mousavi, in fact, won the majority of votes in the city of Tehran, far and away Iran’s biggest city (though the results also show he narrowly lost Tehran province, which encompasses less prosperous and more conservative areas outside Tehran’s city limits).  But Ahmadinejad did not have to sweep the urban vote to be re-elected.  He had to maintain the same coalition of the religiously devout, the less prosperous, and those living in smaller cities and rural areas that drove his decisive victory over Rafsanjani in 2005.  The official results show that he was able to do this in 2009, against an opponent who was portrayed, and may actually have been seen in many quarters as representing a moneyed and corrupt north Tehran elite resented by much of the rest of society. 

It was not just reformist city dwellers who came to the polling stations in record numbers in 2009; turnout was up in much of the country.  And it would be fallacious to assume that those who came for the first time (or came back) to polling stations voted uniformly for Mousavi.  If one spends time in Iran, it is not hard to find people (even in Tehran) who voted for Khatami in 1997 and/or 2001 but, by 2009, opted for Ahmadinejad; the best polling data available suggest that Ahmadinejad may even have carried a majority of women’s votes. 

The authors of Dubai 0249 point to the “2007 municipal elections”, when an Ahmadinejad-supported slate of candidates failed to win control of the Tehran city council, as “a snapshot of Ahmadinejad’s urban support”.  This, too, is a grossly misleading piece of pseudo-analysis. 

The municipal elections (which were actually conducted in 2006) indicate next to nothing about Ahmadinejad’s standing as a national candidate in 2009.  Rather, they speak to the tensions generated among high-level players on the conservative side of Iranian politics during Ahmadinejad’s first presidential term, including his successor as Tehran’s mayor, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, and the current parliament speaker, Ali Larijani.  In 2006, Ahmadinejad’s slate did not lose to reformists.  They lost to another principlist slate, linked to Qalibaf.  In 2009, though, neither Larijani nor Qalibaf opted to challenge Ahmadinejad’s re-election; the incumbent went into the campaign with essentially undiluted principlist support. 

Overall, Dubai 0249 presents the same set of flawed assumptions, factual inaccuracies, and agenda-driven analysis that characterized other Western assessments of the 2009 election.  Like these other sources of misunderstanding, Dubai 0249 does not contain any actual evidence of electoral fraud. 

On this point, it is useful to recall the following empirically-grounded, incontrovertible facts:  Following the election (actually he started the day before), Mousavi advanced a wide array of allegations about the electoral process which, he claimed, had produced a fraudulent result.  But Mousavi never documented a single one of these allegations. 

He never identified a single one of his registered observers who had been turned away from a polling station (as he claimed “many” of them had been) or not allowed to witness the placing of ballot boxes to certify that they were empty before voting started (as he claimed had happened at “most” polling stations).  Contrary to widespread Western misconceptions, ballots were counted at polling stations, not in Tehran; in 2009, for the first time, the Interior Ministry published the results from all 45,696 polling stations online.  Mousavi never identified a single polling station for which the vote totals published by the Interior Ministry differed from the results attested by his observers on official forms (copies of which were kept by all observers).        

Mousavi’s allegations implied at least two alternative theories of how electoral fraud had been perpetrated: either massive numbers of fraudulent ballots had been placed in ballot boxes (before the boxes’ placement in polling stations and/or when they were allegedly not being properly observed), or the real votes were never counted but replaced by “pre-cooked” results manufactured at the Interior Ministry in Tehran.  If Mousavi’s real aim had been to demonstrate, with actual evidence, whatever evidence he had would have led him to emphasize one theory or the other. 

But Mousavi never had any evidence to substantiate either of his theories.  And, one suspects, his game plan all along was to throw out multiple accusations to discredit the election in public perceptions and marshal sufficient public pressure on Khamenei and the Guardian Council to compel them to annul the results and hold a new election, in a manner that would discredit Ahmadinejad.   That is why Mousavi started alleging fraud even before the polls opened.  And, contrary to Dubai 0249, it was Mousavi, not Ahmadinejad, who first declared victory on election day, while polls were still open, Iranians were still voting, and not a single ballot had actually been counted.  If anyone was out to steal the election, it was Mousavi, not Ahmadinejad.    

Mousavi failed in this enterprise.  But he seems to have made a lasting impression on the thinking of those Westerners who are perpetually on the look-out for a Yeltsin-like figure who will catalyze the Islamic Republic’s transformation into a pro-Western, Israel-friendly secular democracy.  Continued attachment to the myth of the stolen 2009 election matters, because it continues to keep the United States from coming to terms with the Islamic Republic as it is, not as so many Westerners fantasize it might be.

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

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IRAN AND SYRIA: AMERICA’S MIDDLE EAST PUNDITS GET IT WRONG (AGAIN)

Photo from Reuters / ISNA

** Please note that this piece has been posted on CNN’s Global Public Square, where comments can be made directly on that site, at this link: http://globalpublicsquare.blogs.cnn.com/2011/09/01/iran-and-syria-americas-middle-east-pundits-get-it-wrong-again/ **

For over 30 years, America’s Iran “experts” and Middle East pundits have characterized virtually every significant regional and internal Iranian development as a sure-to-be-fatal blow to the Islamic Republic. Their predictions have always been wrong.  Now, unrest in Syria has brought out the usual suspects to forecast, once again, gloom and doom for Iran’s current political order

Just within the last couple of days, the proposition that the Assad government’s implosion is going to deal a major blow to the Islamic Republic’s regional position and, perhaps, even its internal stability, has been advanced by Vali Nasr, see here, Karim Sadjadpour, see here, and Bilal Saab, see here.  Michael O’Hanlon (who extolled the Bush Administration’s invasion of Iraq as a model campaign that would be studied in military staff colleges for years to come) and Elliot Abrams have even laid out a set of military options for the United States and its allies to consider applying in Syria to hasten such an outcome, see here and here.  This proposition has also driven Western media outlets’ wholesale misreading of the Eid al-Fitr sermon yesterday by the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, which was inaccurately characterized as “reflecting the Iranian leadership’s deep unease with the uprisings that have swept the region”; see here and here.   

Given their track record of failed predictions and all that is at stake, for the United States and the people of the region, these individuals’ current policy recommendations ought to elicit very tough and skeptical scrutiny.  Two points stand out as especially important.    

First of all, it is far from clear that the Assad government is actually imploding.  It is obvious that a portion of Syria’s population is aggrieved and disaffected, but it is not evident at all that this portion represents a majority.  President Bashar al-Assad still retains the backing of key segments of Syrian society.  Moreover, no one has identified a plausible scenario by which the “opposition”, however defined, can actually seize power

We have been through this sort of situation before.  In 2005, in the wake of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri’s assassination, most Western commentators confidently opined that President Assad was finished.  Instead, he not only survived, but came through the episode with greater authority domestically and having reasserted Syria’s unavoidably central role in Middle Eastern politics and diplomacy.  In light of this history, assumptions that Assad cannot survive are, to say the least, premature.  This is yet another example of something so utterly characteristic of the way in which Western analysts approach Middle Eastern issues, especially those touching on the Islamic Republic and its interests—analysis by wishful thinking.         

Second, while most Iranian policymakers and foreign policy elites would almost certainly prefer to see Assad remain in office, it is wrong to assume that Tehran has no options or is even a net “loser” if the current Syrian government is replacedA post-Assad government, if it is even minimally representative of its people, is going to pursue an independent foreign policy.  It will not be enamored of the prospect of strategic cooperation with the United States, and may be less inclined than the Assad regime (under both Bashar and his father, the late Hafiz al-Assad) to keep Syria’s southern border with Israel “stable”.  Tehran can work with that.   

Moreover, a minimally representative post-Assad government would probably entail a significant role for the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which has had extensive interaction with Islamist supporters of participatory politics in Turkey and other places in the Muslim world.  Syria’s Muslim Brothers take issue with the Assad government’s internal policies, not its foreign policies, especially toward Israel and the United States.  Just as the ikhwan in post-Mubarak Egypt has made clear its interest in seeing closer Egyptian-Iranian ties, the Syrian Brothers are likely to take a similar approach in a post-Assad environment.     

There are two scenarios for a post-Assad Syria which would be genuinely bad for Iranian interests.  One would be the installation of an intensely salafi, Taliban-like regime with extensive Saudi support.  But such a government would not be at all reflective of Syrian society, or even most of its Sunni community.  For that reason alone, this scenario seems unlikely absent extraordinary levels of external support for that part of the Syrian opposition which—contrary to Westerners’ derisive dismissal of official Syrian claims—consists of violent salafi extremists, see here.  

The other negative-for-Iran scenario would be the installation of U.S.-supported expatriates as Syria’s new government.  This, too, would be grossly unrepresentative of Syria’s population.  It also would almost certainly require a U.S.-led invasion of the country to effect—something that those opposition voices in Syria which have spoken to the subject have uniformly said they do not want.  Moreover, the U.S. experience in Iraq raises doubts as to whether even an invasion in force, followed by prolonged, multi-year occupation, can ultimately succeed in installing a puppet regime in today’s Middle East.  None of the Iraqi expatriates that the United States backed so handsomely—e.g., Ahmad Chalabi and Iyad Allawi—has been able to retain, by winning elections, the power initially handed to them by Paul Bremer and the U.S. military.  There is no reason to think it would be easier for America and its European and regional partners to achieve this in Syria. 

One should also question the facile assumption of many American Iran “experts” that Tehran’s regional influence would be fatally damaged by the Assad government’s replacement.  Part of that assumption reflects a superficial assessment that Iran is desperately dependent on Syria to supply Hezbollah in Lebanon.  Did those who make this assumption notice that one of the first significant policy decisions by post-Mubarak Egypt was to open the Suez Canal to Iranian military vessels?   Moreover, did they notice that Hezbollah today effectively controls all of the main air and sea transit points into Lebanon?   

It has become part of Western conventional wisdom that the Islamic Republic was all in favor of the Arab awakening until it got to Syria.  While Ayatollah Khamenei and other Iranian officials have been quite explicit in explaining why, in their view, Syria is different from Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Yemen, and even Libya, this does not mean that they do not still believe the Arab awakening continues to be, on balance, an enormous boon to the Islamic Republic’s strategic position.  Just yesterday, Khamenei described “the events taking place in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Libya, Bahrain, and certain other countries” as “decisive and destiny making for the Muslim nations.”

Khamenei warned against letting “the imperialist and hegemonic powers and Zionism, including the U.S. tyrannical and despotic regime” use “the ongoing conditions in their own favor.”  But, with an independent Egypt likely to develop closer ties to Iran, post-Saddam Iraq increasingly committed to strategic cooperation with Tehran, and Saudi Arabia pursuing an ever more overtly “counter-revolutionary” course, the region is not looking so bad from an Iranian vantage.  More likely than not, President Assad is going to stay around for a while in Damascus; even if he were to go, Iran will be able to deal with the kind of government most likely to follow him.

The United States needs to give up quixotic illusions of “containing” Iran or making the Islamic Republic disappear.  Washington needs, instead, to recognize the Islamic Republic’s importance in the regional balance and come to terms with it.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

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