It is hard to do serious political analysis of a contested political environment when one is, in effect, “rooting” for one of the contestants. In 1979, much of the public commentary in the United States about the Iranian revolution that overthrew the Shah was characterized by disbelief that a stalwart American ally could be swept away so quickly and unexpectedly. Today, much American commentary on Iranian domestic politics is characterized by varying degrees of eagerness to see the Islamic Republic go the way of the Pahlavi dynasty—or, in a formulation that some neoconservatives prefer, the way of the Soviet Union.
Although this blog is focused on Iran and its geopolitics, not on the Islamic Republic’s internal politics, analytic views of Iranian politics since the June 12 presidential election have important implications for the debate about U.S. and Western policy toward Tehran. A growing number of analysts are arguing that there is now, in effect, a domestic “race for Iran”, pitting Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s administration against an increasingly emboldened “opposition” and a deeply disenchanted public. Under these circumstances, it is argued, the United States and its partners should not now engage with the Iranian government, lest they “legitimate” a regime that is falling apart. Some go even further, arguing that active encouragement of “regime change” in Iran should now take precedence over diplomatic efforts to deal with the nuclear issue.
Flynt Leverett will appear on C-Span’s Washington Journal on Sunday, January 3, from 7:30-8:00 am to discuss recent developments in Iran. We will also be publishing our assessment of internal Iranian developments and their implications for U.S. foreign policy in greater detail next week.
At this point, we would note that much of the current discussion of Iranian affairs in the United States is disturbingly reminiscent of the shift in America’s Iraq policy, starting during President Bill Clinton’s tenure, to embrace regime change in Baghdad as Washington’s explicit and overriding goal. The futile pursuit of regime change in Iraq—which did not occur until a full-scale U.S. invasion in 2003—inflicted substantial damage on America’s strategic position in the Middle East. That damage was compounded by the invasion and occupation of Iraq and the myriad strategic consequences of those events for the regional strategic environment. The damage that would be done to U.S. interests in the Middle East and globally by failing to pursue serious, strategically-grounded engagement with the Islamic Republic, carrying out military strikes against Iranian nuclear targets, and enshrining regime change as the primary goal of America’s Iran policy would be even worse.
In an op-ed published in today’s Washington Post, Ray Takeyh offers a paradigmatic example of what is becoming conventional wisdom about Iranian politics among American foreign policy elites. Ray compares the Islamic Republic today to both the Shah’s regime and the Soviet Union in their final days. Strikingly, he argues that “the regime’s most momentous and disastrous decision was its refusal to offer any compromises to an angered nation” after the June 12 presidential election. In Ray’s view, relatively modest steps at that time would have assuaged popular resentment, but now “such concessions would be seen as a sign of weakness and would embolden the opposition. The regime no longer has a political path out of its predicament.”
This is factually incorrect. A week after the June 12 election, protests diminished to a small fraction of what they had been. The Iranian leadership took several important steps in the wake of the election, including replacing the unpopular Seyed Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi as head of the judiciary with Sadeq Larijani (brother of the Parliament Speaker) and the closing of Kahrizak prison, where abuse of detainees was clearly documented (earlier this month, 12 officers at Kahrizak were criminally charged over their involvement in the deaths of prisoners). These and other actions in fact worked to mitigate the political controversy generated by the June 12 election and, by October, Iran had the United States and the rest of the P-5+1 at the negotiating table.
Over the past weekend, protests flared again—largely because of the coincidence of the seven-day mourning observance for the late Grand Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri with the Shi’a holy day of Ashura. But, the protests have not been sustained and, yesterday, crowds at least as large as those on Ashura mobilized in Tehran to show support for the Islamic Republic.
Protests may flare again in Iran in coming months. But, drawing analogies between the Islamic Republic today and the Shah’s regime in 1978 or the Soviet Union in 1990 is profoundly misplaced. As we will argue next week, if one wants to draw an analogy between the Islamic Republic and another important country whose political order is grounded in a particular ideology and experiences periodic political conflict, a better analogue—and one much more useful as a guide for American policy—would be the People’s Republic of China. Tiananmen Square—where far more protestors were killed than have died in Iran since June 12—did not portend the collapse of the People’s Republic. It would have been foolhardy in the extreme for U.S. policymakers to act as if that were the case. Why are so many who should know better arguing that this weekend’s protests in Iran portend the demise of the Islamic Republic?
The inability of American diplomats, intelligence officers, and policymakers to understand what was happening in Iran in the late 1970s was one of the most colossal analytic failures in U.S. foreign policy since World War II, and did real damage to U.S. interests in the Middle East. It would be equally tragic if wishful thinking and a rush to judgment about Iranian politics diverted President Obama and his national security and foreign policy advisers from advancing U.S. interests in the region at a critical time through the pursuit of serious, strategically-grounded engagement with the Islamic Republic.
Best wishes to our readers for a Happy New Year.
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett