Sunday, June 14, 2009

Should the US Ditch Diplomacy If Ahmadinejad's Power Grab Succeeds?

The violent suppression by the Iranian regime of democratic protests by supporters of the rightful winner of the Iranian election--Moussavi--is heart-rending. We must hope that the reformers will succeed in removing Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini, or pressuring him to reverse course, and conduct a truly free and fair election, which, by all indications, Moussavi would win. But, as New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof observed today, "at the end of the day, as I saw at Tianenmen 20 years ago, when Might and Right do battle, it's often prudent to bet on Might, at least in the short run"--at least in countries like Iran and China.

If, as is likely, Ayatollah Khameini and President Ahmadinejad succeed in violently suppressing the widespread protests, the US must act on the basis of our national security interests, which include a realistic assessment of what is best for our Middle East allies Israel and the Sunni Arab states including Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates, and not least the need for stablizing Iraq and Afghanistan and strengthening their governments. We must attempt to bargain with the Iranian regime to see if there is a basis for new arrangements which would defuse the grave threat of nuclear weapons proliferation, terrorism and war that we and our allies currently face.

Already voices on the right who never supported direct, comprehensive and unconditional US diplomacy with Iran in the first place--Netanyahu government hawks and their neo- and paleoconservative counterparts in the US--are using Iran's internal coup as a pretext for blocking the negotiations before they start. “In Israel, which has hinted that it might launch a military strike on Iran to disable its nuclear capability, officials said Mr. Ahmadinejad’s victory underscored the threat from Tehran and the need for a tough response rather than patient diplomacy. Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom said in Tel Aviv that the victory [of Ahmadinejad] ‘sends a clear message to the world’ that Iran’s policies have broad internal support and will be continued. The results, he added, also ‘blow up in the faces of those’ who thought Iran was ready for ‘a genuine dialogue with the free world on stopping its nuclear program.’" (U.S. Officials to Continue to Engage Iran, N.Y. Times, 6/14/09 )

But Shalom's inference is groundless; the "victory" of Ahmadinejad shows nothing about whether Ayatollah Khameini or Ahmadinejad are interested in better relations with the US or in negotiating a new system of safeguards which would assure us that Iran was not weaponizing enriched uranium. "'It would be nice to have an environment without the kind of vitriol we see from Ahmadinejad,' a senior administration official said. 'There clearly would be differences in tone between Ahmadinejad and Moussavi, but not necessarily in policy.'” (NYT, 6/14/09)

Moreover, were the regimes in China and the Soviet Union any less repressive than in contemporary Iran? Did we not reach detente with them--under Nixon and Reagan--and advance our own security interests? Did we not negotiate arms limitation agreements with the Soviets, whom Reagan had called "the evil empire"? "'We should be clear about what we’re dealing with,' said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 'Just as we deal with Assad’s Syria and Mubarak’s Egypt, we now have to deal with Khamenei’s Iran,' he said, referring to President Bashar al-Assad and President Hosni Mubarak." (NYT, 6/14/09)

Hawks in Congress and in Israel Will Now Try to Prevent or Encumber US-Iran Talks - The Case for Negotiations with Iran

To be sure, negotiations with Iran won’t be easy, as Iran expert Gary Sick, who worked on Iranian affairs for three administrations, reminds us in an interview with the Council on Foreign Relations yesterday: “But now after this internal coup and all the coverage it has received, those people in the United States and particularly in Israel who really opposed the idea of having negotiations with Iran - who favored a pressure strategy to build up more sanctions - are now going to use their clout in Congress and elsewhere to slow down or stop the process.

"So it's not that we can't talk to the Iranian government - obviously it's going to be harder to talk to an Ahmadinejad government after it's stolen the election - but the real problem is a domestic one. The administration is going to have to overcome a whole series of domestic hurdles which previously had been in abeyance.

"...The problem has been and remains preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. The fact is we've tried a pressure strategy for more than ten years going all the way back to the Clinton administration. Now after more than ten years of putting pressure on Iran they have far greater capacity than they had when we started. This has to tell us something about the policy. So the real question is what will work? What can you do that will actually have an effect? And the fact is that the only thing that's remaining for us to do is to actually talk to Iran about what we want, what they want, and look for common ground. It's not going to be easy. But it hasn't been tried, and the other things we've been doing haven't worked.

"People who say we haven't been tough enough with our sanctions are completely missing the point. Every time we've imposed sanctions, at whatever level, however stringent, Iran has upped its program, not reduced it. We need to be aware of that and think of what we can do. We probably will have to accept Iranian enrichment in one form or another. The trick is how do you monitor that and control it and get Iran's cooperation in insuring that the low-enriched uranium they are producing is not transformed into high-enriched uranium, and into nuclear weapons. That's the objective and that's still something we can talk about with Iran. They have an interest in finding some kind of agreement with the international community and we have a strong interest in getting them to back off and basically agree to a form of surveillance or monitoring that we've not had thus far."

From today's Boston Globe ("As Iran Roils, US Still Hopes for Talks"): "Trita Parsi, the president of the US-based Iranian-American Council, which calls itself the largest organization of Iranians living in the United States, said in a telephone interview yesterday that he was not surprised that the Obama administration is expressing a willingness to talk with Iranian leaders regardless of concerns about the election. 'The decision to negotiate with Iran has never been driven by any like or dislike of any particular candidate, but rather because it lies in the interests of the United States to get Iranian assistance in stabilizing Iraq and Afghanistan,' Parsi said. The rationale behind Obama's statement during his presidential campaign that he would make a diplomatic effort to improve relations with Iran still exists, Parsi said. As for the election results, Parsi said that while 'there is an overwhelming perception this was not a fair election,' it may never be known whether the results were rigged."

It also lies within our collective interests to fully explore whether an improvement in relations with Iran is possible which will allay Iran's well-founded fear of a US effort to change the regime by force or subversion, which in turn is the main motive, according to Israeli intelligence, impelling Iran to seek a nuclear weapon. If such a detente is possible--which can only be ascertained once the US fully pursues direct talks with representatives of Supreme Leader Khameini--a pragmatic rapprochement with Iran may enable us to offer political and economic incentives to end its opposition to an Israeli-Palestinian accommodation, leading to changes in Iran's approach to Hezbollah and Hamas which might benefit Israel.

F. Gregory Gause III blogging at Foreign Policy:

"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.

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