Monday, September 28, 2009

From Power to Chaos — Tracking Iran's Four-Month Slide

Sept 28, 2009
By Robin Wright

What a difference a few months can make.

In early June, Iran was at the apex of its power on the world stage. Aid to insurgents in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon had helped convert Tehran into a regional superpower rivaled only by Israel. At home, hard-liners led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had consolidated control of parliament, the judiciary and the military and marginalized reform parties.

This week, however, Iran heads into talks in Geneva with the U.S. and five other world powers more vulnerable at home and abroad than at any time since the revolution's chaotic early days. Despite defiant talk and a weekend display of military force, the world's only theocracy begins its most important diplomatic engagement in three decades in real trouble. (See international protests of Iran's election.)

Over the past four months, the Islamic Republic has faced two game changers. First, the June 12 presidential election spawned a vibrant new opposition movement, a political schism among the theocrats and popular protests that deeply undermined the hard-line regime's legitimacy among its constituents. Second, the gotcha revelation on Sept. 25 about a secret nuclear plant put Tehran on the defensive with both its enemies and allies — and undermined Ahmadinejad's U.N. media blitz, which had been designed to boost his post-election image. (See the top 10 Ahmadinejad-isms.)

Now those challenges are converging, tightening the squeeze on the regime. Over the weekend, Iran's new opposition chose sides in the nuclear debate — and sided with the world. "The Iranian Green Movement does not want a nuclear bomb, but instead desires peace for the world and democracy for Iran," said a statement issued by filmmaker and opposition spokesman Mohsen Makhmalbouf. "The Green Movement in Iran furthermore understands the world's concerns and in fact has similar concerns itself."

That's a first. In the past, Iranians rallied around even unpopular governments when confronted by the outside world. Iraq's 1980 invasion of Iran helped a young revolution already running out of steam consolidate its hold on power and survive eight years of the Middle East's deadliest modern conflict. Tehran's quest for nuclear energy, widely embraced as a key to development in the 21st century, has also long been a potent unifier of Iran's disparate political factions. Persian national pride has been a powerful force for millennia.

But the revelation of a hidden nuclear facility near the holy city of Qum that is run by Iran's √©lite Revolutionary Guards — and the threat of more sanctions if Tehran does not cooperate with the new U.S.-sponsored diplomatic initiative — appear to have deepened the political fissures rather than led Iranians to close ranks.

The critical unknown is whether the escalating pressures will lead the theocracy to compromise or make it even more obstinate once it reaches the negotiating table.

The regime's response on Sunday was to flex its military muscle. To shouts of "Allahu akbar," the Revolutionary Guards test-fired short-range missiles to demonstrate that Iran has the necessary arsenal to defend itself. "We are going to respond to any military action in a crushing manner, and it doesn't make any difference which country or regime has launched the aggression," said General Hossein Salami, head of the Revolutionary Guard Air Force, according to Iran's state media. The tests were successful, with the short-range missiles hitting their targets, he said. (Read "Iran Standoff: Is a Nuclear-Free Middle East a Pipe Dream?")

Further tests of longer-range missiles are expected in the days running up to the historic meeting between American, French, British, Russian, Chinese and German diplomats and their Iranian counterparts.

Thumbing its nose at the world may not help, since even the skeptical Russians suggested last week that further sanctions may be in order if Iran does not come clean about the secret facility and other older questions about Tehran's nuclear program. "The Iranians are in a very bad spot now because of this deception, in terms of all of the great powers," Defense Secretary Robert Gates told ABC News on Sunday.

Just how bad will be determined after talks begin on Oct. 1 in Geneva's historic Hotel de Ville. "If we don't get the answers that we are expecting and the changes in behavior that we are looking for, then we will work with our partners to move for sanctions," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told CBS on Sunday. "The burden has now shifted ... They have to come to this meeting on Oct. 1 and present convincing evidence as to the purpose of their nuclear program. We don't believe that they can present convincing evidence that it's only for peaceful purposes. But we are going to put them to the test."

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Rethinking our Iran strategy: The Islamic Republic's revolution may be at a crossroads. It's a possible opening for the U.S.

Los Angeles Times

By Robin Wright and Robert Litwak

September 13, 2009

Three decades of assumptions about Iran -- including the premises behind Washington's recent outreach to Tehran -- have been transformed by its stunning uprising. It's time for a policy rethink.

The Obama administration's offer to engage was the right idea. But the theocracy's brutal crackdown on the opposition since the June 12 presidential election, followed by the purge of senior politicians in show trials and an alarming increase in general executions, marks a turning point for
Iran's revolution. U.S. policy now needs a broader approach. Recent history offers relevant guidelines.

The three most important revolutions of the 20th century -- for their political innovation and impact -- happened in the
Soviet Union, China and Iran. At the peak of revolutionary paranoia, the Soviet Union and China witnessed turmoil similar to what is happening today in Iran. Soon afterward, however, Moscow and Beijing altered course. Both began the move from defiant revolutionary regime to a normal state willing to work within the international order and mended relations with the United States.

The shift in both the Soviet Union and China was partly tied to the maturation of revolutions, as Crane Brinton outlined in "The Anatomy of Revolution," which leads to the final stage of "convalescence" that plays out over years, even decades. The Islamic Republic is on the same trajectory. Its current uprising pits those trying to transform
Iran into a normal state against unrelenting revolutionaries. The men and women now on trial have made the transition, in varying degrees, in their political thinking.

In their civil disobedience since June, millions of Iranians also have indicated that they're ready for normalcy. The
U.S. should now factor them into policy.

The pattern of revolutions suggests, however, that a catalyst is required to trigger the critical transition. The spark has traditionally been one of three factors: a geo-strategic challenge, economic necessity or political exigency. In other words, a revolution needing to convert an enemy into an ally to survive.

In the
Soviet Union, Josef Stalin launched show trials of Communist Party officials from 1936 to 1938, when vast numbers were dispatched to gulags or executed. Yet pressure from the Nazi threat combined with the costs of war spawned a U.S.-Soviet alliance and Stalin's meeting with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Stalin was succeeded by Nikita Khrushchev, who started de-Stalinization. The revolution's later undoing began after Mikhail Gorbachev concluded that the Soviet system of political control was no longer viable in the information-based global economy and that basic changes were essential to survive.

In the 1960s,
China had all the trappings of a rogue state. It defied the international order. It detonated an atomic bomb in 1964. And in 1966, it launched the Cultural Revolution, a period of chaotic political and social upheaval when Mao Tse-tung ruthlessly purged alleged "bourgeois liberals" in the Communist Party. Yet in 1969, the collapse of the Sino-Soviet alliance followed by troop buildups along their mutual border led Mao to consider the realpolitik of normalizing relations with Washington. Henry Kissinger's secret 1971 trip led to President Nixon's historic visit in 1972.

Neither Stalin nor Mao became
America's friends. But those encounters -- under conditions of strategic need -- did pave the way for meaningful engagement.

Iran's three most specific overtures to the U.S. fit the same pattern. In 1986, at a desperate juncture in its war with Iraq, Tehran was willing to deal secretly with both the United States and Israel to acquire weaponry, namely TOW anti-tank missiles. Even after this arms-for-hostages swap was revealed, the regime still sent a secret emissary to the White House to probe further potential.

In the early 1990s, Iran offered the most lucrative petroleum deal in its history to Conoco, to develop offshore oil and gas fields to help pay for postwar reconstruction and modernization demanded by a war-weary population.

In 2001, after the
U.S. toppled Afghanistan's Taliban, Iran cooperated with Washington in crafting a new government. After the U.S. invasion toppled Iraq's Saddam Hussein in 2003, Tehran put out feelers, prodded partly by the Swiss, about resolving differences with Washington. Flanked by U.S. troops on key borders, Tehran wanted to ensure it was not next.

U.S. administrations did not exploit opportunities when Iran needed to play and reached out. The challenge now is to create a confluence of factors that will make Tehran again feel that a real deal with Washington is in its interest. Then engagement has a real shot.

Under the current circumstances, it doesn't.

Diplomacy centered primarily on
Iran's nuclear program is unlikely to work. The regime as well as many protesters view pressure to end uranium enrichment -- a process to provide fuel for peaceful nuclear energy that can be subverted to develop a nuclear weapon -- as a challenge to Iran's sovereignty and a denial of its economic development. Under the current circumstances, the regime is more likely to engage in a process -- largely to get the world off its back -- that would not produce enduring substance or real resolution.

And if that diplomatic tactic doesn't work, simply slapping on more international sanctions (given stonewalling by
Russia and China on anything tough) also seems unlikely to alone squeeze Iran into cooperation.

Yet a military strike is also likely to backfire, instead rallying Persian nationalism around the regime, just as Saddam Hussein's 1980 invasion mobilized support for the revolution at a time it was running out of steam.

The Obama administration would be well-advised to step back and recalculate what conditions would lead
Iran to feel that the benefits of beginning the transition to a normal state outweigh the costs of sticking to the revolutionary zealotry increasingly rejected by its own people.

Robin Wright, author of "Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the
Middle East," has covered Iran since 1973. Robert Litwak is the former director for nonproliferation at the National Security Council. Both are at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.