Monday, March 20, 2006

Iran: thinking politically 

I have not written much about Iran, partly because I feel ignorant about it. Iran is in many respects far more complex than Saddam's Iraq -- even considering the latter in retrospect -- both in its strategic challenge and in its internal politics. While no democracy, Iran is no longer a revolutionary government devoted to a cult of personality. There are various political factions in Iran with various motives, and their influence ebbs and flows. I, for one, do not even know how much power Iran's crackpot president actually wields, particularly in foreign policy.

With that backdrop, I therefore commend to you a very interesting article about Iran in today's Washington Post. This bit was especially illuminating:
Inside Iran, however, an appetite for rapprochement grew along with a population whose youthful majority had no memory of the revolution.

In 2002, a poll found that three-quarters of Iranians surveyed favored talks with the United States. The pollster was thrown in jail, but the reality drove a quiet competition between Iran's two rival political forces.

"Whoever could take the prize" of U.S. rapprochement would, it was widely believed, dominate Iranian politics for the foreseeable future, said Mehdi Karrubi, a moderate cleric who was speaker of the last parliament dominated by reformers.

The competition, however, had paralyzed the effort: Neither side would allow the other to reach out to the United States without risking accusations of betraying the Islamic revolution.

That changed last year, when conservative clerics edged reformists out of government, unifying Iran's elaborate ruling structure for the first time in nearly a decade. It also cleared the way for the opening to Washington, and even reformists urged the conservatives to act.

"This might be a historic irony, but it's true the state is in 'harmony,' " said Mostafa Tajzadeh, a prominent reformist theoretician, speaking before the announcement of the direct talks. "No time has been more convenient for talks between the two countries. We are less sensitive than at any time since the revolution."

A few conservatives quietly urged the same. Behind the scenes of Iran's conservative establishment, insiders whispered about the prospect of negotiations.

To some degree, the United States is lost in a mirrored version of the same political trap. Owing to the embassy seizure and other depredations, Iran is so unpopular in the United States that no American politician wants to appear accomodating, even though both the Clinton administration and the current president engaged in extensive back channel discussions with Tehran.

So, the Iranian public wants to deal with the United States, but rival factions in Iran have frustrated their will for fear of giving up political advantage. In the United States, both the hard-line Bushies and the more accomodating Clintonites believed that we needed to talk to Iran and were willing to do so in secret, but neither did so in public (until the very recent overtures regarding Iraq) for any number of reasons, including the fear that the party out of power would attack them for being soft on Tehran.1

1. I am somewhat overstating the dilemma to make the point. In fact, the Clinton administration, via Madeline Albright, did quite famously (and, frankly, correctly) "apologize" for past interference in Iran's internal politics, but got nothing but a cold shoulder in return. Why? Probably for the same domestic Iranian political considerations described in the linked article.


By Blogger sirius_sir, at Mon Mar 20, 10:21:00 AM:

I confess to having no great knowledge or insight concerning Iran either.

Having said that, I'll agree that we have much to regret concerning past interference in Iran. Most Americans probably don't remember, if they ever knew, that the CIA overthrew the democratic government of Dr. Mossadegh and instituted the Shah in 1953.

In contrast, the Iranians may have largely forgotten the embassy crisis but they're not likely to forget Mossadegh anytime soon.

The irony is that many (most?) Iranians wish to return to that earlier state of affairs when they had a freer and more democratic form of government.

But of course that's only half the irony. The other half is that a freer more democratic form of government is exactly what many (most?) Americans wish for them too.  

By Blogger Georg Felis, at Mon Mar 20, 10:24:00 AM:

Well, you’ve put your thumb right on the nub of the Iran problem. The majority of the country may want closer relations with the US, but the screaming loons of the Mullahs would cut loose with street demonstrations, protests, and riots (and arrests, and “unfortunate incidents while in custody” which we would call executions). And we dare not embrace any reformer over there, or it would mean their death and the destruction of any little bit of progress they may have made.

The best parallel I can think of would be Red China, where the youth of the country staged the Tiananmen square protest and the old men in power squelched it. A deep transformation of power is occurring in both countries as old ideologies fade and the world of the I-pod and internet make it difficult if not impossible to ignore the rest of the world. You might even say a similar transformation is happening in this country as the children of 60s radicals become Young Republicans.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon Mar 20, 11:53:00 AM:

I think the "root" problem with Iran's government is that it's a terrorist regime, in the sense that it regards terrorism as a standard arm of its foreign policy.

The Beirut embassy and barracks bombings, the hostage taking, Khobar Towers, the bombs they're shipping to kill our soldiers in Iraq, and so on, means that the government of Iran has been waging an undeclared war against Americans since its inception, and has shown no sign of letting up.

In a weird way, this is what gives rise to our greatest fears regarding Iran having nuclear weapons. Pakistan having nuclear weapons is primarily a disaster for fear they could fall into the hands of terrorists, who have infiltrated the Pakistani military to some degree. Iran having nuclear weapons is a far greater problem, since the terrorists are a legitimate and powerful branch of the power structure there.  

By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Mon Mar 20, 12:43:00 PM:

A worthwhile site.


By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon Mar 20, 01:42:00 PM:

I do not think the regime in Iran has become warm and cuddly, or even reasonable. They want Iraq, which once upon a time was part of the Persian Empire.  

By Blogger sirius_sir, at Mon Mar 20, 02:51:00 PM:

Another worthwhile site:  

By Blogger sirius_sir, at Mon Mar 20, 04:23:00 PM:


By Anonymous Anonymous, at Tue Mar 21, 02:43:00 AM:

The real problem here is that we are trying to reason and negotiate with a terrorist state, arguably THE terrorist state. I mean, does anyone really think that anything we do at the UN will result in Iran to dismantling its entire enrichment/weapons program? If so, I would like to hear their opinion.

I think the only chance we have of resolving this situation diplomatically is to jettison the indirect diplomat speak and be frank with Russians (The Chinese do not matter, they will not stand and veto on their own.). Let them know that if the SC cannot find a solution to this problem in a "reasonable amount of time", we will move, with the Israelis, to destroy Iran's nuclear program. Whatever happens after such a strike (Iran's response) could jeopardize any investment or interest they have in Iran. Make sure the Russians understand that we view any actions the Irainians might take in relataliation as favorable to a nuclear Iran.

Maybe this is what we are working up to, but in the end, it is what it will take if we want to have any hope of solving this problem without military action.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Tue Mar 21, 03:57:00 AM:

I think this is a major case of wishful thinking. Ahmadinejad won, with a fairly regular election (as it goes in Iran) based on the urban poor and rural supporters.

What theese guys want is total destruction of the West to preserve their traditional culture. Can't be chopping off heads and hands, stoning women to death, hanging gays or other noxious elements of traditional culture with an outreach to the West. Even more certain, continuing urbanization and female literacy ensures continuing erosion of Islamic culture.

It's worth noting that Asia Times "Spengler" has identified a coming demographic crash in Iran, which is trending towards near European birth rates 15 years out. Also worth noting, Iran's President has put forward a plan to basically move ALL of Iran's rural villagers to new urban centers, where the state would pay all expenses and control all areas of life.

Yes urban elites want rapprochement, and are about as representative of Iran's population as San Francisco and Berkeley are of the US.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Mar 22, 06:16:00 PM:

Iran supports nun-raping death squads in Central America, toppled democratically-elected regimes, tortures people, arrests its own citizens based on "secret evidence", has fixed elections, armed Saddam with chemical weapons and threatens to use nuclear weapons against even non-nuclear adversaries --- ooops! Wait, that's the US of A!

In fact the same people of Iran that according to the standard (and 10 year old) media theme are "pro-US" and would welcome a rapprochement with the US are also deeply nationalistic and proud of their own country and of their nuclear energy program, and do not want to be another US puppet again.  

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