Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Between Iran and a hard place

Guest post by Ali Ezzatyar and Bryan A. Tollin 

Ali Ezzatyar is a U.S.-trained corporate lawyer currently practising in Paris. He has taught courses in Political Economy in the International and Area Studies Department of the University of California at Berkeley and has previously published articles about Iran in the L.A. Times.

Bryan A. Tollin is a corporate lawyer currently practising in New York City. He has taught courses in Political Economy in the International and Area Studies Department and in Comparative Politics in the Political Science Department of the University of California at Berkeley.


The engagement crowd is sure feeling uneasy these days. President Obama's message of engagement with the Islamic Republic went over well with many Americans before his election. Recent events in Iran and a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan (and to a certain degree Iraq), though, have tried the patience of Obama supporters and emboldened the neocon crowd that advocates for more direct intervention. At this critical juncture, where relations with Iran are at a boil, it is imperative that engagement with Iran continue to be pursued.

After application of the Bush Doctrine (broadly interpreted as the right to wage preemptive war) failed in Iraq, there seemed to be general agreement about how the next American administration should approach the Middle East's biggest wild card. The process of integrating Iran into the global community with diplomacy and incentives was viewed as the best hope for substantive political change.

Much like Obama himself, however, many of the so-called "doves" in the U.S. foreign policy crowd now find themselves in a difficult policy predicament. While the Islamic Republic has always had fewer fans than naysayers, never before the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did the notion of its illegitimacy carve out such prominence in the psyche of America and the world.

The recent electoral fraud in Iran may have brought about a shift in the balance of power between engagement enthusiasts and isolation advocates. Reactionary measures such as further sanctions and even intervention have made their way back into the discussion. For the doves, general sentiment that they were doing the right thing by Iran's people in supporting Obama's policy has turned to doubt, and the notion that they may be undermining Iranians inside Iran who were against the Ahmadinejad government has set in. Consider recent chants by green crowds in Iran's capital that Obama is either "with us or against us."

Productive diplomatic strategy must take into account Iranian psyche and historical context: Iran already suffers from a highly contentious diplomatic history with the U.S. compounded by damaging U.S. sanctions that reach back decades.

The Iranian people have not forgotten America's involvement in the overthrow of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953, a democratically-elected nationalist who took back control of Iranian oil fields from the British Empire, nor the brutal regime that subsequently replaced him, again with U.S. support. And while Iran has had success in recent years adapting to U.S. sanctions, such sanctions have tended more to penalize the population than yield a turnabout in political behavior by the ruling class. There is no shortage of replacement customers in the global marketplace for Iranian crude -- the revenue for which flows directly to the state. Banning the import of Persian rugs and caviar, on the other hand, seems merely to put seamstresses and fishermen out of work. The dilemma of how to proceed, both for the U.S. government and for those in favor of engagement is a challenging one, but the fundamental calculation for America remains unaffected.

President Obama's preference for engagement was not and should not be premised on the popular legitimacy of the Iranian regime. The central consideration is a function of who yields power in Iran. American efforts to court the opposition and isolate the conservatives have failed time and again since the inception of the revolution, from Iran-Contra onwards.

Too much American pressure inclining towards confrontation could further set back recent inroads the Islamic Republic has made with the international community and give Iran the excuse it is seeking to back out of multi-lateral negotiations on disarmament. Having been caught red-handed illegally enriching uranium and subsequently pressured into accepting a deal backed by its ally Russia to export Iranian uranium, the regime is backpedaling, fearful that its diplomatic leverage will vanish along with its ability to threaten the surrounding region with nuclear weapons. Now that internal dissatisfaction with the regime is building to a head, the U.S. must avoid blowing a good thing by not channeling its inner "Cheney" when, invariably, the diplomatic path becomes bumpy.

Ironically, the growing sense of isolation the Iranian regime is feeling both inside and outside of Iran presents a golden opportunity for America. Never before has Iran seen this level of popular discontent paired with a splintering clerical establishment. In turn, the upper-strata of Iran's power structure, including the Supreme Leadership and the Presidency, will need to find a way to restore some measure of confidence and legitimacy. Continuing the sort of brutal suppression tactics the regime has employed of late, witnessed around the world thanks to the same modern technologies that have enabled the opposition in the first place, will only serve to erode further the regime's clutch on power.

Advocates for change should continue to support President Obama's policy of engagement with Iran. As the Green opposition movement's support grows in legitimacy and pressures the regime internally, America's role should not change. That role is to demonstrate a willingness to welcome Iran as a stakeholder in the international community, building consensus so that the international community speaks with one voice to Iran and clearly communicates its expectations. Such an engagement strategy would make accusations by the Iranian regime of external interference ring hollow abroad and leave it nothing to hide behind at home.

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