Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Whatever happened to the Iran project?

Guest post by Ali Ezzatyar 

Ali Ezzatyar is a journalist and American attorney practising in Paris, France. 

(Ed. note: This is Ali's sixth guest post at The Reaction. Last month, he wrote on the Arab Spring. In March, he wrote on Obama's foreign policy and the secular uprisings in the Middle East. In February, he wrote on dictatorship in Tunisia and Egypt and on the revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East. In January 2010, he co-wrote a post on Iran with Bryan Tollin. I'm making him a fully-fledged contributor. Look forward to more posts from him soon. -- MJWS) 


His beard is long and grey; he is reputed for living a rather simple life, but Israel's prime minister recently called him the greatest threat to the world. He is the Supreme Leader of Iran. As attention remains focused on Abbottabad, Iran's nuclear program continues nearby. Some are hoping that news from Damascus to Fukushima will influence events in Iran, as it fades from foreign policy's short memory. But the mullahs, and Iran's people for that matter, couldn't care less about what happens elsewhere. Now more than ever, to encourage change in the Islamic Republic, incentivized diplomacy is necessary before it's too late.

It is almost mechanical to group Iran with neighboring Arab countries, what with its share of Islamic extremism and oil. But social behavior in Iran is driven by a totally different mindset, and it won't be seeing revolution soon. For better or worse, Iranians feel a deep-rooted disassociation with the rest of the region.

An extension of its social mindset, Iranian politics is significantly different from that of its neighbors. The Iranian government, while autocratic, has traditionally been more democratic than most of the regimes around it. More importantly, the Islamic Republic is itself the product of revolution, making it more established and deeply rooted than any Arab government in the Middle East. While a week of protests in Tahrir square brought about revolutionary dominos in Egypt, weeks of uprisings in 2009 did not beget a single meaningful policy change in Iran.

And in perhaps the same way the massive protests of 2009 did not register a blip on the Arab world's radar, the Arab Spring has done and will do little to motivate Iranians, people and politicians alike. Iranians simply do not perceive countries like Egypt and Syria as trendsetters.

A proud, isolated country, Iran is stubborn about its policy, often to its own detriment. Years of debilitating sanctions demonstrate how far Iran is willing to go to preserve what it views as its sovereignty. So while much of Iran sits in a notoriously busy earthquake zone, and its nuclear plants are reportedly malfunctioning, it has recently announced that it is not apprehensive after events in Fukushima. Even the world's most established nuclear powers are rethinking their energy strategies. Yet another table for one at the Iranian gala.

The international community has long been worried that Iran would build a nuclear bomb and use it. That was never very likely. Now its neighbors are voicing concern that an earthquake in Bushehr (or elsewhere) could have similar catastrophic effects in the region. That is actually significantly more likely.

Consider that Iran today is a stable regime in a region of turmoil. It pulls strings in Afghanistan and Iraq, is buoyed by high oil prices, and has not been dissuaded from its nuclear program. What does all of this mean?

It means the Islamic Republic will continue to play by its own rules, and will only be influenced by incentives. Regime change is not likely in the short term, so the world needs to engage Iran's current government no matter how unpleasant that is. Given Iran's sensitivity to what it perceives as foreign interference, premising this engagement on an improved human rights record is unfortunately untenable.

President Obama's election platform of speaking to America's enemies, Iran being at the top of that list, was promising. Gradually, however, the crown jewel of foreign policy projects has all but slipped off the agenda.

Progress on Iran's nuclear program can be achieved with more carrots and direct diplomacy (Iran's freezing of uranium enrichment in 2004 demonstrates this is possible). There is an added bonus to such a project as well. Since only conservatives in Iran have the legitimacy to make compromise with Iran's enemies, they are likely to move toward the center of the political spectrum while doing so. The byproduct of diplomacy could be further political liberalization and even democratization. Change in Iran needs a jump start. A rigorous diplomatic project is imperative at this juncture.

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