On what basis should we believe that if Iran’s Green movement were to prevail, it would mean the end to Iran’s nuclear ambitions? Put another way, if the Green movement had succeeded in forcing the Supreme Leader to hold another election and Mousavi won, would Rubin and company believe that the threat from Iran’s nuclear program had been substantially mitigated? ~Greg Scoblete
Scoblete asks the right questions, and just by asking them he pretty effectively demolishes Jennifer Rubin’s argument. Rubin maintains that “human rights, support for democracy, and regime change might actually enhance our objectives and afford us a solution to the problem of an Islamic fundamentalist state’s acquisition of nuclear arms.” Of course, the reference to regime change does most of the work here. The “solution” to the problem of Iran’s acquisition of nuclear arms is to change the government to such an extent that an Iranian bomb will no longer be the threat that Rubin imagines it to be.
There are many assumptions packed into Rubin’s statement, most of which are very questionable. The first assumption is there is a political movement in Iran that would transform it from being an “Islamic fundamentalist state” into something else. The Green movement has appropriated the language and symbols of the Islamic revolution for its own purposes, but this necessarily limits and defines it as an Islamist or Islamist-sounding movement. Islamist parties from Turkey to Yemen have identified themselves with principles of justice and reform in opposition to authoritarian and/or military regimes, but when Iranian reformers define themselves in this way they are closely imitating the revolutionaries whose successors they are trying to combat. The point is that reformers have acquired the authority to criticize the regime because they use its own principles and official ideology against it, so it would be very difficult for those reformers to produce an Iranian government that is not reproducing that ideology even as they are putting the government under slightly different management. As we know, Mousavi himself was once among the hard-liners in government and has entered the opposition ranks because he believes the current leadership had betrayed the revolution. This is not normally the kind of person who ushers in a radically different type of regime.
Second, Rubin assumes that Iran’s foreign policy would change significantly if it were no longer an “Islamic fundamentalist state,” which gives far too much importance to professed state ideology and does not pay nearly enough attention to Iranian national aspirations. Most Iranians are not preoccupied with foreign and security policies, just as most people in other countries are not, but if they believe as Iranian nationalists that building up their nuclear program is a matter of national right and pride they are going to continue backing their government as it pursues this. If Iranian nationalists see their government attempting to act as a regional power, enough of them are probably going to support it regardless of the character of that regime to make changing that policy politically difficult.
The third questionable assumption is that a more democratic Iranian regime would be less interested in waging proxy wars abroad on the shaky grounds that relatively more democratic governments are less prone to using force against other states and especially against other democracies. As hawks never tire of telling us, they fear that Iran might hand off a nuclear weapon to one of its proxies. If that were a likely scenario, why would a change of government in Tehran make it less likely? If it is highly unlikely (and it is), changing the government is irrelevant. If enough Iranians see support for Shi’ite militias abroad as an expression of religious solidarity, their government might be under greater pressure to continue this policy to keep that part of the electorate satisfied. If a population has been conditioned and whipped up to see certain other states as their natural enemies, they are going to be more resistant to compromise with and concessions to those states. In this way, a more democratic Iran could conceivably be less willing to give up its backing of Hizbullah et al.
Had Mousavi won and been allowed to take office, there would not have been meaningful “regime change” and there would have been even fewer changes to how the Iranian government conducted itself abroad. During their debate, Mousavi faulted Ahmadinejad for his obnoxious behavior and statements, because he saw these as detrimental to Iran’s pursuit of its interests. He did not question Iran’s right to develop nuclear power, and on this point there was essentially no difference between him and his opponents. No one in the Iranian government openly boasts that it is trying to build a nuclear weapon, so why should we think that Mousavi or someone else like him would not be pursuing both nuclear energy and nuclear arms?
At the heart of Rubin’s statement is the most questionable assumption of all, which is that the promotion of democracy automatically aligns with maximal hawkish national security objectives. Of course this is a key assumption at the heart of neoconservatism for at least the last twenty years: American “values” and interests (as defined by neoconservatives) advance and retreat together. This is frequently not the case, and Iran is a good example of where the two to some extent work at cross-purposes. If severely limiting or eliminating Iran’s nuclear program is an important objective for American hawks, the Green movement is on the other side of the issue, which means that providing aid to that movement makes halting Iran’s nuclear program even more difficult.