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Haass: Repeating Mistakes Of The Past Is A Great Idea

In the wake of 9/11, the Bush administration judged incorrectly that Iran was on the verge of revolution and decided that dealing directly with Tehran would provide a lifeline to an evil government soon to be swept away by history’s tide. A valuable opportunity to limit Iran’s nuclear program may have been lost as a result. ~Richard Haass [1]

Haass then proceeds to use the rest of his article to argue that we should now do exactly the same thing that failed so miserably under the previous administration. He argues this on the questionable assumption that Iran is on the verge of revolution and he seems to think that dealing directly with Tehran will provide a lifeline to an evil government soon to be swept away by history’s tide. Granted, there is more reason now to think that Iran’s government is threatened by internal opposition than there was seven or eight years ago, but there is little reason to expect that the current regime is going to fall to its internal opposition.

What Haass’ article reminds us is that predictions of major political upheaval in Iran are becoming very much like the consistently wrong string of warnings that Iran is just a few years away from a nuclear weapon. An Iranian bomb is always just over the horizon, and it has been just over the horizon for almost twenty years. It seems that the next Iranian revolution is also always just around the corner, and this always seems to be an excuse for delaying diplomatic engagement that ought to have started years ago. Obviously, opponents of meaningful engagement exploit prospects for internal political change Iran to kill off a policy option they reject anyway. That’s to be expected. What doesn’t make sense is why so many supporters of engagement have begun abandoning a policy that was scarcely tried and has been given no time to work.

Haass represents something no less frustrating than the hawks who exploit internal dissension to push hard-line policies. Haass is one of many advocates of engagement who have lost all confidence in a policy option that they endorsed when Iran was a brutal, authoritarian state with a thin veneer of quasi-democratic practices. Its internal repression and violence did not deter them then, because they concluded that there was little that could be done about this and it was not directly relevant to the most contentious security issues. Since the crackdown after June 12, Iran continues to be a brutal, authoritarian state, but now it no longer wears that thin veneer, and all of a sudden some supporters of engagement cannot call for regime change quickly enough.

Fundamental Iranian state interests have not changed in the last seven months, nor has the compelling logic of engagement with Tehran become any less so. In 2008, the bankruptcy of demonizing and isolating Iran was obvious, and it was associated with a deeply unpopular administration, and so for a time it became unfashionable. For all of six months, engagement was trendy when Obama was widely liked and the policy involved sending Nowruz messages and doing nothing meaningful. It has taken much less time for pro-Green advocacy to displace engagement as the preferred fashion. Incredibly, the impulse to isolate Iran has regained much of its former strength despite its record of abject failure. Politically, pro-Green sympathizers are making it much easier for hawks to advance measures designed to isolate and punish Iran, because they are resisting the one alternative course of action that will avoid the imposition of more sanctions or military action. Sanctions will, of course, mainly harm the Green movement and do nothing to change regime behavior, and scrapping engagement will ensure that Washington continues to have zero influence over what Tehran does inside or outside of the country.

Moreover, if regime change becomes the stated goal of U.S. policy, it seems probable that the Green movement will be split over how to respond to this, and whatever strength that it does have will be diminished. After all, if it is true that the Green movement is divided [2], and if it is true that it is principally a civil rights movement [3] rather than the beginning of a revolution, a policy of regime change that is tied directly to support for the Green movement will risk dividing dissidents against one another and staking out a position far more radical than what most members of the movement would or could support.

Hooman Majd’s very smart article is a good resource for thinking about all of this. Of the movement, he writes [4]:

However, the radical elements claiming to be a part of the green movement only speak for a small minority of Iranians. The majority still want peaceful reform of the system and not necessarily a wholesale revolution, bloody or otherwise. That’s why, in the most recent Ashura demonstrations, for example, large groups of peaceful marchers actually prevented some of the movement’s radicalized elements from beating or attacking security forces. Although accurate polling information is not available, based on what we hear and see of the leaders of the green movement and many of its supporters, radicalization is still limited to a minority of protesters.

The green movement’s leaders recognize that any radicalization on their part will only bring down the state’s iron fist. They are also cautious because they know that if movement leaders call for regime change rather than reform and adherence to the Constitution, they will only have proven the government’s assertion that the movement’s goal all along has been to topple the system [bold mine-DL].

This is the problem with projecting what many Westerners want (i.e., the collapse of the current Iranian government) onto what the Green movement is capable of or even trying to achieve. Majd’s comparison with U.S. civil rights protests in the 1960s is instructive. Foreign support was not crucial to the success of the civil rights movement, and had there been significant material and other foreign aid it would have been a major, probably fatal, liability to the movement’s credibility. We can take the comparison one more step and recognize that the success of a domestic civil rights movement does not have to lead to the collapse of the existing system. In other words, even if the movement prevails as a civil rights movement, it is not going to result in the kind of political transformation that Westerners are expecting it to produce.

Majd states that “neither side is looking to reform the regime into oblivion,” and he holds out the possibility that some compromise could conceivably be struck this year. That might be unduly optimistic, but if there any truth to it the things Haass is advocating could very easily destroy any willingness inside the regime to compromise. Majd also made another valuable observation: “Lacking relations with Iran, Obama can do little to help the green movement, but plenty to hurt it.” Isolating Iran and engaging in anti-regime agitation have left the U.S. in a position where it can affect little or nothing inside Iran. Instead of using the Green movement as an excuse to repeat the errors of the past, Washington might begin to work towards normalization of relations first, and then our government might acquire some real clout that could work to the benefit of Iranian dissidents and might eventually lead to some sort of understanding on proliferation and terrorism.

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1 Comment To "Haass: Repeating Mistakes Of The Past Is A Great Idea"

#1 Comment By TGGP On January 24, 2010 @ 5:03 pm

Despite MLK’s claim, he actually did work with more communists than Eskimos. There are former KGB agents who have said that their government supported dissidents rights-based groups in other countries (who would of course have been crushed in the USSR) in order to destabilize rival polities. The communist regimes at that time made a lot of third-worldist anti-imperialist appeals, and acceptance of civil rights on the part of U.S policymakers can be seen in part as trying to take away an issue from their opponents. The U.S of course uses the same approach in other countries, such as the “color” revolutions in numerous ex-communist countries.