Iran: Looking forward

By Hugh Gusterson | June 30, 2009

Ayatollah Khamenei and the Iranian regime had two choices when their blatant rigging of the election was met with massive street protests. They could stand aside, a la the decrepit regimes of Eastern Europe in 1989; or they could send out uniformed thugs to beat, kill, and intimidate the protesters until their movement buckled, a la China’s Tiananmen Square strategy.

They chose the latter, and we will all pay the price.

With the images of dead and beaten protesters fresh in our minds, it’s unthinkable that the Obama administration would offer Iran the only thing that might make it freeze its nuclear program: recognition as a normal country.”

In retrospect, it’s clear why they chose this path. Dictators, confusing violence with legitimacy, believe their enemies are a dangerous minority who can be repressed by force. They are always the last to know that they have lost the loyalty of their people, so they need someone else to tell them that their time is up. For former Filipino President Ferdinand Marcos, it was Ronald Reagan. For former Nicaraguan President Anastasio Somoza, it was Jimmy Carter. And for the grey apparatchiks of Eastern Europe, it was Mikhail Gorbachev.

But who can tell Khamenei to move along? Iran is an isolated country with few friends and patrons. Principal among these few are Russia and China, but Vladimir Putin and Hu Jintao are hardly likely to object to Khamenei’s heavy hand given their own intolerance for domestic dissent.

This leaves the Obama administration, hoping to negotiate a cap to Iran’s nuclear program, in a difficult situation. Over the last decade, as sanctions have failed to change Iranian policy, it has become clear that the best hope of averting Iran’s entry into the nuclear club was through a grand bargain. In such a bargain, Tehran might dismantle some of its nuclear infrastructure and agree to unusually intrusive inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (to assure the world that Iranian centrifuges weren’t being used to enrich weapon-grade uranium) in exchange for lifted sanctions, establishment of diplomatic relations with Washington, and acceptance of Iran by the world as a normal country.

As the courageous youth of Iran mourn their dead, the prospects for such a bargain, at least in the near term, seem close to nil. President Barack Obama has taken the view that the United States has a vital national security interest vis-à-vis Iran that has made it prudent to keep its denunciations of Iranian repression low-key. Still, events have left Obama with little room to maneuver in pursuing the U.S. national interest through negotiations with Iran. One can only negotiate an arms control agreement with a government that has just publicly crushed its own people if one is engaged in sterile horse-trading–say, of arms for arms. With the images of dead and beaten protesters fresh in our minds, it’s unthinkable that the Obama administration would offer Iran the only thing that might make it freeze its nuclear program: recognition as a normal country. How does one shake hands with so much fresh blood on them and retain legitimacy as a leader?

Furthermore, looking at the bargain from the other end, the Iranian politicians most interested in an opening to the West are now locked up or marginalized. The hard-liners are unambiguously in the driver’s seat and, as they see it, their revolution is beset with enemies. Within such a paranoid mind-set, the most powerful weapon in the world must be attractive indeed. Think Curtis LeMay in a turban.

This isn’t to say that, over the longer term, there is no prospect for negotiation. As we know from post-Tiananmen China, the crimes of repressive regimes are forgotten after a while, especially when other countries have a strong interest in doing business with them. And in the internet age, a country with a well-educated middle class will find that, in piecemeal and incremental ways, it has to accommodate at least some of the forces of liberalization beaten, in crisis, back into the shadows with batons and bullets. Over time, Iran will morph into a country with which negotiations are again possible.

But how long do we have? While it is uncertain whether Iran’s leaders have made a firm decision to build a nuclear weapon (as opposed to keeping open their option to do so), it seems clear that they should be able to construct a bomb within the next five years if they set their minds to doing so. One might hope that Iran’s nuclear scientists, confronted with unambiguous evidence that they are working for a brutal, authoritarian regime, would refuse to hand the mullahs the most destructive technology on Earth. But here the historical record suggests little reason for optimism: If Soviet scientists made a bomb for Joseph Stalin, if Chinese scientists made a bomb for Mao Zedong, if North Korean scientists made a bomb for Kim Jong Il, and if Iraqi scientists were working on a bomb for Saddam Hussein, why would Iranian scientists hesitate to make one for Khamenei?

Barring a miraculous collapse of Khamenei’s regime in some kind of political aftershock, this situation shifts the global initiative to the politically precarious government in Israel presided over by Benjamin Netanyahu. It’s no secret that a bombing raid on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure has been under discussion in Israel, and it’s said that such a raid already would have taken place if George W. Bush hadn’t vetoed it. Now, the frozen grip on power of Iran’s isolated extremists will surely make the bombing option more compelling to the Israelis: When negotiations seem impossible, bombing always looks more attractive, and the world would hardly have much sympathy for the bloodstained mullahs at the moment.

However, most experts think that Israeli bombs can only defer, not prevent, Iran’s accession to the nuclear club. One can imagine Israeli hawks arguing that making Iran rebuild a bombed enrichment facility will buy time so that a more reasonable Iranian regime can emerge. But it’s unlikely to work that way. The history of bombing campaigns shows that they usually produce a rally-around-the-flag effect, strengthening domestic support for the regime that’s bombed. An Israeli bombing, then, would probably slow progress on an Iranian bomb while prolonging the regime that seeks it.

If the future looks bleak, it seems in retrospect as if the United States may have missed an opportunity to strike some kind of grand bargain with Tehran during the Bush administration–either after 9/11 or when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was first elected. Instead, we placed Iran in the “axis of evil.” We can only wonder about the path not taken, but the path we are on now is fading into darkness.

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