A Tale of Two Diasporas

Iraqi exiles were gung-ho to overthrow Saddam. So why are Iranian-Americans so keen on dialogue with the mullahs who rule Iran?

An eerily familiar drumbeat of war is intensifying across Washington, just as the United States ends its decade-long adventure in Iraq. The ghosts of America's neoconservative past have dusted off their Iraq playbook to make the case for war with Iran. Their formula is simple but effective: Portray the Iranian government and its nuclear program as existential threats, insist that a chain of catastrophic events will result from inaction, and minimize the costs and risks of war.

If one looks back, however, neoconservative officials in the U.S. government weren't alone in their push for war with Iraq. A crucial aspect of selling the war to the U.S. public was support within the Iraqi-American community. Iraqi dissidents living abroad, such as Ahmed Chalabi and Kanan Makiya, as well as supposed whistle-blowers turned known fabricators like the infamous "Curveball," led a contingent of vocal Iraqis who pushed for steadily more aggressive actions to topple Saddam Hussein's regime. Their promise that the invasion would be a cakewalk and that U.S. soldiers would be greeted with flowers and candy didn't quite pan out. Now, the fruits of their labor are clear for all to see -- a broken country, devastated by war and sectarian strife, with no discernible end in sight.

Iranian-Americans, in stark contrast with the Iraqi diaspora, have largely opposed a rush to war. This is a fact that I have observed up close, while working in the State Department's Office of Iranian Affairs and now at the National Iranian American Council, where I maintain close and continuing contact with Iranian-Americans to ensure we accurately represent their views. Together, these two vantage points have crystallized one key takeaway: Iranian-Americans deeply resent the Iranian regime, but prefer U.S. policies that emphasize engagement and de-escalation.

Why have Iraqis and Iranians living abroad reached such drastically different conclusions? For more than three decades, the Iranian-American community has grappled with the paradox of wanting to make Iran a better place -- but fearing success as much as defeat. Some worry that contributing to positive changes inside Iran will only strengthen a draconian system, extending its lease on life.

For many Iranian-Americans, this dilemma was resolved by their disastrous historical experience with revolutionary upheaval. Rather than laying the groundwork for democracy, Iran's 1979 revolution simply replaced one dictatorship with another. As a result, Iranian-Americans strongly prefer to use the rule of law to alter not only the Iranian government's behavior, but also the thinking of Iranians inside Iran.

Efforts by the Iranian-American community to promote engagement and oppose military intervention have been consistent and cohesive. The University of California, Berkeley, conducted a scientifically sound opinion survey that found that roughly 70 percent of Iranian-American respondents favored dialogue and negotiations between the United States and Iran. In 2008, the Iranian-American community mobilized this majority into a successful campaign to defeat a congressional resolution that would have taken a decisive step toward war.

The Iranian-American community's overwhelming support for Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign is also a telling indicator of its political attitudes. For every dollar raised by Republican nominee John McCain from Iranian-Americans, Obama -- who was running on a platform that promoted engagement with Iran -- raised five.

Iranian-Americans understand from personal experience that abrupt political change is unlikely to produce the desired result. Retired ambassador John Limbert, the deputy assistant secretary of state for Iran during my tenure in Foggy Bottom, reflected poignantly on this understanding in a 1999 speech. "Our liberal-minded Iranian friends,­ whom we counted on to contain the [1979] revolution's excesses, proved to be helpless in political turmoil," he said. "They were too much like us: They could write penetrating analyses and biting editorials, but lacked the stomach for the brutality that wins revolutions."

Despite the fact that a majority of Iranian-Americans favor a more tolerant, pluralistic, and democratic system in Iran, they see little evidence that U.S. efforts to topple the current regime would bring Iranian democrats to power. Within Iran, rampant popular dissatisfaction has yet to evolve into a sustainable and coherent challenge to the system. The Iranian government's monopoly on violence has prevented such challenges, but has not ended the desire for change. Even the original leaders of Iran's Green Movement, which emerged from the country's contested 2009 presidential election, were attempting to push for peaceful change through the ballot box.

The ongoing death and destruction in Iraq and Afghanistan has made the Iranian-American community even warier about foreign efforts to "liberate" their ancestral homeland. Right or wrong, many in the Iranian diaspora see the U.S. invasion of Iraq as less about nuclear programs or democracy, and more as a gambit to seize oil resources. These conspiracy theories may seem absurd, but behind them lies a deeper reality that is very powerful in the minds of Iranian-Americans.

Few Iranian-Americans would welcome the prospects of a U.S. intervention under the auspices of democracy promotion that, in turn, shattered any semblance of stability and ignited a destructive cycle of conflict. Iran's contested 2009 presidential election and the ongoing human rights abuses have left Iranian-Americans searching for new ways to help foster peaceful, indigenous change. Their ideas remain diverse, but there is near-unanimous consent that change should occur without bloodshed.

Like their Iraqi brethren, Iranian expatriates want to change their government -- it is their methods that differ. A majority of Iranian-Americans would welcome an improvement of relations between Washington and Tehran because it increases the prospects for positive, peaceful change from within. The watershed event of the Islamic Republic's nearly 33-year history -- widespread protests in 2009 -- occurred at the height of Obama's "mutual interests and mutual respect" initiative. Many of the West's Iran analysts and experts, both Iranian and American, assert that the regime needs a U.S. enemy for its survival. If true, wouldn't sustained offers of friendship -- which would put the Iranian regime's domestic agenda at the forefront -- provide the biggest threat to the regime?

Engagement with the Iranian government understandably spurs many moral dilemmas for Iranian-Americans. Most, however, understand the alternatives -- particularly when juxtaposed with Iraq, where war has resulted in nearly 200,000 Iraqis dead (based on conservative estimates), 1.3 million Iraqis displaced, and decades' worth of destroyed lives for those still living in a perpetual war zone.

Let's not kid ourselves: There are Iranian-Americans who support U.S.-sponsored regime change in Iran -- and in due time, American neoconservatives will find their kindred spirits. We undoubtedly have our Chalabis and Makiyas -- some long-established, some coming of age. But it's clear that most Iranian-Americans distrust anyone who welcomes foreign armies into the motherland.

There is no arguing that Iran must change. The Iranian government's human rights record is appalling, people lack basic freedoms, and economic disarray prevents Iranians from managing the present or planning for the future. Few Iranian-Americans are calling for sitting idly by and waiting for the situation in Iran to improve on its own. But it's a rare voice indeed that is calling for war.

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The Last Kim of Pyongyang?

It's not ridiculous to think that North Korea could take a page from Myanmar and make a shocking U-turn toward democracy.

For more than two decades, Myanmar was a pariah state ruled by military generals that suppressed political dissent, straitjacketed the media, persecuted ethnic minorities, and -- despite resource riches -- failed to improve its people's living standards. The United States continuously sanctioned Myanmar and subjected it to regular rhetorical whippings in Congress. It was, for want of a better parallel, the North Korea of Southeast Asia. But the transformation of the past few months has been nothing short of remarkable. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's landmark visit late last year underscored the changes within Myanmar, and on Jan. 13, the United States restored full diplomatic ties with the country after it made good on its pledge to release a significant number of political prisoners and signed a cease-fire with ethnic Karen rebels. America's breakthrough with Myanmar remains fragile; the government will have to meet other benchmarks such as abiding by the results of April's parliamentary by-election. Still, this thaw raises the question: Could it ever happen in North Korea?

The conventional wisdom is that North Korea will at best muddle through its current leadership transition or at worst implode; either way, it will continue to treat the United States as enemy No. 1. If the latest Kim to rein in Pyongyang manages to consolidate power, though, he may take a page from Myanmar's playbook and pursue an American opening. This choice may become more and more plausible as the regime's economic dependence on China becomes uncomfortably high.

At the moment, the world is rightly focused on whether North Korea's 20-something leader, Kim Jong Un, can hold the country together. While his father spent decades being groomed for leadership, the youngest Kim was elevated almost overnight; his ability to command loyalty among the generals and cadres that constitute North Korea's elite remains unknown. The combination of an internal power struggle and popular discontent could cause a collapse, triggering massive refugee outflows, the proliferation of nuclear material, and a unified but unstable Korean Peninsula.

North Korea could just as easily survive. Predictions of its demise, though regularly made, have routinely underestimated the regime's capacity to endure despite imposing terrible economic hardships on its people. During the famine of the 1990s, in which several million North Koreans may have perished, the regime channeled food and other goods to the military and party elites, guaranteeing their loyalty. And to buy some time while Kim consolidates his rule, it's likely that Pyongyang will continue to provoke Washington with belligerent rhetoric, missile tests, and possibly more lethal forms of brinkmanship. Once secure internally, however, Pyongyang could depart from the path of confrontation and seek to normalize relations with the United States. To signal its desire for improved ties, North Korea could make limited changes internally -- the opening of an Associated Press news bureau in Pyongyang, announced just this week, is suggestive.

Myanmar, like North Korea an ally of China, has just charted this course. For two decades, U.S. policy treated Myanmar as a pariah state. The military junta's repression of popular protests, mistreatment of minority ethnic groups, and confinement of democratic activist Aung San Suu Kyi led the United States to institute ever tighter sanctions. Beyond its miserable human rights record, Myanmar also posed a security risk. In a bid to procure missile technology, the military junta turned to North Korea for help; just last year, the U.S. Navy interdicted a shipment of missiles bound for Myanmar. And rumors about a nascent nuclear program occasionally surfaced.

Yet rather than continue its confrontation with the United States, Myanmar began to change course. Starting in November 2010, its government launched a limited -- but unmistakable -- series of political reforms, releasing Aung San Suu Kyi and some political prisoners, shedding military uniforms for civilian garb, and curtailing media censorship. It also abandoned efforts to obtain missile technology after last year's thwarted attempt. And after Clinton's visit, Myanmar responded with a new wave of openings, including the release of 651 additional political prisoners and the signing of a cease-fire agreement with the ethnic Karen rebels.

These changes, which blindsided most outsiders, were above all motivated by concerns about Myanmar's ally -- China. Isolated from the world economy by long-term international sanctions, the government became ever more reliant on China for trade and investment. Reliance gradually blurred into an erosion of national independence as Chinese firms imported workers and came to dominate the country's energy and transportation infrastructure. At the same time, Beijing's growing focus on the Indian Ocean risked turning Myanmar into an extension of Chinese naval strategy. Looking to ease what had become an overbearing embrace, the government of Myanmar implemented the domestic reforms necessary for the United States to offer diplomatic normalization.

If North Korea survives former leader Kim Jong Il's passing, it will confront a similar dilemma. Already, Chinese companies have a substantial presence in the North. Chinese firms are involved in resource extraction and construction, and the Rason free trade zone has become a focus for Beijing, which reportedly sends regular senior-level delegations there. China's economic presence within North Korea will continue to expand, particularly if Kim Jong Un is willing to pursue market-oriented reforms in a more serious and sustained way than his father. While Kim's desire to undertake such reforms is uncertain, China's eagerness to see him revitalize North Korea's economy is not. Despite the leadership transition in Pyongyang, Beijing's objectives remain unchanged: to see an economically viable, subservient country on the northern half of the Korean Peninsula for the foreseeable future.

The new ruler of North Korea may ultimately face a stark choice: become an economic protectorate of China or build a less antagonistic relationship with the United States. For Pyongyang, normalizing ties with Washington is the gateway to improving relationships with other regional powers -- Japan and South Korea. Both of these U.S. allies could become major sources of trade and investment for North Korea and help counterbalance Chinese influence. Neither, however, will adopt a radically different approach toward Pyongyang unless Washington moves first.

North Korea's path toward better relations with the United States will be a difficult one. The Kim family's legitimacy remains bound up in defying American power, including through the continued possession of nuclear weapons; confronting Washington was never as central to the legitimacy of Myanmar's junta. Moreover, Pyongyang is far more repressive than Myanmar ever was. Whether North Korea can make the types of changes that Myanmar has implemented remains an open question. On the other hand, Pyongyang could portray some elements of a U.S. opening -- like a high-level visit -- as recognition of Kim's exalted status and diplomatic acumen. The boost to domestic legitimacy could offset the weakening of domestic control.

As it confronts a North Korea in transition, the United States should prepare for the worst while being careful not to overlook early indicators of a new direction for the regime. Rather than worry about Chinese investments in North Korea -­- a factor it has little capacity to influence -­- Washington should recognize the upside: Such investments may actually hasten a U.S. rapprochement with Pyongyang.

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