Argument

Don't Throw Iran's Democrats Under the Bus

In pursuing a nuclear deal with Tehran, Obama is betting against the future.

You wouldn't know it from following the news, but the nuclear impasse is not the only issue dividing Iran and the United States. In his latest message to the Iranian people on the occasion of their festival Nowruz in March, U.S. President Barack Obama emphasized another: human rights. After describing at length how "the Iranian people are denied the basic freedom to access the information that they want," he announced measures to penetrate "the electronic curtain that is cutting the Iranian people off from the world."

It's difficult, by contrast, to find any mention of Iran's human rights record in the many background briefings and on-the-record comments by officials of the P5+1 - Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United States -- ahead of Saturday's negotiations with Iran in Istanbul. Proposals for how to resolve the nuclear standoff pour forth from pundits, but few if any include suggestions for what to do about Iran's jailing of journalists, execution of hundreds of people per year, persecution of religious minorities, or other human rights problems.

Indeed, Iranian dissidents chafe at the attention the West gives to the nuclear impasse, and Iranian reformers have long feared that their interests will come second to a nuclear deal. As noted dissident Akbar Ganji warned in his September 2006 "Letter to America" in the Washington Post, "We believe the government in Tehran is seeking a secret deal with the United States. It is willing to make any concession, provided that the United States promises to remain silent about the regime's repressive measures at home."

One reason Iranian democrats worry that we would throw them under a bus for a nuclear deal is because that is exactly what we would do. The cold truth is that the West, including the United States, would gladly negotiate a nuclear agreement with Iran's hardliners at the expense of Iranian human rights and democracy. If all it took to reach a nuclear deal were to remain silent about Tehran's repression, the prospects for a deal would be excellent. But in fact what holds up the deal is that Iran is not prepared to give up much of its nuclear program and the West is not convinced that the Islamic Republic would live up to any commitment it makes. What's more, the West -- especially the United States -- is not willing to offer much in trade so long as the fundamental geostrategic conflict with Iran remains.

Not only is a nuclear deal unlikely, but Iran's past record strongly suggests that it would not stick to a deal for long. Iran accepted an enrichment freeze in 2003 (only to immediately cheat, claiming that it was just continuing research on enrichment) and agreed to a renewed freeze in late 2003. Only later did Iranian officials acknowledge that the freeze had come at a convenient moment for Iran, which was having problems getting its centrifuges to work. Once those technical problems were solved and international pressure faded as America's seeming victory in Iraq turned to dust, Iran broke the freeze in February 2006 and installed about 2,500 centrifuges in the next year and a half, bringing its total to about 3,000. By August 2009, Iran had installed roughly 9,000 centrifuges. It is not clear, in other words, whether the temporary two-and-a-half-year freeze actually made much difference in the pace of Iran's nuclear progress.

A good argument can therefore be made that counting on sustained implementation of a deal is at least as risky a gamble as supporting democrats. Why gamble for the sake of a modest and temporary agreement that does not resolve the many other U.S. complaints about the Islamic Republic -- such as its state sponsorship of terrorism -- when the alternative is to gamble on a democratic movement? Instead of focusing on a nuclear deal, why not continue to use sanctions and covert action to slow down Iran's nuclear program while stepping up political pressure regarding Iran's human rights violations and providing more support for Iranian democrats, primarily through covert programs? Some may argue that political change in Iran will take time.  Actually, revolutions happen quickly and blow up out of nowhere, as we have seen across the Middle East. Nobody predicted the 2009 protests that brought millions out to Tehran's streets. So let's be honest: We have no idea when change could come to Iran.

In the unlikely event of a deal, the Iranian regime is highly likely to trumpet such an agreement as proof that the West does not care about the Iranian opposition and that the regime's hold is rock solid. That claim could resonate in Iran and disillusion democrats about the West -- not good in general but particularly not good if the democrats ever come to power. Sixty years ago, the United States, for geostrategic reasons, supported an autocratic Iranian government (that of the shah) against a popular movement (led by Mohammad Mossadegh). The result was not good for the U.S. image around the world and was disastrous for Iran. Before shoring up another autocratic Iranian government for geostrategic gain, we should pause to weigh the risks and benefits, especially if we are not completely sure the Iranian regime will stick to the deal.

For the United States to stay silent on human rights out of fear of how such statements might affect negotiations is to confuse ends and means. Negotiations are one way to advance U.S. interests, not an interest in themselves. A more democratic Iran that is more respectful of human rights would serve the interests of both Americans and Iranians. Such a reality would put the two countries on a path toward resolving not only the nuclear crisis but also state support for terrorism and interference in the internal affairs of Arab countries such as Lebanon and Iraq. A democratic Iran would become a normal state rather than a revolutionary cause.

I would be the first to say that I do not see much evidence that Iranian democrats will come to power any time soon. But I know someone who thinks this is a realistic prospect, and his name is Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He frequently warns about the danger of a velvet revolution -- a quick overthrow of the Islamic Republic by a popular movement of youth, women, and intellectuals stirred up by Western media like the BBC. Presumably Khamenei knows something about Iranian politics and Iranian public opinion.

It is not the place of outsiders to determine what kind of government Iran should have, but we are not indifferent to the outcome of the power struggles in Tehran. Even while strenuously objecting to what it saw as a "regime change" policy by the Bush administration, the New York Times wrote in an editorial on April 11, 2006, "The best hope for avoiding a nuclear-armed Iran lies in encouraging political evolution there over the next decade." That was true six years ago, and it is true today.

AFP/Getty Images

Argument

A Tormenting in Moscow

Why is Russia harassing President Obama’s new ambassador?

Russians are known for their warm welcomes, rolling out the red carpet for honored guests and ensconcing them in bear hugs, complete with three hearty kisses on the cheeks. Perhaps the new U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul didn't quite expect the same gracious reception given the frosty relationship between Washington and Moscow these days, but his first few months on the job have been unusual, if not downright hostile, a lot more Cold War than Russian Reset. Upon arriving in Moscow, the ambassador greeted his guests with an effervescent -- even hokey -- YouTube video introducing himself, a longtime student of and friend to Russia. In response, he was met with an Arctic propaganda blast reminiscent of the early 1980s, and harassment likely without precedent for U.S. ambassadors -- either in the Soviet Union or in post-Soviet Russia.

The Obama administration has since complained to the Russian government about the harassment of McFaul. "Everywhere I go," McFaul tweeted, "[the Gazprom-owned national television network] NTV is there. Wonder who gives them my calendar. They wouldn't tell me. Wonder what laws are here for such things." By crowding the U.S. ambassador and filming his comings and goings, NTV reporters act not unlike former KGB myrmidons, clearly seeking to intimidate not only McFaul but even more so his Russia interlocutors, whom they try to intercept and "interview." It wouldn't be the first time that the Kremlin has successfully snooped into the affairs of the U.S. Embassy -- in fact, there's a long tradition of mutual suspicion and spycraft between these old adversaries, but the host government sharing his open schedule with flunkies just to intimidate the ambassador seems a new low in what was hoped to have been a new period of mutual respect and good relations.

It is always sad and maddening to hear about insults to human dignity by paid propagandists and thugs of authoritarian regimes. Yet the hounding of McFaul is particularly bizarre. Not only is he a brilliant scholar, the author of hundreds of articles and several books on Russia, and one of the most popular professors at Stanford University, but McFaul is widely regarded as a man of profound intellectual and personal integrity. In at least 20 years that I've known and deeply admired Mike, I've met no one who did not hold him in highest esteem, even those who disagreed with him professionally.

A native of Montana and a Californian by professional choice, Mike epitomizes America's democratic spirit, free inquiry, unfettered debate, and respect for the right to question authority. He is also a sparkling, often ebullient conversationalist. Anyone who spends even a few minutes in his company finds his discourse utterly infectious.

That he is a Russian speaker and, with his shock of blond hair, Hollywood-handsome, does not hurt him a bit among Russian television viewers -- not to mention his legion of longtime admirers among pro-democracy experts and intelligentsia. It is all of this -- but particularly the last bit -- that makes McFaul such a stark and embossing contrast to the intellectual grayness of Putinism, the vulgarity of its propaganda, and the pettiness of its cat-and-mouse games with intellectuals and pro-democracy opposition.

From the start of his ambassadorship a few months ago, McFaul seemed determined to treat Russia as a normal country: he proclaimed himself willing to speak to anyone - even his detractors. "I respect press right to go anywhere & ask any questions," he tweeted of NTV, even as he wondered whether "they have a right to read my email and listen to my phone?"

But there is more to it than that. McFaul was among the key architects of the reset in the U.S.-Russian relations. Whatever this effort has or has not achieved and whatever built-in flaws handicapped the reset from the beginning, there is little doubt about McFaul's sincerity, good faith, and passionate commitment that the effort would make both countries more secure and prosperous. Among other things, he worked tirelessly on the New START nuclear arms treaty and helped to secure Russia's entry in the World Trade Organization.

What an odd and vile payback, then. But perhaps not so odd, after all. In the through-the-looking-glass world of Putin's "sovereign democracy" (which as my Russian friends like to point out is to "democracy" as "electric chair" is to "chair"), it is precisely McFaul's involvement in the reset and his unshakable faith in Russia's democratic future that have made him a target of choice.

Just as "all politics is local" so, too, is much of foreign policy domestic politics. With the Kremlin's legitimacy badly damaged in the parliamentary and presidential elections this past December and March, it has again resorted to tried and true tactics of all authoritarian institutions: creating an alleged external danger to rally the people around the flag and to smear and marginalize opponents as agents of foreign enemies. Putin's enemy of choice has always been the United States. And until it feels completely in control again (which does not seem to be likely anytime soon), the Kremlin's policy will be informed largely by anti-Americanism -- in order to lend as much credence as possible to the narrative of protecting the Motherland against the scheming enemies of Russia on the outside, and the fifth columnists within. That McFaul is highly respected and personally liked by those "fifth columnists" makes him a particularly dangerous man in Moscow.

Conceptually, the reset is clearly at odds with Putin's dependence on anti-American rhetoric to galvanize his support base and to satisfy the myriad bureaucratic interest groups that, in one way or another, benefit from perceptions of Russia as a "besieged fortress." Hence, we now see an anti-American propaganda the likes of which, in crudeness and shamelessness, we have seen since 1985. Witness a "documentary" on a state-controlled national television channel, shortly after McFaul came to Moscow, in which his writings on democracy promotion were used to bolster an accusation that, in essence, he was sent by the CIA to foment a color revolution. Thus the calling out of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as a "signaler" to anti-Putin opposition. And finally, an utterly base "Anatomy of the Protest" documentary (on the same NTV network) that showed allegedly U.S. officials distributing money and cookies (yes: evil, wanton democracy cookies) to the anti-Putin protesters. Welcome to Moscow, Mr. Ambassador...

The recent collapse or likely future downfall of authoritarian regimes throughout the Middle East -- some of which had (Libya) or still have (Syria) close ties with Russia -- and the relatively recent color revolutions in the countries of the former Soviet Union have generated heightened sensitivity in Moscow about the stability of Putin's managed democracy. The Kremlin knows that vast majority of Russians are aware of an apparent irony: their country has defied global trends that have been marked by leadership transitions by way of revolution, ballot box, or authoritarian succession.

Even China, which is far more authoritarian today than Russia, will at least see some new faces assume the reins of its principal governmental structures this year. In Russia, meanwhile, Putin will formally return to the Kremlin next month and his cadre of largely siloviki-turned-oligarchs associates will continue to dominate the country both politically and economically. This paradox isn't lost on Putin. The attacks against McFaul, with his exemplary background in democracy promotion, represent in part a knee-jerk attempt by the Kremlin to drown in lying hysteria the realization that the country is becoming more detached from the norms and values of what Russians still call the "civilized world" -- to which tens of millions of them want to belong.

There is a recent video of McFaul arriving at a meeting with pro-democracy activists. Wet snow is falling. Getting out of his car, without an overcoat or hat, the ambassador is about to enter the building, when he suddenly turns around and steps outside to talk to his interviewer harassers. He asks them, smiling all the time, why they do this to him and how they happen to know where he would be. His host tries to pull him indoors, but McFaul holds his ground. He tries to explain, in Russian, how this behavior is in "violation of the Geneva [Convention]." To which he's met with a flurry of denials and catcalls.

Next time you ponder what happened to the reset and wonder what to expect after Putin's self-coronation in May, remember those gray sleeting skies over Moscow: the U.S. ambassador's attempt at explanation and dialogue -- and the haranguing and jeers in response.

Astrid Riecken/Getty Images