Regime Change Obama Can Believe In

Iran just opened itself to a nuclear deal -- but America has to make the first move.

Just when the world had given up hope for meaningful change in Iran, the country's presidential election produced a surprise. Rather than a repeat of the 2009 conservative victory, the token reformist candidate, Hasan Rowhani, whose campaign called for moderation at home and constructive relations with the world, defied the odds to win a clear majority in the first round of voting. This is a welcome repudiation of the Ahmadinejad years and a clear popular challenge to the conservative chokehold on Iranian politics. The world can take heart in the fact that majority of Iranians voted for a break with the Ahmadinejad legacy and that the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the Revolutionary Guards chose not to reverse the election's outcome in a repeat of the debacle of 2009.

This is all good news for Iranian politics, but what matters most to the West these days is the fate of the country's nuclear program. There is cautious optimism that popular support for moderation at the polls will translate into concessions at the negotiating table. Rowhani sent clear signals during the presidential campaign that if elected he would seek to end Iran's international isolation. Favoring engagement over resistance, he said, "We have no other option than moderation." That may well be the case, but a nuclear deal is still far from certain, and in fact this June surprise could confound U.S. strategy in dealing with Iran.

For starters, Rowhani may have won the popular mandate, but it is Khamenei who will make the final decision on the nuclear program. Iran's counterparts in the P5+1 -- the diplomatic bloc composed of the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, China, France, and Germany -- would welcome seeing the back of the hardline negotiator Saeed Jalili. But even if Rowhani managed to persuade the supreme leader to sack his protégé and favorite in the recent elections, Iran's position on its right to have a nuclear program is unlikely to change.

In fact, President Rowhani will be particularly aware of the risks inherent in negotiating with the P5+1. Rowhani was widely excoriated in Iran for ostensibly betraying the national interest in 2003, when, as the country's nuclear negotiator, he signed on to a voluntary suspension of uranium enrichment. That concession was meant as a confidence-building measure to build momentum for a broader nuclear deal, but the reformist hope turned into defeat when talks failed amid allegations that Iran had violated protocols laid out by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The supreme leader and his conservative coterie concluded that the suspension had been construed as Iranian weakness and only invited greater international pressure. They blamed Rowhani for having put Iran on its heels. The defeatist image became a stain on the reformists' reputation and contributed to the conservative juggernaut that swept Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power in 2005.

Ahmadinejad lost no time reversing the suspension. In a matter of days, the West offered Iran a new diplomatic package that reportedly included trade incentives, the promise of long-term access to nuclear supplies, and assurances of non-aggression. Rowhani's boss, the reformist President Mohammad Khatami, complained that in doing so the West had rewarded Ahmadinejad's brazen defiance over the reformists' gesture of compromise.

Once bitten twice shy, Rowhani is unlikely to yet again risk being branded as soft on the West. He will venture concessions only if he is assured of tangible returns. This time it has to be Rowhani who gets more out of the United States than Ahmadinejad and Jalili did -- and they had been offered spare aircraft parts and, in the last round of talks, relief from international sanctions on trade in gold and precious metals. Rowhani will be looking for real sanctions relief and a promise of recognition of Iran's right to enrichment.

The dilemma for Washington is that, as a reformist, Rowhani is an outsider, weaker than Ahmadinejad when it comes to selling any compromise with the West to Iran's suspicious conservative establishment. Rowhani's electoral mandate gives him room to maneuver, but that is not enough to shield him from the backlash that would follow any rebuff at the negotiating table. So he will likely wait for a signal of American willingness to make serious concessions before he risks compromise.

For the past eight years, U.S. policy has relied on pressure -- threats of war and international economic sanctions -- rather than incentives to change Iran's calculus. Continuing with that approach will be counterproductive. It will not provide Rowhani with the cover for a fresh approach to nuclear talks, and it could undermine the reformists generally by showing they cannot do better than conservatives on the nuclear issue.

Washington must realize that its success in rallying the international community to isolate Iran was due in no small part to Ahmadinejad's bombastic style. In denying the Holocaust, calling for Israel to be wiped off the map, and deliberately ratcheting up tensions with the West, he made it easy to paint Iran as an existential threat to Israel and a menace to the international community. Washington will find it difficult to make the same case when Iran has elected a reformist president who has publicly repudiated his predecessor. Nor will the United States be able to as easily threaten war -- or inflict economic pain -- on a country where half the population has voted for positive change.

Rowhani's victory is not regime change in Iran -- but it is a game-changer. The supreme leader and the Revolutionary Guards continue to control all the levers of power. However, the election result has altered the face of Iran, enough to put to question the continued viability of American policy. There is now both the opportunity and the expectation that Washington will adopt a new approach to strengthen reformists and give Rowhani the opening that he needs if he is to successfully argue the case for a deal with the P5+1.

Since 2009, the Obama administration has relied on economic sanctions -- backed by veiled threat of war -- to get Iran to agree to a nuclear deal. It has offered Iran little in exchange for giving up its nuclear program, in effect hoping that Iran would capitulate. No Iranian president, conservative or reformist, would accept that outcome, or survive the political firestorm it would unleash at home.

To take advantage of Rowhani's victory and break the logjam over nuclear negotiations, Washington has to put on the table incentives it has thus far been unwilling to contemplate. It will have to offer Iran sanctions relief in exchange for agreeing to Western demands. At a minimum, the United States would like Iran to accept IAEA demands for intrusive inspection of its nuclear facilities; cap its uranium enrichment at 5 percent, and ship out of the country its stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent. Iran in turn wants a formal recognition of its right to enrich uranium and, more immediately, the lifting of crippling sanctions on its financial institutions and oil exports. Ahmadinejad is faulted in Iran for wrecking the country's economy. Populism, mismanagement, and international isolation have combined to put Iran's economy into a downward spiral. Between 2009 and 2013, real GDP growth has fallen from 4 percent to 0.4 percent, unemployment has risen to 17 percent, and inflation has grown to 22 percent -- and those are official numbers, which tend to downplay the gravity of the economic crisis. It is estimated that 40 percent of Iranians live below the poverty line. Reformists will grow in strength if they are able to show that they can reverse that trend by at least getting the West for the first time to offer negotiating away specific sanctions.

The Obama administration has spurned the possibility of sanctions relief because escalating economic pressure on Iran is popular in America, while the appearance of conceding to Iran is not. The White House, which has tightly controlled Iran policy, has thus far seen serious diplomacy with Iran as politically dangerous -- a risky gambit with a low chance of success and a high cost for failure. President Obama does not want confrontation with Iran, but he has also been unwilling to assume the risk -- and spend the necessary political capital with Congress and the American public -- to pursue a diplomatic strategy. Staying the course -- relying on economic sanctions under the guise of exploring diplomacy -- has been the default strategy. This has had the added advantage of being the Bush administration's strategy, which means Republicans have been hard-pressed to oppose it.

But a reformist victory in Iran should give the administration greater room to maneuver. The American public will be more open to a new approach to Iran now, and Rowhani's election should give Congress pause in further intensifying sanctions. Washington need not lift any sanctions yet, but simply being willing to discuss the possibility in exchange for Iranian concessions would be a sea change in the nuclear negotiations. Failing that, nothing will change in the nuclear impasse and the reformist moment could just be that. The ball is in Washington's court. 



Dancing in the Streets

Iranians and Turks are voting with their feet, but are these countries moving in opposite directions?

Finally, Iranians got the chance to party in the streets.

The solid election victory on Friday of the least hard-line candidate -- moderate cleric and former nuclear negotiator Hassan Rowhani -- touched off spontaneous celebrations in the major squares and avenues of Tehran that authorities did not try to stop.

Women whipped off head scarves and drivers honked their horns in an emotional release after a largely bottled-up election campaign in which carefully vetted candidates had been forbidden from holding big outdoor rallies. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, despite his stated desire for a large turnout, had not wanted people to get too excited for fear of a reprise of the mass demonstrations that followed the last presidential elections in 2009. Now, those repressed four years ago have gotten some of their own back.

In far more democratic neighboring Turkey, meanwhile, riot police on Saturday again blasted protestors in Istanbul’s central Taksim Square and a small park nearby with water cannons and tear gas trying to definitively end two weeks of demonstrations that have convulsed the country. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed to have reached an agreement with the protestors to reconsider plans to build a replica Ottoman barracks in Gezi park and wanted the area emptied so he could stage a more congenial rally of his own on Sunday, one led by conservative Muslim supporters.

What unites these incidents in Istanbul and Tehran is not just the fact that it’s early summer and that, as the old song goes, the time is right for dancing in the streets.

From the earliest days of recorded history to today’s Twitterverse, people have come together in central places to express their views and gain strength and comfort from the presence of like-minded others. Every culture has had its agora, forum, maydan, square or park -- a place where people can literally vote with their feet. The leaders of both Turkey and Iran sought to choke off this fundamental form of expression -- and both have paid a price.

After skillfully pushing a narrative of Turkey as a modern meld of Islam and democracy, Erdogan and his AKP officials have been doing damage control this week. Besir Atalay, a deputy prime minister who happened to be in Washington for a conference, met with D.C. Turkey hands and U.S. officials to convey the message that Turkish democracy is still alive and well.

Although sparked by a small environmental rally, the Taksim demonstrations reflect pent-up anger by Turks upset by creeping Islamization, a neo-Ottoman foreign policy that inserts Turkey into conflicts in Syria and politics elsewhere in the region, and the prime minister’s growing arrogance and micro-managing.

“This is the first time we have seen massive grassroots protests in Turkey,” said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish research program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He predicted more such demonstrations by Turkey’s middle class -- a rapidly growing population which, Cagaptay said, is demanding “respect for the right of assembly and association,” freedom of the press, and a focus on the environment. Perhaps as damaging as the images of tear gas and water cannons turned on peaceful protestors in Taksim was Erdogan’s initial dismissal of protestors as hooligans and agents of foreign powers instead of citizens with a right to express their views. Just yesterday, he blamed Jews.

Erdogan’s language is reminiscent of that used by Iranian officials to denigrate the Green Movement back in 2009. Determined to prevent the protests that four years ago filled Tehran’s iconic Azadi Square with millions of people chanting “Where is my vote?” the Iranian government took a number of steps this year to preempt mass public expressions of political sentiment. First, the Guardian Council, the body that vets all candidates for elected office, weeded out more than 600 candidates for office -- including the most prominent representatives of views that are not solidly behind Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei: candidates such as former president Akhbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, the close aide to outgoing president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Then, authorities prohibited the one-on-one televised debates that in 2009 produced dramatic clashes between Ahmadinejad and his chief rival, Mir Hossein Mousavi. This sparring had increased public interest in the election and may have contributed to the high turnout of more than 80 percent. Finally, for the three weeks of the officil campaign, the government blanketed the streets with police and plainclothes security to prevent the sort of rallies that turned major squares and Tehran’s central Vali-Asr avenue into night-long parties in the run-up to the 2009 vote. This was a particularly hard blow to Iranian young people, who have few other opportunities to have a good time in public. (In my experience, young folks only get to come out en masse when Iran celebrates an international soccer victory or during Ashura, a Shiite religious festival that is supposed to be solemn but has turned into an opportunity to mix with members of the opposite sex in public.)

Given these restrictions, flashes of spontaneity this year were limited. But support slowly gathered behind Rowhani after Rafsanjani and former president Mohammad Khatami endorsed him and the lone real reformist in the race dropped out. On the final day of the campaign, Rowhani addressed enthusiastic crowds inside stadiums. There were also reports of least one pro-Rowhani gathering in Tehran’s central Vanak Square on Wednesday and larger rallies in the eastern city of Mashhad. While Iranian officials sought to discourage these demonstrations, they implored people to vote.

In a revealing comment that was also posted on his Twitter account and reflects recognition of his government’s unpopularity, Supreme Leader Khamenei admonished even an Iranian “who may not want to support the Islamic system, but he wants to support his country” to go to the polls. A large turnout -- or as Khamenei called it in the days leading up to the vote, “a political epic” -- would be a blow to Iran’s foreign enemies that are trying to crush the country with sanctions, the leader said.

In the end, more than 70 percent of Iran’s 50 million eligible voters did turn out on Friday. But the message they sent was not the one of “resistance” their leader had sought. They picked a man who said he would try to ease Iran’s isolation and relieve the heavy atmosphere that has turned Iran into such a repressive society.

Back in Istanbul, however, bulldozers were demolishing tents in Gezi park. And Erdogan, who wants to run for president in 2014, is no longer assured a victory from an increasingly energized electorate. That’s democracy at work.