A Moderate Proposal

A nuclear deal is going to be the key to domestic reform in Iran in 2014 -- or its downfall.

2014 promises to be a make or break year for U.S.-Iran policy -- and for the very future of Iran itself. Indeed, the Obama administration's capacity to influence events in the wider Middle East will hinge, in part, on whether it can negotiate the November 2013 Interim Nuclear deal to a final agreement. The administration has already taken the very step that no previous one had dared imagine: it has decisively embraced diplomacy over military force, and brought strategic coherence to U.S.-Iran policy. But in moving forward the White House has also precariously raised the stakes: A collapse of the negotiations would not only signal that the region's most enduring global conflict is beyond the pale of rational solution -- the failure of nuclear diplomacy would kill also off the chances for internal political reform in Iran itself.

The prospects for opening Iran's political arena have always partly hinged on ending, or at least attenuating, the three-plus decades of U.S.-Iranian cold -- and sometimes hot -- war. Iran's hardliners have benefitted from, and even depended on, this conflict to sustain their domestic power. Going back to the mid-90s, they invoked the U.S. "threat" to justify repressing a reform movement which they accused of being a fifth column for a U.S. cultural "invasion." But their consolidation of power was also informed by the hard-liners' key assumption, and hope, that the U.S. would never run the military or political risks of a decisive choice between war or diplomacy. This bet in favor of strategic incoherence in U.S.-Iran policy turned out to be a good one.

Strange as it seems, this absence of strategic coherence was predicated on sanctions. Imposing sanctions supposedly proved U.S. determination to be "tough" on Iran, but by themselves they did not constitute a strategy. Instead, they acted as a Rorschach test to reflect the different desires of the key players. Many Israeli and Saudi leaders -- as well as some members of the U.S. Congress -- hoped that sanctions would force Iran to totally dismantle its nuclear enrichment program. Barring that unlikely outcome, sanctions were depicted as either a device to weaken Iran in the lead up to a military attack, or an ineffective mechanism whose inevitable failure would compel the U.S. to resort to force.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has deployed both of these seemingly contrasting but ultimately converging views, declaring sanctions useless one day, only to praise them later as a tremendous success. Either way he probably never saw sanctions as an integral part of "dual track" strategy designed to facilitate a diplomatic solution. Seeing their diplomatic potential requires accepting the elemental premise that sanctions can, and indeed should, be eventually removed in return for a negotiated solution -- their purpose is not to achieve total victory, but rather to facilitate making peace.

The longer this politically expedient arrangement of everyone pretending to agree on the purpose of sanctions lasted, the more it benefitted Iran and its closest allies, including Syria. After all, a decade plus of strategic indecision allowed Tehran to expand its enrichment programs and to protect them by digging deeper. This not only ensured that Iran would have more to "bargain away" in any talks, it also raised the strategic costs and risks for the use of force. If by 2010 U.S. military leaders were signaling their lack of enthusiasm for an attack, this was because many had concluded that a military approach required weeks if not months of war with Iran -- after Iraq and Afghanistan it wasn't only the American public that opposed new military adventures.

Such calculations pointed to only one reasonable option: a diplomatic solution. It is interesting to note that the Obama administration apparently came to this conclusion months before Hassan Rouhani's surprise election -- well before most U.S. Iran experts could envision Iran's domestic politics tolerating the return of former Ambassador to the UN Javad Zarif, and his pragmatic foreign policy camp, as Rouhani's foreign minister. Now that they are leading Iran's nuclear policy team -- with, of course, the Supreme Leader's critical blessing (or at least acquiescence) -- the challenge facing the administration is to negotiate a final deal that Zarif and his allies can defend as a reasonable compromise without provoking retaliation from either domestic hard-line opponents or those in the U.S. and the Middle East who still think that Iran's total capitulation is a feasible goal.

Creating this sweet spot will be impossible if the U.S. imposes more sanctions. The oft-repeated Washington mantra that "sanctions got the Iranians to negotiate" is true, but only in a very limited sense: Sanctions have enhanced the domestic leverage of foreign policy pragmatists who, under Zarif's leadership, argue that the Obama administration is ready for a compromise that includes removing all nuclear-related restrictions. New sanctions will not only destroy the pragmatists' credibility -- it will decimate their wider bid to advance a new domestic reform project.

This project is far more about politics than economics. Rouhani is leading a still wobbly alliance of reformists and more moderate conservatives who are trying to reopen a political field that had become dangerously polarized after eight years of repressive rule. Thus the notion that Rouhani is nothing but "wolf in sheep's clothing" is profoundly wrong; Iran's new president and his political allies are more like agile rabbits trying to avoid the sharp claws of hard-line predators who would like nothing more than to reassert their mastery of the political terrain.

What separates hard-liners and pragmatists is elemental: the pragmatists want a more inclusive political détente at home, but cannot make progress without new policies of economic and political détente directed towards the Arab Gulf, Europe and the U.S; it is exactly this crucial link between domestic reform and international engagement that worries hard-liners. The hardliners know very well -- as do many advocates of a more pluralistic politics -- that a nuclear deal is a prerequisite for ending what Rouhani himself has called "the suppression and radicalism of the last eight years."

Thus far the Supreme Leader has restrained the hard-liners. Khamenei's support for the pragmatists is driven not merely by his desire to end sanctions, but more fundamentally, by his interest in reestablishing a political consensus that would rehabilitate his own authority as the master arbiter of the political arena. Whatever his ideological priorities -- always a matter of intense speculation by Washington's Iran specialists and foreign policy pundits -- it is hard-nosed calculations of political survival and state interest that are probably keeping the Supreme Leader in the game.

Should the U.S. and other P5+1 states indulge such calculations? Not if it means accepting a final nuclear deal that lacks the intrusive inspections and other tough safeguards mechanisms that the international community has demanded. But if Washington can get a reasonable compromise, it will align nuclear diplomacy with the long-term quest for a more open politics in Iran. Rather than take actions that derail this still fragile dynamic, the U.S. should emphasize the strategic gains that will accrue to all Middle East states when and if Iranian leaders who favor détente at home and abroad can finally claim a measure of real victory.



Half a Billion Clicks Can’t Be Wrong

What big data tells us about next year’s crisis zones.

Everyone likes to close the outgoing year with lists and rankings of the year gone by, and a particular favorite of the foreign policy world is the fragility index, ranking every nation in the world by how much it destabilized or re-stabilized over the previous year -- then estimating when and if 2014 might be the year it finally unravels. In a city where it seems you can't sit down to lunch without hearing the neighboring table's prognostications on the fate of world, Washington is of course no stranger to such rankings, where it seems every think tank, academic, and policy wonk around town has their picks. What then could big data possibly contribute to this mix?

Most country instability rankings blend a combination of structural indicators like GDP or infant mortality with lists of conflict events like attacks, coups, and protests -- and perhaps even some subject-matter expert scores tossed in for good measure. The more sophisticated rankings usually incorporate a list of major conflicts from the preceding year compiled from news coverage, often curated by hand and including just the largest events deemed by the compilers as the most important. Yet, while the lists of events fed to these models are traditionally drawn from news coverage, most current event databases view the news as merely a "daybook" of physical occurrences to be cataloged into a spreadsheet. In doing so, they ignore one of the media's greatest information channels: the differences in the volume of coverage each event receives, which proxies the news media's view as to how broadly "significant" or "newsworthy" the event was.

The 2011 Egyptian Tahrir Square protest or the 2013 Euromaidan protest in Kiev would count as a single "protest event" in most datasets (or at least each day of the protest would count as an event), meaning there is no way to distinguish these two protests from the tens of thousands of other protests around the world that occurred at the same time. Yet, it takes only a single glance at the world's headlines on those days to notice the near-global discussion centering on Tahrir Square or the Maidan, offering a rapid assessment that the world viewed them as particularly significant. Even in the case of more routine unrest, the global visibility an action receives through an avalanche of media coverage escalates its profile and potential impact, irrespective of what theory or past events might suggest. Indeed, my 2011 "Culturomics 2.0" study demonstrated the unique insights gleaned from looking at how the media covers an event, rather than just what it covers.

The Global Database of Events, Language, and Tone (GDELT) project is the largest event database in the world, capturing over a quarter-billion events in every country, down to the city level -- across 300 categories, from 1979 to the present, and with daily updates of 100,000 events a day. 

Moreover, GDELT is 100 percent free, with the entire dataset available for immediate download and a growing ecosystem of tools available to work with it. It uses a fully automated system to monitor the world's news media across every country and compile a daily database not only of what's happening, but, of greatest interest here, of how much media attention it is receiving. Thus, using GDELT's "Material Conflict" category, which encompasses the wide range of conflict activities that nations undergo, one can quite easily compile a massive database of conflict in 2013 and how many articles covered each event. Then we can instantly compare it with 2012's unrest to create a ranking of the biggest trends of 2013.

Of course, the notion of measuring news attention is not new to the field of instability, and there are other rankings that attempt to integrate media volume in some way. What is unique here, however, is the sheer scale and global coverage that GDELT enables. In total, 675 million references to 69 million events were processed to locate all Material Conflict events worldwide in 2012-2013 and recorded by GDELT, scoring each event by the total number of media mentions it received. 

The resulting report is likely the largest event-based annual country ranking ever created, massively dwarfing the mere 3 million events captured by the U.S. Department of Defense's Integrated Crisis Early Warning System (ICEWS)database during this period, despite ICEWS' price tag now exceeding upwards of $50 million.  GDELT's size and scope offer the unique opportunity to essentially passively "crowdsource" the global news media and see what the most newsworthy conflict stories of 2013 were compared with 2012, while its open nature allows others to build on the ranking presented here and create their own rankings and deep-dives of the data.

In summary, to create the map you see here, every Material Conflict event in 2013 was compiled by country and the total volume of news coverage each received was tallied. Countries which had a reduction in the volume of global news coverage of their conflict in 2013 compared with 2012 are colored green, while those with increases are colored in red. Yellow countries are those which did not experience a significant change in volume about their conflict between the two years. 

It is important to note two critical things about this ranking. The first is that it focuses on change in coverage of conflict, not the raw volume of that coverage itself. It is obviously not news that Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria are all still undergoing intense conflict -- the policymaking question is whether they are getting any better (at least in the eyes of the news media). Thus, Syria, which ranks No. 2 out of all countries in terms of total raw volume of conflict, actually had the greatest decrease in coverage of that conflict in 2013 (despite a major chemical weapons attack in August 2013) and thus is green in the map above. The second thing to keep in mind is that this ranking combines all forms of conflict, both domestic and foreign. France's significant increase in conflict comes from a combination of domestic strife from increasing immigrant unrest, anti-Semitism, class wars, and societal fractionalization -- but also its foreign military interventions in Africa, from Mali to Central African Republic.

The top entry on the list, Egypt, will likely surprise few. After 2011's revolution, 2012 was a relatively calm year so to speak, but 2013 saw the country unravel at the seams. India has had a tumultuous year, from sexual violence to protests, while al-Shabab and radicalism continued to take root in Kenya, including the Westgate shopping mall attack. Terrorism is also back in the spotlight in Russia, including links to April's Boston Marathon bombing and a growing domestic danger, while anti-Putin crackdowns, increasing anti-gay and anti-immigrant violence, and a rising neo-Nazi and nationalistic fervor cement it firmly in the top five of 2013.  On the other end of the spectrum, for all of the talk about Iran this past year, in terms of actual material conflict, it had the fifth-greatest shift away from coverage of its unrest, and 2013 was a relatively quiet year for Israel, as well, compared to 2012's military action against Hamas in Gaza.

Of course, the best part is being able to dive in yourself, so without further ado, download the complete 172-page report and take a look at the countries you are most interested in or check out how they compare in the master ranking table at the end of the report. Take a look through what a big data view of 675 million mentions of conflict tell us about how the world is changing. When you're done, sign up for the new GDELT Daily Trends Report email and get a miniature version of this delivered to your inbox each morning. Big data is giving us our first glimpse of a world in which we can map the Earth's riots as well as we can its earthquakes and hurricanes -- and all from just reading the news a little more carefully.

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