What's next for U.S. foreign policy on Iran?

As you can tell from my last post, I think here's an excellent chance that the status quo persists in Iran, with a small chance that the entire edifice crumbles in the wake of a social movement unafraid of security forces.  What does this mean for U.S. foreign policy towards Iran? Here's a dirty little secret -- this might actually be the best possible outcome for the Obama administration. 

Well, not for the next few days. The administration is going to have to tap-dance for the next few days in order to avoid the Schylla of a "Chicken Kiev" moment and the Charybdis of going all in with the reformers only to see them crushed. 

After that, then what? Well, I think the only way the reformers win is with Khamenei going down, which would mean a genuine regime change, which is a game-changer. A new Iranian regime is not going to give up its nuclear program lightly, but I do suspect that negotiations with a reformist regime would be pretty fruitful. 

What if, as I suspect, the current regime keeps its grip on power?  Well, the Obama administration still has a stronger hand to play.  Here's why: 

1)  Tehran's influence in the region is going to ebb. Iran's power in the Middle East in recent years has emanated from a mix of hard power (nuke progam, oil, support of Hebollah) and soft power (Ahmadinejad's economic populism, ranting against corrupt Arab elites, and general pugnaciouness towards Israel).  Regardless of the result now, the election has killed their soft power in the region.  This doesn't mean that Iran's influence disappears -- see all the hard power stuff.  Still, with each passing day of protests, Ahmadinejad looks more like a bully than a leader of a transnational social movement. 

2)  Multilateral coordination just got easier.  Just as with North Korea, it gets ever easier for the United States to create a united front among its allies and other great powers when dealing with Iran going forward.  The reaction in the West has been pretty uniform on the election results.  When the nuclear negotiations break down -- and they will break down -- it should be easier to coordinate both the security and foreign policy responses.

3)  No more two-level games for Iran. If Mousavi had won outright, the Obama administration would have been in a serious bind on the nonproliferation question. The president of Iran doesn't control the nuclear program; the supreme leader controls it. With Mousavi as the public face of Iran, however, it would have been tougher for the Obama administration to describe Iran as unyielding when it refused to make any serious concessions on its nuclear program.  Furthermore, Mousavi could always ask the Obama administration to back off on the nuclear question because of hardliner resistance back home. That gambit won't play, now.

This doesn't mean that nuclear negotiations will go swimmingly -- I expect they will fail.  What it does mean, however, is that the rest of the world will be hard-placed to blame the end of the negotiations on the Obama administration.  Iran is going to look like the intransigent actor from here on in. 

Just to be clear:  I'm not saying that this outcome is a great one for the United States.  Washington has a weak hand to play.  My point is that, compared to the counterfactual of an Iran with Mousavi as its public face and Khamenei remaining the true leader, this is somewhat preferrable. The "pleasing illusions" of clerical power in Iran have now been stripped bare.

Daniel W. Drezner

Trying for the full Huntington

As I've said before, I've greatly admired Samuel Huntington's career. Huntington's gift as an academic is that he has been unafraid to make the politically incorrect argument, regardless of the consequences. This doesn't always mean he is right -- but it does mean he's usually interesting. I suspect that John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt are trying to copy the Huntington template in their essay, "The Israel Lobby" for the London Review of Books: Here's how it starts:

For the past several decades, and especially since the Six-Day War in 1967, the centrepiece of U.S. Middle Eastern policy has been its relationship with Israel. The combination of unwavering support for Israel and the related effort to spread democracy throughout the region has inflamed Arab and Islamic opinion and jeopardised not only U.S. security but that of much of the rest of the world. This situation has no equal in American political history. Why has the U.S. been willing to set aside its own security and that of many of its allies in order to advance the interests of another state? One might assume that the bond between the two countries was based on shared strategic interests or compelling moral imperatives, but neither explanation can account for the remarkable level of material and diplomatic support that the U.S. provides.

Instead, the thrust of U.S. policy in the region derives almost entirely from domestic politics, and especially the activities of the Israel Lobby. Other special-interest groups have managed to skew foreign policy, but no lobby has managed to divert it as far from what the national interest would suggest, while simultaneously convincing Americans that U.S. interests and those of the other country  in this case, Israel are essentially identical.

Well, that argument certainly won't rub anyone the wrong way. Interested readers should be sure to check out the longer, footnoted paper which is archived at the Kennedy School of Government. So do Mearsheimer and Walt achieve the full Huntington? No, not really. "The Israel Lobby" is the academic equivalent of waving a big red cape at one's ideological opponents, hoping they'll foam at the mouth and act stark raving mad because the authors cited Chomsky or CommonDreams, or because, "the Fatah office in Washington distributed the article to an extensive mailing list." [Or maybe they're pissed that they didn't crack the 100 Most Dangerous Professors in America!!--ed.] So let's avoid that bait. Reading the essay, I can conclude the following:

1) Mearsheimer and Walt make a decent case of arguing that interest group lobbying is responsible for some aspects of U.S. policy towards the Greater Middle East. Now this asssertion alone is enough to make people very uncomfortable at cocktail parties and other venues. Whenever I bring up ethnic lobbying in my American foreign policy class and mention Israel, everyone in the room tenses up. So kudos to Mearsheimer and Walt for speaking the taboo thought.

2) Shot through these papers are an awful lot of casual assertions that don't hold up to close scrutiny [Which makes it eerily similar to some of your blog posts!!--ed. True that.]. The authors assert that, "If Washington could live with a nuclear Soviet Union, a nuclear China or even a nuclear North Korea, it can live with a nuclear Iran. And that is why the Lobby must keep up constant pressure on politicians to confront Tehran." I'm pretty sure that there's more to U.S. opposition to Iran possessing nuclear weapons than the protection of Israel.

From the longer Kennedy paper, Mearsheimer and Walt make a fascinating logical assertion: "[T]he mere existence of the Lobby suggests that unconditional support for Israel is not in the American national interest. If it was, one would not need an organized special interest group to bring it about. But because Israel is a strategic and moral liability, it takes relentless political pressure to keep U.S. support intact." What's fascinating about this quote are the implicit assumptions contained within it: i) the only interest group in existence is the Lobby, and; ii) in the absence of the Lobby, a well-defined sense of national interest will always guide American foreign policy. It would be very problematic for good realists like Mearsheimer and Walt to allow for other interest groups -- oil companies, for example -- to exist. This would allow for a much greater role for domestic politics than realists ever care to admit.

Finally, they argue that the U.S. invaded Iraq only primarily because Israel and the Lobby -- in the form of neoconservatives -- wanted it. I wrote my take on this argument three years ago:

The notion that such a conspiracy exists rests on the belief that the administration's foreign policy principals -- Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, Dick Cheney, and Bush himself -- have somehow been duped by the neoconservatives into acting in a manner contrary to their beliefs. But while critics have never lacked for accusations against these officials, being weak-willed is not among them. In the end, it's far more likely that Bush is exploiting the neoconservatives' ideological arsenal to advance his preferred set of policies than vice versa.

3) There are sins of omission as well as commission. Walt and Mearsheimer assert that Israel has been a "strategic burden." They do a good job of cataloging why that's the case -- but omit important examples of Israel being useful, such as the 1981 Osirik bombing. They also go into depth on the Bush administration's policy towards the Palestinian Authority, but never mention the arms shipment that Arafat lied to Bush about as a causal factor behind Bush's decision to freeze out Arafat.

4) The evidence is pretty thin in some sections. To demonstrate the current political power of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, they cite a 1984 election where AIPAC was allegedly curcial. They argue that the Israeli-Palestine problem is at the root of Al Qaeda's beef with the United States -- which is funny, because I was pretty sure it was the presence of U.S. forces near the holy shrines of Mecca and Medina. They claim the Lobby is responsible for U.S. policy towards Syria, but that policy amounts to little more than some empty sabre-rattling.

After finishing the article, I began to wonder whether the paper is simple a massive exercise in explaining away a data point that realism can't cover. Most realists opposed the Iraq War, and Mearsheimer and Walt were no exception. They can and should take some normative satisfaction in being proven right by what happened after the invasion. However, I suspect as positive social scientists they are bothered by the fact that the U.S. invaded Iraq anyway when realism would have predicted otherwise. When realists are confronted with contradictory data, they tend to fall back on auxiliary hypotheses -- the cult of the offensive, the myth of empire -- that have very little to do with realism. Explaining away Iraq on The Lobby might have a whiff of the Paranoid Style, but it's certainly consistent with the literature.

In the end, I think Mearsheimer and Walt get to the full Huntington -- but alas, it's the Huntington of Who We Are? rather than The Soldier and the State. There's more I could write about, but I'm eager to hear what others think.

UPDATE: OK, I should have said, "I'm eager to hear what others think... after they read the article." Two final thoughts. First, I'm surprised and disappointed that the article has gotten zero coverage from the mainstream media in the United States. I completely agree with Walt and Mearsheimer that this is a topic that needs more open debate. Second, there's one non-event that keeps gnawing at me after reading the piece. If "The Lobby" is as powerful as Walt and Mearsheimer claim, why hasn't there been a bigger push in the United States for more fuel-efficient cars, alternative energy sources, and the like? After all, the only strategic resource that Israel's enemies possess is large quantities of oil. If "The Lobby" is so powerful and goal-directed, wouldn't they have an incentive to reduce the strategic value of their advesaries?

ANOTHER UPDATE: See this follow-up post on the Walt/Mearsheimer paper as well.