I might be wrong on Iran, but I'm not sure others are right

Continuing the Iran discussion, I see John Boonstra at UN Dispatch takes issue (respectfully) with my recent prognostications.  John's rejoinder:

[A] Rubicon may indeed have been crossed, with no going back to "the way things were" in Iran. That certainly seems to be the consensus. But I also wonder if it might be a bit of wishful thinking. There's a tendency to imbue events as-they're-happening as more important than they may turn out to be. To take just the color revolutions to which it has been so trendy to compare the situation in Iran: Ukraine's "Orange" and Georgia's "Rose" (not to mention Kyrgyzstan's "Tulip") were certainly major events, but the hype that they generated at the time far surpasses the attention that those countries, modestly different though their governments might be, attract today.

I think more useful comparisons would be Tianenmen or, better, the monks' uprising in Burma in late 2007. What these examples -- or even, as I suggested before, those of Kenya or Zimbabwe -- show us is the possibility of an outcome distinct from Drezner's either-or (or both) model. At the time, many thought that Burma's junta couldn't possibly survive such a brutal onslaught against the country's most venerable institution. But...it survived. In Iran, the possibilities are simply too many to predict: Khamenei may retrench, and allow Ahmadinejad to take the fall; or, the two of them may make some sort of minor concession to the protestors; or again, they could simply wait until the crowds peter out. Revolution is not inevitable. In such an interesting situation, nothing is.

As someone leery of historical analogies and fond of nuance, I would like to agree with what John is saying.  Except that I don't. 

First, I think it's pretty clear Khamenei is not going to retrench.  The moment he said that Ahmadinejad's victory was a "divine victory," he sealed his position on the matter.  He can't back down now.    I'm pretty sure supreme leaders in Iran don't change political tack because of mass protests -- it undercuts their claim to be, you know, supreme leaders.  In his latest sermon, Khamenei is doubling down on his bet with Ahmadinejad. 

Is there any other way this ends without one camp or the other abjectly losing?  I don't think so.  Minor concessions will not mollify the protestors.  A "compact"-like solution doesn't work terribly well here, since the factions don't trust each other enough to believe that force won't be used down the road.  A re-run of the election won't work, because Khamenei's been digging in his heels and can't back down now.  A straight-out Revolutionary Guards-style coup is possible, but that's going to come with a lot of bloodshed. 

Second, I think Boonstra is slightly misreading my post.  I'm not sure that Ahmadinejad and Khamenei will be out of power soon.  What I am pretty sure of is that the only way they're going to stay in power from hereon in is through a display of brute force on a Tiananmen-like scale. 

Third, Boonstra raises a valid question, which is whether a genuine regime transition would really mean all that much.  Color revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan have not necessarily amounted to all that much.  Similarly, I see that Steve Walt has reverted to "regime type is irrelevant" arguments with regard to Iranian foreign policy. 

Hmmm....... nope, not persuaded.  There are two big differences in the case of Iran.  The first is that, unlike all the other color revolution countries, Iran is a regional heavyweight.  Every other color revolution government had to worry about a more powerful neighbor who liked the old regime better staring them down.  Iran is a more powerful and less divided country.  This does not mean that realipolitik pressures will not apply -- but it does mean that they are less binding than in the case of, say, Ukraine.  And because of Iran's material power, a possible Green Revolution matters more in more strategic areas, like the Persian Gulf. 

On the nuclear question, I take Walt's points, but I'm not sure how relevant they are after the past week.  Post-regime transition governments have been quite willing to give up nuclear programs in the past -- Brazil, Argentina, South Africa, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine, to name a few.  Steve cites polls that show strong Iranian support for the nuclear program -- but those same polls also show strong opposition to creating nuclear weapons

Iran's security interests will remain paramount to any new government, of course.  But I do wonder just how much of Iran's insecurity has been a product of the current regime's own making.  Would a Mousavi/Rafsanjani regime be as insecure about its staus in the region? 

If, on the other hand, Khamenei and Ahmadinejad manage to keep their grip on power, I can't see them ever giving up their grip on their nuclear program, no matter what is on the table in negotiations. 

I'll leave this as an open question to readers -- to what extent would a post-Khamenei Iran have a different attitude towards its nuclear program? 

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.