So what now on Iran?

It isn't easy to be the pessimist on Iran's Green Movement. Everyone wants to support the brave protestors and most everyone hopes to see them prevail over an increasingly thuggish regime. I do. But over the last few weeks, Washington DC seemed to have talked itself into something more -- a belief that Iranian regime change was actually nigh, and that such regime change from below was actually more likely and easier than a negotiated deal on the nuclear program. I've been skeptical in public and private...I've been watching Arab regimes survive in the face of popular dissatisfaction for decades, and have seen all too clearly that while Middle Eastern regimes aren't good at much, they're pretty darned good at staying in power. Still, over the last few weeks I've read countless articles, and been told conspiratorially by many Iran-watchers, that February 11 would be the breakthrough for the Green Movement. And now it's pretty clear that it wasn't. So what now?

Today's fizzle shouldn't have surprised anyone, even if many hoped for more. We shouldn't read too much into it, even if expectations had been raised. But the prospects for regime change have seemed to me less likely over time rather than more likely. During those chaotic first days after the "election" fiasco, there may have been the chance for a massive cascade to change things before the regime could rally itself. But it survived that (and would have, probably even more easily, has the Obama administration publicly taken a position). Since then, it has systematically repressed and divided the opposition, harrassed its leadership and members, and taken steps to shore up its instruments of control. The internet may or may not have played a decisive role in fueling the Green Movement, but either way the regime is now prepared to shut it down when necessary. The Shi'a tradition of commemorations and major national anniversaries do offer focal points for organization and mobilization, but it also tells the regime exactly where and when to expect protest activity. In short, I fully believe that the Iranian regime is more unpopular and less legitimate than ever before -- but just don't see it as especially vulnerable at the moment. 

That's why I think the Obama team has been absolutely right to refrain from "banking on a protest movement which may sputter out or be crushed." It lacks, as one might say, "the satisfying purity of indignation." But it's the right call. We need to accept the limits of American influence over events in Iran. That doesn't mean that the U.S. shouldn't push for human rights and criticize repression -- I think that the administration should support public freedoms in Iran just as it should across the Arab world (and beyond). But it shouldn't count on a regime change from below which will largely be shaped by internal Iranian dynamics and not by American posturing.

What are the alternatives? Some seem to want a grand Presidential speech declaring solidarity with the Green Movement. These are often the same people who used to mock Obama's faith in his own rhetoric, but no matter -- people change, as do circumstances.  Would such a speech help? I doubt it. This would actually be a domestically popular move...but would have real costs which Obama is wise to avoid. It may embolden the protestors, but they are already plenty motivated on their own. It would be making an implicit promise that the U.S. would protect them if they tried to do more -- a promise which almost certainly could not be redeemed. It would also make it all the easier for the regime to demonize and discredit the opposition as American pawns and puppets. I just don't see much hope that indigenous regime change, with or without overt U.S. encouragement, is going to be the magic bullet... but think it's marginally more likely if the U.S. doesn't insert itself in the middle and make itself the issue.

The growing drumbeat for war remains as irresponsible and poorly reasoned as ever. I find it reassuring that Obama's advisers describe the main goal of their strategy as avoiding war. I would be thrilled if I could never again be forced to listen to someone explain how war is the only logical choice, the costs won't be that high and the gains enormous. But then I'd have to get out of the foreign policy business, because advocates of war always make such arguments. An American or Israeli military strike would be risky, would have massive human costs, would be devastating for the rest of Obama's grand strategy, would likely lead to dramatic turn for the worse in Iraq, would have significant (if temporary) effects on the global economy, and would likely strengthen the regime rather than weaken it. It should not be considered a serious policy option.

Nor do I think that there's a grand bargain to be had at the moment. There might have been in the opening months of Obama's Presidency, had he made different choices and approached the problem with a fresher conceptual framework. There were a lot of good ideas out there early on, about putting Iran into a wider regional framework and breaking down the rigid binary oppositions of the Bush era. We'll never know whether the electoral crisis killed the chances for momentum or whether the strategy of simultaneously engaging and preparing for sanctions when engagement failed was doomed from the start. But there's no going back, and the die is cast.

So that leaves us with negotiations and sanctions... which don't seem to have great prospects right now, but at least avoid the worst outcomes of the other approaches.  The sanctions would likely work better if they remain carefully targeted and tightly linked to negotiating strategy (i.e. the White House approach) rather than being primarily expressive and driven by domestic politics (i.e. the Senate's version). Engagement should be combined with a consistent message of U.S. support for public freedoms and human rights, which could raise the international and domestic costs of the regime's repression without tarnishing the opposition movement by association. The overall focus should be on ways to build the conditions under which a negotiation strategy can work -- no easy task, but the best option available. In general, we'd all do better if we could focus public discourse less on hopes for regime change and war, and more on the less sexy but more helpful question of how to make a negotiations strategy work.


Marc Lynch

The damage to the Iraqi elections is already done

I've been too busy dealing with the DC Snowpocalypse to blog this week. There have been some interesting developments in stories which I follow, though, which I wanted to at least briefly comment upon. First up, Iraq, where the de-Ba'athification circus is continuing. My hopes from last week that the Appeals Court had put an end to the crisis were premature, as a dizzying series of political and institutional manuevers have kept it very much alive. You can get a good summary of the state of play here, and check out excellent analysis from Gregg Carlstrom, Mike Hanna and Reider Visser.

Over the last few days, the Appeals Court's dismissal of the de-Ba'athification verdicts fell apart. The Presidency Council stepped in before a scheduled emergency session of Parliament could be convened, overruled the dismissal and determined that all the appeals should be heard by February 12. There are conflicting reports on how this is playing out, but the latest news is that the IHEC released a list of 6712 approved candidates which did not include Saleh al-Mutlak or Dhafer al-Ani, the two most prominent banned Sunni candidates (this presumably could change tomorrow). Calls to delay the elections to allow the vetting process time to play out have (thankfully) been brushed aside, while Mutlak is threatening a boycott. Meanwhile, street protests for and against the de-Ba'athification bans are merging seamlessly into the supposedly yet to begin election campaigns, while the Baathist witch-hunt is spreading to the local level with potentially dangerous consequences.

I still expect this to work out in one way or the other and for the elections to go ahead, and for some Sunni politicians to take advantage of any attempt by others to boycott. I don't expect it to lead directly to a return of the insurgency. But at the same time, by this point significant damage has probably already been done no matter how (and even if) the crisis is worked out. The prospects for the March 7 election to be a transformative event heralding a new Iraq, with fresh leadership, robust legal institutions and a post-sectarian complexion now seem scant. The legitimacy of the electoral process and the independence of Iraqi institutions have been thrown into serious question among both Iraqis and the international community. Sunni-Shia resentments have been rekindled, with such polarization evidently being seen as a winning electoral strategy in certain quarters. Sunni participation may well be depressed, though a full-out boycott is unlikely. The damage is likely to me measured in increments, not in a single apocalyptic collapse.

The prospects of the elections returning a Parliament and Prime Minister which look a lot like the current one, frustrating the hopes for change, seems higher today than it did a month ago. If the campaign season and actual voting is marred by significant fraud or abuses, as many of those targeted by the de-Ba'athification process warn, we could be heading towards an Afghan or even Iranian post-electoral crisis -- so international and American efforts right now should be oriented towards standing up a robust and credible international electoral monitoring system to try to head that off.

Despite all the U.S. efforts to keep a low profile while working behind the scenes for a rational solution -- the best it could have done in the circumstances -- it is now being publicly lambasted for its interference. Vice President Biden and Ambassador Hill's efforts to secure a compromise -- seen as too little by many American critics --  have nonetheless become a lightning rod for nationalist and sectarian rhetoric. Those Americans who continue to call on the Obama administration to "do more" in Iraq should pay careful attention to Nuri al-Maliki's direct criticism of the American role, to the denunciation of David Petraeus as a "Baathist," and to the generally pugnacious and antagonistic discourse about the U.S. in the Iraqi electoral atmosphere. Staying longer and doing more are not really in the cards.  

UPDATE:  There seems to have been an official ruling that the ban on Mutlak and al-Ani will stand, and they will not be allowed to run in the election. Expect a hot weekend.