Monday, March 2, 2009

Dealing Calmly With Revolutionary Iran

Iran: Aspiring Regional Power & Revolutionary Power

Fred Halliday has given us a good background on Iran:

the Iran of today appears as another case of a revolution that approaches its middle years far from abandoned or defeated. In domestic terms, the post-revolutionary climate is far freer and diverse than that seen in any other revolution; a wide range of opinions and interpretations of the revolution itself and its programme can be heard - even if violence, cruelty and intimidation are never far away. The presidential elections of June 2009 are even more important in this regard in signalling how Iran's past will influence its future course; though given the plurality of power-centres and opinions, even they will not be definitive.

In international terms, Iran - exactly like its other post-imperial counterparts, France, Russia and China - is pursuing a "dual" foreign policy: one that combines aspirations to regional and military power with continued promotion of radicalism in neighbouring countries.

How do we deal with such a vigorous, diverse revolutionary movement?

1) Do not panic. The revolution has been around for a generation. Differences between the West and Iran exist; a crisis does not.

2) Do not insult. Zealots thrive on frontal attack. Make psychological space for moderates.

3) Offer respectful interaction. As Halliday notes, the same elite that is pursuing revolutionary goals is also trying to improve Iran’s “regional and military power” position. The resulting contradictions offer room for the West to maneuver and bargain.

4) Look for opportunities to influence but do not expect it to copy our approach. And why should it? Has the American moral performance (e.g., Gaza, Lebanon, Iraq, New Orleans) been so upright, its military performance (e.g., Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia) so victorious, or its economic performance so enriching that the whole world should adopt our model?

Washington might also try an approach so novel that it has never once been tried in all the years since 1978: it might try being consistent so the Iranians can figure out what it is that the confusing, erratic, self-contradictory, faction-ridden Americans really want.


If we accept the above argument that Iran is both an aspiring regional power and a revolutionary power, then we can start to figure out how to deal with this two-headed country. (Hint: negotiate with the head you feel most comfortable with!) Of course, life with Iran will not be simple, any more than it is simple with an aggressively militant superpower that also has strains of holier-than-thou exceptionalism. At any point one never knows which faction is in control. Hence the need for a consistent foreign policy. (Truth in advertizing: the popular factional model of Iranian politics is just that - a "model." Reality is far more complex. In reality, the existence of factions is questionable. Each individual can simultaneously be both an advocate of traditional national power and an advocate of revolutionary idealism. This is NOT bad news. It means opportunities always exist.)

Compromise will work best when Tehran is in its "regional power" mood. Power is understandable. Of course, Washington has to have the foreign policy professionalism to accept that Iran, like every other country, naturally aspires to status, respect, and influence. But having taken that (theoretically simple but evidently, judging from history, difficult) step, everything is negotiable.

But revolutionaries also negotiate. They also want to eat and, occasionally, to be respected and even invited to parties they publicly scorn.

With that introduction, lets consider what Washington might want from Iran. Here's the list of potential U.S. goals I offered earlier:

  • Reduced support for insurgencies (or, better, Islamic activism) in the Levant;
  • Putting on ice any plans to militarize nuclear capabilities;
  • A deal that would allow U.S. forces to leave Iraq peacefully;
  • A land supply route into Afghanistan;
  • Help pacifying Pakistan’s Baluchistan.

Islamic Activism. Hamas is Sunni, so Iranian aid to Hamas doesn't necessarily do much for Iranian revolutionary spirit. I wonder what Iran might do in return for an invitation to set up Shi'ite "cultural centers" in Palestine? As for Hezbollah, that party has already evolved a long way from its insurgent origins.

Point #1: Iranian support for Hamas and Hezbollah are two distinct issues.
Point #2: Iranian support for Islamic activism in the Levant is mostly about traditional power politics. Invite Iran to the table and/or solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and you are half way home.

Nuclear Militarization. According to the IAEA, Iran seems already to have signaled in practice acceptance of this point, after having long asserted in principle that nuclear bombs were not a regime goal or even a morally acceptable goal. The key here seems, not surprisingly, to be Western acceptance that Iran should be allowed to play by the same rules as everyone else plus discretion. Those in the West who make a big noise about the theoretical future Iranian nuclear threat may have ulterior motives; their noise is not conducive to resolving this issue. For sensitive revolutionaries and cool, calculating power politicians, nuclear rights are important. It is not at all clear that either sees actual possession of nuclear arms as critical.

Point #1. The West could make possession of nuclear arms much less attractive by approaching the issue unemotionally and thoughtfully.

Escape from Iraq. I realize full well that I am making the huge leap of faith here that Washington wants to escape from Iraq. If it does, this is a winner for both sides. The U.S. gets out safely in return for Iran working with the Iraqi regime, as it currently does. Iranian regional status goes up, no doubt about it; Iran will have all sorts of unofficial links to Iraqi society. Get over it, Washington. Iran has been in the neighborhood for millenia; in fact, Iran has frequently been the neighborhood, and after the trashing of Iraq since 1991, Iran may well become the neighborhood again. Iranian revolutionaries will love the peaceful access to Iraqi society, and Iranian regional power advocates will love the rise in Iranian regional power.

Point #1: This is such an obvious deal that if Washington blows it, the obvious interpretation will be that Washington actually wants a crisis with Iran.

Land Route to Afghanistan. Very tricky. A good Shi'ite revolutionary will both faint at the prospect of Americans driving military convoys across Iran and rejoice at the thought of sticking it to the Sunni Taliban and, even more, the Sunni jihadis. Iranian power advocates will appreciate a thoughtful U.S. argument about "temporary U.S. presence in return for stabilization." Perhaps Iran would be so kind as to offer the U.S. a sealed train (Finland Station jokes will not be allowed).

Point #1: The U.S. negotiator for this issue should be culturally sensitive and soft-spoken. A real professional could cut a deal here.

Pacifying Baluchistan. Iranian revolutionaries may (just guessing; anyone have evidence?) welcome Baluchi chaos, with an eye to mucking around in Pakistan, where Shia are repeatedly victims of pogroms. Iranian "regional power" types will welcome the end to drug smuggling and cross-border terrorism against Iran.

Point #1: There is probably a deal to be made here, but I suspect it will provoke controvery within the elite in Iran. Be patient.

The Bottom Line: All sorts of profitable opportunities exist for both sides.

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