Iran: What Now?
This is not the election result anyone but Iranian and Israeli hardliners hoped for. But all is not lost. While the Iranian leadership remains the same -- at least for now -- trends in the country and the region may still help President Obama's strategy to contain and engage Iran.
Post election, the Obama administration faces the same diplomatic challenges with Iran as before -- chief among them containing Iran's nuclear program. While Mir Hossein Mousavi, the reformist hope, might have been able to reverse the fierce nationalistic politics Mahmoud Ahmadinejad injected into the Iranian nuclear issue, the ultimate arbitrator of Iran's policy is neither man, but the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
As Carnegie Endowment scholar Karim Sadjadpour notes, "We should be clear about what we're dealing with. Just as we deal with Assad's Syria and Mubarak's Egypt, we now have to deal with Khamanei's Iran."
Despite the unfortunate result, the process of engagement must continue and the illusion of quick military or coercive options rejected. We do not negotiate with countries as a reward, but as a normal part of statecraft. The new challenge is to balance support for reformist and democratic movements in Iran with strategic diplomacy with Iran's leaders.
Senior administration officials struck the right chords with their comments over the weekend. "The administration will deal with the situation we have, not what we wish it to be," said one senior official. The task remains the same -- we must engage Iran in order to contain its nuclear program and channel its regional ambitions.
Obama's pragmatic approach should follow three simultaneous tracks: bilateral and multilateral talks over regional issues of common concern (Iraq and Afghanistan, chief among them); formal P5+1 talks with the other Security Council members and Iran on the nuclear program; and bilateral discussions on the broader US-Iranian relationship.
Contrary to what critics may argue, this does not imply caving in or giving away the store. This is hard-headed strategic diplomacy that has worked in the past to convince other countries to end nuclear. There are three developments that offer some promise that such an approach could succeed with Iran.
First, the election has exposed deep fissures in Iranian society and deep distrust of the ruling regime. Despite their triumphalist rhetoric, Iran's leaders must be troubled by the growing opposition to their dictatorial rule. The BBC reports that the situation inside Iran "is becoming unpredictable and potentially explosive." There is no telling where this could lead. Even if the protests subside, pragmatists among the elite may now push for greater accommodation with the West -- including compromise on the nuclear program -- in order to open trade and relieve the national economic distress that fueled Mousavi's unlikely rise.
Second, the continued pursuit of nuclear weapon capability carries risks for Iran. An Israeli military strike is one, but more ultimately menacing may be the reaction of Iran's Muslim neighbors. In the past three years, over a dozen Middle Eastern states have suddenly expressed interest in their own civilian nuclear programs, including Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. This is not about reducing their carbon footprint, it is a hedge against Iran. Iran's leaders have an interest in ending this nascent nuclear arms race before it is faced with multiple, nuclear-armed adversaries.
Third, Obama's Cairo speech demonstrated the renewed appeal of American ideals and began to rebuild ties to the Muslim world damaged by the brutal and unnecessary invasion of Iraq. Obama can back up his words with deeds through bold cuts in U.S. and Russian arsenals to show that the is serious about the global elimination of nuclear weapons, with serious efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with support for the democratic aspirations of all Muslim people, and with the continued withdrawal from Iraq and new campaigns against violent extremism in Afghanistan and Pakistan that do not rely primarily on military attacks. If he can take these steps, Obama could undercut the appeal of Ahmadinejad's brand of anti-Americanism in the greater Middle East.
The patience and balance that Obama has show thus far in his Iran approach must continue. There was never any indication that the president thought this was going to be quick or easy. The Iranian nuclear program built up a fierce momentum in recent years thanks to Bush's bungled efforts to overthrow the regime. It will take some years to slow and reverse this deadly direction.
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