Daniel Brumberg of the U.S. Institute of Peace and Barry Blechman of the Stimson Center follow up on their recent report about engaging Iran with a lengthy piece on the Middle East Channel of Foreign Policy‘s website.
“The problem,” they write, “is that democratic reform in Iran is a long-term proposition. As a result, it cannot serve as the basis for an effective U.S.-Iran policy.”
“If the Obama White House were to rest its efforts to dissuade Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons on regime change, it would end up with an Iran policy as incoherent as those of the administrations that preceded it.”
Even though President Barack Obama seems to be trying very hard to distance himself from past polices — and avoiding the same results — Burmberg and Blechman write his policy is still muddled. (What are sanctions for, in the end? they ask, for example: “[W]e need to define that end far more clearly.”) The uncertain policy outcomes from the administration’s Iran policy creates room for more radical proposals like regime change:
As support for engagement wanes in Washington, calls for regime change are reverberating in the U.S. Congress and out national media. The idea that we can slay the Iranian nuclear dragon by destroying its autocratic heart will probably become a leitmotif of the House and quite possibly the Senate in 2011.
This seems to be the “forget negotiations” approach taken by a bipartisan group of six Senators who called on Obama to ensure ‘zero enrichment’ in any agreement. It’s almost definitely a deal-breaker for the current leadership of the Islamic Republic — or for even a reformed Islamic Republic.
Brumberg and Blechman explore many of these contradictions. Their piece should be informative for regime change hawks who constantly push the need for more aggressive U.S. support of domestic dissent in Iran (my emphasis):
Political reform will eventually come to Iran, but in manner far more prolonged and partial than that imagined by advocates of a full-scale democratic revolution. This kind of dramatic scenario may pluck a tour heart strings, but it has not been the animating vision of Iran’s reformists. The latter speak for a 25-million urban middle class of Iranians, many whom share one goal: to compel the state to stop forcing religious dogma on the population.
There is very little the U.S. can or should do to affect this prolonged dynamic [of the reform movement]. The more we embrace Iran’s democratic activists, the more we suffocate them. Iran’s reformists want the international community to stand up for their human rights; they do not want to be pawns of a U.S.-Iranian conflict. In a land where concerns about national sovereignty and religious identity cut across the regime-opposition divide, the quest for democracy will be discredited if it is seen as anything but homegrown.
There is one thing, however, that the U.S. can do promote political decompression in Iran, and that is to make détente with the Islamic Republic a top priority. Sustained U.S.-Iranian engagement would undercut the “threat” that ultra hardliners regularly invoke to legitimate their efforts to pummel or isolate their critics.
That’s been a huge problem of the discourse in the U.S. about Iran — one cannot make a priority both of the nuclear issue and the democracy issue. The same could be said of attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities.
The nuclear clock and the democratic clock are not in sync. Those in the United States who propose bombing Iran in order to both slow down the nuclear clock and speed up the democratic clock are being disingenuous. This is not to say that an accelerated democratic clock — leading to reform — won’t be more favorable to the West and may well slow down the nuclear clock itself. But the process of accelerating the democratic clock (a policy of regime change) holds the dangerous (and likely) possibility of backfiring and creating further insecurity and resentment. And insecurity and resentment would seem to be the top reasons behind the Iranian nuclear drive in the first place.