Iran’s Two Clocks

By Daniel Luban

The images coming out of Iran in recent days have spoken for themselves, and I don’t have much to add to what others have said. It is nearly impossible for anyone — let alone an outsider half a world away — to predict what the outcome of the protests will be.

Still, the protests have helped drive home the message that the logic of the democracy issue is distinct from the logic of the nuclear issue. While hawks in the U.S. and Israel have been more than happy to clothe themselves in the moral legitimacy of the protesters to build support for taking a harder line with Tehran, all indications are that their ultimate goal — a military attack against Iranian nuclear facilities — would prove disastrous for the nascent democracy movement.

Jeffrey Goldberg notes that there are “two clocks” governing the democracy and nuclear issues, writing: “It would be best for everyone if the people of Iran could triumph over their oppressors before the regime goes definitively nuclear. The peace of the world may depend on this.” What he fails to note, however, is that these clocks do not exist in a vacuum. The path that the West takes on the nuclear issue has enormous ramifications for the success or failure of the protesters.

Moreover, the really salient “nuclear clock” does not concern Iran’s march to the bomb — U.S. intelligence estimates that Iran would not have the capacity to produce highly enriched uranium until at least 2013, if it even chose to do so — but rather the West’s march to war. In the next few months, the Obama administration is sure to come under enormous pressure either to launch a military attack or to acquiesce to an Israeli attack; such an attack would be likely to set back the “democracy clock” significantly, and perhaps even snuff out the Green Movement entirely. Our capacity to harm the protesters, in other words, seems to be fair greater than our capacity to aid them. And the disjuncture between the “two clocks” has rarely been as striking as at the present — for just as the democracy protests appear to be cresting, the push for war in the U.S. is escalating significantly in its own right.

As noted, it is difficult to judge the democracy clock with any accuracy, and the Green Movement’s prospects seem to vary on a daily (and even hourly) basis. While I would like to believe that we are witnessing the regime’s death throes, any such optimism must be tempered by the knowledge that the regime’s ability to maintain its power by force might long outlast its popular legitimacy. The protesters’ strength is by all indications much greater than it was even a few days ago. But it also possible that the end result for the near future will be neither all-out victory or defeat, but rather periodic and recurring cycles of unrest and repression.

The Washington clock, however, has been advancing more steadily and inexorably. The hawks’ plan, from the time Obama took office, has been to set a firm deadline for diplomacy (the end of the year or before) at which point the U.S. would move to sanctions. When sanctions failed to show results within a few months (as nearly everyone agrees is likely), the push for war would begin in earnest.

This is the strategy codified in last year’s Bipartisan Policy Center report “Meeting The Challenge,” which Jim aptly described as a “roadmap to war”. The report — signed onto by Dennis Ross, now the Obama administration’s National Security Council point man on Iran — was notable for its apparent insistence that both diplomacy and sanctions were likely to fail, and were therefore worth trying chiefly in order to build international support for an inevitable military attack.

So far, events in Washington have been roughly conforming to the script. Michael Rubin (one of the chief drafters of the BPC report) recently wrote that “over the last year…[the report] seems to be a play-by-play of U.S. strategy toward Iran”. December saw the passage in the House of the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act (IRPSA), the sanctions bill targeting Iran’s refined petroleum sector that has been the top priority of AIPAC and other hawkish lobby groups. A parallel Senate bill was recently delayed, but appears to be on track for passage early in the new year.

But unsurprisingly, the imposition of sanctions seems only to have whetted, not sated, the hawks’ appetite for war. Alan Kuperman’s long New York Times op-ed from last week urging military strikes (which Jim has already discussed in more depth) was a warning shot, and we can expect more of the same in the months to come. As Marc Lynch writes, “one of the great foreign policy challenges of 2010 is going to be to push back on this mad campaign for another pointless, counter-productive war for the sake of war.”

All this means that 2010 is shaping up to be a very tense year for the Green Movement; it may have to worry not only about the Iranian regime, but also about overenthusiastic or disingenuous “supporters” in Washington and Jerusalem. The democracy clock and nuclear clock have diverged sharply in recent months, and the real question is not whether the Green Movement can triumph before Iran gains a nuclear capability, but whether it can do so before these Western “supporters” deal it a potentially fatal blow.

[Cross-posted at The Faster Times.]

Daniel Luban

Daniel Luban is a postdoctoral associate at Yale University. He holds a PhD in politics from the University of Chicago and was formerly a correspondent in the Washington bureau of Inter Press Service.



  1. Will there be a Tiananmen Square event in Iran in 2010? Don’t bet against it. The Green Movement is unarmed; the regime is not going to just roll over and die. The clerics and the security forces are not going to choose exile; cornered rats fight to the death. And I say again, the Green Movement is unarmed . . . . What are the odds the Iranian army will refuse to shoot down unarmed civilians? Would it prevent the security forces from doing so? I wish I knew.

    Any views on whether Iran’s offer to move its nuclear fuel to Turkey is a game-changer? I have no way of judging this myself, although past Iranian behavior leads me to believe it’s a ploy. With war talk in Israel and the U.S. taking on a more ominous tone, and the Iranian domestic situation in chaos, the regime is probably just trying to stave off an outside attack; I doubt they’ve undergone a change of heart on the nuke issue.

    The biggest question in my mind is: will Israel take advantage of the current chaos in Iran and the expiration of Obama’s Dec. 31 “deadline” to strike the nuclear facilities? From a tactical perspective, the time is perfect for this, or at least as good as it’s probably ever going to get. Secondary question to this: does Washington have the influence to stay Israel’s hand? I’m not so sure it does.

    I am very worried that both clocks are in reality fuses, and that both are going to blow up in the near future.

  2. The US continues missing two points on Iran: First, the unrest is still divided by class lines. The Greens have not been able to win over the majority of the urban poor or working class, without those key elements, there will be no new revolution. Second, since when has the Green movement been against the nuclear program? Mousavi has intensely defended Iran’s nuclear rights because everyone knows the country’s medical/hospital needs depend on nuclear power. If a truly revolutionary, independent movement were to take power in Iran, there would probably still be war considering it would still refuse to bow to Israeli/US imperial demands.

  3. The best thing the protesters can do is dump Mousavi and Rafsanjani and raise up their own leaders. There would be no better way for them to show that they are not just another coopted, US manipulated Color Coup ala Ukraine and Georgia.

  4. Just wondering. How come these protestors are keep on protesting in “allegedly dictatorship”. Am I wrong in expecting the protestors should have been shot on the first day itself, or picked up from their homes to be thrown out in deserts or oceans? I am confused. Either we don’t like Iranian democracy since it does not conform to our needs or Iran is a dictatorship. Then how come these protests are continuing? Even democracies would not allow such public disturbances. I am not still convinced that Iran is a threat to international order. 500 years of record is more convincing to me. I am scared to death with the rouge nature of America and Israel. Unpredictibility start and ends here.

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