The Daily Talking Points

News and views relevant to U.S.-Iran relations from Sept. 7-9

The week before the 10th anniversary of 9/11 saw several alarmist editorials about Iran in leading U.S. new outlets. Leon Panetta also did something he probably shouldn’t do: prophesize about Iranian domestic politics.

Forbes: The writing of Mark Dubowitz of the neoconservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies reads like a broken record. On Wednesday he produced yet another “Iranian threat” article fraught with hyperbole. This is how it begins:

Ten years after Sept. 11, the Islamic Republic of Iran constitutes the most serious threat to American national security, and its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is the world’s most deadly terrorist organization.

Dubowitz ends by admitting that the Obama administration’s sanctions policy has taken a toll on Iran’s economy, but says they are ineffective because “they have become an end in themselves, rather than means of making the regime vulnerable to other measures.” Dubowitz does not specify what “other measures” amounts to. He also criticizes the U.S. and E.U. for not providing “material support” to Iranians to overthrow their government in 2009.

The Washington Post: Another board editorial opinion piece argues that Iran is intent on building a nuclear weapon and has taken “two more steps toward” that goal without providing any supporting evidence.

Certainly Iran’s nuclear ambitions have advanced—even Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld admitted the Iranians would be “crazy” to not pursue nuclear weapons capability considering the threats they face—but many analysts argue that the Islamic Republic is moving towards “surge capability” or the ability to quickly produce a nuclear weapon should a situation require it. This capability would also serve as deterrence from foreign aggression. But the idea that Iran is trying to produce a nuclear weapon to have in hand suggests that it is pursuing an offensive rather than a defensive position, and considering its weak position both domestically and internationally, is that even plausible? Moreover, what could Iran possibly gain by attacking another country with a nuclear weapon? Surely nothing could exceed the losses such a move would result in if it was aimed at the U.S. and likely Israel as well.

Reuters: During an appearance on the Charlie Rose Show U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the Iranian reform movement is “learning” from the Arab Spring and “it’s a matter of time before that kind of change and reform and revolution occurs in Iran as well.”

Panetta also indirectly explained why pursuing an open regime change policy (advocated by Michael Ledeen and many of his neoconservative colleagues) is counterproductive for U.S. interests:

“We should try to take every step to try to support their effort but at the same time, we’ve got to analyze each situation to make sure that we do nothing that creates a backlash or that undermines those efforts.”

While “change” and “reform” are possible in the near future, revolution is unlikely. Most U.S. policy analysts abandoned the hope of another Iranian revolution in 2010 after it became clear that the Green Movement’s leadership was going to work within the system rather than directly against it — so it’s not clear why Panetta has revived that language.

Iranian discontent with their government is long-running and justified. Iranians are not only dissatisfied with President Ahmadinejad who no longer has the backing of even his superiors, they are also tired of the entire political and social system they are forced to live in. But as Iran analyst Farideh Farhi told me several months ago, revolutions don’t happen so quickly one after the other, and Iran’s revolution is only a little over 30 years old.

My own sense from talking to Iranians in the country during my last visit this year is that there was a narrow window of time in 2009 when millions were once again contemplating sacrificing everything, but it passed without its potential being seized. Since then the Green Movement has been simmering, but the leadership has lost much momentum. Iranians face deadly repression on a daily basis, but as shown by the revolutionary movements in Arab countries, that can’t be the only reason why people didn’t stay in the streets. Many Iranians told me they weren’t willing to fight to the death unless they were guaranteed that something worse wouldn’t replace the current government. Others didn’t seem able or willing to go that length. They were preoccupied with their jobs, their bills and family issues; they were simply trying to live. But considering the Islamic government’s history with political dissent, fighting to the death is the minimum requirement for bringing down this government forcefully and quickly. At present there is little to suggest that the majority of Iranians are going to take this approach.

Jasmin Ramsey

Jasmin Ramsey is a journalist based in Washington, DC.