The Green Movement opposition flexed its muscles again in Iran this week, taking advantage of anti-American protests on the anniversary of the 1979 seizure of the US embassy in Tehran (aka “the nest of spies”) to rally thousands of anti-Ahmadinejad protestors into the streets.
Unfortunately, the Green resurgence in Iran is causing some Iran watchers to fall into the same old trap: threatening to halt US-Iran negotiations in favor of support for democracy, or some semblance of it, in Iran. The latest to make this mistake is Ray Takeyh, a former adviser to the Obama-era State Department, whose op-ed in today’s Washington Post essentially suggests that America should cut off its negotiating nose to spite its pro-democracy face. He writes:
“Iran’s hard-liners need to know that should they launch their much-advertised crackdown, the price for such conduct may be termination of any dialogue with the West.”
What would the United States accomplish by ending dialogue with Iran, even a more repressive one? The United States has reasons both strategic and tactical for dealing with Iran, quite separate and distinct from our desire to see a more free, less repressive society. In fact, Iran’s hardliners need to know that the United States will persist in talking to Iran no matter how difficult the talks become, and regardless of Iranian human rights concerns. That isn’t appeasement, as the neocons and Republican members of Congress argue. It’s just common sense.
President Obama’s opening to Iran in January, his Nowruz message, and his Cairo speech all helped to galvanize the Iranian opposition, just as President Bush’s bluster and sabre-rattling helped the hardliners quash any opposition earlier. Obama’s judicious post-election refusal to join the neocons’ call to enlist the United States in full-throated support for the Green Movement was exactly the right call, and it blunted the regime’s crackdown by making it a lot harder for them to portray the greens as US-inspired. And so far, at least, Mousavi and Co. haven’t asked for any help, while simultaneously denouncing Western calls for sanctions. Let’s hope Obama stays the course, keeps talking to Iran, and doesn’t fall into a feel-good trap about asserting too loudly what everyone knows: he supports human rights in Iran.
Of course, the paradox of the current state of affairs is that Mousavi and the Green Movement have generally taken to denouncing Ahmadinejad for his agreement to hand over the bulk of Iran’s enriched uranium for re-processing in Russia and France. That accord, reached over prolonged, secret talks that culminated in a face-to-face meeting between US and Iranian diplomats on October 1, could be an important step forward. For opportunistic reasons, the Greens are now accusing Ahmadinejad of selling out Iran’s nuclear rights.
That very fact explains why it’s wrong for the United States to try to game Iranian internal politics.
In his op-ed, Takeyh warns, correctly, that Iran might (for internal reasons, mostly) draw out the negotiations, but curiously he links such a strategy to a plot by Ahmadinejad against his opposition:
“Tehran will sporadically offer to discuss the nuclear issue to whet the appetite of Western powers — before moving against its remaining domestic detractors. The powers that be in Iran hope that a prolonged and inconclusive negotiating process will cause the West to recoil from criticism, much less impose sanctions over Iran’s human rights abuses.”
That idea is far too conspiratorial, however. Just as Obama faces domestic opposition to a deal with the “mad mullahs,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Leader, faces domestic opposition to a deal with the Great Satan. (Just this week, Khamenei delivered a fierce, hysterical diatribe against the United States, even as his negotiators were proceeding apace.) Trying to discern the interplay between foreign and domestic strategies of Iran’s current rulers is a fool’s game, and it’s likely that even Ahmadinejad and Khamenei don’t know themselves how it’s all likely to play out. Certainly, the two Iranian leaders — if, indeed, they are still working together, as opposed to at cross-purposes — don’t have some grand, master strategy. Internally, they’re trying to deal with a resilient opposition movement whose strength surprised them in June, and they’re not doing very well at it. Externally, they’re struggling to negotiate with the P5 + 1 in a chess game in which they have far fewer pieces than the West.
There no reason for giddy optimism about the US-Iran talks. But one thing is certain: for them to succeed at all, both Obama and Khamenei are going to have to be very, very patient.