In spite of reported cell phone and web blackouts, and reports of foreign journalists being ordered to leave the country, the news keeps pouring in about the unrest in Iran, following fraudulent election management by the regime in the 12 June vote. Web postings like this one at Hot Air, this one at Commentary, and this one at HuffPo, demonstrate the power of the modern infosphere to enable a veritable flood of data points on unfolding events. As military intelligence officers have understood for nearly two decades, floods of data points have their drawbacks, often making it more difficult, rather than less, to characterize just exactly what is going on.
So on 14 June, in spite of the avalanche of information from Iran that is burying us, it is early days to predict how this will all turn out. The sheer volume of impressions emerging from Iran – via Twitter tweets, web video, relentlessly updated blog items – may be accurately emblematic of the scope and character of the unrest and state suppression of it there. It may also, on the other hand, be creating a vision in our minds of widerspread and more effective civil unrest than there really is.
From what I can discern, almost every update describes events in Tehran. Granted, unrest in Tehran is particularly important to the security of a government that rules from Tehran; but from the standpoint of literal regime security, it is one thing if the main center of unrest is localized in the capital (and a few major cities, such as Shiraz and Qom), and entirely another if the whole country is galvanized against the regime. I am not so sure the latter is the case. By this I do not mean that I think the Islamic revolutionary regime has widespread positive support – but rather that the reformers’ movement may not have a tiebreaking energy nationwide. If the regime finds itself in extremis in Tehran, it may well be able to relocate to safety, while Tehran is pacified by force of arms.
The ability of the reformers to translate their agitation about this election into effective action is what is in question. The regime has the IRGC – the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, the military arm of revolutionary government – and the reformers do not. It is noteworthy to read things like the following, from the HuffPo updates via Allahpundit at Hot Air:
“From a reader: ‘My next door neighbor is an Iranian immigrant who came here in 1977. He just received a SAT phone call from his brother in Tehran who reports that the rooftops of nighttime Tehran are filled with people shouting ‘Allah O Akbar’ in protest of the government and election results. The last time he remembers this happening is in 1979 during the Revolution. Says the sound of tens of thousands on the rooftops is deafening right now.’ It’s almost four in the morning in Iran.”
But such sound and fury still has to be married up with leadership, planning, and execution, to produce any result other than a lot of beatings and suppression for the shouters, and the eventual victory of the armed forces of the state over the protestors. There is no group with such a plan waiting in the wings to seize power, as there was in 1979. The reformers, indeed, proposed only to elect Mir-Hossein Moussavi, a very modest reformer by outside standards, and continue to operate within the framework of the existing Islamic Revolutionary government. The current unrest appears more like the students’ uprising of 1999, in terms of executable action planning, than like the 1979 revolution.
If the planned mass strike, and demonstrations by Moussavi’s “green revolution” supporters, come off on Tuesday, we will have a better idea of how the regime intends to handle developments. So far, the handling has been remarkably incompetent and heavy-handed, considered purely in terms of the effectiveness of the “information campaign” about the cooked election. We may draw at least this significant conclusion from observing the behavior of the regime: it intends to stay on the course it has been on, with Ahmadinejad in power, a rejection of Westernizing reforms, and a continuation of its policies. These policies include the acquisition of nuclear weapons, isolation of and terror against Israel, and infiltration of target nations in the region, and elsewhere, by Hizballah, the IRGC’s Qods force, and Iran’s network of business, charitable, and “cultural” organizations as outlined by Amir Taheri here, and discussed previously in “Charging the Chokepoints.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has just delivered what the main newspapers in Israel were calling beforehand the “speech of his life” – a planned major policy speech seen as a rebuttal to Obama’s Cairo speech. This speech was one opportunity for a regional statesman to set the terms of the debate, in the context of the patently fraudulent election in Iran, and the unrest in its wake. It was so, partly, because of the politically-convenient silence in which the US and Arab nations have been awaiting developments in Iran. Initial cable news reporting of the Netanyahu speech suggests it was narrowly focused on Israel and the Palestinians; understandable, and it will be necessary to review the entire speech before commenting further on its relevance to the challenge for regional vision posed by the Iranian election and its aftermath.
But the same principle applies to the communications that will emerge from the Obama administration in the coming days. Events in Iran have created a strategic opportunity, one that we will either take or miss. The Islamic revolutionary regime is busy, as we speak, declaring itself for what it is. America is not the only nation watching: so are all the others, from Saudi Arabia to Israel, from Russia to Turkey to the EU. Some of the nations – Iraq, Bahrain, Lebanon, Israel, Saudi Arabia – cannot avoid being proximately affected by what happens in Iran. They have much less latitude than the US, or even the EU, for continuing to wait – passively – and see what those effects will be.
Although America has no power, short of comprehensive military force, to affect the outcome of the present election dispute, it will matter tremendously what the Obama administration does, as the days go by – and the weeks and months after that. The crushing of Iranian hopes for reform, the clarification of what the current regime is and how it behaves: these are developments that matter not just to Iranians, and to the ideal of consensual government that America is committed to promote. They matter equally to the prospects for preventing Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, and for averting Iran’s long-term intentions to intimidate neighbors, destabilize the region, and achieve hegemony over it.
What developments in Iran mean is that the factors are there, internally, for undermining the Islamic revolutionary Guardian Council, in its current radical incarnation. We need not suppose that Iranians are anxious to unload the entire apparatus, in a comprehensive political revolution – and I do not think they are. Millions of voters in Iran were enthusiastic about affecting their political future within the official constraints of the existing revolutionary government. In voting for Moussavi, they intended to achieve not revolution but political evolution.
But that evolution, in which the voters themselves aspired to increased liberalization and responsiveness from their government, would be favorable for the regional stability sought by the US. A government responsive to an Iranian people seeking increased liberality, and cultural openness, is a government that will bear little resemblance to the secretive clerical council with its revolutionary agenda. It is quite true that the Iranian people are not manipulative, homicidal zealots; but their current government will have to change if it is not to express that character in their name.
At this juncture of opportunity, then, what would Reagan do? I believe he would do the following:
1. First, and most important, recognize that what Iran’s Moussavi voters aspire to is, in fact, antithetical to the radical Islamic idea that motivates the ruling council in Tehran. Reagan’s philosophical and ideological strength, in opposing Soviet Marxism, was founded in a similar understanding: that revolutionary Marxism could not be domesticated, and made to serve the aspirations of liberal reformers.
He knew that propping up the rule of aging Marxists, and conferring legitimacy on it by making concessions to it, were counterproductive measures: measures that would only prolong the necessary political outcome in which “we won, they lost.” If we want the threat of a nuclear-armed revolutionary Iran to recede, it will be necessary for the mullahs to lose. The last thing we should be doing is ascribing to them a legitimacy their own people do not willingly acknowledge. Nor should we be afraid of the truth that the mullahs are the problem, and their political demise is the solution.
2. Next, be prepared, in the coming weeks, to recognize unexpected and favorable developments if they do happen, and encourage them. Although I frankly anticipate that the Guardian Council and Ahmadinejad will suppress active political dissent without their regime integrity being undermined by it, there are trends to watch for.
The regime may have to focus on internal security for some period of time, possibly creating shortfalls in support for regime activities abroad. Any such temporary recession in Iranian-backed infiltration – e.g., in Iraq, other Persian Gulf nations, Lebanon – should be taken advantage of, by rolling up outside agitators in the affected nations, eliminating their logistic networks while they are vulnerable, and increasing local regime engagement – positive regime engagement – with the populations that have been targeted by them. America is closely engaged with all the relevant nations, and has the ability to actively promote and assist these measures.
If there does appear to be effective internal momentum with Moussavi’s “green” movement, and a level of disarray in dealing with it on the part of the regime, it will be particularly important for the US to register support for free political expression, for the rights of dissidents, and for fair electoral outcomes. We should be doing that anyway – but if a situation should develop like the Ukrainians’ vigil in the snow, in the 2004 “Orange Revolution,” it will be of even greater importance to affirm such an exercise of rights in the wake of a disputed election, along with our repudiation of regime efforts to suppress it.
Reagan never feared to support dissidents, and endorse freedom of political expression, and it was always clear that his expressions in this regard were more than pro forma. We should not fear that unequivocal support for the principle of consensual politics, and repudiation of antidemocratic autocracy, will endanger the prospect of engagement with the regime in Tehran – particularly in light of the truth that there is, in fact, no such prospect at the moment. Reagan’s policies proved that, whether you believe his posture enhanced the prospects for useful engagement with the Communist world, his posture did not affect them adversely.
3. Reagan would also recognize this opportunity as the signal to develop a longer-term plan to undermine the rule of radical theocracy in Iran. Such a campaign should not take the form of choosing a leader or form of government to confer on the Iranians. Once was enough for that particular bad idea. But it should be sufficiently obvious, with this election, that there is a substantial segment in Iran with usefully developed political ideas, a segment seeking liberalization, and worth reaching out to and providing support for, as Reagan supported reformers in Poland, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia.
Useful measures may include meeting with Iranian dissidents in Washington, and actively seeking the release, humane treatment, and safe emigration of those detained in Iran. Advising rising partisans on democratic ideas and practices, in practical politics, is a realm of engagement in which the US is less ready to deal with Islamic societies than with those of a liberalizing Eastern Europe, or Latin America, where national identities have a Western, Christian heritage. But the foundations on which to build already exist, not only in our experience with Iraq and Afghanistan, but – at least equally important – in the political energy of the Iranian expat community. Again, in reaching out to such representatives, it is of paramount importance to avoid “picking” winners (or losers) in potential Iranian political arrangements. But judicious engagement of expat leaders is one means of communicating effectively with those acting inside Iran, and promoting their success.
Material support to liberalizers in Iran is also a significant measure, and one that, in the information age, need not be confined to infusions of cash, or provision of safehouses. Support to networking and information sharing is likely to be equally vital. A convenient method of approaching this aspect of the campaign is through friendly foreign intelligence services that know the Iranian civil environment well. But it would be uniquely crucial, given our history with Iran, to refrain from presenting any appearance of CIA manipulation, in supporting internal networks. Reagan made broad use of the CIA in working just such forms of support for Solidarity in Poland, but that may not be the best avenue to pursue in Iran.
In all aspects of such a campaign, the central element is that the Iranian reformers have their own ideas, parties, organization, and leadership. Support to political liberalizers in Poland and East Germany, in the Reagan years, is the best analogy for the type of effort we should pursue. The relative maturity and organization we have seen this past week, with the “green” movement in Iran, demonstrates that the indigenous initiative is there to be engaged with.
4. The final element of a Reagan-like approach is critical, and perhaps the most Reagan-like, although less remembered by most people. It is this: demonstrating to the revolutionary Guardian Council in Tehran that it will not achieve its objectives, in the region or elsewhere around the globe.
This element of a Reaganesque strategy would require a shift in the policy we have seen so far from President Obama. Regarding each of the aspects of the mullahs’ own strategy, Obama has chosen a policy that promises less resistance to it, rather than more. Acquisition of nuclear weapons is, of course, the most celebrated aspect of the Iranian regime’s strategy, and no credible initiative exists, on Obama’s part, for discouraging or preventing it
If the regime has to focus inward for some period, to restore order and control, that period might well be a better time than most to apply much tougher economic sanctions on Iran, with the objective of at least slowing down the nuclear effort substantially. With regime resources preoccupied internally, Iranian counter-efforts at regional terrorism and destabilization would have an unusually limited scope and capability. Even getting the IAEA back into key facilities for comprehensive inspections, and forcing the Iranians to waste dwindling resources on relocation and deception, would represent a victory at this point, in that it would measurably delay the regime’s progress.
Obama’s credibility in opposing an Iranian capacity to hold the region at risk with a ballistic missile arsenal, and thereby intimidate her neighbors, has also been questionable. His posture on missile defense, as recounted exhaustively here at The Optimistic Conservative, has been temporizing and unreliable, and has been so specifically with respect to the potential threat from Iran. Obama’s overall stance on missile defense, in Europe and elsewhere, has presented no useful antithesis to self-serving Russian claims that Iran poses no missile threat to the region, and isn’t likely to for years. This lack of challenge to Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile efforts would be reversed, under a WWRD policy thrust: we would reaffirm the importance of the missile defense sites in Europe, accelerate funding for missile defense programs overall, and work with our partners in the Middle East to improve their missile defenses as rapidly as possible, from Iraq to Saudi Arabia to Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and Turkey.
The other major strategic vector of the Iranian regime is, of course, terrorism, destabilization, and infiltration of key territory with Hizballah and the Qods force. Obama has done the opposite of demonstrate to the mullahs that this approach will not work, with his charm offensive addressed to the elements of the Islamic Middle East that make a career of being disaffected and unappeasable. As Emanuele Ottolenghi points out, embracing the rhetoric and indulging in the grievances of the Islamic radicals is not a method that works, to persuade them against continuing on their professional path. The mullahs know that. In endorsing its cultivated grievances, Obama has done the opposite of prying the target population of extremist Islam away from its leading exploiters.
Obama has gone further than that, however, with his active embrace of hostile Latin American leaders – Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales – who are offering their territory as a hemispheric base for the mullahs’ overseas efforts.
In the specialized situation in which youthful Somali pirates have taken Americans hostage at sea, and the Americans have already rendered their situation as susceptible of resolution by special operations as it could possibly be, Obama has demonstrated that he will resist the outcome sought by miscreants against civilization. But in other situations – the obvious taking of the two women journalists as hostages by North Korea, the series of nuclear and missile tests mounted by North Korea this spring, Iran’s multifaceted campaign to hold America and other nations at risk, Russia’s ever-more-obvious campaign to wholly undermine independent government in Georgia – Obama has emerged as inert and little engaged. Other than insisting to China that our surveillance ships will continue patrolling in international waters off China, Obama has not shown much resistance to the probes and challenges of other nations.
And, of course, as discussed in the WWIV series, Obama has sent, with his categorical pronouncements on Israeli settlements in the West Bank, a signal that is, for the mullahs, far more encouraging than not, about their ultimate goal for Israel. They want to isolate Israel through a systematic campaign of squeezing US influence out of the region, with the eventual outcome involving the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state, and Islamic occupation of Jerusalem. But if US patronage of Israel is questionable and tenuous under Obama – or if it is contingent on Israel accepting terms that intrinsically undermine her national security – then half the mullahs’ work is already being done for them: by Obama himself.
This cumulative posture would have to change significantly, in a WWRD campaign to convince Iran’s revolutionary leadership that it will not achieve its objectives. There is much to work with, in shifting the Obama posture: the Arab nations have no interest whatsoever in seeing Iran achieve the mullahs’ objectives, and are natural allies in preventing that. The recent electoral outcome in Lebanon, where Hizballah suffered a setback, is a fresh and encouraging sign. European allies like France and Germany will never be governed by leaders more likely to lend their weight to a serious effort to isolate Iran, and establish the firmness of our determination to cut her off from the pursuit of her objectives. There is, in fact, much we could persuade other nations to do, if they know they will not be left out on a limb by themselves, attracting backlash and consequences.
It is a little humorous to realize, as one does by looking at a map, that we actually have Iran largely surrounded. Our position, both strategic and operational, is better than we think it is – just as it was during the Cold War, when we had the Soviet Union largely surrounded, but only the Soviets “saw” that. We rarely if ever did. If any of our Cold War statesmen did, it was Ronald Reagan, who acted as if we had the USSR surrounded, and needed only to squeeze.
The difference in his vision, from that of his predecessors, is that his was focused by the lens of moral and political confidence. That, unfortunately, is likely to be the signal weakness of the American vision under Obama’s leadership. But we should be clear going into this: there are things we could be doing – an effective approach we could adopt. Asking “What Would Reagan Do?” is an excellent start on identifying them.