Iran: Context, and Opportunity

There is so much going on in the region around Iran, it is hard to keep it all straight. The context is part of the key to our best way ahead, as Iran shows signs of having a serious, viable basis for liberalization. This is an opportunity we must be ready to take the lead on.

There is so much going on in the region around Iran, it is hard to keep it all straight.  The context is part of the key to our best way ahead, as Iran shows signs of having a serious, viable basis for liberalization.  This is an opportunity we must be ready to take the lead on.

We may have to think up a new expression for “interesting times.”  The lengthening development of protests in Iran, against the regime’s handling of the 12 June election, is taking place in anything but a geopolitical vacuum.  A great deal rides on the outcome there, and every bit as much – perhaps more – on how America reacts to the eruption in Iran of popular demand for liberalization, and honestly representative government.

In the World War IV series, we examined the realignments and consequences likely with US signals of disengagement from the Middle East.  How President Obama responds to events in Iran in the coming days will inevitably amount to a powerful signal of precisely that kind – one way or another.

That signal is not being sent into an inert void.  The whole region is busy, moving parts moving, partnerships emerging, threats lowering, meetings, agreements, deals being made – and the question for the United States is not whether things will happen, but whether we will be prepared, and if we have any plans to exercise leadership, and shape our future.

Busy, Busy, Busy

As Iran plunges into turmoil, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization – Russia, China, and the former-Soviet “Stans” (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan) – is holding a summit meeting in Yekaterinburg, Russia.  India, Pakistan, Mongolia, and Iran have observer status in the SCO, and Ahmadinejad arrived in Yekaterinburg on Tuesday to represent Iran, and meet with Medvedev of Russia for one-on-one talks.  Russia and China have averred that the post-election strife in Iran is an internal matter, and Ahmadinejad is welcome at the summit.  Ahmadinejad and Hu Jintao called jointly for an expansion of national ties, following a one-on-one meeting incident to the summit today, and Hu congratulated Ahmadinejad on his reelection.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, are also attending the summit, and today had a direct, bilateral meeting in Yekaterinburg – the first such meeting since the terrorist attacks on Mumbai last year.  They agreed at the meeting to schedule a summit, and resume bilateral talks to resolve issues, in Egypt in July.

Afghanistan attended the summit as an observer as well, and issued a joint call with Russia and Pakistan for closer cooperation among the three of them in dealing with the Taliban insurgency.  This announcement comes in the wake of information earlier in the month that Russia would be dispatching Mi-8 helicopters and Kamaz military trucks to Afghanistan as part of a humanitarian mission.  It may be considered good news in some quarters that Russia welcomes the “new transparency” of the US policy on Afghanistan, and “sees new areas of cooperation with the West in settling the Afghan conflict.”

Russia will host the “BRIC” conference – of Brazil, Russia, India, and China, “emerging” market economies – immediately following the SCO summit.  Russia is hosting a lot this week.  At the SCO summit, the SCO members are expected to grant “dialogue partner” status to Sri Lanka and Belarus:  a status separate from “observer,” held by the nations previously mentioned, but entailing admission to SCO deliberations.

Belarus is not at the summit, but Russian officials stated (see the Moscow Times article) that “dialogue partner” status could be conferred on her in her absence.  How Minsk may feel about that is another question, however.  Russia is currently banning most Belorussian dairy products from her markets, a ban that started 6 June; and Belorussian sources are reporting that Moscow is pressuring Minsk to recognize the Georgian breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent nations.  Belarus is caught between the EU, which is urging her to refrain from such recognition, and Russian threats to withhold promised financial aid in the amount of $2 billion, and continue inflicting other forms of economic pain on Minsk.

Other Russian activities indicate that a concerted campaign is underway to consolidate Russia’s hold on the Georgian provinces, and further squeeze the Saakashvili government in Tbilisi.  On Tuesday 16 Jun, Russia used her UN veto to terminate the longstanding UN mission in Abkhazia, the last obstacle to full Russian control of the long strip of Abkhaz land that fronts on the Black Sea.  As noted in “Turkey for Dinner” in March, Russia is already establishing military bases in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.  Her de facto control of their territory will be complete with removal of the UN mission in Abkhazia.

A 26 May analysis from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Brian Whitmore notes that the Russian troops – now numbering 10,000 – in the Georgian provinces have received new T-90 tanks and Mi-24 attack helicopters in recent weeks.  Russia also plans to conduct a major military exercise, Kavkaz-2009, in the Caucasus this month:  a development analysts compare to the prelude to the Russian invasion last year.  In Georgia itself, while there has always been legitimate, vocal opposition to the Saakashvili government, the assessments of Georgian officials that Russia is funding and supporting demonstrators, a major opposition candidate (parliamentary speaker Nino Burjanadze), and even Georgian soldiers who tried to stage a mutiny near Tbilisi in early May, have a good chance of being valid.  Such measures are familiar to most of Russia’s neighbors.

Events in Georgia bear close watching, now that the Georgian parliament has, as of Monday the 15th, announced its completion of the process – started in August 2008 – of officially withdrawing from the Russian Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).  According to CIS rules, withdrawal is complete only after 12 months.  The withdrawal date recognized by the Commonwealth will thus almost certainly be 18 August 2009, rather than 15 June – a dispute that may only increase the pressure on the Saakashvili regime.  US preoccupation with Iran and North Korea may be the final conditions Russia requires, to provoke a collapse of the Saakashvili government and attempt to orchestrate the installation of Burjanadze as prime minister.

Turkey of course will be watching Georgia anxiously, as will Ukraine and the rest of Europe.  Turkey is also watching developments in Iran with growing disquiet.  Internal strife in Iran is considered likely to galvanize Kurdish separatists, regardless of the eventual outcome; and the outcome itself may well exacerbate Ankara’s relations with the growing movement in Turkey toward Islamism.  The incipient shift toward Russia in Turkey’s security ties, noted in “Turkey for Dinner,” could hardly be symbolized better than by the visit of a Turkish delegation to Russia this past week, which regional observers are linking to a purchase of Russian Mi-24 attack helicopters, in the wake of America’s rejection of purchase offers for US-made Cobra helicopters.  As additional analysis notes, Turkey has a longer-term, US-backed program for procurement of modern helicopters, but it will not result in the arrival of actual helicopters for several years.  Ankara is seeking to meet an interim need with this off-the-shelf purchase proposal – a need that no doubt looms more immediate as Iran’s drama unfolds inexorably next door.

Turkey’s turn to Russia must be set in context with the significant increase in Russian arms sales to the region, which includes historic arms deals with Saudi Arabia and Jordan – two of America’s staunchest arms customers – in 2008, and a fresh infusion of Russian arms to Yemen with a March 2009 deal, in which Yemen cedes Russia a major financial stake in her oil and gas industry.  Old Russian arms connections with Syria are being reinvigorated, and readers will remember that the Ukrainian-flagged M/V Faina, held for ransom by Somali pirates last fall, was transporting Russian tanks, grenade launchers, AAA guns, and assorted small arms and ammunition intended for Sudan.

Energy remains a key basis for regional ties – and power positioning – as well, as exemplified in the nuclear power deal concluded by Russia and Egypt in March 2008.  A vital concern for Turkey as she watches developments in Iran is construction of the Pars pipeline, to transport gas to Europe via Turkey, which finally began in late May.  Russia’s Gazprom put a lock in March 2009 on Azerbaijani gas that was long intended to flow to Europe through Turkey, with progress on the requisite pipeline stalled by EU foot-dragging, and the continuing uncertain status of Turkey’s bid for EU membership.  Turkey’s option to be an important player in natural gas alternatives for Western customers – alternatives independent (for the time being) from Russian control – is now contingent on progress with the Pars pipeline, which will get its gas from the South Pars field in southern Iran.  Iran and Pakistan inked a deal on 8 June for the long-planned IPI “Peace” pipeline, which also draws from the South Pars field, and is intended to run through Pakistan and eventually into India.

In this busy environment, it is no surprise that only 15 days ago, Iran signed a deal with Iraq and Turkey, at the end of their first regional power conference in Baghdad, to boost cooperation on electric power, link their grids (eventually adding Syria), and incorporate the nuclear power plant at Bushehr into the network, when it comes online in the next year.

As President Obama contemplates events in Iran, then, Iran’s region is bustling energetically – and much of the momentum is with Russia.  As the World War IV series concluded, it could not possibly matter more, to the Middle East, our alliances, and our own national security, what we do here in the summer of 2009.

US and Europe:  The “Anti-Busy”

The atmosphere today, in which the US and Europe are silent and dithering on Iran – and on North Korea – is disquietingly reminiscent of the apathy shown by the US and Western Europe in the 1930s; and makes an uncomfortable contrast with the energy and movement evinced by Russia, and to a lesser extent China, which are more evocative of the officious diplomacy of Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, and Fascist Italy.  America and Europe are turned inward, still manning static positions assumed in earlier initiatives – e.g., in Iraq, Afghanistan, and South Korea – but with the political energy and strategic foresight leaching from those campaigns, little thought of regional context or geopolitical implications in relation to them, and, in the US, a determined focus on internal political power struggles:  nationalizing industries at home, spending our way into epic debt, and torpedoing ties with our closest trading partners, Canada and Mexico, as payback for union political support.

It is in a tired atmosphere like this that an enormous opportunity like what increasingly seems to be on offer in Iran is so easy to mistake for a problem.  The US State Department, animated by its well-known preference for stability and the status quo, is predisposed to see any eruption of this kind as a problem anyway.  A US president focused on a domestic agenda seems unlikely to urge his State Department out of its natural torpor.  Yet the hours that go by make it increasingly clear that an opportunity is precisely what we are seeing in Iran:  an opportunity for transformation from within, for a new footing for regional nations and the US in relations with Tehran, and perhaps even for a positive outcome to the thorny nuclear issue.

Prospects Emerging – Hourly – in Iran

I remain convinced that the Guardian Council, Ahmadinejad, and the IRGC can suppress the dissent that has erupted in the wake of the questionable election.  But the Council’s, and Khamenei’s, willingness to at least offer a recount suggests the mullahs would rather achieve an eventual consensus to resolve the current situation, than impose order wholly by force.  Another informative clue comes from reports that Arab-speaking Hizballah trainees are being used in the Basij (security police) role, to control dissidents, because the regime expects Iranian Basij members to be sympathetic to their fellow citizens.  The regime is behaving as if it does not assess itself to have either monolithic control, or the full loyalty of even its own organs; and these are positive signs for the prospect of reform.

The conclusion that there is a real, broad-based political movement in action in the streets, one headed by a leader (Mir-Hossein Moussavi) capable of governing, and one willing to take power within the construct of the existing forms of government, appears to be supported by developments.  The “Seven Demands” announced by the green movement protestors are specific and, on the whole, incremental, if bold:  they propose installing another Supreme Ayatollah, for example, rather than doing away with the Guardian Council system, and having Moussavi, after being seated as president, appoint a cabinet to oversee a revision to the Iranian constitution.

The demands are specific and responsible, and significantly, they appear to be free of encroaching ideologies:  not couched in freighted language, or invoking the buzzphrases of radicalism.  It is not to imply that the impetus for liberalization is confined to the affluent in Tehran, to make the point that the form taken by the protestors’ demands is as much like a revolution of the bourgeois middle-class as we are likely to see in Iran.

This is a movement the West should want to encourage, and gain the opportunity to work with.  The payoff could be an Iran in which liberalization, even at a relatively slow pace, produced a regional outlook more like that of India, or at least Indonesia, rather than the explosive radicalism in which the country has been steeped since 1979.  We must not miss the significance of the seventh demand of the protestors:  dissolution of all organs of repression, public or secret.  Implementing this measure holds out the very real possibility of dissolving much of the IRGC, including the Qods force, and at least transforming and repurposing Iran’s apparatus for supporting Hizballah – a development that would make a remarkable difference to Lebanon and Israel, other areas of the Middle East, and even Latin America.

What We Should Do

Rather than hanging back and temporizing, the US should be endorsing the spirit of these Seven Demands, and the call for genuinely free elections, an honest outcome, and consensual government in Iran.  We need not, and should not, endorse specific individuals for political office.  But that does not mean it is right or wise to refrain from expressing any opinion at all, other than that we are “troubled” at the violence – as if it erupted from some unknown cause, rather than being a deliberate policy of a brutal, repressive regime.

It would be right, and wise, for our president to speak clearly and categorically about the importance of democratic honesty and integrity; the civil and human rights of the protestors; the evil the mullahs’ regime is doing in repressing and abusing them; and our encouragement of the spirit of responsible liberty encapsulated in the Seven Demands.  Obama should say that we stand with all those in Iran who seek liberalization and responsive government – and that our hand is held out to them on the basis of respect, and fellowship in the aspiration to liberty.

We should also be acting in full recognition of the context in which the Iranian uproar is occurring.  First, Russia is on a roll, hosting summits, intimidating neighbors, and still Iran’s principal patron for arms sales and nuclear program support.  The less we do, the more Russia is likely to do.  It is simply not the case – and this is so hard to get through to Americans – that if we do nothing, nothing will be done.  Russia is watching us sleeplessly right now to see what, if anything, we will do about Iran.  And if we do not act, Russia will.

I don’t expect the Russians to do anything as clunky and obvious as the old Soviet maneuvers with blunt objects.  Their capacity in that regard is much diminished, relative to the size of the regional problem.  But to help keep Ahmadinejad in power, if it comes to that, they are likely to assist with border control, and funnel arms (and perhaps advisors) to the Iranian regime.  They will probably also ramp up their bilateral efforts with Turkey and Pakistan, to position themselves for whatever transpires ultimately in Iran, and gain whatever counterweight they can to the US presence in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Additional overtures to the Saudis (and vice versa) are likely as well.

Above all, Russia will be putting the squeeze on Georgia.  The possibility of a more liberal, Western-friendly government being installed in Iran only increases the importance to Moscow of controlling Georgia’s territory and actions.  With the near-certainty of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline (which runs through Georgia) falling under full Russian control, the option of dealing with an independent and more friendly Iran, and an alternative pipeline, becomes substantially more significant to Europe and Turkey.

The positive aspect of all this is that Russia is still much less militarily and economically powerful than the United States.  We have unused options, and we should use them forthwith.  This is simpler and cheaper than it might seem, because if we do act, in small ways, there is not much any other nation can do about it – no expensive counterforce campaign another nation can launch.  The objective we should have is establishing that we have the interests of stability and prosperity at heart for the region, that we would welcome a liberalizing Iran into the fold, and that there is a place ready for that Iran to step into.

We should immediately find attack helicopters, and other military equipment she may be interested in, to sell to Turkey.  We need to get back in there with the Turks – and wake up the Europeans – and convey the clear message that we regard Turkey’s independence, integrity, and affiliation with NATO as a supremely important national interest.  We have been dealing with Kurds at various levels for almost two decades, and we are in a unique position to make clear that we want to see them protected, and their interests promoted peacefully, but we will not endorse action on their part to exploit events in Iran for military gain, against any of Turkey, Iraq, or Iran.

We are in an excellent position, from our relationship with Iraq, to comment rhetorically on the emergence of a liberalizing movement in Iran as a welcome complement to what has been achieved across the border.  Fear is not the correct posture here.  Now is the time to roll up Iranian operations inside Iraq, and ensure the projects of the mullahs’ regime are rocked on their heels and being pushed back.  This opportunity will be obvious at the level of tactical observation, inside Iraq, and we should seize it and prosecute it relentlessly.  If we can spot and take advantage of it, we will not only improve conditions in Iraq, but deal defeats to the radical regime in Tehran, as long as it remains in power.

We should encourage the government of Lebanon to seek and exploit similar opportunities against Hizballah.  Israel will need no prompting in this regard, with respect to Hamas.  Bahrain, where Iran has been fomenting radical unrest, will not need prompting either, and indeed, a concerted effort on this head with all the Gulf states, incorporating Saudi Arabia and perhaps according her a leadership role, is a good pretext for visibly reenergizing US brokering of Gulf cooperation.

Although the US modus operandi in the Middle East has been heavily oriented on bilateralism with individual nations, and conventional diplomacy, we would do well at this juncture to promote the idea of an informal consortium:  of nations that welcome and are ready to deal with a reformed, liberalizing Iran.  We should be representing ourselves as the first nation in line in that regard, and showing not fear but the recognition of opportunity.  Other nations to focus on are Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Turkey, Jordan, and of course the Gulf states.  We should also keep a channel open to Syria, where a change of regime in Iran will be a veritable feast for strategic thought.

On the other, eastern side of Iran, we should be pleased to seize, and operate proactively in, the leadership position Russia has this week acknowledged us as holding, in the cooperative regional effort against the Taliban.  Iran and Pakistan have already agreed to work together in that fight; a liberalizing Iran could be a much better and more reliable partner than the current regime.  We should be signaling our enthusiasm for such a prospect; and Islamabad – and Delhi – should see us considering possibilities for engagement with the new Iran, as well as hoping for it to emerge.

With respect to Iran herself, we should be working in the background to arrange for rapid contact with any new government that may emerge from the current crisis.  The prospects for this appear very real, if the regime under Khamenei and Ahmadinejad loses its nerve.  That is not by any means an impossibility, and we can encourage that outcome by affirming our endorsement of the spirit of the Seven Demands and the approach of the “green” movement protestors – as well as moving rapidly to roll up Iranian-sponsored cells in Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East.  Our European allies – e.g., France, Germany, Italy – maintain contacts with Iran, and are likely to welcome American requests for mediation in this regard.  But another potential avenue involves Turkey – and going that route would probably achieve the most strategic objectives possible in a single stroke, if it could be brought off well.

Any such requests should be made in the context of an engagement plan with a reforming Iran, one that would look at key regional issues and include strong incentives.  Some that naturally go together are Iran’s oil and gas industry, including her extreme popularity as a pipeline partner, and her impending nuclear power industry.  The period in which a reformist government is emerging in Iran would be the critical time at which to make it clear that America has never objected to Iran pursuing nuclear power – and that our delight at dealing with an Iran that would agree to meeting her NPT obligations, and to pursuing nuclear power peacefully, would be expressed in numerous mutually beneficial ways.  Meanwhile, we would enthusiastically welcome Iran’s oil and gas industry back into full global participation, and be anxious to join in refinery and pipeline projects.

(We would be wise to promote projects that enable Europe to buy gas from someone other than Russia – a posture that would foster regional independence for both Iran and Turkey, and also reduce Georgia’s immediate value to Russia.)

Finally, we should not overlook the simple value of enthusiastically welcoming cultural contact with a liberalizing Iran.  In terms of intellectual energy and trenchant political and social thought, America and Iran, for all our faults, have characteristics that would likely make us more interesting to each other than many other nations.  For different reasons, we have national senses of destiny, of being avatars of political and religious ideas, and ultimately of a positive and outward-reaching perspective:  characteristics I think we also share with China, but to a lesser extent with Japan, and to a rapidly-declining extent with Europe.  We must not oversell the prospects for immediate cultural sympathy with Iran, but neither would we be right to dismiss or ignore them.  Iranians have maintained a network of connections with the world throughout the years of the Islamic revolution, and the community of nations and peoples can only be enriched by a loosening of their bonds of radical repression.

We can achieve much with energy, foresight, and communication at this juncture.  It need not all be about spending money, even though some of it inevitably will be.  Little if anything would be achieved by moving military forces around, as things look now – although again, we must not miss opportunities to push Iran out of Iraq, and set her proxies back in Lebanon, Israel, and Bahrain.  Doing so would inflict setbacks on the current regime’s policies, and dent its confidence and viability.  But of paramount importance will be measures that impose no cost we are not already paying:  assuming a political leadership role in welcoming the prospect of a transformed Iran, and preparing in advance to deal with it – to offer the incentives of respect, encouragement, partnership, and the place an ancient and great people ought to have among the nations.

8 thoughts on “Iran: Context, and Opportunity”

  1. A very nice overview, opticon, followed by some very good suggestions well worth praise.

    Encouraging words for Iranian democracy is a great first suggestion. Obama’s initial publicized comment was a fine first step. After other world leaders join in commenting, and after a pause to access the effect, we should all hope that further statements will prove beneficial.
    Your next suggestions, that we “outbid” the Russians in supplying arms to Turkey is fine also and it seems that Obama may well be in agreement both with that and with your next suggestion that we encourage the Lebanese government to curtail Hizbollah.
    As you note, we have arms deals going with Turkey, but I have seen some reports that the Obama administration encouraged the Turkish government to sell a fair-sized amount of armaments to the Lebanese and also contracted to supply Turkish personnel to train the Lebanese military. I think the agreement was signed in late April.
    Have you heard of this and do you think it to be of significance?

  2. It also seems more likely that Turkey is going to purchase Cobras from us instead of acquiring copters from Russia.
    Turkey agreed to some increase in their contribution to the Afghanistan effort after failure to do so was linked to our reluctance to approve the sale.

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