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June 30, 2009

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"the real action was a knife fight between Ahmadinejad and Rafsanjani"

O rilly?

So those tens or hundreds of thousands of people protesting on the street were... what, exactly? Unreal?

This is a push back against the developing narrative. It's also a narrative that seems overly reliant on the assumption that this was a legitimate election. (Rafsanjani and Mousavi and the senior clerics pushing back against the threat of their opponent's new power.) These dynamics don't exist in contradiction of the emerging "western" narrative, however. It just depends upon how you see the story unfolding.

The only question, really, is whether Ahmadinejad's victory was itself a kind of coup, against which his foes are pushing or whether his foes are trying to salvage their own power. Everything about this election, from the highly improbable and a-historic (and a-cultural) vote distributions to the bizarre (and extremely unusual) circumventing of normal electoral processes to the refusal to engage in an open analysis (which such a large victory would certainly survive, if legitimate).

This analysis sounds more like a apology and a fairly unconvincing one at that.

So those tens or hundreds of thousands of people protesting on the street were... what, exactly? Unreal?

No, they were real. They were also expressly acknowledged by Friedman. It should be noted that many of those protesters were, in fact, the clerical/regime elements that Friedman cites. Others were legitimately protesting the system of clerical rule, and an election that they claimed was fraudulent (which I agree with, as does Friedman).

In so doing, the liberal protesters championed the cause of Mousavi, who was not himself a liberal or a reformer. He was, as Friedman notes, an element of the regime, and a long-entrenched one at that.

This analysis sounds more like a apology and a fairly unconvincing one at that.

An apology for what? On behalf of whom?

It's also a narrative that seems overly reliant on the assumption that this was a legitimate election.

Not really. Friedman claims there was fraud, but thinks that A-Jad would have won either way.

I myself did a little double take when Friedman began a sentence with "When Ahmadinejad defeated Mir Hossein Mousavi on the night of the election...", then was somewhat assured when he clarified that it was clearly stolen. Then Eric confirmed my initial concern:

"Friedman claims there was fraud, but thinks that A-Jad would have won either way."

Look, put aside the polls, which are far from clear on this point (or at least not in AJ's favor) --

What the hell is that supposed to mean? "Yeah, he stole the election, but he was totally gonna win it anyway..." (??)

Look, you don't have to convince me that Obama needs to engage Iran, whoever comes out on top of this power struggle. And yes, a lot of VIPs think this is all about the US, and it isn't remotely.

But that doesn't mean we have to buy into Ahmedinijad's whole "man of the people" crap.

Sorry if this was too much of a rant.

Well, he doesn't say he stole the election, but was going to win either way. He says there was fraud in terms of ginning up the margin of victory - possibly in order to send a message to reformers, or their clerical allies, or both.

Regardless, it cannot be denied that A-Jad is extremely popular, and enjoys the backing of very powerful factions. Even if he lost - which I tend to believe - I don't think anyone is suggesting Mousavi would have won in a landslide.

A-Jad is able to muster enormous street protests of his own - even if those get less focus in Western media. He is a populist, and as such, has a dedicated backing.

Further, during the current round of protests against the election results, you will note that Iran's security apparatus did not pushback against the government.

Ahmadinejad is not part of the establishment, but rather has been struggling against it, accusing it of having betrayed the principles of the Islamic Revolution.

Sorry, but some of this analysis carries a whiff of Ahmadinejad as Evil Genius.

(1) Was he actually the one who carried out the likely electoral fraud? If so, how did he know that the Guardian Council and its "corrupt clerics" would back him up?

(2) Rafsanjani is a poster child for Looking Out for Number One, but is this actually perceived as a widespread phenomenon? Is Grand Ayatollah Montazeri living large? From a lower tier of the religious establishment, is Former President Khatami? What about the Supreme Leader himself? It's not clear to me that "look at the debauched clerics" would actually work well when so many of them attain their position from scholarship and being considered worthy of emulation. Barring outliers, it's not really a Renaissance-era College of Cardinals vibe.

(3) Related to the above, how does Ahmadinejad claim the mantle of the true Islamic Revolution without any religious scholarship to his name? Or will he just continue to piggyback off of a compliant Khamenei, who has his own religious legitimacy issues?

So although it's good to see Friedman reiterating that Iran will continue to act out of rational self-interest, and is nowhere near having atomics, I think "Ahmadinejad vs. the Religious Establishment" might be overstated. Then again, perhaps this is just wishful thinking on my part, since heaven help the Iranian civilian population if he ever actually gains the levers of power.

I think "Ahmadinejad vs. the Religious Establishment" might be overstated.

Keep in mind, Friedman is clear that it's not simply that dynamic, since much of the Religious Establishment is siding with A-Jad and using him. Friedman wrote:

The situation is even more complex because it is not simply a fight between Ahmadinejad and the clerics, but also a fight among the clerical elite regarding perks and privileges — and Ahmadinejad is himself being used within this infighting. The Iranian president’s populism suits the interests of clerics who oppose Rafsanjani; Ahmadinejad is their battering ram. But as Ahmadinejad increases his power, he could turn on his patrons very quickly.

Related to the above, how does Ahmadinejad claim the mantle of the true Islamic Revolution without any religious scholarship to his name?

It's based on economic populism and anti-corruption rhetoric. A-Jad is (supposedly) true to the cause because he lives an ascetic life of religious devotion, while much of the clerical establishment is corrupt, living high on the hog instead of living devout lives.

The key to understanding the situation in Iran is realizing that the past weeks have seen not an uprising against the regime, but a struggle within the regime.

Ironically, the Iranian press probably carried similar analyses of Obama's win. Similarly accurate, too.


The Ahamadinejad-Khamenei (AK) side was lurching toward nuclear war. It was not "Rational" of them to make holocaust denial a part of national policy, nor was it rational to both build nuclear weapons and threaten their neighbors. Creating the weapons generates existential enemies that Iran simply didn't have before.

The Iranian revolution has survived since 1979 with only Saddam Hussein trying to really bring it down. And Saddam is dead. Now the US and Israel have very sharp reasons to bring down the regime.

The AK combination is the enemy of world peace and humanity in general. If they make a mistake, we must use it to shake their foundations. There is a real chance of improvement. The Iranian masses understand shaking the foundations could yield greater personal freedom, less inflation, a walk away from nuclear war, disassociation from terrorism, and a chance at greater democracy.

The actual election statistics of a vote that was already pre-rigged by selecting the candidates is not so important. Tweedledum versus Tweedledee. A chance to weaken or even bring down a dangerous regime; Priceless.

As a bonus, making the Mullahs even less popular all over the world (even Roger Cohen was forced to recant, after all) should make it easier to arrange meaningful sanctions; Making real war less necessary and less likely.

All support for the Iranian people!

The Ahamadinejad-Khamenei (AK) side was lurching toward nuclear war.

No it wasn't. What's your proof?

It was not "Rational" of them to make holocaust denial a part of national policy, nor was it rational to both build nuclear weapons and threaten their neighbors.

But it wasn't national policy. Nor have they built nuclear weapons. Actually, they don't even have a nuclear weapons program, let alone a nuclear weapon.

All support for the Iranian people!

What support do you offer when peddling such nonsense?

"Ironically, the Iranian press probably carried similar analyses of Obama's win. Similarly accurate, too."

This was always the Soviet analysis of U.S. elections, and similarly accurate, too.

"The Ahamadinejad-Khamenei (AK) side was lurching toward nuclear war. It was not 'Rational' of them to make holocaust denial a part of national policy, nor was it rational to both build nuclear weapons and threaten their neighbors."

Um, wtf are you talking about?

"Creating the weapons generates existential enemies that Iran simply didn't have before."

Wtf are you talking about? Iran has no nuclear weapons. It doesn't even have the fuel for nuclear weapons.

"The AK combination is the enemy of world peace and humanity in general."

Could you explain which countries they've invaded? I can name two countries we've invaded in the past ten years, and in the past hundred years the list of countries we've militarily or covertly intervened in is just unbelievably long.

Do feel free to name at least one country Iran has invaded, to make it "the enemy of world peace and humanity in general."

All of this post is built on a critical assumption:

"Accordingly, Iran’s ideal position is to be seen as developing nuclear weapons, but not close to having them. This gives Tehran a platform for bargaining without triggering Iran’s destruction, a task at which it has proved sure-footed."

I agree with all of the facts and most of the assessment in this post, however, the above assumption creates a different conclusion whether it is true or false.

If true the bargaining is fairly tedious, useless, and empowering to a regime that is not interested in concluding the negotiations. I call this the Saddam Hussein method of keeping regional power and international attention, barring the misstep of actually convincing people you have succeeded. There is little value and only downside in active engagement if this assumption is true.

More realistic is that this assumption is false, they are trying to and have every intention of developing and deploying a nuclear weapon. In this case, engagement is valuable only to the extent it would provide some way to anticipate when they might get close. It would achieve their goal of dragging extended negotitations out to afford them the time with minimal sanctions to allow them the time to finish.

Either way, there is little value in direct negotiations, little expectations you would ever deal with anyone on a good faith basis. By every other assumption here, you would be providing fodder for a regime who will consistently take any negotiations and publicly use them to make us the problem, so whats new?

Mostly, that we engage in trying to appease them, which is interpreted in that part of the world as weakness, and allows them to argue every aspect of the Middle east quandary from a position of strength.

So, Marty, what is your suggestion?

If true the bargaining is fairly tedious, useless, and empowering to a regime that is not interested in concluding the negotiations.

That does not follow. If Iran is doing something to improve its bargaining position, then it would follow that they would like to gain something from...well, bargaining. This is unlike Saddam, who didn't want to improve his bargaining position at all or achieve something via bargaining, but wanted to scare off regional adversaries.

There is little value and only downside in active engagement if this assumption is true.

Not so. The value is in the negotiated outcome. Whether that can be achieved or not has little to do with whether or not Iran is trying to improve its bargaining position as Friedman suggests.

More realistic is that this assumption is false, they are trying to and have every intention of developing and deploying a nuclear weapon. In this case, engagement is valuable only to the extent it would provide some way to anticipate when they might get close.

No, negotiations would also have value if they persuaded Iran to abandon its goal. Sometimes, deals are actually made that affect a party's prior goal or intention.

Mostly, that we engage in trying to appease them, which is interpreted in that part of the world as weakness, and allows them to argue every aspect of the Middle east quandary from a position of strength.

Wait, we didn't appease them under Bush? But negotiations would appease them?

Not following.

Disagree with Marty. What Eric said was that the logic behind dragging things out is regime survival - actually get a nuke, you get nuked, but abandon the program without anything in exchange and you're left with nothing to counter all those neocons lusting after "regime change." He also said that they might be willing to bargain with us and give up the program if we give them security guarantees, ie, that we won't invade or otherwise try to depose them. With those considerations in mind, negotiations wouldn't be irrational or pointless. I'm also not quite sure that the well-worn "Munich" frame of "appeasement," "weakness," and "strength" is particularly useful or relevant here.

If you start with the assumption that there is no nuclear program, then what are we bargaining to get?

I usually don't bargain with someone who wants something but has nothing I want. My suggestion would be to ignore them and spend time on things where we get value.

"More realistic is that this assumption is false, they are trying to and have every intention of developing and deploying a nuclear weapon."

It's true that there's no proving, for now, either case, but I don't agree. It seems to me, based on the religious pronouncements by Khameni, and a general consideration of the strategic pros and cons, that Iran's best position, absent a deal, is to maneuver themselves into more or less the position of Japan: to be able, when they can, to have enough weaponized nuclear material, and a working nuclear weapons design, and material on hand, to have the capability of assembling a nuclear weapon within short order, a matter of months, or even weeks, without ever having to so assemble one.

This would keep them within the letter of their religious pronouncements -- which have been so repeated and emphatic as to seem difficult to step back from -- and yet would grant them the effectively the full power of nuclear deterrence, without ever being in violation of the NPT.

So why wouldn't that be to their greater advantage than to actually assemble and brag about possessing nuclear weapons?

Additionally, far more difficult than eventually achieving sufficiently enriched uranium, or alternatively, plutonium, for a weapon, and completing a reliable weapons design, would be completing a reliable design that could fit on a missile.

That part is far and away the trickiest part of the equation, and there's no reason to think Iran could achieve it any time soon (though obviously given enough years it's achievable).

Meanwhile, even if Iran developed and tested a fission weapon, they wouldn't have any way of delivering to anywhere much further than, say, Iraq. Which wouldn't seem very useful. They certainly wouldn't have the capability to fly a plane all the way to Israel to drop such a weapon without being shot down, after all. So, again, what would be the point of assembling and testing a weapon without having a missile to deliver it?

The theory that they'd smuggle a weapon into America or Israel via ship or other smuggling method seems to posit a not very useful technique. Yes, they could do it, but what would be gained? We'd know who did it, and they'd see Tehran nuked in return. There's no reason to think they're that irrational and less deterrable than the Soviet Union, or Mao, was, despite the extremely poorly supported claims about how religiously apocalyptic and irrational the leadership is.

Meanwhile, the carrots of dropping all sanctions, recognizing Iran diplomatically with normal relations, and engaging in trade that would be of tremendous economic benefit to their economy, and therefore their electoral politics (as well as to the personal economic benefit of a significant part of the leadership), would seem not at all insignificant, in return for a deal by which we get inspections that they do not achieve weapons-grade enrichment of fuel, but instead keep to low-grade enrichment useful only for reactors, or possibly even arrange so that they only can get such fuel via a third party. The outlines for such a deal are not at all unclear, and neither are the benefits to both sides.

This isn't to say any such deal is the most likely outcome, but it certainly seems more than worth seriously exploring.

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