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January 29, 2010

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We will keep strangleing your economy and ruining your quality of life until you love us. Soon there may even be JDAMs of love as well.

The rationale is dubious: unlike prior gambles by the Bush administration that the Iranian regime was on the verge of collapse, this time it really is, and so it's worth a stand-off.

There's no compelling proof that the underlying assumption is even true. No one ever made a solid case that the election results were fraudulent; my best estimate is that over 60% of Iranian voters voted to retain their President, and that a majority of Iranians that didn't aren't in the mood for revolution. In all of the videos I've seen of Green movement protests, I haven't seen one that's suggested that a large fraction of Iranians in any city are part of the movement. I wish this weren't the case and that there was a movement likely to lead to liberal reform in Iran, but I suspect that the Leveretts will once again be dragged through the coals for showing common sense.

It's interesting that very few people calling for us to provide material support for the Green movement recognize that the Green movement's original aim was to get Iran back to where it was when Bush decided to invent the Axis of Evil... a relatively liberal government that engages the West to some degree and retains the basic structure of Iranian government.

It would be far more effective to focus on the violent repression of the Green movement than try and lump it together with weapons and women's rights and religious freedom. It would be much easier to unite the international community around a simpler concern, and that's necessary to get sanctions off the ground.

Why would anyone assume that a collapse of the regime in Iran would improve the situation?

Ugh: we will eventually call them ingrates.

Given that every American administration seems to wind up in the same place, I would guess that the Iranian government proves itself deceitful and duplicitous not only in its public diplomacy, but even more so in its back-channel diplomacy, so that trust and hopefulness are quickly dissipated. My guess is obviously not one that could be confirmed or denied in this forum.

The Leveretts seem to me to be doing quite a bit of tea-leaf-reading to reach a desired conclusion. For example, there is a great deal more data available on US-Iranian relations than Obama's SOTU speech (which only had a few lines devoted to Iran)- yet they prefer to fill in the blanks with speculation. Will Hillary serve during a second Obama term? Let's assume that she won't, and that this indicates some serious problems with Obama's foreign policy!

Im no expert on US-Iranian relations, but it's clear that
1)the 2009 election protests and subsequent crackdown changed things significantly (Zach's cheering for the mullahs nonwithstanding)
2)Obama needs to credibly wield both carrot and stick for a diplomatic approach to work. Bringing Russia (and hopefully China) to the table helps. But if he cannot bring sanctions when Iran refuses to negotiate, then they have little incentive to do so, or to adhere to a deal once reached.

Obama always portrayed a centrist, consensus-driven model of governing. And despite the fantasies of some liberals, he never portrayed himself as a superman. Now, unable to fix the Iranian situation with a wave of his hand, he is abandoned by those who never had the wit or character to consider what a real foreign policy might look like.

There's no compelling proof that the underlying assumption is even true. No one ever made a solid case that the election results were fraudulent

from wikipedia:

According to an analysis by Professor Walter R. Mebane, Jr. from the Department of Statistics of the University of Michigan, considering data from the first stage of the 2005 presidential election produces results that "give moderately strong support for a diagnosis that the 2009 election was affected by significant fraud".[29] The UK-based think-tank Chatham House also suspected fraud in the voting process for a number of reasons:[30]
More than 100%:In two Conservative provinces, Mazandaran and Yazd, a turnout of more than 100% was recorded.[30]
No swing:At a provincial level, there is no correlation between the increased turnout, and the swing to Ahmadinejad.[30] This challenges the notion that his victory was due to the massive participation of a previously silent Conservative majority.[30]
Reformist votes:In a third of all provinces, the official results would require that Ahmadinejad took not only all former conservative voters, and all former centrist voters, and all new voters, but also took up to 44% of former Reformist voters, despite a decade of conflict between these two groups.[30]
Rural votes:In 2005, as in 2001 and 1997, conservative candidates, and Ahmadinejad in particular, were markedly unpopular in rural areas. The claim that this year Ahmadinejad swept the board in more rural provinces in 2009 flies in the face of these trends.[30]

Maybe that's more persuasive than a My Little Pony "best estimate". As for the rest of your comment- what do you expect to see in a video of a protest in a repressive state that indicates to you whether the majority supports revolution or is sympathetic to the movement?
As for your charting of the administration's course, you make the same mistake as the Leveretts, only writ large: there's no evidence that the administration is pursuing eg women's issues as a wedge internationally against Iran, even if Obama mentioned it in the SOTU. So your advice is worthless.

Given that every American administration seems to wind up in the same place

First of all, I don't think that's necessarily the case. And to the extent that it is, one should at least acknowledge the fact that it is possible that it is our negotiating tactics/unrealistic demands/unwillingness to compromise that contributes to, or creates, the serial impasse.

Im no expert on US-Iranian relations, but it's clear that
1)the 2009 election protests and subsequent crackdown changed things significantly (Zach's cheering for the mullahs nonwithstanding)

I'm not so sure the changes were that significant from our perspective with respect to each nation's respective goals/interests.

2)Obama needs to credibly wield both carrot and stick for a diplomatic approach to work. Bringing Russia (and hopefully China) to the table helps. But if he cannot bring sanctions when Iran refuses to negotiate, then they have little incentive to do so, or to adhere to a deal once reached.

China and Russia will not go along with us on this. We should adjust accordingly. And, ultimately, I think it has less to do with carrots and sticks, and more to do with easing tensions and moving toward normalization. A less anxious Iran is an Iran that would be more willing to cooperate on these matters. An Iran beset with "sticks" is less likely to cooperate, and our sticks aren't big enough to make them.

I'm not so sure the changes were that significant from our perspective with respect to each nation's respective goals/interests.

Wow, that was terribly worded. I mean to say that our respective fundamental interests remain the same as before the election. And the importance of engagement, the same.

"I mean to say that our respective fundamental interests remain the same as before the election. And the importance of engagement, the same."

It seems to me that some public solidarity with the courageous protest movement, especially in light of the repressive reaction, is a good thing if not overdone. I would think that those factors changed things to a certain degree.

We will keep strangleing your economy and ruining your quality of life until you love us.

In the words of Homer Simpson, why does everything I whip leave me?

It seems to me that some public solidarity with the courageous protest movement, especially in light of the repressive reaction, is a good thing if not overdone. I would think that those factors changed things to a certain degree.

It probably does to the extent that there should be a moment of silence - or a decent interval - observed prior to the resumption of meaningful engagement. But at the end of the day, the nuclear issue, regional interests, terrorism, Israel/Palestine, Afghanitsan, Iraq, etc. remain the same.

Hell, the leaders of the Green Movement have been even MORE hawkish than A-Jad on the nuclear issue - with Moussavi criticizing A-Jad for even contemplating cutting a deal on uranium enrichment via proxy.

"Zach's cheering for the mullahs nonwithstanding"
"a My Little Pony "best estimate."

Thanks for proving my point about not being able to go against the grain on this issue without running into juvenile attacks. I even included the requisite aside pointing out that I hope the regime fails as well. Oh well.

There's been a lot of data subsequent to Mebane's analysis. It hasn't been indicative of fraud.

My point is that there's no convincing case of election fraud occurring or the Green movement consisting of enough people to topple the regime. Making foreign policy on the basis of questionable assumptions is unwise. You might be right, but we shouldn't invade Iran or arm a rebel group when either would have dire consequences if you are wrong.

"So your advice is worthless." ... because I'm trying to provide advice in an Internet comments thread?

Let's presuppose that fraud did occur and that the Green movement enjoys something approaching majority support. The Green movement isn't something outside of the government; it's leaders are members of the government. Their allies work in the ministry of elections. Their followers staff polling places and count ballots. Yet, there is no evidence of fraud outside of mathematical analysis.

unlike prior gambles by the Bush administration that the Iranian regime was on the verge of collapse, this time it really is, and so it's worth a stand-off.

What I find almost willfully naive in this position is the apparent belief that, if the current regime is thrown out, nothing but wonderfulness will result.

Do folks think the current rulers will just pack up and leave without a fight?

Do they think they will immediately be replaced by a new regime who will be more amenable to our wishes and interests?

Isn't it somewhere between possible and likely that a period, of some duration, of chaos would ensue, during which it would be unclear who spoke for Iran, and during which the control of whatever nuclear materials they do have would be something of a jump ball?

Would the other parties in the area sit by idly while the power vacuum created by the fall of the mullahs sorted itself out?

Haven't we had enough "creative destruction" for a while?

I'm not so sure the changes were that significant from our perspective with respect to each nation's respective goals/interests.

I think you're ignoring the effect that this has had on the internal politics of Iran; for example, the hardliner media outlets have put much blame for the agitation and violence on foreign influences, making deals much less valuable to the hardliners for propaganda purposes, and opposition more valuable insofar as it reinforces their message.
Just an example, there are other obvious effects (eg violence between reform and hardline elements makes it much harder to envision scenarios where reformers effectively champion improved relations, or use improved relations to leverage political clout).

China and Russia will not go along with us on this. We should adjust accordingly.

I hope that you're mistaken here; it's an unknown and neither of us will be able to marshall any real evidence I think. Certainly we can offer enough to either or both to get them in, the question is what that price would be and whether it'd be worth the cost.

And, ultimately, I think it has less to do with carrots and sticks, and more to do with easing tensions and moving toward normalization. A less anxious Iran is an Iran that would be more willing to cooperate on these matters.

A less anxious Iran has no real reason to capitulate in the eyes on their population, as well. I agree, reducing Iran's anxiety level would be a good thing, but not at the cost of giving them free rein. And there's the Israeli factor as well; it's very much in our best interest to prevent the Israelis from taking unilateral action, and that ought to involve leaning on both parties.

One more point on reducing Iran's anxiety level: they know that even if Obama is friendly today, they may face another Bush in a decade give or take. So there's a limited amount that anyone can do to reduce the perceived threat; the lesson of the Iran War v the North Korean standoff was that having nukes is a serious advantage.
Ergo, we need more than Obama's willingness to forgive and forget before Iran can feel safe enough to irrevocably abandon any designs on a nuclear weapons program. We need every inducement we can dredge up, and even then I wouldn't put the odds of success over 50/50.

Thanks for proving my point about not being able to go against the grain on this issue without running into juvenile attacks.

You mean like folks telling you that if you don't agree with them you're probably butt-ignorant about the Green Revolution? (hint: that was you).
And you get what you put in- if you offer a numerical estimate based on your observation of crowds on CNN, you are going to get ridiculed (kitty permitting).

I even included the requisite aside pointing out that I hope the regime fails as well. Oh well.

Yet, you seem to be straining to interpret the facts in a manner freindly to the regime. Curious.
Oh, pardon me- I didnt mean to imply that you'd referenced any facts. My bad.

There's been a lot of data subsequent to Mebane's analysis. It hasn't been indicative of fraud.

You maybe want to someday get around to providing some of that data? You keep making these huge assertions without bothering to provide any facts to back them up.

My point is that there's no convincing case of election fraud occurring or the Green movement consisting of enough people to topple the regime. Making foreign policy on the basis of questionable assumptions is unwise.

So, why is there such a high burden of proof required here- eg "compelling proof"? It's almost "innocent until proven guilty", but what we're discussing ought to be decided by the preponderence of the evidence. If it's meant to guide our foreign policy, as you say.

You might be right, but we shouldn't invade Iran or arm a rebel group when either would have dire consequences if you are wrong.

I think that this would be an incredibly stupid idea regardless of the state of the green revolution. If they were to topple the government or force major concessions, it would be by undermining the hardliners' legitimacy, not by force of arms. Force of arms would only increase that legitimacy, particularly if those arms are coming from the West.
Likewise, invading Iran is a terrible idea IMO.

So, we're in agreement on those points. But you don't need to twist your position to make the Green Revolution not representative of Iranians etc in order to reach that conclusion I think. In fact, that you suspect me of holding these positions makes me think that you're putting the cart before the horse ie making your factual conclusions based on your preferred policy outcomes, and believe that I am doing the same.
Also, there is a tremendous amount of daylight in between an all-carrot diplomatic stance and an invasion or proxy war.

"So your advice is worthless." ... because I'm trying to provide advice in an Internet comments thread?

Because you're basing your conclusions about what Obama's foreign policy stance is regarding Iran and its nuclear program based on a few sentences in one speech. Naturally such a fragment of a speech won't have a lot of nuance- to conclude that the policy will therefore lack nuance is just nuts.

The Green movement isn't something outside of the government; it's leaders are members of the government. Their allies work in the ministry of elections. Their followers staff polling places and count ballots. Yet, there is no evidence of fraud outside of mathematical analysis.

Your faith in the fair workings of repressive states is impressive. Im not saying that the election was certainly stolen, just that it's a significant possibililty. Absence of evidence is not convincing.

And there's the Israeli factor as well; it's very much in our best interest to prevent the Israelis from taking unilateral action, and that ought to involve leaning on both parties.

The problem is, we have no leaning leverage on Iran. We've severed ties so thoroughly that there's little left for us to offer in terms of threats. UN action is not forthcoming because Russia and China keep blocking Security Council action.

I hope that you're mistaken here; it's an unknown and neither of us will be able to marshall any real evidence I think.

What is known is that they haven't thus far cooperated. What is also known is that China views Iran as a valuable ally and source of vital fossil fuels (China and Iran actually have a long history of amiable relations).

Iran's value to China is actually enhanced by its antipathy toward the US and separation from the US orbit. Iran is viewed as a fallback source of oil should tensions between the US and China arise, and should the US manaage an Gulf Power embargo on China.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/dec/16/iran-china-nuclear-sanctions

Theoretically, we could offer China something - Russia too - but as you alluded, the cost would be too high for us. I mean, what's in it for them?

I think you're ignoring the effect that this has had on the internal politics of Iran; for example, the hardliner media outlets have put much blame for the agitation and violence on foreign influences, making deals much less valuable to the hardliners for propaganda purposes, and opposition more valuable insofar as it reinforces their message.

Yes and no. The regime could seek to diffuse some of the Green energy by striking a deal and normalizing relations. Gratuitous stoking of tensions with the west is one of the factors that has hurt A-Jad's popularity amongs the applicable Green factions.

Either way, it behooves us to try.

One more point on reducing Iran's anxiety level: they know that even if Obama is friendly today, they may face another Bush in a decade give or take. So there's a limited amount that anyone can do to reduce the perceived threat; the lesson of the Iran War v the North Korean standoff was that having nukes is a serious advantage.

Which is why I think Iran will bring itself to the brink - within a sprinting distance from breakout capacity. But not actually weaponize. That is, unless we step up the offensive attacks (like sanctions/blockades). Then they might feel the need to weaponize now.

Although it would create some thorny religious issues for Khamenei who has railed about how nuclear weapons are abhorrent to Islam.

I think we are more in agreement than it seemed at first, Carleton. As far as new data goes, here's one of the most recent summaries of what information was available towards the end of the whole controversy - http://www.cepr.net/index.php/op-eds-&-columns/op-eds-&-columns/was-the-iranian-election-stolen/ - the author asks an actual Iranian what the actual process is (something that was sorely lacking in most analyses) which is why I lean towards the Occam's Razor class of conclusions.

Ballot-box level data was released towards the end of June 2009, and I don't believe that anyone made a case that it was indicative of fraud; you could always say that they made up the results at that point, anyway.

As far as new data goes, here's one of the most recent summaries of what information was available towards the end of the whole controversy

I still see a lot here to object to eg the idea that the over-100%-locatation votes (over 3M) are not enough in and of themselves to have changed the outcome. This does not challenge the alledged fraud, just claims that it was not enough to have swayed the election. And it reaches that conclusion by assuming that 1)whatever method leading to the alleged fraud in these over-100% localities was not used in other localities without producing the abberration of over-100% participation 2)no other methods of fraud could have been used to augment the method that produced the over-100% participation.

Of course, it's not necessary for the fraud to have changed the outcome of the election- it's entirely possible that the hardliners might have interfered with an election that they would have won fairly. That is essentially unknowable, without knowing for certain whether fraud occurred and on exactly what scale.
But I don't see anything compelling in the case that the election wasn't damaged by fraud. I see even less to support your other conclusions, that the protesters do not represent a significant fraction of the Iranian population or that the Iranian population has no stomach for regime change.

I see even less to support your other conclusions, that the protesters do not represent a significant fraction of the Iranian population or that the Iranian population has no stomach for regime change

I think this depends on what you mean by "regime." If you mean that people would be willing to sack A-jad, and put Moussavi in power - or at least, have replay of the election - I think there would be some level of support (though still not majority - interestingly, even Moussavi himself is not asking for this now).

But if you mean that a majority of Iranians want to overturn the revolution, and the entire system of vilayet-i-faqih (clerical jurisprudence), then I would beg to differ.

I recommend Hooman Majd's piece on the contours of the Green movement - and the attitudes of the Iranian people.

http://bit.ly/6WFpCZ

Yes and no. The regime could seek to diffuse some of the Green energy by striking a deal and normalizing relations.

That may be true as well, but it tends to challenge your original thesis that the events of 2009 ought not to have changed relations between the US and Iran. Just as the bad US economy and images of Iranian protesters being attacked has left Obama with less manuvering room vis a vis Iran- domestic politics matter.

Which is why I think Iran will bring itself to the brink - within a sprinting distance from breakout capacity. But not actually weaponize.

That's not unlikely- but if that's the case regardless of how much positive and negative pressure the US brings to bear, what are we trying to accomplish with Iran? And again, this seems likely to provoke a response from the Likudniks, which would be bad for everyone involved. (ie bad for every country, but perhaps good for the war dogs in particular countries: the Likud, the Iranian hardliners, and the GOP).
Obama can't realistically accept this as a fait accompli even if it is unavoidable, and making nice with the Iranians while they reach this point doesnt seem politically viable either. Maybe by making nice he can let the Iranians reach a potential nuclear capability without any grand announcements, which would let everyone pretend that diplomacy is working- but is that the best outcome we can reach?

That may be true as well, but it tends to challenge your original thesis that the events of 2009 ought not to have changed relations between the US and Iran.

Not really. I'm not saying that there haven't been changes in the internal politics, but the changes don't affect the respective underlying interets of each nation.

In either instance, I favor signicant attempts at engagement/normalization, and a wind down of Bush era isolation/threats that proved so ineffective, not only with Iran but with NoKo as well. "We don't negotiate with evil" didn't work.

That's not unlikely- but if that's the case regardless of how much positive and negative pressure the US brings to bear, what are we trying to accomplish with Iran?

The best hope of averting this would be to disincentivize the objective. We have no sticks left short of military force, which would be the worst possible course. A disaster in every respect, as Iran would surely acquire nuclear weapons after that, only now they would be more hostile.

We can offer positive inducements, however. I'm willing to try that. And, in conjunction, if we could normalize relations and scale back the hostility, it might make the need for near-weapon capacity less urgent.

But you're right in that there are political risks. All along that path there are risks. The Leverett's acknowledge as much in their final paragraph to the linked piece. This was never going to be easy for Obama. And it looks like his policy is drifting for that reason.

And again, this seems likely to provoke a response from the Likudniks, which would be bad for everyone involved

Interestingly, we have an infinite amount more non-military leverage with Israel than Iran. But, again, could Obama use it considering the political costs? Perhaps. This is serious stuff after all. But, sadly, it appears that he wasn't willing to in order to push Netanyahu on settlements - which has completely stymied the process.

Let's take this out to the WFO extreme and see what you think. Not only did I do eyebrow raising...I put on a complete change of perspective.
http://www.larouchepub.com/other/2007/sci_techs/3423init_warming_hoax.html
Here's the start of the trail
http://opitslinkfest.blogspot.com/2009/12/4-dec-following-trail-climate-fraud-and.html
And further on
http://opitslinkfest.blogspot.com/2009/12/20-dec-mission-in-afghanistanetc.html

a) You should learn to embed links. It's easy, and tends to get your links followed more than what you're doing, which requires people to copy and paste the link.

b) Really? Larouchepub?

Not really. I'm not saying that there haven't been changes in the internal politics, but the changes don't affect the respective underlying interests of each nation.

But those internal changes affect the costs to governments of pursuing various paths. So it's critical to understanding what they can do.
Since we're talking about what Obama should do, it's relevant- and you keep dismissing it with this formulation about 'underlying national interests', but this does not change the effect that it has on diplomacy.

Interestingly, we have an infinite amount more non-military leverage with Israel than Iran. But, again, could Obama use it considering the political costs?

This is the same problem; leverage that one cannot use is not actually leverage and can't be expected to affect anything. Obama could veto any spending bill that sends money to Israel, but he will lose the fight and his political career in the process.
The reality is that Obama has very little leverage over Israel at this point.

In either instance, I favor signicant attempts at engagement/normalization, and a wind down of Bush era isolation/threats that proved so ineffective, not only with Iran but with NoKo as well. "We don't negotiate with evil" didn't work.

I still don't accept the thesis that the Obama policy towards Iran is the same as the Bush administration's policy. It's an easy target to disagree with, but not relevant.

But those internal changes affect the costs to governments of pursuing various paths. So it's critical to understanding what they can do.
Since we're talking about what Obama should do, it's relevant- and you keep dismissing it with this formulation about 'underlying national interests', but this does not change the effect that it has on diplomacy.

But CW, if the Iranian regime would be more likely to cut a deal because it would ease internal tensions, then by all means, let's pursue engagement.

If, on the other hand, the Iranian regime would be less likely because of the Green revolution, pursuit of engagement in earnest is still the best long term posture, and should be pursued regardless. It is the best shot we have at realizing our objectives at acceptable costs, regardless. Thus, as our interests and theirs haven't changed, we should proceed. The beauty of engagement is that its attendant policies will make a deal easier as time goes by and normalization sets in.

So, in that sense, the Green movement and its internal rumblings don't or shouldn't affect our basic posture vis-a-vis Iran.

I still don't accept the thesis that the Obama policy towards Iran is the same as the Bush administration's policy.

It's not the same, but it's starting to resemble it in far too many crucial respects. That's the point of this piece: stop before you end up going down the same path! Not: We're doomed because you've already gone down that path, fatalism, the end.

The reality is that Obama has very little leverage over Israel at this point.

True, but the same holds for Iran. Thus, given our lack of leverage, our best shot is to reduce the temperature and change the sense of urgency and hostility. Real, full-on engagement and normalization. Shift the entire paradigm.

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