Shadow Government

Iran's uprising is good leverage on the nuclear issue

By Peter Feaver

One important thing seems to be missing in President Obama's commentary on Iran and much of the commentary about Obama's commentary: We want to create and deepen fissures within the Tehran regime -- check that, we need those fissures -- because that is the only plausible way that a diplomatic deal on the nuclear file could be struck.

At key moments in recent days, as Obama has struggled to salvage his Iran policy from the street riots of Tehran, it has appeared that he is waiting/hoping for someone, anyone, to consolidate power there so that he can get back to the urgent business of sitting down for lengthy negotiations. But those negotiations only have a chance of bearing fruit if our Iranian interlocutors believe that their negotiating position is a decaying one -- that the deal they could strike now is better than the deal they could strike later. Otherwise, they will keep "negotiating" and wait for the better deal. That is why an ascendant Iran -- one with oil and natural gas revenues soaring and a fully consolidated hard-liner regime in uncontested domestic control -- is a lousy negotiating partner. It would simply dictate unfavorable terms to us on a take it or leave it basis and keep progressing steadily towards nuclear weapons status. We could get a "deal," but it would be the sort of "deal" advocated by those who essentially argue, "let's just learn to love the Iranian bomb."  

To make diplomacy work, what is needed is a sweet spot of pressure that shifts the Iranian calculus to the opposite stance, where the deal they feel they can strike now is better than the deal they could strike later because their negotiating position is eroding. Now, achieving this sweet spot is difficult, because the Iranian decision-making system is closer to a unit-veto system than ours -- factions find it easier to block action than to mobilize for action. Thus, at least at lower degrees of fissures, the wider the fissures, the greater the pressures towards inaction (fruitless negotiations). However, it is reasonable to hope that at extreme levels of fissures, the cross-cutting pressures might tilt the other way. Or, rather, it is unreasonable to hope that any other plausible Iranian negotiating partner would give us a deal we would want, and so this is our best shot at steering between two undesirables: military action or living with an Iranian nuclear weapon.

Financial sanctions that activates business pressure on the regime and thereby deepens fissures within the political elite seemed to be our best shot at fissure-exacerbation, but the Bush administration struggled to get sufficiently tough economic sanctions. The Obama team wasn't making much progress on this front either, even though their erstwhile Iran czar, Dennis Ross, understood it was a necessary ingredient.

Well, the ham-handed way the Ahmadinejad faction manipulated the election results has managed to exacerbate faction fissures within the Tehran regime beyond any level seen in recent years. Obama is right that, insofar as the nuclear file goes, and insofar as the world as it was a week or so goes, a consolidated Ahmadinejad presidency would not have been much worse than a consolidated Mousavi presidency: Ahmadinejad is discernibly worse, but neither would have been a very good negotiating partner.

But a lot has happened in the past week, and it is not at all clear that the Mousavi of today is "much of a muchness" with Ahmadinejad. He is no nuclear dove, but he could be a Gorbachev-like figure whose tolerance for partial reform to reignite the revolution has the unintended effect of sowing the seeds of the regime's own destruction. At a minimum, the populist outrage Mousavi has stirred means that the election (and resulting protests, of course), far from consolidating power within Tehran, is pushing the regime closer to the cracking point. A regime that is cracking from within may be the only one that would accept a nuclear deal we could live with. To be sure, that sort of deal would have to offer face-saving fig-leafs to let the hobbled regime "declare victory" -- but a cracked regime is the only kind that would have the requisite strategic horizon to accept it.

So the administration should be doing whatever it can to let those fissures widen. Obama is right that he has to be careful not to act in a ham-handed way that lets the Ahmadinejad faction rally Persian hyper-nationalism with bogus charges of American meddling. He should choose his words artfully, and not treat Iranians to the type of rhetorical abuse that they heap on us with on a daily basis, for instance. But our interests here are clear: the regime should be seen as discredited for discreditable action, and even if Khamenei succeeds in installing Ahmadinejad over Mousavi, as seems likely (but by no means certain), we want the faction that has mobilized the street protests to be as strong as possible.

It is not clear that the Obama team has figured out how best to accomplish this. It is not even clear that they understand this is what needs to be done.

Shadow Government

Obama goes wobbly on Sudan

By Peter Feaver

One of the many perils of blogging is that it encourages you to make your hunches in public, which allows for easy assessment later. I tell my students that political scientists are much better at predicting the past (call it retrodiction) than we are at predicting the future. A squib in today’s Washington Post brought that to mind.

A while back, I predicted on the now defunct Planet War discussion group (another story about another peril of blogging) that President Obama’s team, which had been so derisively hawkish on Darfur, would come into government and maintain hawkish rhetoric but not ramp up hawkish policy with military operations. I say “derisively hawkish” because one of the biggest Darfur hawks, Susan Rice, had repeatedly bashed the Bush administration for not doing enough on Africa. I always found that criticism a bit odd, since President Bush did more for Africa than any previous president, easily eclipsing the last best president for Africa, Bill Clinton. Still, she had a point on Darfur since there was a pronounced gap between Bush’ hawkish rhetoric on Darfur and the less-hawkish policies and actions the administration pursued; it was an improvement over what Clinton did on Rwanda, but it was far less than what Bush wanted.

Well, today a Washington Post story shows that I was wrong to predict a “hawkish rhetoric, dovish action” Darfur policy from the Obama team. Instead, it appears that what we might end up getting is a “dovish rhetoric, dovish action” Darfur policy. Obama’s Darfur czar, Scott Gration, has claimed that the Khartoum regime is no longer perpetrating “coordinated” mass murder. Having declared mission accomplished insofar as stopping the Darfur genocide goes, he further calls for a basket of carrots to get the Khartoum regime to cooperate even more. 

To be fair to my prediction, Susan Rice did accuse Khartoum of genocide two days ago. And, in the full spirit of self-criticism, team Obama has supported the ICC indictments against the Darfur genocide leaders, a step the Bush administration resisted for some time. So perhaps the most precise coding right now would be “confused rhetoric, confused action,” since there is contradictory hawkishness and dovishness on both the rhetoric and action side.

I am sympathetic to Obama’s Darfur problem. I believe that he and some of his advisors, like Bush and some of his advisors, sincerely want to step up pressure on Darfur.  But Obama's plate is full (as his predecessor’s was), and he is discovering (as we discovered) that if the United States does not lead by example on a global issue, then very little will get done on it. International institutions and foreign allies will talk a good game, and are absolutely vital for building broader legitimacy for whatever action is ultimately taken, but they will not act decisively on their own. Without lead-from-the-front U.S. action, few global problems receive sustained attention or decisive efforts from outsiders. 

Given all that, I am willing to make public one more hunch: that when all is said and done, the doves will win the internal debate over Obama’s Darfur policy. I may be wrong on that hunch -- I have been wrong many times before -- and if so, we will soon know it.