War Stories

Disengagement With Iran

After its fraudulent election, Obama should harden his stance with Iran.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of Iran’s June 12 election and its aftermath.

It’s time for President Obama to rethink his policy of “engagement” with Iran.

Given the near-certainty that Iran’s election was fixed and the documented fact that protesters are being brutalized, there is no way that Obama or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton could go to Tehran and shake hands with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, much less to expect that any talks would be worthwhile.

The issue here is not one of realpolitik vs. democratic idealism. Rather, it’s a question about what course of action is simply realistic (in the conversational, as opposed to ideological, sense of the word).

A classic international realist, in the tradition of Henry Kissinger, might shrug off the call for a revision in outlook and policy. After all, it’s nothing new or unusual for the United States, or any other power, to cultivate diplomatic relations with illegitimate regimes. If there hadn’t been an election, Obama would have proceeded to open a dialogue. And the nature of the Iranian government, which isn’t really run by the president, anyway, is basically the same now as it was last week.

But, in fact, something has changed. The blatant fraudulence of the election has mobilized the Iranian people in a way that hasn’t been seen since the 1979 revolution, which led to the overthrow of the Shah of Iran. The shah seemed to control Iran back then as tightly as the Islamic mullahs do today. The decisive moment in ‘79 occurred when middle-class merchants—the heart of the shah’s political support—joined the students and the radicals in revolt.

What social group might now play the same role that the merchants played then? This is where today’s situation differs from that of 30 years ago. There might very well be no such group. Rural conservative peasants form the main base of support for Ahmadinejad and the mullahs, and there’s no reason to believe they’ll join the young men and (especially) women protesting in the streets of the capital city.

Unless the violence widens the fissures in Iranian society to an unprecedented—almost unimaginable—degree, the agitation could simply peter out in the coming days and weeks as more and more protesters are beaten, detained, and even killed, with no effect on the regime’s survival. In this case, it may well be, as a story in today’s New York Times predicted, that the hardliners wind up more firmly in control than ever.

Yet reports have circulated in recent months suggesting that some Iranian clerics, even a few in high places, are displeased with Ahmadinejad’s harsh rhetoric and his mishandling of the economy. Some evidence of electoral fraud has reportedly been leaked from dissidents from within Iran’s interior ministry. The supreme leader has ordered the Guardian Council to investigate allegations of fraud—this after publicly ratifying the election’s results (without, suspiciously, observing the three-day waiting period that Iranian law requires)—though it may be that this order is mere subterfuge and that the investigation will be just as fraudulent.

In other words, it is possible (how likely it might be, no one can say) that the popular revolts might sharpen the fissures within the circles of Iran’s ruling elite. Of course, those circles are so opaque that few outsiders can tell whether there are fissures, much less what their boundaries are. Does the CIA or the National Security Agency know? I hope so, but I don’t know.

This is a common problem in analyzing dictatorships. In the October 1964 issue of a now-defunct USIA-sponsored journal called Problems of Communism, a prominent Kremlinologist named William Griffith, who had extensive CIA ties, wrote a savage critique of the notion, propagated by a few scholars at the time, that rival power factions were quarreling within the Kremlin. Griffith proclaimed that Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s power was as unchallenged and absolute as Josef Stalin’s had ever been. The very month that the issue was published, Khrushchev was overthrown by a rival faction.

Whatever is going on inside Tehran’s ruling circles, now is not the time for Obama to engage in outreach. Rather, it’s time to up the ante, to make the mullahs—especially those who might be inclined to cast off Ahmadinejad—realize that if they’re going to play democracy, they can’t rig the deck and violate the will of their people, at least not so blatantly.

Some “smart sanctions” against Iran have had a modicum of success in the past: freezing financial transactions and foreign bank accounts; severely cutting back on capital investment; and banning the export of oil-refining equipment, which the Iranians painfully need. The Europeans have been reluctant, out of economic self-interest, to go along with these steps in the past. Perhaps moral shaming, to which they’re sometimes more vulnerable than we are, can be piled on.

The problem with former President George W. Bush’s policy of “democracy promotion” was threefold. First, it was hypocritical: He supported dissidents in certain countries and dictatorships in others. Second, it sought, at least rhetorically, to impose Western-style democracy without regard to a country’s political terrain. Third, in places where a civil society had not yet developed, elections could exacerbate violence and harm U.S. interests. (Case in point: the Palestinian territories.)

The situation with Iran is different. The movement for change is arising from within. What sort of politics the protesters advocate isn’t clear. And the protesters seem to be more aligned with Western interests: Journalists who have traveled in Iran and talked with reformers say that they’re among the most pro-American people they’ve ever met.

This is not to say that we should send in spies or special-ops troops to provide covert aid to the protesters or their favored candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi. The discovery of American fingerprints would spur a backlash, raising memories of the CIA-backed coup of 1953. Nonetheless, it wouldn’t be a bad idea for someone with a knack for subtlety to probe the fissures for possibilities of new leaders rising to power.

Meanwhile, according to NPR’s Deborah Amos, U.S. officials visiting Damascus in the past few days—in the wake of Lebanon’s more satisfying election—have emerged with happy faces from meetings with their Syrian counterparts. The details aren’t yet clear, but this might be an opportune moment to start luring Syria away from its Iranian alliance. Without its Syrian middlemen, Iran would have a much harder time influencing events in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.

Obama has backed the idea of diplomacy with Iran because Iran is too powerful in the region to ignore. Ahmadinejad said, after he was officially declared the winner, that his victory was the harbinger of a further hardening of foreign policy. So if diplomacy is likely to be futile as well as unseemly, an alternative course might be to take steps to make Iran less powerful, its rulers less comfortable. Hold out the prospect of normal relations if a new election, or at least a real vote count, is held. But in the meantime, tighten the screws.