If there’s one thing Ray Takeyh made clear in his excellent 2009 book Guardians of the Revolution: Iran in the Age of the Ayatollahs, it was that Iranian politics is a series of paradoxes. The 2012 Iranian legislative election is no different.
As Walter Russell Mead says, this election is basically a “contest among conservatives.” There are at least three main conservative blocs vying for seats, and determining their allegiances is a little more complicated than outside observers might expect. In light of Supreme Leader Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad’s very public power struggle, a number of Western media outlets have simplified the election to a battle between Ahmadinejad supporters and Khamenei supporters. This actually understates the division among conservatives.
The primary conservative bloc is the United Front of Principlists, whose ranks are more traditional in their outlook and tend to be more pragmatic in their political views. They are the ones commonly characterized as being pro-Khamenei, and they tend to be aligned with the mainstream clergy.
Their main competition is the Stability Front, the supposedly pro-Ahmadinejad faction. They were Ahmadinejad’s base of support earlier in his presidency, composed of a few radical clerics and a fair number of IRGC members. They are quite hostile to the West and are very nationalistic.
The paradox comes from the fact that common perceptions of Khamenei and Ahmadinejad have flipped in the last few years. It used to be that Khamenei was considered the pragmatist, the consensus-builder, the careful thinker, and Ahmadinejad was the incorrigibly anti-West fire-breather. Lately, however, Khamenei has criticized Ahmadinejad’s reliance on Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, a pragmatist, as his chief of staff. (Khamenei even forced Mashaei to resign as Vice President last year.) Ahmadinejad now seeks outreach to the West, while Khamenei views these efforts as dangerous.
Mashaei’s Monotheism and Justice Party is really the only group running in the elections that offers unequivocal support of Ahmadinejad — and its support is minimal. The United Front has frequently criticized his handling of the economy, while the Stability Front seeks to diminish Mashaei’s influence and force Ahmadinejad into more hardline foreign policies. The Stability Front offers some support for Ahmadinejad, but the President has strayed from their agenda in his power struggle with the Supreme Leader.
This means Ahmadinejad will have less free rein than ever. Even if the Stability Front does well, he will be made weaker. Khamenei has orchestrated a political scene that allows him to divide and conquer at will.
Whatever limited effect the election will have on Iran’s nuclear policy is uncertain. The only thing we know for sure is that the reformists will be absent from the discussion.
Quite understandably, various commentators are trying to make sense of an absurd plan by Iran’s IRGC to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. Spencer Ackerman thinks it sounds like it “passed through a bull’s digestive tract.” And the Iranian government, innovators of the conspiracy theory, believe the story was concocted to distract people from the Occupy Wall Street movement. Right. (Khamenei believes the protest movement will be the downfall of the free market economy in the U.S. Shows you how much he understands American political culture.)
Given access to only the indictment papers everyone else, I can only guess based on the past history of Iran how credible the allegations are. There might be enough circumstantial evidence to say the charges are plausible, but in the absence of better information, it’s too hard to say for sure.
One thing Ackerman finds hard to believe is how harebrained the scheme is. (I am equally befuddled, as are many others.) However, Iran has done incredibly foolish things before with little regard for its well-being. For instance, Iran rejected an offer by Saddam Hussein in mid-1982 to suspend the Iran-Iraq war and return to the status quo ante, which was roughly where each side’s forces were at that time, anyway. Ayatollah Khomeini rejected the ceasefire offer, and — believing he was acting on God’s will — insisted that Iran invade Iraq with the aim of deposing Hussein and replacing him with a Shia Islamist. Six more years of war and Iran didn’t gain an inch of land.
Iran has also conducted audacious overseas bombings out of spite, such as when it directed Hizballah to blow up a Jewish community center in Argentina in retaliation for that government’s cancellation of a nuclear cooperation agreement.
The involvement of Mexican drug cartels as participants in the disrupted plot does not discredit the involvement of Iran’s Quds Force at all; Hizballah is well-known to have established fundraising and recruitment networks in Latin America, including Mexico.
Ackerman’s observation that the plot would have been a strategic catastrophe reinforces in his mind the idea that this makes the Quds Force look like, in his words, “blithering idiots” and “miscalculating buffoons.” This is too simplistic, just like it would be simplistic to label the SVR (the reincarnation of the KGB) a third-rate clown school after 10 of their spies did pretty terrible jobs spying on the U.S. Hell, even the CIA has had clueless operatives — like the ones who got busted in Italy carrying out an abduction. Regardless, Iran’s hardliners do struggle to calculate American foreign policies, and a few IRGC musclemen might have been under some loony impression that this bombing would be worthwhile.
The last point goes back to the outlandish and unusual nature of the suspected plot. If the U.S. government was going to invent charges of terrorism against Iran, why would it draw up a story so exceptionally bizarre, one which would draw such a skeptical reaction?
It’s impossible to really understand Iran’s diplomatic policy without first understanding its internal politics. But some observers are skipping that crucial step as they search for ways to end the deadlock over Iran’s nuclear program.
In one recent story at The Diplomat, Richard Dreyfuss takes a relatively nuanced look at the possibilities for discussion:
It’s not easy reading the tea leaves in Tehran, especially when it comes to Iran’s controversial nuclear programme. But over the past few weeks, Iran has sent out a steady stream of signals that it’s willing to talk, and they’ve put some fairly specific proposals on the table.
It’s possible to argue about every one of them, and as always dealing with Iran’s belligerency and fractured internal politics makes it daunting to even the most optimistic among the diplomacy-minded. Still, something important seems to be happening. And, so far at least, the United States hasn’t responded at all to Iran’s overtures, except with bombastic rhetoric of its own.
Paul Pillar can’t even be bothered to mention anything about Iran’s politics in a recent blog post, though. He chooses to ignore the internal dynamics of Iran and focus only on American politics:
There has been no exploration jointly with the Iranians, and almost none unilaterally in U.S. policy discourse, of possible safeguards of an Iranian program that would include the enrichment of uranium. There are all manner of inspections, on-site monitoring, and other procedural arrangements that could be explored to determine if they might form the basis of an agreement that would meet the minimum needs of both sides. But the exploration has never occurred. All we have on the U.S. side are some mutterings by the secretary of state about how maybe, possibly, someday Iran could be entrusted with an enrichment program. The western stance of no enrichment, coupled with a political environment in the United States in which Iran is demonized and anything that could be interpreted as a favorable gesture toward the Islamic Republic is politically dangerous, has so far preempted any moves to fill the gap.
Well, the political environment in Iran demonizes the U.S. a whole lot more than the other way around. No talk of that interfering with a deal, huh?
An equally important omission is the seismic power dispute between Iran’s political organs. Ayatollah Khamenei, the hardline clerics, and the Revolutionary Guards decided after the 2009 presidential election that even what limited measures of democracy Iran had were a threat to the survival of the regime. These actors decided to consolidate power away from Iran’s “elected” leader, President Ahmadinejad. Ahmadinejad has had his wings clipped in a number of ways by Khamenei — he has had cabinet members and chief of staff arrested by the Supreme Leader, been accused of “witchcraft," and threatened with impeachment.
In the latest sign that Ahmadinejad’s policy does not reflect the IRGC’s will, one need not look further than the idea — proposed by the U.S., Paul Pillar — of a “hotline” between Washington and Tehran, similar to the “red telephone" used during the Cold War. Ahmadinejad spoke favorably of such a system, only to be rebuffed by his own defense minister — a former IRGC commander, and thus a more likely person to speak for the Iranian security establishment.
Paul Pillar has a small beef with Ken Pollack’s article in the new issue of The National Interest. Pollack states a fairly conventional wisdom view of the centrist line on Iran: do everything to prevent them from getting nukes, except using outright military force (at least for the foreseeable future). Pillar, echoing a common realist refrain, says Iran going nuclear is “undesirable” but not necessarily “dangerous”:
What exactly is the danger we are trying to avert, and what makes it so dangerous? I happen to agree with what seems to be the consensus of the vast majority of people west of Khorramshahr (or at least west of Eastport) that Iranian acquisition of a nuclear weapon would on balance be undesirable, and more specifically undesirable from the standpoint of U.S. interests. But that proposition should not just be assumed. Nuclear proliferation has varied and complex effects, some of which are more harmful than others (and some of which may not be harmful at all). Unless we analyze the proposition rather than assuming it, we do not know how serious a danger is involved and therefore to what lengths and at what costs we should be willing to go to avert it. That sort of analysis is missing from nearly all the commentary on this subject, including Pollack’s.
Whenever anyone dares to suggest that we could live with an Iranian nuclear weapon, the usual response is that no deterrence relationship with Iran would be stable because the Iranian leaders are wild-eyed fanatics who could not be trusted not to do something crazy or even suicidal. That response is always just an assertion, not supported by analysis or by reference either to the historical record of deterrence with regimes that seemed crazier than this one or to the Islamic Republic’s own record of behavior.
To be fair to Stephen Walt, Pillar, and all other defensive realists, there is an academic literature that articulates why they don’t think nuclear proliferation is necessarily the worst thing in the world. I happen to find it flawed, for reasons which I will explain below, but there is a literature and a logic. Their basic argument is that states seek nuclear weapons only as a means of deterring aggression and restoring the balance of power. Theoretically, Iran’s nuclear weapons only serve to prevent the U.S. from attacking Iran. Iran’s foreign policy is security-driven and not inherently aggressive.
Pillar is correct in asserting that a lot of Iranian “irrationality” is assumed and not demonstrated. There is also a tendency to resort to other unproven ideas like the “nuclear domino theory” where Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab powers would try to replicate the Iranian feat. I find this unlikely, though conventional arms purchases, enhancement of asymmetrical capabilities, and perhaps even biological and chemical weapons programs are likelier developments.
A real danger in defensive realism’s analysis of nuclear proliferation is not the assumption of “rational actors” — that states act in logical ways — but the assumption of unitary actors. State decision making, especially in Iran, is complicated and not always predictable. Worse, Iran experts say that the chain of command over the nuclear program is at best blurry. With the IRGC and the mullahs vying for internal power, this could get even more unstable.
But even setting aside all the other potential factors — the loss of American prestige, the gain in Iranian prestige, the blow to the non-proliferation treaty, the buildup of regional arms, the emboldening of Iranian leadership, the damage to the peace process — the worst reason of all to cite the relative safety of nuclear weapons is the non-incidence of Cold War nuclear detonations; the U.S. and Russia almost used nuclear weapons on each other multiples times.
For instance, a scheduled U.S. ICBM test occurred during the Cuban missile crisis. If the Soviets had better early warning systems at that point, they probably would have assumed the test was an actual ICBM launch aimed at them. In 1983, false alarms of an American missile attack on Russia nearly set off a retaliatory strike. A NATO exercise later that year nearly convinced Russia to preempt what they thought was a coming nuclear strike; overzealous KGB agents interpreted the NATO move to DEFCON 1 as real and not a drill. Even as recently as 1995, mistaken identity of a rocket nearly led to Russian use of nuclear weapons.
The U.S. and the Soviet Union understood and trusted each other very little throughout most of the Cold War. I think it is safe to say that Iranian hardliners trust and understand the U.S. even less. Anti-Americanism is a core part of their ideology; for them, the Islamic Revolution depends on anti-Americanism. To some degree, it’s irrelevant whether Iran’s leaders intend to commit suicide. What matters is whether they would be able to prevent misunderstanding and brinksmanship from making nuclear war a 1-in-100,000 event to a 1-in-6 event. I would rather redouble our efforts to prevent that possibility than assume that mutual assured destruction is a prescription for stability.
Who is siding with Turkey? Hizballah, Hamas, and their benefactor — the military dictators of Tehran, the IRGC. (They, by the way, will soon be subjects of further international sanctions.) Also, the Taliban. This is not an accident. This is the path AKP-led Turkey wants to go:
Ever since the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) assumed power in 2002, Turkish foreign policy has made a 180-degree turn. The country’s once-strong ties with the United States and Israel have been weakened, and entry talks with the European Union have stalled while Ankara has come to the defense of the Iranian nuclear program and Hamas. The reason for this shift is simple: Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government believe that Samuel Huntington was right, that there is a clash of civilizations. Only they are on the side of the Islamists, not the West.
For the AKP, “Turkey’s traditionally strong ties with the West represent a process of alienation.” This is a quote from “Strategic Depth,” the opus written by Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey’s foreign minister. Unfortunately, “Strategic Depth” has not been translated into English, though Westerner would do well to read it to get a better understanding of Ankara’s thinking. The work’s executive summary answers all questions about the AKP’s foreign policy: “Since the end of the Ottoman Empire, Muslims have gotten the short end of the stick, and the AKP is here to correct all that.”