This post is going to get filled, really fast, with irresponsible speculation. So let’s have some fun.
This Washington Post story about the Washington debate over Iran is revealing for two reasons. First, the administration doesn’t seem to be phased by Manichean, inwardly focused arguments through analogy about why President Obama needs to intercede, rhetorically, into the Iranian opposition’s uprising. “We’re trying to promote a foreign policy that advances our interests, not that makes us feel good about ourselves,” a senior administration official told the paper’s Scott Wilson. Second, a different quote in the piece indicates the administration doesn’t want to step in the way of a phenomenon that might mean a whole lot of good things for those interests: “There is something particularly authentic about those who are carrying out these demonstrations … The more you keep this in Iranian terms, the better the chances of change.”
That matches background conversations I’ve had with administration people as well, and they typically cash this issue out in terms of the nuclear question. Just check out State Department spokesman Ian Kelly’s minuet with the press yesterday. As with all administration statements on Iran since June 12, Kelly preserves administration options on future-scope negotiations with the Iranians on their nuclear program. Even if the opposition triumphs — and I don’t think we even know what that means — it’s still unclear what that will mean for the nuclear question. Mir Hussein Moussavi’s public statemens indicate a willingness to pursue nuclear energy without weaponization, but who knows what domestic constraints he would be under even if he miraculously becomes president under a system giving the presidency greater foreign policy authority. Still, the nuclear question is the one that really does concern the administration. I think it’s fair to say that administration officials consider a nuclear-armed Iran to be high on its list of foreign-policy disasters.
But what about Iran’s other effects? On the entire Middle East?
And here comes the irresponsible speculation. In 2004, Jordanian King Abdullah came to Washington and warned about a Shiite “Crescent” of Iranian influence spreading across the Middle East. As he saw it, Iran’s inroads into war-torn Iraq had helped ignite a spark of sectarian conflict that benefited Iranian interests and facilitated the expansion of Iranian power in the region. Hezbollah received increased weaponry and funding that aided it in provoking and then battling Israel in the 2006 war. Hamas received weaponry and funding that aided it in taking over Gaza in 2007 and then provoking and battling Israel, much less well, in this past winter’s war. Shiite political parties all types of in Iraq received funding and in some cases weaponry, as Iran opted for a bet-on-all-horses approach to the country’s politics. Syria expanded its bandwagoning relationship with Iran. The rhetoric from Iran grew increasingly bellicose — a contributing factor was being surrounded by U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan — and in 2007 Iran briefly took British sailors captive.
There’s so much we don’t know about the Iranian opposition. We don’t know what it would mean for it to take power. We don’t know what constraints on its ability to influence foreign policy would be. We don’t know what its desires for regional and global foreign policy are. We don’t know how its various factions define Iranian interests, or how those definitions conflict with each other. We don’t know what its relationships with the security apparatus would be. We don’t know what its relationship with the millions of Ahmadinejad supporters would be.
But it’s crazy to think that the rise to power of the opposition, as miraculous as that looks on June 23, wouldn’t have some effect on Iranian power in the Middle East. Various Iranian clients would have to reassess their considerations of the strengths of their ties to the regime. Some would have to ask if they’d have the same sort of client-proxy relationship they currently enjoy. Others — Hamas, probably — would wonder whether they’d *have *a continued relationship with a vastly changed Iran. U.S. partner regimes in the region, consequently, would ask whether Iran remains the threatening, hegemony-seeking entity that they’ve perceived for years.
Again, it’s way, way, way too early to really have an evidentiary basis for any of this. The opposition, of course, still hasn’t won yet, and things are looking bleak and tense. Hussein Ibish may be right that this is “a revolutionary situation,” and so much can happen in revolutions, as deposed revolutionary Iranian President Abolhassan Bani Sadr can attest. And the Obama administration does not see the Middle East as a canvas in the way that some Bush administration officials did. But the understandable calculus of keeping its focus on what posture is best for addressing the nuclear question shouldn’t obscure the likelihood that if the opposition wins, a significant amount of Middle Eastern politics and diplomacy will change. The direction of that change is unpredictable, but the prospect of its occurrance is fairly strong.
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