Sunday, March 19, 2006

Iran Solution #1, Regime Change

If regime change were to happen in Iran, effectively solving the second problem by bringing the reformist faction to power in Iran, the first problem would be solved because reformists would likely see reason and abandon the nuclear program in exchange for better international relations. Unfortunately, that isn't going to happen.

We certainly cannot force regime change through military action. After our performance in Iraq, the Iranians probably wouldn't trust us, regardless of the fact that we don't have the resources to do so anyway.

We cannot do it through covert action. We were responsible for an Iranian coup d'etat in the 50's, and ever since Iranians have have held to a paranoid fear of American covert action that has kept the CIA out of Iran.

That leaves reform within the system, but that's already failed as well. The hardliner system that keeps hardliners winning the President and Majile elections was overwhelmed once, in the 1996 election of reformist Khatami, when the popular vote so favored this obscure candidate that the harldiners let him win fearing a revolution. He proceeded to make some cautious reforms and reach out to America, but the hardliners fought back, using thuggery to intimidate reformists, the still harldiner Majiles to censor them, and even going so far as to assassinate prominent reformists. In 1999 the conflict peaked, when students took the streets in protest to a new law that would ban most reformist newspapers. The hizbollah and other hardliner thug groups showed up to beat the students into submission, but the students fought back. The riots escalated, and students went so far as to make statements denouncing not just the law, but the entire government. They were ready for a revolution. Unfortunately, Khatami was not. Faced with preparations for a violent hardliner reprisal (military units were being moved into position near rioting cities), he caved, denouncing the riots. The hardliners had regained control, and by his 2000 re-eleciton, Khatami was nothing more than a puppet President without any real power. Since their brush with revolution, the hardliners have consolidated their position, liberalizing the economy like China and social restrictions to vent the rage of Iran's youthful population. Additionally, with oil prices at record highs, there's no reason to believe the Iranian government cannot deliver economically most everything their populace wants, effectively bribing their populace into submission.

Thus military action will not work, covert action won't do the trick, and a spontaneous revolution is not going to happen until the price of oil goes down, and probably a while after that. We can improve conditions for regime change keeping pressure on the current regime through embargoes and harsh diplomatic statements, perhaps also work to increase our covert action capabilities in Iran, but not much more. Regime change is something to hope for, and we should support such a goal, but its nothing we can count on toward solving more short-term problems with Iran.

On Iran...

With Iran achieving the status of US threat #1 , it's time to make some discussion on the problem.

To give credit where credit's due, I've just read the Persian Puzzle, a book discussing the history of US-Iranian relations as well as the author's (former Clinton ME advisor) recommendations for the future, so his thoughts are bringing some influencing this discussion.

First, the problem, or problems, Iran presents to the United States:

First, the short term threat. Iran is obviously developping nuclear weapons, a bad thing in view of its stated intentions to wipe Israel off the map, its aggressive foreign policy in the past, and the possible nuclear arms race it could spark in the Middle East.

Second, the long term, and ongoing, problem. Iran is (surprise), something of an anti-American dictatorship. Its hodgepodge government consists of an all powerful religious leader who rules for life, currently Khameini, a parliament, called the Majiles, and the President. The latter two are democratically elected, but the pool of candidates is vetted by the Council of Guardians, a hardliner stronghold. Additionally, votes are slanted through hardline use of thug groups (more advanced versions of Iraq's nascent militias), state controlled media, and outright fraud to insure that hardline candidates win. Although it still calls itself a theocracy, recent moves to liberalize the religious guidelines (what you wear, what music you listen to, couples can now hold hands in public) so as to address social unrest demonstrate that above all power, not religious zeal, is what matters most to Iran's leades. This dictatorship is a problem because they are self-pronounced anti-American, they pump enough oil to render themselves essential to the world economy, they have supported and instigated terrorism in the past, they are the largest supporters of extremist Islam, and they work counter to American goals in the Middle East, such as the Israeli peace process through, among other actions, their support of Hamas and the Lebanese Hizbollah.

The second problem is an ongoing one that, although a solution would be wise, we can afford to ignore. The first requires urgent attention. I'll run through some solutions in coming posts.