When Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in Tunisia on Dec. 17 after a municipal worker confiscated his wares, it appeared to be simply another sad story in a region plagued by corruption, brutal state security services, and lack of accountability. But against all odds, his act of desperation has spurred a wave of reform that has engulfed the entire region, toppling the autocratic regimes in Tunisia and Egypt and threatening to engulf other countries across the Middle East.
But the uprising has not followed the same course in every country. In Jordan, protests have forced the government to abandon liberal reforms in favor of an unsustainable economic status quo. In Algeria, they have highlighted the public's disaffection with the political process. In other countries, the reverberations from the popular upheaval are still unclear. In the West Bank, for example, opinions remain divided about whether the events represent an opportunity for the Palestinian Authority, or its death knell.
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"The awakening of the Islamic Egyptian people is an Islamic liberation movement, and I, in the name of the Iranian government, salute the Egyptian people [and the Tunisian people]," a buoyant if shameless Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told Iranian worshippers last Friday. "If the Egyptian people manage to continue their movement with the help of God, they will cause an irreparable failure for the American and the Zionist regimes in the region." On Monday, his top ally, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, followed suit by addressing the demonstrators directly. "We see the faces of our martyrs in yours, and we see in your steadfastness in the squares the same steadfastness of the resistance's heroes in Lebanon and Palestine," Nasrallah proclaimed. These marked the opening shot in the battle of foreign narratives to define the context and meaning of Egypt's democracy moment.
Of course, revolutionary Iran has been utterly irrelevant in inspiring the Egyptian uprising -- just as the United States has been. Many protesters in Tahrir Square, who rallied in favor of human dignity, political empowerment, and economic opportunity rather than a blind adherence to a confrontational agenda and greater religious influence in public matters, would find it insulting to suggest otherwise. But the cold war that opposes the United States and Iran in their struggle for regional influence is as much about narratives and soft power as it is hard power, something Tehran understands too well and Washington too little. Fundamentally, it is about convincing the Arab world that history is going its way. And in this struggle, Washington has few tools to win unless it realizes that a narrative is always best undermined from within than from without.
As Tunisian President-for-Life Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled into ignominious exile two weeks ago, democrats around the world found hope in the notion that Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution would spread to Iran. The images of demonstrations from Sidi Bouzid to Tunis reminded Americans of the massive 2009 protests that gave rise to Iran's opposition Green Movement, and as pro-democracy movements inspired by Tunisia emerged in Egypt and Yemen, many observers saw a chance for Iran to be next. But looking closer, it's clear that Iranians -- from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on down to the Green Movement opposition -- view the Tunisia situation as vastly different from their own, and not one that's likely to spill over into a renewed push for democratic reform in their own country.
Despite the examples of Ben Ali and Egypt's beleaguered President Hosni Mubarak, Iran's leaders are far from running scared. In fact, Tehran is taking a distinctly more triumphalist understanding of the roots and effects of the Tunisian protests than American commentators would expect from another authoritarian Middle Eastern government -- particularly from one facing its own challenges from opposition forces.
Two weeks ago Friday, in a dramatic turn of events, the 23-year reign of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia came to an abrupt end. Images of the popular demonstrations that engulfed the country over the past few weeks bore resemblance to the protests that followed the disputed 2009 Iranian presidential election. The Green Movement of Iran, however, envisioned but never realized its promised land and succumbed to the repression of the Iranian theocracy. This is despite the similar nature of the two regimes.
Both republics, deemed 'not-free' by Freedom House, refer to universal suffrage for determining the country's political direction. In various masquerade elections in Tunisia, President Ben Ali was repeatedly re-elected with 89 to 100 percent of the votes. In comparison to Tunisia, Iranian elections were more "open" and marked with degrees of pluralism, but the candidates are vetted by the omnipotent Guardian Council that serves as an exclusionary mechanism for those not aligned with the unelected crux of the clerical regime. Both police states are ruled by iron fisted regimes that frequently censor the internet, strong-arm journalists, oppress human rights activists, prosecute opponents, and execute dissidents.
The center of gravity in the Middle East has shifted dramatically in the past few decades from the Arab heartland comprising Egypt and the Fertile Crescent to what was once considered the non-Arab periphery -- Turkey and Iran. The exciting era of Arab nationalism in the 1950s and 1960s, especially Nasser's nationalization of the Suez Canal and the all too brief union of Egypt with Syria, had made the Arab heartland the symbol par excellence of the reassertion of the Third World's dignity and its aspirations for autonomy from the great powers. Since the 1970s, that air of excitement and hope has given way to the moribund nature of Arab politics and the perpetuation of autocratic and kleptocratic rule, which have contributed in large measure to the diminution in the regional role of major Arab states such as Egypt. Regimes that were once considered "liberalizing autocracies", such as Egypt with its controlled elections and Jordan with an increasingly vocal parliamentary opposition, have now reverted to an unalloyed autocratic model.
Iranians, it was once said, are afflicted by a unique strain of melancholy: Those who live in Iran dream of leaving, while those who were exiled dream of going back.
When 44-year-old Alireza Pahlavi, the youngest son of the late Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, took his life on Tuesday, it was undeniably attributable in part to a demoralizing malady, chronic depression, which he may have inherited from his father. But it was also an undeniable aftershock of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, whose reverberations are still being felt today.
This week, Iran implemented an overhaul of its national subsidy system, in effect cutting billions of dollars worth of subsidies for daily consumer use, especially fuel and electricity. Though cushioned by transfer payments to low-income households, it is akin to a major austerity move. While the economic impact is clear, many outsiders remain baffled how a regime ridden with internal factionalism (and widespread unpopularity) can manage such radical reforms. The past few weeks have seen rumors of a looming impeachment trial of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, followed by his humiliating dismissal of Foreign Minister Mottaki. These are hardly the signs of calm leadership steering through an economic crisis.
But narratives grabbed from the headlines can be misleading, and longer-term developments in Tehran point in a surprising direction. Today, the Islamic Republic is set to become more politically stable, and may even offer the chance for improved US-Iranian relations under what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called an emerging "military dictatorship."
As Lebanon braces for a U.N. tribunal to announce indictments in the 2005 assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri, one key suspect is beyond the scope of any court of law.
Imad Mughniyeh, Hezbollah's chief of operations until his own assassination in Damascus in 2008, likely played a role in the massive car bombing that claimed the lives of the former Lebanese prime minister and 22 others in Beirut. Experts on Lebanon and Hezbollah say it is difficult to envision a crime of such scale and consequence without Mughniyeh's involvement.
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When outgoing British Prime Minister Tony Blair was named envoy to the Middle East in 2007 -- representing the "quartet" of the United States, the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations -- he knew what it meant: "huge intensity and work." Now three years later, after the break down of the most recent peace talks, the conflict seems as intractable as ever. In conversation with Foreign Policy's Elizabeth Dickinson, Blair discussed the most knotty problems in the region, from settlements to Iran to the movement to unilaterally recognize the state of Palestine.
Foreign Policy: I understand that you met with some Palestinian leaders yesterday evening; what are your thoughts on the direction the peace process has gone, particularly on the Obama administration's push on the settlements?
Tony Blair: We've hit an impasse here. The challenge is to get an effective negotiation going, [one] that is credible. And the question is how do you give credibility to that negotiation -- and the settlement freeze was one way of doing that. We can't proceed on that basis now, but we can look for other ways of giving credibility to the negotiation. The important thing is to get a negotiation underway, in a context in which both sides have the confidence that this is a real negotiation, with both parties actually wanting to narrow the differences and reach a deal. Obviously, it's a setback for the process, but it's not a setback that should mean that we give up on it -- on the contrary, we've got to redouble our efforts and find a way forward.
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In March 2010, then-CENTCOM chief Gen. David Petraeus set off a storm of protest among neoconservatives when, in his statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee, he named "insufficient progress toward a comprehensive Middle East peace" as an obstacle to U.S. goals in the region.
"The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests in the AOR [area of responsibility]," read the statement. "Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples in the AOR and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world." At the same time, Petraeus concluded, "Al-Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support. The conflict also gives Iran influence in the Arab world through its clients, Lebanese Hizballah and Hamas."
While this represented only one of a number of "cross cutting challenges to security and stability" detailed in his statement, Petraeus' analysis was too much for the Anti-Defamation League's Abe Foxman, who quickly issued a scolding: "Gen. Petraeus has simply erred in linking the challenges faced by the U.S. and coalition forces in the region to a solution of the Israeli-Arab conflict," said Foxman. "This linkage is dangerous and counterproductive."
That such a carefully calibrated statement of the obvious should draw condemnation from the ADL -- as if the very suggestion that Israel's conflicts could create difficulties for its American patron were itself a form of defamation -- indicates how uncomfortable the notion of "linkage" makes many Israel hawks.
Frustrated by the absence of substantive progress during the latest round of P5+1 talks in Geneva, some Iran analysts would have U.S. policy plunge once again into the murky territory of regime change. Some hope that a military attack might bring about this goal. Others, taking what seems to be the high road, argue that the U.S. should back a people's democratic revolution. This second idea is deeply alluring. After all, it accords with our most cherished ideas while also offering a solution that serves U.S. national interests. What advocate of democracy would not want Iran's Green Movement to prevail? In one fell swoop, its victory would bring to the table legitimate Iranian leaders who keenly defend Iran's right to peaceful nuclear power, but who would also provide a far more constructive negotiating partner for the U.S. and its allies.
The problem, however, is that democratic reform in Iran is a long-term proposition. As a result, it cannot serve as the basis for an effective U.S.-Iran policy. If the Obama White House were to rest its efforts to dissuade Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons on regime change, it would end up with an Iran policy as incoherent as those of the administrations that preceded it.
A 'peace process' that, from its inception, took Israel's self-definition of its own security needs as the sole determinate of the walls within which any solution for Palestinians was to be conducted, has reached exhaustion. Based on such a reductive premise, its arrival at this deathly nadir, with no more than a prospect of disjointed alleviated occupation, possessing the most hollow trappings of statehood as its final security-led outcome, should evoke no surprise.
The non-solution to which such a premise would take us would defuse nothing: indeed, it might well prove to be the spark that could exacerbate or explode simmering regional animosities -- even if these animosities were not ostensibly linked directly to the Palestinian issue.
Any thought that such a hollowed-out solution -- alleviated occupation, posing as statehood -- will defuse anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world is likely to prove to be resoundingly misplaced. On this, the critics from the political Right are correct: a flawed Israeli-Palestinian agreement, per se, will not drain-off anti-western regional sentiment; it will exacerbate it. It will feed it. But the corollary the Right pushes in its place, that defeating Iran somehow precisely is that elusive magic bullet the West so ardently desires (the key to soothing regional tensions and defusing hostility towards the West) represents an even greater pathology and disassociation from reality. It is one that is no less illusory for having the apparent endorsement of America's Arab clients, whose talk is no more than a reflection back into the looking-glass of American diplomacy, as it stares at its own face.
The Pakistani ambassador to the U.S. hosted a fundraiser at his residence for a neoconservative D.C. think-tank, which solicited donations of $5,000 for invitations to the event. But the think-tank, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), didn't bother to tell the Pakistani embassy that the event was a fundraiser or that it was sandwiched in the middle of a two-and-a-half day conference on "Countering the Iranian Threat" put on by the group.
"We didn't know at all that they have done this fundraising," Imran Gardezi, a spokesperson for the Pakistani embassy, told the Middle East Channel. "And neither did they share with us that they would be doing this conference. Very frankly, we didn't know about this conference."
Though the dinner appeared in the paper and online conference programs, FDD president Cliff May insisted that the two were unrelated: "The dinner was separate from the conference but it coincided with the conference. Why? Because many friends of FDD were in town for the conference," he wrote in an e-mail to the Middle East Channel. May conceded that his staff may have failed to notify the Pakistani embassy that the group was in the middle of hosting the conference.
If we believe the recently leaked U.S. State Department messages, some leaders of Arab states harbor unkind thoughts about their Iranian neighbors. In addition to describing them in terms like "liar" and "snake," they have expressed a wish to American visitors that this troublesome neighbor would somehow go away. For his part, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, stung by these harsh epithets, claims that the entire WikiLeaks affair is a foreign conspiracy to sow discord between Iranians and Arabs and to strengthen the Americans' claim that Iran has become a diplomatic polecat in its own region.
Arab-Iranian hostility is not uniform. Iranians enjoy correct if not warm relations with their Qatari and Omani neighbors. Relations with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are icy, with the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait falling somewhere in the middle. When pushed to the wall, both sides have been capable of putting aside old prejudices and grievances (real and imagined) and can act in their own interest and maintain cordial state-to-state ties. Nevertheless, the big picture is negative, as the cables dramatically show.
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Casual Iran observers tend to portray the country's most prominent political division as that between fundamentalist hard-liners and secular moderates. In reality, however, the struggle for Iran's future is a three-way fight waged by the different branches of conservatives that control the parliament, the presidency, and the theocracy. The Green Movement may have stalled, but the parliamentary opposition to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has only grown stronger and more assertive over the past year -- culminating in a recent push to charge the president with abuses of power warranting impeachment. Those efforts are coming to a halt under orders from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who fears that the parliament's attempt to assert itself against the president will also be at the expense of his own power base, the country's conservative mullahs.
In fact, this isn't the first round of infighting among Iran's leaders. In July 2009, legislators warned Ahmadinejad that they would seek to oust him as the chief executive if he continued acting in an autocratic manner. Ahmadinejad responded by claiming the executive branch is the most important one of the government.
The rumblings of the largely underground Iranian Green Movement encourage neoconservative pundit Reuel Marc Gerecht. "I think it's the most amazing intellectual second revolution...that we've seen in the Middle East," he told a packed briefing room at Bloomberg's D.C. headquarters last month. But even as he called on President Barack Obama to do more to vocally support the embattled rights movement -- thinly veiled U.S. encouragement for regime change, in other words -- Gerecht pushed for bombing Iran.
Yet Green activists who work on the ground in Iran roundly oppose a military attack precisely because it will undermine opposition efforts. Confronted with their warnings against strikes by his debate opponent, Gerecht was dismissive. He derided dissident journalist Akbar Ganji as "delusional" and spoke in dangerous innuendo about Shirin Ebadi, a human rights lawyer and Nobel laureate."There is a huge difference between what some dissidents will say privately and what they'll say publicly," said Gerecht of Ebadi, "and I'll leave it at that."
coming weeks, the United States may well be joining a new round of nuclear
negotiations with Iran. But, rather than working to promote their success, most
commentators seem to be consumed with explaining their anticipated failure. And
their follow-up policy prescriptions seem designed to do more harm than good.
Take Karim Sadjadpour's article, "The Sources of
Iranian Conduct," in the November issue of Foreign Policy. Sadjadpour seeks to adapt George Kennan's famous
1947 "Mr. X" article
-- which proposed the outlines of
the Cold War "containment" strategy used against the Soviet Union -- for
America's current Iran debate.
"Like the Soviet Union, the Islamic Republic is a corrupt, inefficient, authoritarian regime whose bankrupt ideology resonates far more abroad than it does at home," Sadjadpour writes. "Also like the men who once ruled Moscow, Iran's current leaders have a victimization complex and, as they themselves admit, derive their internal legitimacy from thumbing their noses at Uncle Sam." It's a clever conceit, but it would be a disaster for U.S. interests if Sadjadpour's piece attains anything close to the level of influence achieved by Kennan's.
Sometime in the next few weeks, if the parties can agree on a place and date convenient to all sides, Iran and the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, known as the "P5+1," will meet for the first time since October 2009 to revive diplomacy over Iran's nuclear program. This is welcome news for U.S. President Barack Obama who, almost two years into his first term, has learned the hard way that diplomacy with Iran is neither quick nor easy.
The posturing has already begun. To create greater political space at home, administration officials have told the media that a new and tougher proposal will be presented to the Iranians. The United States will negotiate from a position of strength, the White House says, as a result of the surprisingly harsh sanctions that have been imposed on Iran, both by the U.N. Security Council and unilaterally by individual countries.
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
With Republicans now sharing the burden of governing in the next Congress, President Barack Obama has an opportunity to define the terms of the Iran debate instead of spending two more years capitulating to a Democratic Congress worried about appearing weak or out of sync with hardliners on the Iran issue.
For a president who ran on the promise of fighting the "smallness" of Washington's political discourse that is unequipped for the immensity of the challenges America faces, few issues suffer more from that "smallness" than the Iran debate. In Washington, when in doubt, Iran saber rattling always seems to pay -- and the implications for our Iran policy could not be more disastrous. Obama had offered the promise of fighting this paradigm and supporting a new strategy of engagement, which is the only effective means to resolve the nuclear issue, address the human rights situation, and create space for pro-democracy activists in Iran.
Unfortunately, instead of fighting the Bush paradigm that rewards policymakers on the basis of bellicosity towards Iran, Obama has by and large perpetuated a political metric that defines success on Iran only in terms of pressure. Only if Obama raises the consequences of the dire alternative to a successful engagement strategy -- war with Iran -- and stakes out a new path to create his own political space for diplomacy, can the president effectively navigate the new reality in Congress and pursue a successful Iran agenda.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit to Lebanon last week, where he spent two days making highly scripted appearances, brought condemnation from Congress and the State Department. The visit was part of the Islamic Republic's ongoing campaign of attempting to strengthen ties not just with Shi'a militants in Hezbollah, but with the Lebanese government.
Hezbollah, which has received assistance from Iran for the past two-decades, has gained in strength since the 2006 Lebanon war and has tightened its control over large portions of Southern Lebanon along Israel's border. But with condemnations of Ahmadinejad's trip to Lebanon, and the near daily warnings about a third Lebanon war, the issue of U.S. military aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), which has been held up in Congress since August, is becoming a topic of growing importance. And withholding the aid could even be counterproductive to U.S. attempts to contain Iranian influence.
In the year since the [2006 Israel-Hezbollah] war, the Mahdi Scouts had nearly doubled its national enrollment to 60,000. They had run out of capacity to admit more, [the chief of Hezbollah's scouts] Bilal Naim said, but they were expanding as fast as they could. Hezbollah policed its community tightly, but not without concern for its mental well-being. Constant warfare (or mobilization for such) took its toll, especially on children and on the families of martyrs.
One goal of the scouts was to comfort the afflicted. The scouts tried to maintain a state of normalcy -- at least as Hezbollah defined it -- for its most vulnerable members. If left to their own devices, Bilal Naim said, the children of martyrs would isolate themselves and develop emotional problems. "We try to raise the children in the community and find new husbands for the widows," he said. "Otherwise the children become complicated, and develop unhealthy behaviors like aggression."
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BEIRUT –Lebanon has spent weeks preparing for a very important guest. On street corners throughout Beirut, posters featuring the smiling face of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad welcomed him to the city in both Arabic and Farsi. Those who might have disrupted the feel-good atmosphere were silenced: Lebanese authorities forced a film festival to postpone the showing of a documentary about the protests following Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election campaign until after the president's visit. The roads linking the airport to the presidential palace and Hezbollah's stronghold in Beirut's southern suburbs are bursting with Iranian flags.
If Ahmadinejad came to Beirut to plant the Iranian flag in Lebanese soil, there was little need: His allies had already done it for him. Still, the Iranian president, who referred to Lebanon as "the focus point of resistance" before departing on his first official state visit to Lebanon, did not miss the opportunity to emphasize the links between the two countries. "The Iranian nation will always stand beside the Lebanese nation and will never abandon them," he said in Lebanon on Oct. 13. "We will surely help the Lebanese nation against animosities, mainly staged by the Zionist regime."
Salah Malkawi/Getty Images
For three decades, the Islamic Republic of Iran has bedeviled the United States, resisting both incentives and disincentives and working all the while to foil American designs in the Middle East. If 20th-century Russia was to Winston Churchill a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, for observers of contemporary Iran, the Islamic Republic often resembles a villain inside a victim behind a veil.
Seeking to understand their mysterious foe, American analysts most commonly invoke three historical analogies to explain its character and future trajectory: Red China, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union. The chosen metaphor pretty much dictates the proposed response, and most prescriptions for U.S. policy have come down to one of these variations: attempt to coax the Iranian regime into modernity; forget the diplomatic niceties and "pre-emptively" attack it to prevent or delay its acquisition of nuclear weapons; or contain it in hopes it will change or collapse under the weight of its internal contradictions.
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Iran's Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki in recent days met with dignitaries at the United Nations to generate international support for Iran to engage in talks with the United States and other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council over Iran's nuclear program. But when Mottaki and other Iranian officials in Tehran have talked recently about restarting talks, they are not referring to the nuclear negotiations the Europeans and the United States are hoping for; rather, they are trying to gain traction on negotiations about the Tehran Declaration, the agreement brokered between Iran, Brazil and Turkey in May, which is limited to a swap deal over a portion of Iran's enriched uranium. This is the deal the United States, Britain, and France dismissed in May as a sideshow and a manipulative tactic by Iran to get out of tough sanctions, shortly before crippling sanctions were passed in the United Nations, the European Union, and the U.S. Congress. At the time, this action prompted a hostile reaction from Iran.
Now that Mottaki is placing the deal squarely on the table again, the Obama administration should seize the moment. Rather than purse talks over Iran's broader nuclear program and risk failure -- during a period when there appears to be little time to waste before either a military attack is launched against Iran or Iran develops the technology to produce a nuclear weapon -- a wiser move would be to talk with Iran first over the Tehran Declaration as a way of building trust.
Is India an adversary or ally of the West in opposing Iran's nuclear ambitions? As one of the countries that has consistently voted against Iran at the IAEA--yet has been loathe to abandon business with the country--India has been viewed with both confusion and consternation in the West. Recent commentary in the international media suggests that India is reluctantly adhering to the sanctions regime against Iran because it needs the attention of the West to fulfill its major power ambitions, and that given a chance, India would trade with Iran without hesitation in a bid to protect its energy interests and to get its support on Afghanistan. These statements are often used synonymously with India's engagement with other pariah states like Myanmar and Sudan. But such commentary oversimplifies India's Iran policy, which cannot be defined in the binary "Are you with us or against us?" terms that have characterized debates on Iran in the West.
It's been over two months since the toughest Iran sanctions ever approved by Congress were signed into law, three months since the UN's latest resolution, and 15 months since Iran's post-election demonstrations began. Despite all of this, Iran's clerical government is not crumbling, nor has Iran shown any sign of giving in to the West on its nuclear program.
Recent weeks have seen a renewed discussion of military options for stopping Iran's nuclear program - kicked off by Jeffrey Goldberg's cover article in the Atlantic. But there is also a campaign underway to promote a different option on Iran: regime change, via Iranian dissidents in exile.
The Obama administration has recently been seeking to draw attention to the impact of its new sanctions regime on Iran. Earlier this week, for instance, Treasury undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Stuart Levey told a large audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies that "even at this early stage, as pressure is mounting, the strategy is beginning to give us the leverage we seek. It is already working." There are some signs to back this up. Iranian officials have begun to publicly acknowledge that UN/U.S./EU sanctions are taking an increasing toll on the country. Iranian envoys are touring around the world to identify and encourage small banks and entities that do not do business with the U.S. to take advantage of this opportunity and work with Iran.
But while the U.S. hopes that sanctions can affect Iran's calculation with regard to the nuclear program, it is actually pushing Tehran into a highly familiar area. Since its inception, the Islamic Republic has grown in an environment of conflict, isolation and sanctions. The hostage crisis and later the Iran-Iraq war allowed the Islamic government to marginalize its powerful rivals and solidify its base in a relatively isolated and hostile international environment. Sanctions and isolation are not uncharted territory for Iran. These ongoing pressures might bite, but they can also empower the IRGC and other institutions that are able to do an end run around the sanctions and get the country what it needs from the black market. A closer look at how Iranians have been arguing about the sanctions suggests that American hopes for the sanctions may be misplaced.
David Pollock of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy argued Thursday that public opinion surveys suggest that Arab discontent with Barack Obama has not led them to embrace Iran or its nuclear program. In that article, Pollock takes issue with the findings of the 2010 Arab Public Opinion Poll, which I direct and which is carried out by Zogby International. In the original version of the article (which appeared unintentionally due to an editorial mistake), he claimed that I had argued "that Arab leaders are increasingly taking Iranian leaders at their word that they are only developing nuclear technology for peaceful purposes." This language was subsequently changed to read that I claimed that Arab opinion is "shifting toward a positive perception of Iran's nuclear program." The original claim was a clear misrepresentation of my argument and of the findings of poll findings. Even the revised version fails to accurately reflect the poll results, the trend in Arab public opinion, or the reasons for the change.
It is no secret that Arab public opinion toward U.S. President Barack Obama has soured since his June 2009 speech in Cairo, Egypt. According to a slew of recent opinion polls, Arabs have been deeply disappointed with Obama's accommodations to Israel. Analysts have suggested that this discontent has caused Arabs to embrace Iran and its nuclear program, and are hostile to U.S.-led attempts to isolate and pressure the Islamic Republic. But on this front, the numbers tell a very different story.
Prof. Shibley Telhami, for example, contended that Arab opinion is "shifting toward a positive perception of Iran's nuclear program." Telhami, who is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a prominent analyst of Middle Eastern public opinion, asserts that Arab publics even have sanguine views about the consequences for the region if Iran was to develop a nuclear weapon.
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This morning, at a small meeting with various Washington-based analysts and European diplomats, I was asked to speculate on the future of Iran policy. While it's of course impossible to predict, I don't expect to see military action by the U.S. or by Israel. Nor do I expect to see any serious progress towards a political bargain, either a narrow one about the Iranian nuclear program nor an expansive one about Iran's place in the Middle East. Nor do I expect Iran to test a nuclear weapon.
More likely than either is a relentless slide towards a replay of the Iraq saga of the 1990's: a steady ratcheting-up of sanctions, which increasingly impact the Iranian people but fail to compel change in the regime's political behavior; episodic and frequent diplomatic crises which consume the world's diplomatic attention and resources; the growing militarization and polarization of the Gulf; ongoing uncertainty about Iranian intentions and capabilities. Eventually, as with Iraq, the choices may well narrow sufficiently and the perception of impending threat mount so that a President -- maybe Obama, maybe Palin, maybe anyone else -- finds him or herself faced with "no choice" but to move towards war. "Keeping Tehran in a Box" is not a pretty scenario, nor one which I think anyone especially wants, but it seems the most likely path unless better "off-ramps" are developed to avert it. And such "off-ramps" are the most glaring absence in the current Iran policy debate.
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