FPI Panel: A ‘Clarifying Moment’ On Iran Consensus

Of all the panels at the neoconservative Foreign Policy Initiative‘s forum on Advancing and Defending Democracy, this morning’s on Iran was the most interesting, both in terms of substance and political orientation of the panelists. Moderator Barbara Slavin is the Assistant Managing Editor for World and National Security at The Washington Times, and has written a good book on Iran, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies. Ray Takeyh recently returned to the Council on Foreign Relations after a brief stint in the Obama administration as an adviser to special envoy Dennis Ross. Karim Sadjadpour is an Iran analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. All three can be fairly described as center-left supporters of greater U.S.-Iran engagement. The fourth panelist, Reuel Gerecht of the right-wing Foundation for Defense of Democracies, was the only conservative on the stage.

In her introductory remarks, Slavin said that Friday’s Al Quds Day demonstrations were “definitive proof” that the Green Wave “is by no means dissipated …this movement is spreading.” She noted that “the Iranian diaspora is linking up with Iranians against” the regime in a way that has not happened before, and predicted that President Ahmadinejad would be met with even larger demonstrations in New York than during his previous visit to the United Nations.

Takeyh said that Iran “has to be viewed as a country in transition, [but] where it will end up is hard to say.” For the moment, Takayh said, “the regime has succeeded in suppressing popular unrest,” but “far more serious in terms of immediate problems,” is the “unbridgeable elite fragmentation,” with leaders like Mehdi Karoubi and Mohammed Khatami increasingly explicitly separating themselves from the regime. Takeyh described the current situation as a kind of stalemate, with Supreme Leader Khamenei unsure whether to go forward with a more “serious suppression of political dissidents, and serious purge” of the regime as took place in the 1980’s. Ahmadinejad’s faction is “eager for this purge to happen,” Takeyh said. Among the opposition, Takey said, there is still no consensus on whether the system should be reformed or overthrown.

As for what Iran may be expected to do in the near future, Takeyh said that “I think he [Ahmadinejad] does recognize… that he has a problem.” He can deal with this either by trying to deliver foreign policy success, “in which we should expect more accommodation,” to international demands, or by greater “externalization of domestic problems,” in which case we would see greater defiance, harder suppression, more accusations of foreign enemies interfering in Iranian politics. Given past behavior, Takeyh believes it’s more likely that the regime will take the latter course. As for whether sanctions could change Iranian behavior, Takeyh said that “Iran has subordinated economics to strategy — sanctions are simply not going to work.”

Representing the neocons, Gerecht played his part well, asserting that U.S.-Iran “engagement is toast — it was always toast.” Insisting that that the “odds continue to go up” on an Israeli strike on Iran, Gerecht said that such a strike “will be a clarifying moment” for the region in terms of revealing Iran’s actual ability to retaliate against the U.S. and Israel. Gerecht was alone among the panelists in calling on the administration to begin designing a crippling sanctions regime immediately.

Sadjadpour said that, after witnessing the last three months, he was “more cynical about the regime, but more optimistic about prospects for change than I was before elections.” Saying that the “underlying problem has to do with character of the [Iranian] regime, not with the nuclear program,” Sadjadpour said that while he didn’t think there was any “deal in the works” that would satisfy current international demands, he was also skeptical that sanctions could bring about the effectiveness of the sanctions currently being considered, saying that this “regime never placed high priority on its peoples’ economic well-being.” Sadjadpour said that President Obama’s outreach to Iran had convinced many Iranian elites “that problem was in Tehran, not Washington,” and thus was partly responsible for the current fissures in the Iranian system. As to the probable future behavior of Iran, Sadjadpour said that the regime “is odious, but not suicidal.” Calling it “messianic and irrational” is wrong, he said.