Positive Movement On Iran’s Two Clocks

green movementOne of the key challenges for President Obama’s Iran engagement policy has been to calibrate an approach that addresses Iran’s nuclear program but that doesn’t serve to strengthen a regime that a significant number of Iranians clearly see as illegitimate. As others have noted, the administration is basically dealing with two competing clocks — one ticking down on Iran’s progress toward a nuclear weapons capability, and the other ticking down on the Green movement’s growing challenge to the regime. Two stories over the weekend indicate some positive movement on both, the former slowing and the latter quickening, at the same time.

The Wall Street Journal reported Saturday that, according to senior U.S. officials, “The Obama administration is increasingly questioning the long-term stability of Tehran’s government and moving to find ways to support Iran’s opposition ‘Green Movement.'”

American diplomats, meanwhile, have begun drawing comparisons in public between Iran’s current political turmoil and the events that led up to the 1979 overthrow of Shah Reza Pahlavi.

“In my opinion there are many similarities,” the State Department’s chief Iran specialist, John Limbert, told Iran-based listeners this week over U.S. government-run Radio Farda. “I think it’s very hard for the government to decide how to react to the legitimate and lawful demands of the people.” […]

The tone has changed in the conversation,” said one scholar who discussed Iran with senior U.S. officials. “There’s realization now that this unrest really matters.” […]

“Do we expect the current government to be overthrown? I wouldn’t say that at the current time,” said a senior State Department official. “But a crack can certainly grow over time.”

While I think this is good news, we should understand that the administration has undertaken a much more difficult approach, not only in terms of creating space for that crack to grow, but also in managing regional partners who are skeptical of the possibility of Iranian reform and anxious for more belligerence:

One senior Arab official said he told State Department officials this week they were deluded if they though Iran was close to experiencing a revolution reminiscent of the Shah’s overthrow. “The IRGC has its hands on the Iranian people,” the official said.

Israel, which faces the greatest security threat from Iran, says only widespread sanctions will effectively upend Tehran’s current political leadership. “Many Israeli experts have concluded that expansive sanctions will widen the schisms between the Iranian government and its people,” said Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren.

I’m interested to read the work of these “many Israeli experts,” as there are few if any U.S. experts who actually believe that “expansive sanctions” — as opposed to sanctions targeted at specific regime-connected business interests — will do anything other than weaken the opposition while profiting the Revolutionary Guardsmen who control the Iranian black market.

The Journal story does, however, contradict Ambassador Oren’s recent statement to The Jerusalem Post that “there isn’t an Israeli view and an American view” on the Iranian question, but rather “one view.”

As it turns out, not only is there not “one view” between the U.S. and Israel on Iran, there isn’t even one view between Israelis on Iran. The London Times reported Sunday that an Israeli general who was once in charge of Israel’s nuclear weapons has said that Iran is a “very, very, very long way from building a nuclear capability”.

Brigadier-General Uzi Eilam, 75, a war hero and pillar of the [Israeli] defence establishment, believes it will probably take Iran seven years to make nuclear weapons.

The views expressed by the former director-general of Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission contradict the assessment of Israel’s defence establishment and put him at odds with political leaders.

Major-General Amos Yadlin, head of military intelligence, recently told the defence committee of the Knesset that Iran will probably be able to build a single nuclear device this year. […]

Eilam, who is thought to be updated by former colleagues on developments in Iran, calls his country’s official view hysterical. “The intelligence community are spreading frightening voices about Iran,” he said.

“Those who say that Iran will obtain a bomb within a year’s time, on what basis did they say so?” he asked. “Where is the evidence?”

Excellent question! As Eric Martin noted last week, the New York Times was reporting — fifteen years ago — that Iran “could be less than five years away from having an atomic bomb” according to American and Israeli officials. While no one should be sanguine about either the possibility of Iranian nukes or the Green movement’s success, what all this says is that President Obama can and should, for the time being, continue to resist calls for more aggressive action on Iran, military or otherwise.