Getting Real About Divisions In Iran

iran_protest_rallyJosh Rogin’s story on the Obama administration’s intervention into whether Voice of America should attach its name to a statement protesting Iranian signal jamming indicates that the administration is still approaching certain aspects of the Iranian regime’s repression with meticulous caution. Perhaps too much caution, in my opinion.

This apparent caution does, however, work against Flynt Leverett’s suggestion that the administration is moving closer to endorsing regime change in Iran. As I’ve written previously, while I think the administration needs to elevate human rights on its Iran agenda, I don’t think that President Obama’s explicitly enlisting the United States in the Iranian reform movement in hopes of “regime change” is a wise choice right now. But I continue to find Leverett’s dismissal of that movement as a serious factor, either in Iranian politics or in U.S. considerations toward Iran, to be incredibly obtuse.

Appearing on the NewsHour on February 12, Leverett insisted “The United States needs to be doing serious strategic business with the Islamic Republic as it is, and not as some might wish it to be”:

That’s what the Obama Administration needs to be focused on, and not give in to what is, frankly, an illusion that Iranian domestic politics are going to produce some government that we’re going to find much, much easier to deal with.

Yes, by all means, let’s not have illusions that a new Iranian government will give us everything that we want. But it’s pretty clear that dealing with the Islamic Republic “as it is” means dealing with a government that is currently experiencing a serious crisis of legitimacy, probably the most serious since the immediate post-revolutionary period.

While Leverett sees the regime’s success in preventing large-scale anti-government demonstrations on February 11 as evidence that we should all just get over the Greens, Farideh Farhi writes that “the only message of February 11 is that, by spending a tremendous amount of resources and energy on security, arrests and mobilization, the government can control the crowds”:

But managing the stage and controlling the crowds on any given day are not the same as actually resolving the problems and grievances that have repeatedly brought protesters into the streets. Unless some of these are addressed, the Iranian state will remain on edge, vigilant, and engaged in a permanent crackdown that will effectively undermine the country’s economic and regional ambitions. […]

Iran’s political system, with its bickering elites, remains as dysfunctional as ever. And President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s administration is still perceived as incompetent even by many of its conservative backers at a time when the government faces the dual challenge of embarking upon what it calls the “economic surgery” of reforming the country’s unwieldy subsidy system and thwarting growing foreign pressures to curb the country’s nuclear program.

While I don’t think we should bank on any particular faction to come out ahead (though obviously we’d like to see an Iranian government that was more democratic and less confrontational), neither should we refuse to see that the Islamic Republic is significantly divided right now. Simply denying that those divisions exist, or that they matter, is not realism.