Daniel Brumberg of the U.S. Institute of Peace and Barry Blechman of the Stimson Center have a good piece in Foreign Policy discussing some of the conclusions of the recent USIP/Stimson report on Iran.
Knocking down spurious claims that Iran is just a U.S. air strike away from a pro-American democratic revolution, the authors write that the best thing that the U.S. can do promote political reform in Iran “is to make détente with the Islamic Republic a top priority“:
Sustained U.S.-Iranian engagement would undercut the “threat” that ultra hardliners regularly invoke to legitimate their efforts to pummel or isolate their critics. The latter include prominent conservatives, many of whom are eager to deflect the efforts of Revolutionary Guard to undermine the autonomy of clerical institutions, private sector businesses, and the parliament. Fighting for their very political and economic survival, these conservative leaders are likely to push for a process of internal political accommodation that could open up some doors for reformists. While they face many hurdles, one thing is sure: an escalation of U.S.-Iranian tensions (much less a war!) will only harm the efforts of those Iranian leaders who favor internal dialogue to make their voices heard.
In the coming decade, Iran’s politics will be defined by a slow, agonizing struggle waged through rather than against the institutions of the Islamic Republic. If we indulge in the seductive dream of a sudden democratic revolution — whether delivered by bombs from above or by popular resistance from below — we will destroy the seeds of a political change in Iran. But if we we push for a process of engagement that moves Iran and the U.S. from conflict to diplomatic coexistence, we can help nurture Iran’s own capacity to change and transform from within.
While I’m a bit skeptical about the claim that the struggle will be “waged through rather than against the institutions of the Islamic Republic” — as I read things, it will probably be a bit of both — in terms of the effects that U.S. threats have on Iran’s democracy movement, this tracks pretty closely with what Iranian dissident Akbar Ganji told me earlier this year. Ganji said that fear of a U.S. attack causes Iranian democracy activists to scale back their rhetoric:
“Since Iranians, in particular opposition groups, do not want to see a repeat of Afghanistan or Iraq in Iran,” Ganji said, “they’ve actually had to scale back their opposition to the government in order not to encourage an invasion [by the U.S.]”
Ganji was adamant that talk of a U.S. military option was harmful to the cause of Iranian democracy. “If you do not have the threat of foreign invasion and you do not use the dialog of invasion and military intervention, the society itself has a huge potential to oppose and potentially topple the theocratic system,” Ganji said. “What I’m trying to get to is that jingoistic, militaristic language used by any foreign power would actually be detrimental to this natural evolution of Iranian society.”
In a November op-ed, CFR’s Ray Takeyh suggested that history offers a model to work with:
The Helsinki Accord of 1975 invigorated the moribund opposition groups behind the Iron Curtain and ensured a smooth transition to a post-communist reality. More so than arms races and arms control treaties, those accords defied the skeptics and cynics by contributing to the collapse of the mighty Soviet empire. An emphasis on human rights today can not only buttress the viability of the Green Movement but also socialize an important segment of the security services, clerical estate and intelligentsia to the norms to which a state must adhere in order to become a member of global society. The successor generation of Iranian leaders would then be more sensitive to their obligations to citizens and the international community. By linking its diplomacy to human rights behavior, the United States could mitigate Iran’s nuclear ambitions and pave the way for a peaceful transition from clerical autocracy to a more responsible and humane government.
For any of this to possibly work, of course, we have to rid ourselves of the illusion that we can just bomb our way out of the problem.