Iran rebellion a critical test for Obama policy


WORLD VIEW:IF IRAN was at the centre of George Bush’s axis of evil it is also pivotal for Barack Obama’s policy-making in the Middle East, central and south Asia. Hence the democratic rebellion there following last week’s election proclaimed victory for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad poses a critical test for the new administration. Obama favours engaging Iran in a grand bargain concerning the whole region, but will have greater difficulty doing that if the rebellion is suppressed.

Cannily anticipating this difficulty Obama explained why it is counter-productive for the US to be seen as meddling in Iranian affairs. That would simply give Ahmadinejad an excuse to label Mir Hussein Mousavi’s supporters as American stooges. And he was not sure that there is such a great policy difference between the two men to merit preferring one. His pragmatic realism came out in his wish for “tough hard-headed diplomacy” to engage with whoever rules Iran to protect “a core set of our national security interests”. He needs to do that on Israel-Palestine, Middle East politics, nuclear weapons and, crucially, on Afghanistan and Pakistan, which border Iran and where there is a common interest in combating terrorism, drug-trafficking and creating political stability. The likelihood of continuing tension between the Afghan-Pakistani and Israel-Palestinian elements of his foreign policy agenda is now complicated further by the political turmoil in Iran itself.

This is Obama’s first fabled phone call at three in the morning – and conservatives are inclined to say he has got it wrong. John McCain is prominent among them, saying “he should speak out that this is a corrupt, fraud, sham of an election. The Iranian people have been deprived of their rights.” The Wall Street Journal contrasted Nicolas Sarkozy’s much more robust denunciation of the results with the US president’s. Obama countered that the US does not have sufficient intelligence to say definitely that the election was fraudulent.

Neoconservatives see an opportunity to resurrect the demonisation of Iran under Bush in attacking Obama’s hesitations. So do Israeli policy-makers and their lobbyists in the US and elsewhere who calculate that Ahmadinejad’s political victory will validate their account of Iran as an irredeemably incapable and unreliable partner for the US and its allies. Its nuclear programme is inherently dangerous and must be stopped, they believe, if necessary by force.

The democratic rebellion is, of course, an inconvenient pluralist fact for this monolithic story about Iran. Is neoconservatism anyway not committed to democratic revolution in the Middle East rather than acting as a foil for Israeli policy under Binyamin Netanyahu? These tensions will also deepen as the events unfold. Iran is a case study in the argument between interventionists, whether liberal or conservative, and those who say political change must be allowed to develop autonomously within authoritarian regimes.

Scenarios range from a Ukrainian-style velvet revolution, through a protracted Philippine or South Korean democratisation, to a post-Tiananmen hardline coup. Another possibility is that Ahmadinejad survives weakened and is then tempted into a military build-up and foreign policy activism to distract domestic attention.

Authoritarian states such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt which have opposed Iranian influence on political and religious grounds are also watching events anxiously, fearful of democratic rebellion fuelled by online technology. They face many of the same problems of political control and legitimacy in societies subject to similar cultural, religious and media pressures.

The Afghan-Pakistani dimension of Obama’s engagement with Iran has been temporarily sidelined by this crisis. But it is an enduring reality for his foreign policy. Richard Holbrooke, his policy czar on the region, is strongly pressing the case for engaging Iran. This carries weight because the US bears the main military burden there, within a continuity of policy from the Bush administration on the need to defeat al-Qaeda. If that is to happen Iran’s co-operation will tend to determine US policy. But we can expect the Israeli/neoconservative lobby to be much more vocal about Obama’s equivocations.

Netanyahu’s grudging acceptance this week of a two-state solution sought to balance US pressure on that question with a refusal to limit expansion of existing West Bank settlements. He is in a difficult position confronted by a definite shift in US policy towards a more balanced engagement with the region and with the Muslim world. This shift includes a willingness to talk directly to Syria, to Hizbullah (newly humbled by its defeat in the Lebanese elections) and (indirectly through Europe) to engage with Hamas.

We can also expect a strong case to be made in the US and the EU that returning to the policy of completely isolating Iran would be counter-productive. To engage with Iran is not to reward it; not to engage would reward the hardliners and isolate their now emboldened critics. This is not to say there will be no more debate on sanctions, whether directed against Iran’s nuclear programme or potential internal repression.

The big question is how much Iran’s political crisis diverts the Obama administration from its chosen path of engagement. A return to non-engagement is unlikely, even impracticable. Too much is at stake for Iran’s neighbours and economic interlocutors. States such as Russia, India, China and Brazil would simply refuse to go along with it, as would most of the EU. But any grand entente like that between China and the US in the 1970s may be postponed.