No Change in Iran

Tehran still has no interest in a “grand bargain” with America. Obama must keep a united front with Europe and strengthen the military capabilities of our Arab allies.

In the end, the much anticipated protests in Tehran on February 11, commemorating the thirty-first anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, were something of a letdown. There were no mass confrontations between the Green Movement and the Basij and no stirring counter-regime rallies and speeches by the opposition. Instead, President Ahmadinejad and his henchmen took the opportunity to bus thousands of poor Iranians into Tehran for a free meal in exchange for waving flags in a display of solidarity. Ahmadinejad made the claim that Iran was now a nuclear power because it had enriched uranium to 20 percent. He topped off his remarks with the usual polemics about Israel, the United States and the West. None of this should come as a surprise, given that the regime had weeks to prepare for the event and they were determined not to allow protests to get out of hand. By careful preemptive actions, including the arrests of many potential ringleaders, they were able to flood the cities with their own supporters and avoid what could have been a much nastier confrontation.

Predictably those most eager to use tough measures to replace the regime are stepping up calls for the United States to use force to deal with Iran's nuclear capability. On the other hand, those who blame the United States and the West for Iranian intransigence are once again mouthing that old misguided canard that Obama should "Do a Nixon to China." The problem with this analogy is that it doesn't hold water. The Chinese communist government was eager to embrace President Nixon and Secretary Kissinger in 1972 because of the much more serious threat they faced from the Soviet Union. There has been little indication the ayatollahs or the Iranian Revolutionary Guard corps want to sit down with Obama and make a grand bargain. In their heart of hearts they believe such a compromise would be a kiss of death to them, their power base and their form of government. What they want to do is to continue playing a diplomatic game by offering and then withdrawing deals to put their enriched uranium under international controls with the intention of continuing to divide and confuse the United States, its European allies, Russia and China, and thereby avoid a new round of international sanctions. Fortunately, there is now plausible intelligence that the regime's much touted uranium-enrichment program has run into technical difficulties, which will delay its ability to produce sufficient quantities of enriched uranium necessary for serious nuclear-weapons program.

The most likely fallout from the February 11 events will be a reappraisal by the opposition groups as to their tactics. It will probably see an increased effort by the Western countries to provide technology and new techniques for the opposition to get around to the regime's clampdown on the Internet and cell-phone use. Undoubtedly we will see continued violence by the regime against its opponents. Obama will have to continue to push for more sanctions while not completely cutting off the diplomatic track. None of these approaches will be satisfactory to the hard-line critics and those in favor of more assertive engagement. But Obama must walk a fine line, given the pressures from the congressional hawks, the distaste in the Pentagon for any serious military action against Iran, and the need to help keep U.S. diplomacy in step with the Europeans. This approach will be paralleled by a greater effort by the United States to strengthen the military capabilities of the Arab Gulf countries. The Obama administration should also make a more assertive effort to debunk some of the more scary scenarios about Iran's hegemonic potential, with or without nuclear weapons. It must be repeated: Iran is a dangerous country, but it is not a superpower and will never be one.


Geoffrey Kemp is the Director of Regional Strategic Programs at The Nixon Center.