The Iranian People Challenge the West

Paul Pillar

Hassan Rouhani's stunning and sweeping victory in the Iranian presidential election is already generating much debate among expert Iran-watchers about how to interpret this outcome. There are different views, for example, on what inference should be drawn regarding the posture of Supreme Leader Khamenei toward the election. Was this outcome one that the leader might have anticipated and is part of a skillful management of contending factions, or does the election result instead indicate that the leader's control of Iranian politics is less than was often surmised? There also are different views on what role sanctions-induced economic strain may have had on the election. These are genuine questions on which objective and well-informed observers can disagree. Not genuine is the spin from some other fast-off-the-mark commentators who are endeavoring to deny any significance to Rouhani's victory and to portray the Iranian regime as nothing but the same old recalcitrant adversary—a spin motivated by opposition to reaching agreements with Iran and the favoring of confrontation and even war with it.

Useful implications for policy toward Iran can be drawn without resolving all these analytical questions, even the genuine ones. Sometimes a particular course of action is the best course under any of several different interpretations of exactly what is going on in another nation's capital. This is one of those instances. In particular, there are clear implications for approaching the next stage of negotiations on, and policy toward, Iran's nuclear program—which, for better or for worse, is the subject dominating discussion of relations with the Islamic Republic.

One thing that the Iranian election would have changed no matter what the outcome on election day is that we soon will not have Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to kick around any more. The end of his distracting and annoying presence can only be to the good. Perhaps at least a little more serious attention will be devoted in the United States to policy and diplomacy when there is a little less energy allocated to expressing outrage over the outgoing Iranian president's mistranslated quotes about wiping maps and his other intentionally inflammatory rhetoric.

Rouhani's win brings to Iran's presidency the candidate who was least associated with attributes of the Iranian regime that the West finds most offensive. While one must always be careful in affixing labels to individual leaders and factions in Iranian politics, the pre-election characterization of Rouhani as the most moderate of the six candidates remaining in the race until election day is accurate. The election result also is a vote in favor of flexibility and going the extra mile to reach agreement in the nuclear negotiations. In this regard one of the significant aspects of the result is not only how well Rouhani did but also how bad the result was for one of the other candidates, Saeed Jalili, the current nuclear negotiator. Conduct of the negotiations was an issue in the campaign. Yet another candidate, former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati (who possibly could become foreign minister again under Rouhani) pointedly criticized Jalili in one of the candidates' debates for apparently expecting too much from the other side while offering little in return. Jalili, who before the election had been dubbed the supreme leader's man and was considered by some the favorite, finished a far-behind third place, with less than a quarter as many votes as Rouhani.

There clearly is an opportunity for diplomatic progress. More to the point, there is a challenge, to the United States and its P5+1 partners in the nuclear negotiations, to do their part to make such progress possible. This is true no matter which of several possible interpretations of the details of politics in Iran is valid. Whether the supreme leader is stage-managing a process that leads to an outcome he has always welcomed, or is being pushed toward that outcome by forces and sentiments he cannot control, the implication for western policy is the same. We should spend less time trying to interpret what's happening on the other side and more time thinking about how the other side interprets our policies. This is important because a lack of Iranian confidence in the West's desire and willingness to make a deal and to stick with it almost certainly has been one of the impediments to progress in the nuclear negotiations.

Rouhani's election presents the United States and its partners with a test—of our intentions and seriousness about reaching an agreement. Failure of the test will confirm suspicions in Tehran that we do not want a deal and instead are stringing along negotiations while waiting for the sanctions to wreak more damage. Passage of the test will require placing on the table a proposal that, in return for the desired restrictions on Iran's nuclear activities, incorporates significant relief from economic sanctions and at least tacit acceptance of a continued peaceful Iranian nuclear program, to include low-level enrichment of uranium. The sad fact is that the criticism Velayati leveled at Jalili's negotiating approach could be applied just as easily to the approach of the P5+1, which so far have coupled their demands about the nuclear program with sanctions relief that is only a pittance compared to the large and ever-growing array of sanctions applied to Iran. Passage of the test also means not making any proposal an ultimatum that is coupled with threats of military force, which only feed Iranian suspicions that for the West the negotiations are a box-checking prelude to war and regime change.

The Iranian electorate has in effect said to the United States and its Western partners, “We've done all we can. Among the options that the Guardian Council gave us, we have chosen the one that offers to get us closest to accommodation, agreement and understanding with the West. Your move, America.”

TopicsElectionsPublic OpinionSanctionsNuclear Proliferation RegionsIranUnited States

The Commitment Ploy

Paul Pillar

Sometimes a child is able to drag a parent into doing something the parent might not really want to do—say, taking the kid to an amusement park—through a two-step process. The first step is to nag, repeatedly and insistently, about going to the park. The parent, not wanting to be bothered about such a chore, tries to buy time and assuage the child by saying that they aren't going to the park now but they will when a suitable day arises. After some time goes by and the trip to the amusement park still has not been taken, the child's theme becomes, “But you promised.” The issue is framed no longer just in terms of the pros and cons of going to the amusement park but also in terms of the parent's credibility. The parent, worried about maintaining credibility of both promises and threats on other possible matters, gives in.

A similar process is occurring with some of those who, for whatever ill-conceived reason, would welcome a war with Iran. With some of the same people, it is occurring also with the nearer-term issue of intervening in the civil war in Syria. In each case step one is agitation in favor of threatening the use of military force. Step two is to argue that unless the threat is carried out, U.S. credibility will be damaged. Similar to the child who wants to go to the amusement park, the same persons whose urgings led us to get into an option-reducing box then yammer about the damage that results from being in that box, unless we get out of it in the particular way they want.

On Iran, it is hard to know exactly how President Obama, in his innermost thoughts, views the nuclear activities of the Islamic Republic of Iran. It is a fair guess that he does not subscribe to the repeatedly expressed notion that those activities constitute the Greatest Threat to Mankind in Our Time. He clearly does not want a war with Iran. But he is faced with repeated, insistent nagging about this from the government of Israel, and thus from those in the United States who support that government, and thus with all of the U.S. political implications that implies. Not wanting to have his presidency completely sidelined by such things, he tries to buy time and assuage the naggers by saying that an Iranian nuclear weapon would be unacceptable and that all options are on the table to prevent that eventuality. His statements are already fodder for lots of warnings about how badly U.S. credibility supposedly would be harmed if he does not make good on the promise he seems to have made. Some of the loudest voices in making those warnings are those whose pestering pressured him into making the promise in the first place.

On Syria, Mr. Obama seems to have allowed himself to be pushed into a similar box, with earlier statements about how President Assad must go and more recent ones about the use of chemical weapons as a “red line.” Some of the pressures to which he has been responding involve the same sort of two-step tactic as is being used on Iran. A glaring example is provided this week by Michael Singh of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. In an opinion piece titled “How to Make Diplomacy on Syria Succeed,” Singh argues that the United States “must credibly put on the table the option of military intervention,” including direct operations by U.S. forces and not just the arming of Syrian rebels. In a separate piece published on the same day and titled “U.S. Credibility on Iran at Stake in Syria,” Singh talks in the same breath as mentioning the “military option” that “Washington's failure to push back on Iranian aggression in Syria” is undercutting “the credibility of Western warnings.” He goes on with more ominous language about a “vicious cycle” of lost influence in which “not just for Tehran” but elsewhere in the region “American influence is everywhere diminished.” What a deliciously constructed chain of entrapment: starting with the innocent goal of supporting diplomacy on Syria, we are led to threats of military force, and then to actual use of force, and then to the big prize of confrontation with Iran.

There are many things wrong with this, too numerous to mention them all. What Singh says, for example, about the impact of threats of U.S. military intervention on Syria diplomacy is inconsistent when considering the impact on both the thinking of the Syrian regime and its backers, on one hand, and the rebels and their backers, on the other. The commonly heard assertions about how threats of military force ought to aid the nuclear negotiations with Iran naively overlook how such threats are more likely to have counterproductive effects on Iranian perceptions and incentives, by lending credibility to the belief that Washington only wants regime change and to any arguments within the Iranian regime that it needs a nuclear deterrent. The talk about how actions in one theater are supposed to shape perceptions of U.S. credibility somewhere else also is inconsistent with the actual record of how governments assess the credibility of other governments.

Perhaps the most offensive thing about this approach is the manipulation involved in first pushing us—and our leaders—into a difficult position and then pushing us to do even more harmful things to get out of that same position. In a general way this is related not only to a kid who pesters his parent to go to the amusement park but also to the kid who killed his parents and then called for mercy because he was an orphan.

TopicsCounterinsurgencyDomestic PoliticsNuclear ProliferationRogue States RegionsIsraelIranUnited StatesSyria

Security, Liberty and the Forever War

The Buzz

In the aftermath of last week’s major revelations about the National Security Agency, Hayes Brown has a great piece in which he catalogues the many times in American history when the country has (rightly or wrongly) put national security before individual liberties. In response to the now-famous leaker Edward Snowden’s assertion that “we managed to survive greater threats in our history . . . than a few disorganized terrorist groups and rogue states without resorting to these sorts of programs,” Brown takes us on a comprehensive tour from the 1798 Sedition Act to the fight against Al Qaeda. He notes that “history is replete with instance after instance of the U.S. government suppressing or outright violating the rights of its people in the name of furthering national security.”

Brown concludes:

This isn't at all to say that the NSA or the Obama administration should get a free pass on allowing these surveillance programs to grow and flourish under their watch. . . . Not nearly enough debate has gone on in the harsh light of day over just what freedoms we are willing to exchange in the name of security. But in conducting that debate, we would do well not to delude ourselves into falsely remembering a time when the United States was innocent of breaking the trust of its people in the name of protecting them. That time never existed.

This takeaway is dead-on. Obviously, the history doesn’t excuse any of the post-9/11 actions of the Bush and Obama administrations, but it does help to put them in perspective, and it effectively dismantles the myth that underpins Snowden’s comment.

Yet there’s at least one way in which what is going on now deserves special attention. Namely, programs such as the NSA surveillance ones are in place in the service of fighting a conflict that is indefinite by design or by nature. In contrast, many of the infringements on liberties that Brown highlights—for example, Abraham Lincoln’s suspension of habeus corpus in the Civil War, as well as postal censorship and the creation of internment camps for Japanese Americans during World War II—were linked to traditional wars with fixed beginning and end dates. When the wars ended, so too did those practices. Some of the other abuses—Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist crusade of the 1950s comes to mind—ended when those responsible for them were perceived to have overstepped their bounds. The basic, if unstated, bargain between the public and Washington would appear to be something like this: that in times of war or great national emergency the government might aggrandize its powers and impinge on individual liberties, with the promise that things would return to normal after the crisis ended.

Today, the United States is still engaged in one “hot” war in Afghanistan, but the broader “long war” will endure well past the anticipated Afghan drawdown. Last month, in congressional testimony, Michael Sheehan, the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, said that he believed the war against Al Qaeda and its associated forces would go on “for at least 10 to 20 years” from now. There is little conception of how and when this war ends—or if it ever does at all. And even if it does, and Al Qaeda is someday effectively eradicated, there will doubtless be other future threats that some lawmakers will argue make programs like the NSA’s necessary in order to counter them.

So, while the NSA’s collection of telephony metadata and information through major Internet services providers is far from the greatest infringement on Americans’ liberties in our country’s history, it may prove to be one of the most enduring. Barring a concerted effort to roll it back, there’s good reason to think it will not follow the pattern of naturally fading away after a conflict, but rather simply become part of a new status quo that Americans just come to accept and take for granted.

TopicsIntelligenceTerrorismSecurity RegionsUnited States

Disrupting AQAP's Inspire

The Buzz

courtesy of Wikimedia commons.The Washington Post reports today that American intelligence operatives covertly sabotaged prominent Al Qaeda magazine Inspire successfully in the wake of the Boston bombing. By using enhanced cyberhacking techniques to monitor the publication cycle, agents were able to mangle the May 14th edition of the English-language AQAP propaganda publication. When the issue appeared online, the text on page two was compromised and the following twenty pages completely blank. Within a half hour of the flawed issue's publication, it had been taken down in response to the hack.

Apparently this is not the first time the United States has interrupted normal publication of Inspire. While this particular hack affected the entire issue, the Post reports that in the past operatives have made much smaller, more nuanced changes that perhaps might go unnoticed for longer periods of time. One intelligence official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss sensitive internal debates shared with the Post, “You can make it hard for them to distribute it, or you can mess with the content. And you can mess with the content in a way that is obvious or in ways that are not obvious.” Content changes in the past have included switching up one line in bomb-making directions in order to render a bomb ineffective and similar tweaks to neuter the magazine's step-by-step guides.

While this type of interference in Inspire's publication is certainly not bad, it seems to this author that our energy is being misspent. Inspire is an important magazine for aspiring jihadis, but even if America were to somehow terminate its publication forever, it comes nowhere close to fully encompassing Al Qaeda's propaganda machine. Successfully sabotaging homemade-bomb directions is great, but the internet is literally full of such information. If someone wants to make a bomb, he will make a bomb. People don't become jihadis because they read Inspire; they come to the magazine with an interest in jihad and will find outlets for their crooked aspirations regardless of whether the magazine exists.

Inspire's existence is a symptom of the terrorist problem rather than its root cause. While interrupting it is unobjectionable, what does each of these interruptions truly garner for the United States and at what cost? On May 30, a new issue of the magazine appeared like clockwork and portrayed the Boston bombing as vindication of the message that “a single lone jihad operation can force America to stand on one foot and live in a terrified state, full of fear.” If this were just the mission of a magazine and nothing more, the war on terrorism would have been won and done. We shouldn't lose sight of the fact that disrupting this publication does little to eradicate the value system it is predicated on.

TopicsTerrorism RegionsUnited States

Iran and the Syria Conference

Paul Pillar

A perpetual, and perpetually misguided, American notion about international negotiations is that sitting down to talk constitutes some sort of reward for the party on the other side of the table—a reward to be bestowed only in return for good behavior. This notion may be involved, even if only indirectly, in the curious U.S. resistance to participation by Iran in the prospective international conference about the conflict in Syria. Perhaps the resistance has more recently lessened; on Tuesday the deputy Iranian foreign minister commented in Moscow that Iran had received a “verbal invitation” to attend the conference, without specifying who had extended the invitation. We should hope that the verbal invitation will turn out to be a firm one.

The United States has been joined in its resistance by France. Maybe Paris's posture has been rooted somehow in old French hang-ups about the Levant. The reason for the similar posture by the Obama administration, notwithstanding its leadership role along with Russia in arranging the conference in the first place, is unclear. If the administration itself does not subscribe to the talking-as-reward school of thought, possibly the policy has been just one more manifestation of an environment in Washington in which anything that could be construed as a positive gesture toward Iran is considered bad politics and the opposite is always good politics.

From the standpoint of trying to ameliorate the situation in Syria, there is no way that exclusion of Iran can help, no matter how negative and nefarious a role the Iranians are assumed to be playing. The general principle involved is that the only peace talks that are ever meaningful are ones with adversaries, not with just friends and allies. In the Syrian case, anyone playing any significant role in the conflict, positive or negative, ipso facto belongs at the table.

If the Iranians have reason to do things regarding the Syrian conflict now, with no peace talks, that we consider unhelpful, they would have no less reason to do similar things if they are excluded from any talks that do take place. There would be more possibility of change with the dialogue and deal-making at a conference. Exclusion would only increase Iran's incentive to find other ways to make its weight felt.

Perhaps some of the thinking has been that no encouragement should be given to Iran playing any significant regional role, not just on Syria. But players in the region are not going to take instructions from Paris and Washington regarding how they should regard other regional players and whom they should deal with. Besides, anything that leads the Iranians to feel more of a stake in regional stability is on balance good. Exactly what that should mean in terms of Iranian behavior is something worth talking to them about.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Danish Interpretation Systems. CC BY-SA 3.0.

TopicsCounterinsurgencyDomestic PoliticsRogue States RegionsIranFranceUnited StatesSyria