Wednesday, June 18, 2003
I am, of course, extremely encouraged by developments in Iran. But I am filled as well with foreboding. As I've written a number of times before, the choices facing the mullahs are Lithuania ca. 1991 or Tiananmen ca. 1989. I still think the latter is more likely. People forget that the Soviet Union ended largely bloodlessly because Mikhail Gorbachev was insufficiently ruthless to hold the regime together by force. He was the first and last Soviet Premier to believe that the people supported the Communist system; even Khrushchev, who believed fervently in the Revolution, understood that the Revolution was only going to triumph by force, and used it (in Hungary, for instance). I do not think that Khamenei or Khatami are like Gorbachev. If they can hold power by force, they will, to the end.
So the real question is whether the military and security services turn against the regime. In Tiananmen in 1989, when the shooting started, there were early reports that different units of the PLA were shooting at each other (the 27th Army was the primary perpetrator of the attacks, and there were reports that the 27th had engaged in combat with other PLA units). I don't think it's easy to prognosticate what the outcome would be if shooting started in Tehran or Isfahan. But how can we be sure that the regime's supporters won't fight with the greatest ferocity and conviction?
A lot of right-wingers have been arguing that our government should more vocally support the protestors. I agree with them to the extent that I always want us to be on the side of truth, justice and all that where possible, and to the extent that I think the mullahs (and, more important, the military and security services) know that there will be consequences to a 1989-style crackdown. But any implicit threats have to be credible. No one thinks we're going to go to war with Iran over internal repression. And it's not obvious that America can enforce diplomatic or economic consequences sufficiently dire to be decisive. Moreover, to the extent that the Iranian military is patriotic (and I think that's to a very great extent) they might be more inclined to defend the regime faced with foreign pressure. Analogies to Eastern Europe are flawed; when Eastern Europe revolted, they were (a) revolting against a foreign power (Russia), and (b) openly eager to identify with the West and become a part of it. Neither is the case in Iran.
Contra Robert Greene above, I don't think the best leverage we have against Tehran is on the nuclear issue. I think it's on the terrorism issue. Iran is the principal sponsor of a host of terrorist groups that target Americans, most prominently Hezbollah. These terrorist groups are the hard-liners' primary asset and their principal means of demonstrating Iranian (and their own) power and influence beyond their borders. The regime pays essentially no price for the deployment of this asset. If the U.S. made them pay a price, that would potentially separate the military from the hard-liners. No one remotely sane in Iran wants a military confrontation with the United States. If the U.S., for example, intervened in Lebanon to destroy the Hezbollah, and pointedly warned Iran that it must cease supporting terrorist groups or face unspecified consequences, what would the mullahs do? Standing pat while their primary terrorist asset was destroyed would destroy their own credibility, internally and globally. But taking any action would provoke a potential confrontation with the United States - and over a bunch of Arab terrorists who do nothing for Iran, ultimately, even if they do a great deal for the mullahs. I don't think it's far-fetched to think that, if the Iranian military thought that the mullahs were bringing Iran into danger for their own ideological motives, that this would have an impact on how willing they would be to defend the regime against internal revolution. By contrast, it's entirely conceivable that there is widespread support for a nuclear-armed Iran even among democrats and among anti-regime elements in the military (after all, the Shah was actively pursuing a nuclear program before the revolution). And again, mobilizing international pressure over the nuclear issue is going to be slow-going and difficult without a threat of more precipitate action, action that I doubt is forthcoming.
I believe that a post-revolutionary Iran could be one of America's better allies in the region. America has been systematically wiping out Iran's enemies: the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq. Two of America's most problematic and equivocal allies in the region, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, are also historic rivals of Iran. We have a natural conjunction of interests, and the only thing that keeps the Iranian people from reaping the benefits of that conjunction is the determination by the Iranian regime to make war on the West. It doesn't have to be that way. And this is the message that needs to be communicated, in private, to the people who will really decide whether freedom comes to Iran: the patriotic Iranian military.