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From Conciliation to Coercion

Interviewee: Ray Takeyh, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, CFR
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
February 11, 2010

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CFR Iran expert Ray Takeyh says that the United States should both support the Iranian protesters and seek an accord to limit Iran's nuclear enrichment. He says the protests on the thirty-first anniversary of the Islamic Revolution show the opposition movement is resilient, despite government intimidation, and that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's announcement that Iran is now a nuclear state was meant to bolster his "domestic constituency." Takeyh says that the Islamic regime is fragile, and that the United States should step up its support for the protest movements. "I think it is a kind of a moral obligation for the longest standing democracy in the world to point out that the suppression of dissent and the putting down of the political reform movement in Iran is contrary to the interests of Iran, the interest of Iranians, the region, the international community."

What should the United States be focusing on in its dealings with Iran? Should it support the protestors or work for a nuclear agreement, or is it possible to do both?

It's possible to pay attention to both. The protest movement remains resilient. One of the reasons why, perhaps, they [the demonstrations] weren't as large as one anticipated is because of the regime's rigorous security measures, and also because of a media blackout. We just don't know as much about what has transpired in Iran and what is happening now. Also, the regime took an extraordinary step in the last month, using many intimidation tactics that resulted in arrests of many people, a number of executions, and dire warnings.

President Ahmadinejad's speech focusing on the nuclear issue is interesting, because he seems to view the nuclear card as a means of solidifying a domestic constituency behind his rule. Essentially this is what you could call "nuclear nationalism," trying to stimulate nationalistic support for his regime through both nuclear defiance and nuclear achievement. Under those circumstances, the United States, in dealing with Iran, faces a population that is still restive, a regime that still lacks domestic credibility and which looks at the nuclear card as a means of rejuvenating its domestic political fortune. Therefore, Iran may be less susceptible to a compromise.

Were Ahmadinejad's comments about Iran enriching its first uranium sample to 20 percent an effort to revive negotiations between Iran and the Security Council and Germany?

This is a 20 percent enrichment for no purpose other than bombast and luster. He may be trying to put pressure on the international community for them to supply Iran with fuel on his terms or to sell Iran the medical isotopes that it seeks.

[T]he United States, in dealing with Iran, faces a population that is still restive, a regime that still lacks domestic credibility and which looks at the nuclear card as a means of rejuvenating its domestic political fortune.etc.

Has the United States given up on a deal by increasing sanctions?

The United States seems to feel that by increasing pressure on Iran, it could bring Iran back to the negotiating table. So the purpose of the American diplomacy remains the same--getting Iran to the negotiating table. The past year, there was hope that through offers of engagement and offers of dialogue, in a language that was respectful, Iran would see an interest in being a participant in fresh negotiations. Now the United States is hoping that in order to avoid pressure and avoid further sanctions, Iran will come back to the negotiating table. So the purpose remains the same, although the tactics have switched from conciliatory to more coercive.

How popular is the push for nuclear enrichment within Iran?

It's impossible, really, to measure public opinion on this particular issue. Given how persistently the regime brandishes this nuclear cause, one can only assume that they see some domestic political advantages in this. But this is a regime that has obviously misunderstood its own public opinion. One thing I can say with some degree of confidence, is among those who support the regime, whatever percentage of the population that may be, the nuclear issue is an effective mobilization technique. So at the very least, it's a constituency "maintenance" policy.

You've said recently that you think this regime is not going to last forever. Do you think this protest movement can bring down the regime, or do you think that the regime is going to be forced into some kind of compromise?

At this point, the regime faces several problems: popular disenchantment, elite fragmentation, international pressure, and economic distress. These are usually indicators of a regime in deep trouble. It also possesses some sort of coercive capability, and there's no reason to assume that it will collapse tomorrow.

I would say that among the indicators that one can watch are the following: I don't believe the Islamic Republic at this point is capable of handling a succession crisis. For instance, Ali Hossein Khamenei, who is the supreme leader, is seventy years old. If he should pass from the scene, there would be a serious breakdown of domestic civil order. That could precipitate the collapse of the regime. It's hard to suggest when and how the regime will collapse, because they can sustain themselves through oil revenues that bestow income from abroad. And it can retain its constituency and muzzle opponents by relying on security services. But it certainly lacks domestic credibility and popular legitimacy, and nobody can say how long the regime will last. But we can say, with some degree of confidence, that the post-June 12 events [the date of the flawed presidential elections] have caused the lifespan of the Islamic Republic to be shorter than it would have been otherwise.

You've argued that the Obama administration should "take a cue from Ronald Reagan and persistently challenge the legitimacy of the theocratic state, and highlight its human rights abuses." Would this make it more difficult to get a nuclear accord? Should Obama use his bully platform and talk about human rights violations in Iran?

There's been condemnation and criticism of Iran's human rights practices, most recently being the U.S.-EU joint declaration. And the president has described Iran as a tyranny, and he may do so again in a more systematic language. The point remains that the criticism of Iran's human rights abuses does not obviate the possibility of a nuclear agreement. If Iran is going to engage in a nuclear transaction with the international community, it is doing so for its own domestic purposes. They see some value in having that kind of diplomacy; it views that diplomacy as enhancing its domestic political fortunes.

Iran is no longer going to be deterred from such a transaction if the rhetoric of the United States is harsher and more strident. You don't lose anything by highlighting Iran's human rights--to say the least--imperfections. It is a kind of a moral obligation for the longest standing democracy in the world to point out that the suppression of dissent and the putting down of the political reform movement in Iran is contrary to the interests of Iran, the interest of Iranians, the region, the international community, and so forth. Moreover, we talk a lot about Iran's nuclear obligations to the United Nations. Iran also has obligations in the realm of human rights. It is a signatory of various universal human rights declarations that have been passed by the UN. So, its domestic conduct is as much of the violation of this international obligation as it is of nuclear infractions.

The UN Human Rights Council is due to take this up.

I would go one step further and have the United Nations actually appoint an individual to look into Iran's human rights situation, and make regular reports to the UN Security Council and the General Assembly, on Iran's human rights situation, as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) does on Iran's nuclear program.

The Iranian regime started calling the protesters agents of the United States and the CIA last summer when the United States was trying to limit its criticism of Iran, right?

That's a perennial. The Iranian government, in its public declarations, and for all I know in its private perceptions, seems to feel that the protests against it are stimulated by Western security services in conjunction with civil society groups, along the lines of the various color revolutions that took place in Eastern Europe--the Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004. So it seems to be viewing its own Green protest movement as stimulated by agents and agencies abroad. That's byproduct of the paranoid mindset of the Iranian political leadership. No amount of American discourse is going to change that. If we say that we are in no way responsible for this and have no intention of changing that Iranian regime, they're not going to believe it. If we say we are responsible for this and intent on changing the Iranian regime, they probably believe that anyway. There's a constancy of paranoia.

Are you surprised that so far the supreme leader, Khamenei, has not made any significant concessions?

At this point, the regime faces several problems: popular disenchantment, elite fragmentation, international pressure, and economic distress. These are usually indicators of a regime in deep trouble.etc.

To some extent I am, simply because he has received offers of compromise from the opposition, from former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and the leading presidential candidate, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, and even from the most strident of opposition leaders, former speaker Mehdi Karroubi. He seems to think that his strategy of containment will work, through arrests, selective repression, through various physical measures. He seems to think that over time, the protest movement will evaporate and therefore he will maintain a monopoly of power while having survived the protests.

He did survive the reform challenge of the 1990s; he did survive the attempt by the Bush administration to redraw the political boundaries of the Middle East, so he is in some ways a survivor. And he may view this as yet another challenge he will survive, sort of like the old Richard Nixon book Six Crises. He may be writing his own book about the crisis he has survived. He still probably has opportunities to compromise, but his motive apparently is at this point not to make concessions under pressure. He also probably draws the wrong lessons from the 1979 revolution, where he and many other revolutionaries from that time seem to think that one of the reasons why the revolution succeeded, and succeeded so quickly, was because the Shah kept making concessions. And therefore, if you make concessions, it only emboldens the opposition movement, and doesn't cause it to evaporate.

Are you surprised that the protest movement has not died?

Yeah. I'm surprised by its resilience. I don't how it organizes itself. It doesn't have a charismatic leadership. That is obvious. It doesn't really have a clear ideology. The Islamic Revolution had a very coherent ideology in opposition to the monarchy. You don't have that here, but that actually makes this one of the more interesting protest movements, because it seems to survive despite such disadvantages. And the longer it survives, the leader and platforms I think will suggest themselves.

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