Robert Kagan explains why the Obama administration should forget about Iranian nuclear developments and focus rather on Iranian instability and the regime's fight for survival.
The past two weeks have been a big success for the rulers in Tehran, despite what many in the United States and Europe may think. The Obama administration, the Europeans and the media have been obsessively focused on Iranian missile launches and secret enrichment facilities, on Russia's body language, and on the likely success or failure of Thursday's talks in Geneva. What the world has not focused on is the one thing Iran's rulers care about: their own survival.
You have to give the clerics credit for keeping this grave matter off Western agendas. The fraudulent presidential election in June and the subsequent mass demonstrations produced the biggest regime crisis in years. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei must have been panicked at the prospect of losing control -- and with reason. Western democrats, not knowing what it is like to rule by fear and force, generally underestimate what a scary and uncertain business it can be, how a single wrong move, usually a too-timid response, can spell catastrophe. Even the masterful Deng Xiaoping, faced with much smaller opposition demonstrations in 1989, believed his Communist oligarchy could lose power absent a decisive show of force followed by a thorough purge of unreliable figures in the regime. In Iran, the regime's violent crackdown, its mass arrests of opposition figures -- including the children of high-ranking clerics -- and all the farcical show trials have been signs of weakness and anxiety, not confidence.
In such situations, an autocratic regime's biggest fear, well-grounded in history, is that domestic opponents may gain the support of powerful foreign patrons. The toppling of dictators -- Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua, the Polish Communists -- has frequently been aided, sometimes decisively, by foreign involvement, through support to opposition forces or sanctions against the government. One of the main fears of Chinese leaders in 1989 was that students carrying replicas of the Statue of Liberty might gather support from abroad. It is obvious from the show trials in Iran, where the accused have "admitted" being part of various American plots to overthrow the regime in a "velvet revolution," that this is the clerics' principal fixation.
The regime's overriding goal since the election, therefore, has been to buy time and try to reestablish and consolidate control without any foreign interference in its internal affairs. In this Tehran has succeeded admirably.