Secretary Clinton made clear this week that the United States remains ready to engage with Iran, but the opportunity will not remain open indefinitely. Carnegie hosted leading experts Roger Cohen of The New York Times, Ali Ansari, director of the Iranian Institute at the University of St. Andrews, and George Perkovich, director of Carnegie's Nonproliferation Program, to discuss how the United States should proceed with its Iran policy given the continued unrest in the country. While all agreed U.S. national security challenges make engagement in the medium to long-term a necessity, they disagreed on whether the United States should engage now or wait until Iran's domestic situation was more settled. Carnegie's Karim Sadjadpour moderated the discussion.
How Will the Current Unrest in Iran Play Out?
Ansari predicted that the opposition is unlikely to give up in the near future, and that the regime is suffering from a "crisis of authority," lacking the power to completely put down the protests. The instability will likely persist, punctuated by periodic demonstrations and violence. What is still uncertain, however, is whether former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani will succeed in persuading more elites aligned with the regime to defect. The most serious blow to the regime and a potential tipping point, Ansari added, would be if members of the Revolutionary Guards defected. While ideological and generational divisions exist within their ranks, it is unclear if they will erupt into actual fissures.
The instability will likely persist, punctuated by periodic demonstrations and violence.
Current State of the Opposition?
Cohen said that Mir-Hossein Moussavi and Rafsanjani remain enigmatic figures. Moussavi failed to seize the opportunity provided by the large demonstrations after the elections to seriously weaken the regime. And Rafsanjani's speech at Friday prayers was neither a battle cry nor a cave-in. This uncertainty about their complete dedication to the cause adds to the difficulties the opposition faces in channeling the tremendous public outrage that remains into concrete action. Ansari added that the opposition is also divided over how they would like to see the Islamic Republic redefined.
When to Engage - Now or Wait?
While the panelists agreed that U.S. national security challenges make engagement with Iran an eventual inevitability, differences emerged on when to engage Iran.
Perkovich argued that the United States should negotiate with the Iranians now if they indicate a willingness to talk, regardless of which camp holds power in Iran. Negotiations are not a concession to the regime. If the Iranians show up but do not negotiate, this will strengthen the U.S. ability to isolate the regime by making it clear to the world that the problem lies in Tehran. If the Iranians do negotiate, this is a positive outcome for international security. Waiting to engage does not make sense from an international security perspective. Despite the current unrest, Iran is still adding centrifuges, enriching uranium, and not cooperating with the IAEA.
Despite the current unrest, Iran is still adding centrifuges, enriching uranium, and not cooperating with the IAEA.
Perkovich added that the experience of negotiating with the Soviets through the arms reductions process in the late 1980s also shows that engagement could help the opposition. Repressive governments often justify repression at home by referring to a foreign threat. If they are negotiating with the West, this excuse is invalidated, making repression more difficult at home. This, he explained, is exactly what occurred with the Soviets.
Ansari and Cohen, however, argued for waiting to engage the Iranians until the "dust has settled." Divisions within the political elite mean that the government is likely to remain dysfunctional in at least the near-term-leaving it incapable of negotiating. But even if Ahmadinejad succeeds in holding onto power, there are no indications that his administration would be interested in engaging with the United States or in any compromise on the nuclear issue. As Ansari explained, "the two sides speak different languages."
Cohen added that the Obama administration's policy of engagement before the election indirectly contributed to the current internal turmoil in Iran. It profoundly unsettled Tehran hard-liners and exacerbated splits within the ruling elite.
Sanctions a Good Policy Option?
Perkovich explained that sanctions can have two aims-to change behavior, or to punish a regime as an example for others. Even if sanctions against Iran would not deter it from advancing its nuclear program, there may be value in using them to deter others from developing similar programs. Unilateral, congressionally-mandated sanctions, however, would not work, and often backfire. United Nations sanctions could impose political and economic costs on the Iranian regime, but only if Russia and China also participate. Cohen pointed out however, that their participation is far from certain and securing their cooperation would be a crucial challenge for the Obama administration. All panelists did agree that sanctions should be a last resort.