Pulpit Bulls

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Archive for the ‘Iran’ Category

The Best Middle Name Ever

Posted by gregoryholmes on June 22, 2009

While President Obama’s middle name and Muslim heritage might have caused him some heartburn during the campaign, he has wasted no time turning it into what could be a game changer in the delicate dance he must walk in the Middle East.  Moreover, I contend that his foreign policy decisions that he has made so far in reference to the Middle East has been to realign Muslim opinion of America and its president so as to marshall the political capital that he will need to deal with issues such as Iran.  So far he has done an excellent job and, with the Iranian elections in dispute, we could be witnessing the opening moves in the presidents gambit to strip Iran of nuclear weapons.

The first move came during Obama’s first days as president when he granted al-Arabiya the first interview with the new president.  The symbolism of granting the first official presidential interview to an Arab news network was not lost on the Arab world.

The second move came in Ankara, when President Obama took time off from the G20 summit to fly to Ankara and make a speech where, among other things, he heartily endorsed Turkey’s bid for membership in the EU.  Turkey holds a unique position, in that it is a strong American ally, has a powerhouse economy, and is a respected Muslim country.  Indeed, when Israel and Syria began to feel out one another for a potential peace deal in the last days of Olmert’s tenure as Israel’s prime minister, they used Turkish mediators.

The next big move came when President Obama delivered a speech in Cairo to the Muslim world that was so well received that the president was interrupted by applause 12 times, peppered with shouts of “We love you!” and even given the nickname of abu Hussein.

This is bad news for Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

For years the regime has been developing nuclear technology that many fear will someday be turned into nuclear weapons.  And until this week, the president of Iran enjoyed some level of popularity in the Muslim world.  He is widely seen as the man arming the Shiites of Iraq to fight against the United States’ deeply unpopular occupation, bankrolling Hizbollah in Lebanon which fought waged a war against Israel in 2006, and supporting Hamas in the Gaza Strip.  In short, the man was popular with the crowd that hates America and Israel.

That places placed him in a very good position.  He could develop nuclear technology and one of two things would happen: either the United States would attack the site and turn Mahmoud Ahmadinejad into a hero and martyr who was defending against the depredations of an imperial power (You see!  They attacked us!)  or he would go nuclear and have a much stronger bargaining position in all future relations with the U.S. and its allies.  Such was the dilemma that George Bush faced, and there we have the heart of President Obama’s overtures to be a friendlier face to the Arab world:

“We are willing to extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

President Obama’s determination to cast himself as the hero and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the aggressor is only receiving a greater boost from the turmoil that has engulfed Iranian politics.  The question of whether or not the Iranian president election was legitimate is, at this point, irrelevant.  The fact is that Tehran has been paralyzed by protesters who claim that it was, and U.S. and world opinion is aligning with that fact.  President(?) Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is no longer showing his face in public and the Supreme Leader has been seen backpedaling from his initial full-throated support for the outcome, which has only fuel speculation on the legitimacy of the outcome.

At this point in Iran, two outcomes are likely and both are great for the United States.  Either Mahmoud Ahmadinejad remains as president after a potentially bloody internal struggle and is cast as a man who can only retain power when he and the clerics suppress opposition OR we end up with Mousavi who will be seen by a large part of his own population as a man who stole the election from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  The result is a weak president with a weaker backbone of clerics.

Compared to either one of them, President Obama is starting to look good.  The longer the legitimacy of the Iranian presidency remains in doubt, the more credibility President Obama will have when he challenges a leader viewed as illegitimate within and without Iran.  And when the president chooses to use that public opinion against what will inevitably be an unpopular regime and their “weapons of mass destruction,” Iran’s nuclear ambitions might very well be thrown under the bus in order to shore up international legitimacy.

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Obama: Not Giving in to the Axis of Idiots

Posted by Eric on June 17, 2009

Robert Kagan has a really terrible column today, where he muses that Obama is siding with the Iranian regime’s crackdown on dissidents, criticizes Obama for not interjecting himself into the Iranian debate, and also seems to imply that George H.W. Bush and Gerald Ford lost reelection because of “realist” foreign policy impulses. Perhaps a little more convoluted, but basically the same nutty things the folks at the Corner have been arguing all week. In fitting with their constant “East vs. West” paradigm for understanding the world, they want the US to publicly side with the Iranian protesters. As everyone besides Robert Kagan and anyone who writes for The Corner probably realizes, this is a surefire way for the Iranian protesters to lose support and gives the regime a pretty good cover for busting heads.

The other side of that coin is that it is very likely that, no matter what the US does, Iran’s authoritarian government will act like an authoritarian government and ruthlessly quench the protests. As long as the opposition lacks the stomach and capabilities to attempt a coup, the current Iranian clerical regime will remain in power. And when, as the president promised, the Obama administration negotiates with the Iranian regime about nuclear armaments, Iraq, and our many other mutual interests, we don’t want to hampered by the fact that we just publicly called the legitimacy of the Iranian state into question or that we sided with potential revolutionaries in an internecine skirmish. Conservatives may want Obama to revise and re-use Bush’s “axis of evil” rhetoric because that’s how they get their kicks, but that would be terrible policy and it’s reassuring to see that Obama isn’t giving in to it.

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Revolution in Iran and the J-Curve

Posted by Eric on June 16, 2009

The-J-CurveAs protests and unrest ripple through Iran, the theocratic regime’s future is beginning to look uncertain. In yesterday’s Times, Ross Douthat wonders if the economic instability created by the world recession may provide a ripe foundation for revolution in Iran. Douthat muses that though the global downturn was a product of Western Democratic capitalism, “it hasn’t turned into a crisis for democracy and capitalism, because nobody has a plausible alternative.”

I think there may be some truth there. Anyway, with all this revolution talk it seems like an opportune time to mention Ian Bremmer’s book The J Curve, where Bremmer posits that revolutions generally occur during a transitionary period of more political openness (see the chart on the left). Bremmer argues that governments collapse when they cannot absorb “shocks”, which could range from things like an oustide military assualt, an economic collapse or a leadership crisis of legitimacy — as we are seeing in Iran. He contends that authoritarian regimes can absorb shocks when there is little openness and complete state control (think Saddam’s Iraq or Kim’s North Korea) or a lot of openness and political and economic freedom (think almost any Western nation). The middleground is where things get shaky.

Iranian access to media and social networking technologies like Twitter and Facebook along with their quasi-democratic institutions would seem to place the Persian nation into this unstable transitionary period. One could imagine the current rejection of fradualant election results coupled with economic unrest over Iranian stagflation developing into what Bremmer believes to be a regime-crippling shock. Although in his book, Bremmer asserts that Iran — with their natural gas resources, proximity to European markets, and skilled and educated populace — has the preconditions to effectively survive a move to the left of the j-curve.

But what we are seeing now is a regime dead-set against those reforms. They are pushing their country to back to the right-side of the curve in direct confrontation with a populace that wants to go to the left. This is dangerious territiory. Still, Iran has survived a devastating war, economic sanctions, and previous riots. But again, the current unrest is palpable and a collapse of the regime isn’t that far-fetched.

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Iran’s “Election” the Beginning of the End?

Posted by Eric on June 14, 2009

As you have no doubt heard, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has “won” a second-term in the Iranian “election” held Friday. While reformist candidate Hossein Mousavi was able to win the young and urban votes, Ahmadinejad did much better with the fraudulent and stolen votes. Mousavi should push harder for these oft-neglected groups of voters if he decides to run again.

Anyway, Iran isn’t much of a democracy so it shouldn’t really be expected that they would have much of an election. And they sure didn’t! The main question Americans are probably wondering is what this means for US-Iran relations.

There’s long been disagreement as to the exact power the Iranian presidency holds, with some suggesting that the role of president is largely symbolic and the president acts more or less as a puppet of Supreme Leader Khamenei.  However, this election really tests that hypothesis: either Ahmadinejad is powerful enough to steal an election or else the clerics think that the presidency is a powerful enough position that they need to make sure the election is stolen.

We are now seeing a tumultuous and unpredicted backlash among the Iranian population in the type of protests previously involving American and Israeli flags being burned, now directed towards the Iranian political elite. Steve Clemons speaks with an unnamed Iranian expert who thinks things will get bloody:

My contact predicted serious violence at the highest levels. He said that Ahmadinejad is now genuinely scared of Iranian society and of Mousavi and Rafsanjani. The level of tension between them has gone beyond civil limits — and my contact said that Ahmadinejad will try to have them imprisoned and killed.

Likewise, he said, Rafsanjani, Khatami, and Mousavi know this — and thus are using all of the instruments at their control within Iran’s government apparatus to fight back — but given Khamenei’s embrace of Ahmadinejad’s actions in the election and victory, there is no recourse but to try and remove Khamenei. Some suggest that Rafsanjani will count votes to see if there is a way to formally dislodge Khamenei — but this source I met said that all of these political giants have resources at their disposal to “do away with” those that get in the way.

He predicted that the so-called reformist camp — who are not exactly humanists in the Western liberal sense — may try and animate efforts to decapitate the regime and “do away with” Ahmadinejad and even the Supreme Leader himself.

This is really significant. A couple days ago experts were discussing the future of Iran-US relations in the context of either a second-term of a firebrand conservative president or a first-term of a more moderate reformist president. Now future relations hinge on a real time shakeup of stability and whispers of revolution. This is big.

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