June 16, 2005

Vakil Trumps Pletka

Underwhelmed by Danielle Pletka's boiler-plate, cliched op-ed piece in today's NYT? Have no fear! The FT--which incidentally, and for my money, produces significantly higher quality opinion journalism in its pages, day in; day out, than the New York Times--has a much more, er, nuanced Iran analysis from Sanam Vakil (subscription required):


The emergence of a reformist movement with mass support forced the clerical elite, Mr Rafsanjani included, to acknowledge the link between demography and democracy. With 70 per cent of the population under the age of 30 and with no memory of the revolution or its nationalising ideology, the government recognised that it was sitting on a ticking time bomb.

Mr Rafsanjani's re-emergence signifies an essential and often overlooked change in Iran's power structure - a weakening in the position of the rahbar or supreme leader.

It is common knowledge that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, did not want Mr Rafsanjani to re-enter the political scene. Instead, he wanted a unified conservative bloc of support behind the more popular conservative candidate, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, the former police chief. Mr Rafsanjani is proving to be a thorn in Ayatollah Khamenei's side.

Moreover, Mr Rafsanjani's presence in the election complicates the outcome. Even Dr Mustafa Moin, the former culture and higher education minister and a reformist candidate, is considered more palatable to some conservatives than Mr Rafsanjani. If elected, Dr Moin could be overpowered by the conservatives who dominate every institution, including the parliament. Such a scenario would replicate the second term of President Mohammad Khatami, the outgoing reformist president.

As a born-again pragmatist, Mr Rafsanjani has abandoned his revolutionary ideals for national-interest oriented objectives. Potential rapprochement with the US - an anathema for many traditional revolutionary adherents who fear American interference in Iranian affairs - is an idea Mr Rafsanjani has flirted with for years and is now one of the main pillars of his campaign. Increased economic liberalisation is another policy issue that reveals the ideological divide between Mr Rafsanjani and the clerical apparatchiks. Both of these issues are not only on his agenda but critical for gaining mass popular support.

Yes Ms. Pletka, I know Rafsanjani is a big, bad "shark"! I certainly know he's no angel too. But we have to operate in the real world, not cubicled-away in think-tanks dreaming of regime change, like, yesterday--and if we carefully embark on a relationship with Rafsanjani (of course initially through our Euro proxies) with our eyes wide open--so that we don't get hoodwinked or bamboozled--I think some interesting developments on the U.S-Iranian bilateral relationship might very well be in the offing during Rafsanjani's tenure.

More here:

Iran's conservative bloc is riddled with factions and their contradictions. But whereas reformers and conservatives differ over domestic issues, the divisions within the conservative faction chiefly relate to critical foreign policy issues. Stalwarts of the Islamic revolution launched by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 still control Iran's judiciary, the Council of Guardians (the constitution's watchdog), and other powerful institutions, as well as key coercive groups such as the Revolutionary Guards and the Islamic vigilantes of the Ansar-e-Hezbollah. The hard-liners consider themselves the most ardent Khomeini disciples and think of the revolution less as an antimonarchical rebellion than as a continued uprising against the forces that once sustained the U.S. presence in Iran: Western imperialism, Zionism, and Arab despotism. Ayatollah Mahmood Hashemi Shahroudi, the chief of the judiciary, said in 2001, "Our national interests lie with antagonizing the Great Satan. We condemn any cowardly stance toward America and any word on compromise with the Great Satan." For ideologues like him, international ostracism is the necessary price for revolutionary affirmation.

The pragmatists among Khomeini's heirs believe that the regime's survival depends on a more judicious international course. Thanks to them, Iran remained a regular player in the global energy market even at the height of its revolutionary fervor. Today, these realists gravitate around the influential former president Hashemi Rafsanjani and occupy key positions throughout the national security establishment. One of the group's leading figures, Muhammad Javad Larijani, a former legislator, argues, "We should not have what I would call an obstinate policy toward the world." Instead, the pragmatic conservatives have tried to develop economic and security arrangements with foreign powers such as China, the European Union, and Russia. In reaction to the United States' overthrow of two regimes on Iran's periphery--in Afghanistan and Iraq--they have adopted a wary but moderate stance. [ed. note: 'Wary but moderate' Read: There are a lot of U.S. troops on our borders! Even with our difficulties in Iraq, this induces some realpolitik in Teheran, believe me]. Admonishing his more radical brethren, Rafsanjani, for example, has warned, "We are facing a cruel and powerful U.S. government, and we have to be cautious and awake."

No, he's not going to be our best buddy. Far from it. He'll be canny as hell, and the danger is of course being snookered by his economic 'pragmatism' and such so as to let the Iranians have their cake and eat it too (get economic benefits while still pursuing their nuclear program and not making any real re-adjustments on their support for terror etc etc). But if we approach this dialogue like sharks too, which I trust we will, there could be some very interesting areas of mutual interest to explore indeed. It's certainly at least worth a try. After all, just for starters, I can assure you that if we followed some of the policy prescriptions Pletka is cheerleading (somewhat blindly) in the Times today--Iran would quickly retaliate by ramping up the trouble-making in Iraq in a big, big way. After all, of course, they haven't played all their potential Iraq cards yet, and are holding quite a bit in reserve...

Posted by Gregory at June 16, 2005 08:51 PM | TrackBack (75)

I guess the optimistic view is that Rafsanjani turns out to be the Iranian Gorbachev -- a guy who's acceptable enough to the hardliners in charge that he has real power, but also reform-oriented enough that he can generate real change. Not sure if that will actually happen, but it's more promising than Pletka's platitudes.

Posted by: guy at June 16, 2005 09:39 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

i don't quite view him as a gorby figure....he's much more treacherous than that... but i do think we can make real diplomatic headway with him that will further the American national interest. which, after all, is the bottom line in all this...also, i think we will see some cautious liberalization as he reads the demographic tea-leaves there....and we can link our dialogue to progress on those fronts in less galling ways than pletka proposes...while also not risking a nationalist backlash. it's not all protest babes and lipstick jihad, after all, and we have to approach these foreign policy issues with a bit more gravitas than i'm afraid a lot of peeps peppering various beltway precincts appear capable.

Posted by: greg at June 16, 2005 09:45 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

the question is not what Iran will be willing to do, but whether Bushco will recognize an opportunity to increase stability in the middle east. My guess is that it won't, because its not interested in stability, but in control.

Posted by: p.lukasiak at June 16, 2005 10:22 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Rafsan-sama says:Rafsanjani said that "global arrogance, led by the U.S. and U.K.," is responsible for the crimes that the "artificial" state of Israel has been committing worldwide over the past half-century.

Rafsanjani said that Muslims must surround colonialism and force them [the colonialists] to see whether Israel is beneficial to them or not. If one day, he said, the world of Islam comes to possess the weapons currently in Israel's possession [meaning nuclear weapons] - on that day this method of global arrogance would come to a dead end. This, he said, is because the use of a nuclear bomb in Israel will leave nothing on the ground, whereas it will only damage the world of Islam.

What is there to talk about?

I take him at his word.

Posted by: epaminondas at June 16, 2005 11:17 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Those AEI folks are a trip: real tough, no-nonsense folks on Rafsanjani; little lambs for Ahmed Chalabi.

Posted by: Stygius at June 17, 2005 03:22 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

greg wrotei don't quite view him as a gorby figure....he's much more treacherous than that...

I meant it more as a statement on the prospect for reform by a "progressive conservative". If you want to emphasize the treacherous part, only Nixon could go to China... :)

Posted by: guy at June 17, 2005 05:14 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

The real questions, Greg, lie in Washington and not Teheran. I don't know if you caught the Gavin Esler interview with Rafsanjani, but he was dangling huge olive-branches to Washington - come, sit in the shade, break bread with us!

It's not really in doubt that the Iranians want better relations with the US - the question is whether the Bush administration is interested in exploring the possibilities or is going to continue sitting on the fence chucking pointless, rhetorical potshots.

I've seen signs of late that Washington is beginning to move towards rapprochement rather than perpetual confrontation, but they're small and tentative, and reflect the ongoing absence of a coherent policy rather than a more nuanced rethink of principles.

It's clear that the Bush administration lacks a military option with regards to Iran - poor intelligence, lack of consents from vital allies in the region, unlimited downside potential in Iraq, global economic damage as oil prices soar. But the la-la-la we're not talking/listening status quo is rapidly being trumped by reality and is unsustainable as a policy.

It's a mistake to think that who wins the Iranian election changes any of this - it's not a personality-dependent problem ( except possibly for Bush, who is remarkably inflexible in his thinking ).

Posted by: dan at June 17, 2005 11:36 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Asked whether the US was still the 'great Satan' and Britain the 'little Satan', he said that if they change their behaviour, they are no longer Satans. He mentioned three things: 'The US had lifted obstacles to Tehran's entry into the World Trade Organization, had given consent to carry out limited
enrichment of uranium and had agreed to sell it plane parts.' (BBC website) These were only small things, of course, but they might be a beginning.

When Mr Rafsanjani says 'we've done this, we've come clean now', it calls to mind a Carnegie report of a couple of years ago, which stated that although he had no official position, he was probably still a major influence in determining Iran's nuclear strategy.
There is no sign of the US softening its rhetoric.


Posted by: DavidP at June 17, 2005 12:50 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I don't know how interested we should be in "stability"
in Iran (or Syria), to tell you the truth - stability there equals instability in Iraq, as it allows them to continue exporting fighters to Iraq. Stability also means the continued preservation of the current regimes, odious on not only strategic but also ethical grounds.

Clinking champagne glasses with Rafsanjani - how will this go over with the (apparently) overwhelming majority of younger Iranian citizens who despise the mullahcracy? How much will it do to prop up and extend the mullahcracy? How much, in other words, is it in our long-term interests? How many who advocate this realpolitik approach in Iran were complaining about the very similar realpolitik approach to the setback to democratic reform recently in one of the former Soviet 'stans?

I am assuming, of course, that everyone shares the goal of getting the mullahs out of power as quickly as possible; some of the posts above seem remarkably indifferent to this goal.

The longer-term goal is, of course, the establishment of a decent and stable new government in Iran. Those apparently looking for a transition based on the Russian model would do well to examine the sorry state of Russian political and civil society today; as various former Soviets (yeah, I'm looking at you, Putin) go about re-establishing an authoritarian state.

Posted by: R C Dean at June 17, 2005 12:50 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

'i don't quite view him as a gorby figure...' Khatami has been described as Iran´s Gorbachev, whereas

Ali-Akbar Rafsandjani incarne lui une voie chinoise, maintien de la dictature politique, libéralisation économique et recherche d’un modus vivendi avec les Etats-Unis.


Posted by: DavidP at June 17, 2005 01:25 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I don't agree. Our long term interests are best served by keeping the hard-liners in the government. Eventually they will be discredited and the next government may be a much longer step to democracy than the half-steps we will get from Rafsanjani. He is a Khomeini dressed in sheep's clothing. It could turn out that the hard-liners maintain power for a very long time. But I believe such a strict theocracy will crash sooner rather than later.

Posted by: Jack Wayne at June 17, 2005 01:59 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

You guys are beyond delusional if you think Rafsanjani is a Gorbachev-esque character. This is the man who has been implicated by a now-imprisoned Iranian journalist in the killing of members of his own government specifically to prevent any real political reform. Also, be sure and take a look as to why exactly he cannot travel abroad to certain European countries and then explain the basis for trusting someone like this.

No, Rafsanjani isn't an unthinking blood-curdling anti-American fanatic. He's a very pragmatic and cynical tyrant and guess what - history is chalk full of 'em. There's a reason he's been a major force to be reckoned with since the beginning of the Iranian Revolution ...

Posted by: Dan Darling at June 17, 2005 02:04 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

er, dan: no shit sherlock, as they say. that's kinda what i was saying, isn't it? :)

Posted by: greg at June 17, 2005 02:41 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Real world vs think take cubicles, hmm.

So greg, any idea what the dissidents in Iran actually think about Rafsanjani - not just the militant students, but that woman who won the nobel prize? I mean arent THEY the ones living in the real world???

I mean if Rafsanjani wins, we should make the best of it. If Rafsanjani is willing to make a REAL deal on nukes, where he completely gives up enrichment, we should take it - of course that the admins overt policy NOW, even if a firebreathing hardliner from Teheran were to offer the deal. But I dont think we should be taken in by rhetoric or spin, and I dont think we should sell out the Iranian democrats for Iranian promises in Iraq. Now if Rafsanjani turns out to be a REAL gorby, willing to make domestic POLITICAL changes, that would be great. But i wouldnt hold my breath.

Hell, if we're gonna give up on democracy in Iran, then the cost benefit of the Iraq thing begins to look alot worse than it did.

And Im not convinced theres alot the Iranian hardliners could do that they havent already done. Theyve played the Sadr card twice, and lost both times. The second time decisively. AFAICT anything more overt would only play into Sistanis hands, and enable him to escape smears of being "Iranian" by opposing the actual Iranians. At some point, if sufficiently provoked, Sistani and the Najaf Hawza can launch open theological war, denouncing Khameni et al as violating Shia Islam - they could attempt to bring along Ayatollah Montazeri on that. Does Khameni really want to risk that?

Posted by: liberalhawk at June 17, 2005 03:17 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Jack - strangely enough, voters in Iran might actually be voting their own interests, not the US's grand strategic designs. I know it's terribly cussed of them, but heck, elections are, um, like that.

I don't know how you think the "hardliners" are going to maintain power, unless of course, they prove to be flexible enough in their policies and satisfy domestic concerns - which, funnily enough, include the desire for better external relations with Washington, relaxation of petty restrictions, movement on human rights issues etc. You know, the standard responsa of governments that have to, first and foremost, get things right on the home front.

Greg: "if we approach this dialogue..." - what dialogue would that be exactly? US administration officials shouting the ritual abuse is not dialogue, it's business as usual. Approaching a non-existent dialogue, whether like a minnow or a like shark, is kind of irrelevant, because there's no dialogue to begin with. And since we both acknowledge the Iranian's desire for one, we're left asking the question..what is going on in Washington?

It's all very well assuming Rafsanjani is going to win ( he may not - Iranian elections have been known to throw up unexpected results, and whoever wins is of only marginal relevance anyway ), and that the US will have to engage - this is the bleedin' obvious, and we've both stated it - but there's not much sign that anyone in a position of power in Washington has been prepared to take that on board yet. Again, let's move this forward and ask the pertinent question here - what's going on in Washington?

Posted by: dan at June 17, 2005 03:26 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


You said:

And Im not convinced theres alot the Iranian hardliners could do that they havent already done. Theyve played the Sadr card twice, and lost both times. The second time decisively. AFAICT anything more overt would only play into Sistanis hands, and enable him to escape smears of being "Iranian" by opposing the actual Iranians. At some point, if sufficiently provoked, Sistani and the Najaf Hawza can launch open theological war, denouncing Khameni et al as violating Shia Islam - they could attempt to bring along Ayatollah Montazeri on that. Does Khameni really want to risk that?

All I can say is, don't underestimate Iran's ability to cause unrest. They have more than one proxy. Mookie is just one of them, and I would hesitate to call his actions losses. If it wasn't for Sistani's intervention in Najaf, things would have gotten really really ugly. That Mookie is waiting on the sidelines now is welcomed, but if he were let loose, the US would be contending with even more strains of insurgency than currently. And as I said, Moqtada is only one card in their deck. They are too deft to make him the be all and end all of their influence and ability to act in Iraq. Other avenues exist.

Posted by: Eric Martin at June 17, 2005 03:55 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I dunno, Greg, at least I didn't get that from the post. My point is that Rafsanjani is a bad actor and it needs to be understood (and I'm planning to do my own post on this at some point) that if the rivalry that exists between him and Khamenei is real that it's more of a squabble among thieves than anything else.

Another thing that needs to be considered is that the whole turning up the pressure works both ways and Iran appears to be dealing with its own unrest in Kurdistan and Khuzestan. I don't want the pressure turned up, I want it turned down, which would include Iran putting an end to Brigadier General Suleimani's activities, whether it's supporting Ansar al-Islam or hosting al-Qaeda leaders in places like Chalous or Lavizan.

Posted by: Dan Darling at June 17, 2005 04:11 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Oh and as I pointed out above, the nuclear issue is far from the only matter of contention that we have with Iran, it is merely the most prominent.

Posted by: Dan Darling at June 17, 2005 04:16 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I'd wait for the expected runoff before coming to any conclusions as to what might be possible with Iran. We don't know for sure that Rafsanjani will be elected, and we don't know how much authority he will have. We don't even know how much he will be able to focus on foreign as opposed to domestic affairs.

Having said that, I still think we have more options with respect to Iran than officials in the Bush administration, or its predecessor, have been inclined to think. I do not see those options as embodied in the person of Rafsanjani, necessarily, and the pieces Greg links to suggest how much work we have to do improving the quality of political information we have coming out of Iran. But the most dedicated Iranian enemies of the United States do seem to have painted themselves in a political corner, opposing not only us but also many things that the Iranian public wants, things that mostly have nothing to do with us. Over time that should be something we can take advantage of.

Posted by: JEB at June 17, 2005 10:00 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Maybe Rafsanjani wants to pursue moderate policies with the US and at home, but would the hardliners allow him to? After all, Khatami was elected as a reformer, and look what a disapointment he has been.

My own guess is that there won't be any real change in Iran until the Islamists are overthrown through a revolution. Alas, from what I understand the Iranian public is nowhere near ready to carry out anything that extreme, and the US actions the neocons are pushing would likely just backfire.

Posted by: Les Brunswick at June 17, 2005 10:03 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Greg -- I am sorry but I think you are being naive. Fundamentally the interests of the Iranian regime no matter which faction of the conservatives runs it will be counter to vital US interests. Iran wants domination of the Gulf, this is the same thing it has ALWAYS wanted, from the Shah backward to the previous Persian rulers of antiquity. The US Navy stands in the way, and guerilla warfare is a total failure as the Iranians found out in the 1980's when conducted on Sea.

Only in this context does Iran's decades long commitment to nuclear weapons make sense. Blackmail the US by blowing up a City (or threatening to or both) to remove the US Navy and cede the Gulf. Giving Iran a trade-point stranglehold and effective rule over the strategic reserves of petroleum. Iran makes nothing of value but oil, and they have to get hegemony and extract tribute in order to maintain a regime that is inherently unstable and requires massive police-state presence and therefore lots of money to pay said state-police forces.

Diplomacy ONLY works if each side has some mutual interest in avoiding conflict. Even Brezhnev for internal reasons did not want an escalating arms race or real threat of (inevitable) nuclear war. Iran does not see it that way, they MUST have us out of the Gulf so they can control it or the regime will not have enough money to pay the secret police and will fall. The Western World simply can't tolerate Iranian control of the Gulf; the Chinese would send a fleet if we didn't, as would the Japanese and Indians.

(Am I surprised that p. luksasiak approves of Iranian "stability" which is one of the most oppressive regimes on earth, where girls as young as 13 are regularly stoned to death or hanged for being raped? No not at all. Sadly. Stability got us 9/11, so let's have less of that and more of the modern world, where people earn a living and live their lives instead of slit the throats of stewardesses, children, and pilots to commit mass murder. But then the Left actively hates America and everything it stands for, and sides with anyone no matter how awful if they just oppose us. Israel has never waged war on Iran or harmed it in any way, so only blind bigotry and hatred explains Rafsanjani's words about destroying Israel which objectively is picking a fight that is senseless from the regime's actual realpolitik interests.)

Does anyone here HONESTLY think Iran is going to throw away more than 20 years sustained effort and investment to produce nuclear weapons? No matter who wins? I didn't think so. This long sustained effort only makes sense to get rid of the US Navy and deter other navies from entering the Gulf. Iran has many senior Al Qaeda members who could have been turned over to the US (but remain free). Iran could be more cooperative regarding Iraq and Afghanistan, in which the US removed two regimes that were hostile to Iran. It has not done so, because it's not interested in anything but traditional Persian control of the Gulf. Diplomacy can't bridge that ever. Rapprochement makes so much sense with mutual regional goals (eliminating common enemies and preventing their return) that only the highest overall goal explains why it has not already happened.

I pessimistically don't see this ending well. The Iranian regime figures including Rafsanjani don't understand the US very well because they have complete contempt for Western Culture and "decadence," coupled with inferiority with their own societies being so backward, they probably think a "deniable" nuke strike against say San Diego and some "revolutionary" group issuing some demands will replay like 1979. Carter ain't President (thank God) and a US response will be brutal in it's effectiveness.

[For the unitiated I am referring above to the Taliban/Al-Qaeda execution of more than 20 Iranian Diplomats in Kabul in IIRC 2000, these same people are now sheltered in Iran. Only the above theory to me explains this fact]

Posted by: Jim Rockford at June 19, 2005 09:05 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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