Thursday, September 07, 2006

Khatami in the United States

Former Iranian president Khatami is in the United States. It seems like he is trying to get sort of back-channel, civil society dialogue opened and running, since the governments aren't talking.

You can see Khatami as a paler Persian copy of Gorbachev (I've made this comparison before), the ex-leader who banks on his popularity outside the country to remain a relevant voice within; you can be quite critical of his stewardship as president of Iran (was he decisive enough in pushing reform?), you can disagree with his positions.

But, as "Sleepless in Washington" has noted, in response to what appears to be political grandstanding by a Republican presidential hopeful for 2008, you need to get your story straight. Khatami is not Ahmadinejad. We have to be willing to see the shades of gray among the ayatollahs, even if they all wear black turbans.

Khatami is a moderate, and was immensely helpful toward us after 9/11. He was forced out by the Muslim extremists currently in control in Tehran.

President Bush as well as Secretary of State Rice extended Khatami a visa because he is considered to be one of the good guys in Iran -- and a potential ally in the long run.

Let's try to keep this in mind before we demonize an entire country.

Let's put Khatami in perspective. He is like a Khrushchev or Bukharin--compared to Stalin, great, but still no democrat, no friend. One of the problems I am having watching the coverage from the left on this is to make Khatami out to being some sort of peaceful democrat.

Gorbachev is a good comparison too because remember Gorbachev didn't want to end the USSR he wanted to reform it.

I think the previous post is a bit over optimistic. I don't see Khatami as a potential ally if we define ally as someone who shares US concerns.

Let's also not go overboard that Khatami is somehow going to stop Iran's nuclear program, especially now that he is relatively powerless as an ex.
"Gorbachev is a good comparison too because remember Gorbachev didn't want to end the USSR he wanted to reform it."

And things have been going so well there since he failed. Like, on the order of 15 million premature deaths, with another 750,000 per year added to the Bucher's Bill of "free-market reform".

For the sake of Iran's people, one hopes Khatami and the rest of the iranian government have learned from Gorbachev's experience of what you get when you try to appease the USG...
Q 1: If Khatami made a comeback, would he (be able to) stop the nuclear program?
A 1: No.

Q 2: If Kahtami made a comeback, would he be a steadier hand on the nuclear button, and a possible partner in non-proliferation activities than, say, Ahmadinejad?
A 2: Yes.

Q3: Do we see anybody better in the forseeeable future?
A 3: ......
You guys are missing the point:

Mr. Khatami is a Shia-Iranian nationalist.

He does not share US concerns; he opposes them.

Stalin had a FM called Litvinov. Mr. Litvinov advocated a policy of alliance with the British and French Governments to counter Germany. A policy approach that the British did their best to make it fail. Next, Stalin removed him and replaced him with the man who advocated detente with Germany.

Mr. Khatami had very little to show for his detente policy with West in particular and the Arab world in general. He never got much for all his efforts. On the military front, for example, where Iranians spent $ 6-7 billion per year on armaments Saudis were spending $20 Billion during that time period.

In his 1998 trip to France, he signed a deal to buy Airbus airplanes which was never consummated. In fact, to add insult to injury, the Iranian Presidential Airbus plane was impounded in France until after he left office; ostensibly over legal matters.

Mr. Ahmadinejad is the Iranian response to these and to the spurning of the Iranian offer of 2003 for direct Iran-US talks.

He and probably the majority of the Iranian leadership have concluded that accommodation with West is not possible and confrontation is inevitable. Thus they are preparing their country and people for that eventuality.
The events so far have not proved them wrong.
When a foreign dictatorship has a new leader who turns out to be worse than his predecessor, we nearly always wish we had done more with the predecessor.

But the question about any leader past or present is what we want in relations with that country. If normal relations are what we should have had then and should have now, then Khatami was an opportunity missed. If nuclear disarmament of Iran is a non-negotiable condition for us, then none of the lesser opportunities we have foregone to improve relations really matter.
david billington:

Iran is not a dictatorship; it is a restricted representative government. Iran was a dictatorship when it was US ally.

The power to undo a nuclear capable Iran does not exist in the International arena.

Iran may or may not decide to build a nuclear bomb but it cannot be bribed or frightened out of the development of its nuclear infrastructure.

US had been trying to get Iran to engage in public discussions for many years but from a position of US power vs. a vis Iran. Precisely becuase of that, Iran had refused.

Now that Iranians feel somewhat empowered, the asymmetry between US & Iran no longer obtains and thus negogiations on a large set of bilateral issues can begin.

Unfortunately, we have to wait after 2008 for them.
Anonymous 10:41,

There is a choice of leaders to elect in Iran but all are undemocratically vetted by senior clergy and can be overruled at any time. The condition of arrested dissidents is the same as it was under the Shah. I think it is fair to call this a clerical dictatorship.

I don't think the United States would object to Iran having nuclear weapons-capable technology under a different form of government. On whether the present government in Tehran can be prevented from acquiring nuclear weapons, I would not confuse what the world is capable of doing with what it is willing to do. What I would agree is that the rest of the world is probably not willing to do anything.

The Bushehr reactor is scheduled to begin fuelling next March and will be fully fuelled a year from now. If this schedule is upheld, the maximum risk of a unilateral US war with Iran will be in about six months. If this war is planned and executed like the Iraq war, I would not expect it to go well, but President Bush seems determined to try to stop the present Iranian government from going nuclear (if he is, he will try to bring down the regime if it is too late to take out all of its nuclear facilities).

On the other hand, if we acquiesce to a nuclear Iran, we will then find out if Iran wants to be a stabilizing factor in the Middle East and at that point we could decide whether to normalize relations.

There seems a good chance that things will go one way or the other in the fairly near future.
david billington:

Islamic Iran is similar to Mexico under IRP. The Shah was a one-person decision-maker. Islamic Republic is not. Its form of government is based on the ideas of Plato's Republic. Calling it a dictatorship, in my opinion, is neither accurate nor justified. It only adds to intellectual confusion about that country. So I beg to differ with you; I find your view non-nuanced.

It is not about the regime; it is about the fuel cycle. Australia has publicly stated that they are thinking of building an enrichment facility. This is a threat to Indonesia and Malaysia.

US has a choice to make in regards to starting a 30 year war in Persian Gulf. But that war will not be about the nuclear Iran. It will be an emotional and non-rational reaction by a powerful state that is not much used to being defied.

The reason that I say this is because Iran has all that it needs technologically for building a nuclear bomb. Natanz facility is a red herring. A small zero-output heavy water reactor in an underground facility will produce the needed plutonium.

Since in the event of US-Iran War, US will not win (in the sense of being able to impose the peace settlement) there will be no inspections in that country and Iran will have left NPT in any case.
Anonymous 6:42,

Thank you for your extended consideration of my comments.

Authoritarian leaderships can be collective as well as individual. Human rights abuses, extermination of minorities (the Bahais), secret police, a state within a state (the IRGC), and an ideological chain of command equivalent to the one party in a one-party state, are all features that apply to Iran.

There are certainly nuances that differentiate Iran from other authoritarian states. I did not mean to imply that there aren't. I wouldn't insist on the term "dictatorship" if it connotes a single leader, but I don't believe political science limits the term to this meaning. My point is simply that the above-mentioned features of state control and state policy are present in Iran.

Short of regime change, I agree that we probably cannot stop Iran from completing a uranium fuel cycle. It is less clear to me that their plutonium fuel cycle cannot be disrupted, unless they have more reactors than the three we know about or could easily build more.

As I have mentioned, I don't think we would object to Iran having a nuclear capability under a different government. We have not acted against other governments with nuclear weapons because we trust them to handle their weapons responsibly.

The issue for us and for the world is the responsible handling of nuclear weapons by a state, not its possession of a complete fuel cycle. If we decide not to go to war, we will find out soon enough whether Iran is willing and able to handle its nuclear weapons responsibly.

Did anyone expect India or Pakistan to handle weapons "responsibly" prior to their actual acquisition; no, there were constant doomsday scenarios about how they'd nuke each other. WHat is interesting in all the discussions is that the assumption that possession of weapons leads to more responsible behavior, even of dictatorial states (China, USSR, etc.) is said no longer to apply to Iran.
david billington:

I I am gratified that you agree with me in that a more nuanced approach to understanding various systems of governments is indeed desirable (rather than using clich├ęs)

Specifically about Iran, I do not agree with your characterization of the IRG as a state within a state. Nor can I agree with the statement "extermination of Bahais": persecution and harassment and discrimination yes. Incidentally, I recall seeing a photograph of one of Shah's police generals using a pike to initiate the destruction of a Bahai Temple in Tehran circa 1950s.

Iran is not an ideological state, it is a religious state of the Shia for the Shia. It is a mistake to approach it like USSR or Poland that can be defeated on the level of ideas. US cannot win that "information war".

Iran will not leave NPT or build a nuclear weapon unless it is attacked. It is sufficient for Iran to send the message that it has the capacity to build a weapon.

My point about the reactor was that a small such reactor can be built and operated and will not be detectible without wide-area monitoring in Iran. The only way to achieve that level of monitoring would be to have a defeated Iran. To defeat Iran you have to kill 5 to 7 % of the population. That is not in the cards.

You raise a good point. The reason I differentiate Iran from the others is that Iran has recently declared the desirability of erasing another UN member from the map, something no other would-be nuclear state ever said it wanted in advance of acquiring nuclear weapons. I take that as a more general indicator of responsibility, not just as the narrower threat that it poses to the targeted state of Israel.

But it is true that our acquiescence in the acquisition of nuclear weapons by China, India, and Pakistan had more to do with our inability or unwillingness to incur the costs of intervention than any sense that these states would be responsible in their control of such weapons. It is possible that Iran will prove responsible in its handling of nuclear weapons once it has them, which is why I held out the possibility in my last post that they may prove so.

It is also possible, if not likely, that the costs of intervening in Iran will deter us from doing so whatever our perceptions of Iranian responsibility. But to the extent that we worry about Iran, I believe that our concerns have to do with what Tehran will do with such weapons and not with any per se opposition to new countries acquiring nuclear technology.
Anonymous 1:43,

Bahais have not been executed en masse but the aim of the Islamic Republic is to destroy the community by every means short of that. The IRGC is a parallel organization not unlike the ideologically chosen armed forces and security services that other regimes have created to rival the regular armed forces and security services of the state.

I agree, however, that Iran draws on religious beliefs that present a very different problem compared to the secular ideologies we faced in the twentieth century, although some of the latter were held with religious-like fervor by the first generation of their adherents. Islam has undergone periods of militancy and reform in the past, however, as has the Christian world, and if we remain at peace long enough I would expect tensions to subside.

An academic contact has told me that Iran could achieve what it wanted without actually having to build a nuclear weapon, if Iran simply has the capability to do so. It will be interesting to see if you and he are correct.
david billington:

For Bahais not much can be done by foreigners except offerring them asylum. This has been going on for more than 150 years and we will not see an accomodation in Iran any time soon.

You are incorrect in your assessment of the policy of the Iranian state vis a vis Israel. The current policy is to support whatever deal the Palestinains will accept.

On the other hand, since the 2-state solution is no longer viable (in my opinion), we come back to the previous Iranian position: free elections in all of the former territory of Palestine to determine the government structure there. Since getiles are the majority population now between the Jordan river and the sea, the adoption of the one-state solution will lead to the dissolution the Jewish State. So, perhaps Iranians have it right after all.
I think we need to come back to a basic point raised at the end of Nick's original post. "Khatami is not Ahmadinejad."

Everyone pretty much agrees on that, except politicans who are grandstanding the issue.

But what is the QUALITY of the difference. Himmler thought he would be more acceptable to Western allies than Hitler in his bid for a separate peace. Is this the level of difference, because if it is, then it is largely irrelevant.

The left here on the other hand has built up Khatami like he is some sort of liberal reformer, which he isn't. Maybe he is Bukharin to Ahmadinejad's Stalin.

But it also raises another point--the "nice guys" can never deliver; it is always the hardliners in the end who can.
Anonymous 9:00 AM:

Yes, indeed. Mr. Khatami received an insulting offer from EU which basically treated Iran as a conquered and semi-sovereign state.

Mr. Ahmadinejad, on other hand, is receiving a much better offer with more to come.

I would like to take exception to all these comaprisons with NAzi Germany: Iran is not Germany and we are not in 1938.

It is not Iran that is threatening to invade US, or other ME states. It is US ships going up and down the Persian Gulf, the Iranian's front yard saying : "I will kill you!"
The left here on the other hand has built up Khatami like he is some sort of liberal reformer, which he isn't. Maybe he is Bukharin to Ahmadinejad's Stalin.

I don't think that this is correct. "The left built up Khatami as a liberal reformer" because he clearly had liberal and reformist impluses. During his time in office, the Interior Ministry he controlled struggled to prevent electoral fraud from the council of Guardians. During his time in office, Islamic dress codes, codes on public prayer, and other mechanisms of social intrusions were relaxed. During his time in office, it is accurate to say that freedom of the press exploded - until institutions he did not controlled moved to limit it again - but not as far back as it once was.

Of course, on the other side of the ledger, whenever push came to shove, he supported Khamenei, and he did not repdudiate the concept of clerical rule. I find the Gorbachev metaphor to be very appropriate.

Iran is clearly an authoritarian state, but I would call it a constitutional oligarchy in behavior, rather than a dictatorship. More free than Egpyt or Saudi Arabia. Less free than Israel and the post-Arafat Palestinian territories. (I don't understand Freedom House's rankings for Iran at all)

What's important about Khatami to realize is that it demonstrates that Iran has a system that can produce him during a period where the regime is not under acute threat and the US is not on a global offensive. It is quite likely that another Khatami will come around - unless we bomb the country into increasing its central control.

Iran under Khatami wasn't much more (or much less, if you like) of a threat to the US than Putin's Russia. Not very helpful, but careful and internally focused. Not progressive people, and not neccesarily pursuing regional goals we like, but not picking a fight with the US.

Jordan W. '02
Jordan W. '02

Well Put!
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