Tuesday, December 14, 2004

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So what's going on in Iran?

Patrick Belton links to this Economist story on the state of Iran's domestic polity. The highlights of their analysis:

Iran's liberals and reformers feel increasingly beleaguered, and [hardline] voices... are louder and more menacing than they were even six months ago. In that period, says one of Tehran's longer-serving foreign diplomats, “there has been a dramatic change in mood”. Bullying militias are again trying—so far without much success—to enforce the old morality. Last month a female MP from the conservative camp suggested that if ten “street-walkers” were executed, “We will have dealt with the problem [of prostitution] once and for all.”

More worrying from the liberals' point of view, the reform-minded but disappointingly dithery Mr Khatami has been the lamest of ducks since the ruling clergy and the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who succeeded Mr Khomeini in 1989, presided over a rigged general election in February when the candicacy of 2,000-plus reformers was blocked. As a result, the new parliament is distinctly more xenophobic and illiberal than its predecessor. Of its 290 members, more than a quarter share the sort of rabid views expressed by Mr Shariatmadari, and they seem to be mocking Mr Khatami with impunity in his last months in office....

Not that mass repression is needed to keep the media, or the Iranian people in general, in line. According to a respected human-rights campaigner, between 2,000 and 4,000 Iranians, including about 30 journalists, are behind bars for political reasons. The reason for the overall figure's vagueness is that many of those incarcerated are in “unofficial” prisons: even their relatives are not told they are there.

In the past few months detentions have swelled of “bloggers” who have set up internet sites, which the state has taken great trouble to block. A number of well-known campaigners for human rights have been prevented from going abroad or arrested on their return. Human Rights Watch, an independent lobby group, said this week that “secret squads operating under the authority of the Iranian judiciary have used torture to force internet journalists and civil-society activists to write self-incriminatory confession letters”.

The clampdown seems to be working. Many of the liberal and sophisticated professionals of northern Tehran, downcast by Mr Khatami's failure, seem to have withdrawn into a private life behind the walls of their villas. Many are emigrating, at an estimated rate of 200,000 a year, especially to the United States (where there may be 800,000 Iranians), Canada (perhaps the most popular destination), Britain, France and Australia....

The one thing everyone knows is that Iran is in a jam. Above all, plainly, there is a crisis of legitimacy. Only half of Iranians bothered to vote in February's election; not much more than a quarter of those in Tehran, which embraces at least 8m people, turned out. Western diplomats reckon that barely 15% of Iranians still support the ruling order. The low turnout reflected not just apathy and fatalism, which are indeed strong. Many sour and embittered Iranians consciously decided not to go to the polls as a gesture of protest....

According to some reports, disaffection with the regime even among the clergy is spreading. A cleric from an influential religious family, also out of favour with the supreme leader, derides the Council of Guardians for mostly taking “orders and hints from the powers that be”—a euphemism for Mr Khamenei. Most striking of all, sociologists and educators report that religious belief and observance, especially among the young, have slumped since the mullahs took power a quarter of a century ago. Instead of fortifying the people's devotion, the system seems to have switched many people off the spiritual side of life, inspiring a shallow materialism instead....

The mullahs have patently failed to revamp an economy that remains distorted by subsidies, closed to competition within Iran or from abroad, locked in the hands either of the state or of state-connected foundations known as bonyads, and increasingly reliant on the high price of oil: Iran has about a tenth of the world's known reserves. Barely a fifth of the economy is in private hands. The conservatives have made it hard for the timid Mr Khatami to sell off state firms or open up to foreigners. The merchants of the bazaar, a longstanding pillar of the mullahs' power, still protect their own cartels. Capital flight continues apace. Only four private banks exist (three of them linked to bonyads or to the state), with just 4% of the banking sector's assets. Corruption in every sphere of business stunts growth and puts off investors. People mutter about the mullahs' wealth and patronage....

In the face of such gloomy contrasts, Iran cannot make up its mind whether to co-operate with the perfidious infidel West to save its economic skin and strengthen its security, or to keep its Islamist soul unsullied. That dilemma is at the heart of the present wrangle over nuclear power....

The American administration's hope that sanctions and other pressures will eventually force a change of regime in Tehran looks, in the foreseeable future, forlorn. And an Israeli or American attack might well have the adverse effect of rallying Iranians to their rather unpopular regime.

Otherwise, only three things could jolt Iran out of its present torpor of stagnation and depression. One is the presidential election due in May. Another, further down the road, is a dramatic slump in the oil price. The third is the possibility of a Gorbachev figure emerging from within the clerical establishment to open up the deadening political and economic system. At present none of these three possibilities looks likely, at least not in the short run.

As I've said before, I'm very gloomy about the prospects of the theocratic regime toppling from "people power." [On the other hand, I was similarly skeptical about Ukraine, and events have progressed there in a far more peaceful and positive direction that I anticipated. Point is, I could easily be wrong.]

One question is whether expanding Iran's trade with the rest of the world would nudge them in a more positive direction. Based on this report, the Bush administration doesn't think so -- or, to be fair, they think it wouldn't lead to regime change prior to the mullahs developing nuclear weapons.

Commenters are heartily encouraged to devise a policy that would ensure peaceful regime change in Iran. I don't think it can be done -- but that could just be because I'm still jet-lagged.

posted by Dan on 12.14.04 at 02:48 PM


I'll go just as far as step number one.

Let the mullahs have their nukes.

posted by: Yo on 12.14.04 at 02:48 PM [permalink]

1. Accept that Iran will get the bomb. All their actions indicate this is a priority for them.

2. Give Iran nothing in negotiations. Except a warning. You use nukes against anyone, Tehran and all oil wells anywhere will be nuked.

3. Let Iran achieve its goal, and then let them know, diplomatically and otherwise, that this accomplishment is utterly useless to them. If they use the bomb, their citizens will die, and the world will not care.

4. Broadcast the doings of the mullahs to Iran via the internet, via the radio, via TV. Note how their lives do not reflect Islam's ideals. Saturate the airwaves with this. George Soros -- if you want to do the world some good, here's a project for you...

5. Wait. Let the educated classes, the next generation of Iran's leadership, continue lose faith in their revolution and their system.

6. When the Iranian Gorby comes along
(and, if the leadership class has lost faith, he will), pray that we have a pragmatic tough guy in the Ronald Reagan mold in charge.

Although Michael Ledeen will continue to urge "faster, please", this will be a gradual process. Remember it took 75 years for the Soviet Union to fall. This means that Iran may have some 50 years to go...

By the way, those who urge more commerce should review how China has evolved, and consider an argument that economic prosperity has solidified the regime there -- maybe to the detriment of democracy.

posted by: Appalled Moderate on 12.14.04 at 02:48 PM [permalink]

"devise a policy that would ensure peaceful regime change in Iran"

Fareed Zakaria has.

I, on the other hand, am fairly sanguine about Iran attaining nuclear capability. Namely, I don't see what's wrong with Iran getting nukes. Like the Economist says, they'd unlikely ever be used and you can't begrudge the mullahs for wanting them - Israel for one, being surrounded by the US for another and also not being particularly friendly with Sunni Arab states either. Having a "Persian bomb" would be a nice insurance policy.

Moreover, I'm not one to think proliferation is necessarily bad, at least among states reasonably beholden to their populations (non-state actors are another story). National defense should be their first priority. One might even argue that not pursuing WMD would be an abrogration of a govt's responsibility to its citizenry, even moreso if you are a believer in the 2nd amendment "more guns, less crime" argument.

Yes it's MAD and potentially unstable, but it's also sobering and, I think, causes leaders in their possession to, for lack of a better term, grow-up. Of course it would be nice if those leaders were actually elected (and their economies were doing well and they were open to trade and tourism and they denounced terrorism and didn't hate America, etc.), but I am reasonably optimistic that if Iran should get the bomb it could become a responsible member of the nuclear club -- e.g. after a bit of brinksmanship, it looks like India and Pakistan are doing alright.

posted by: grigory on 12.14.04 at 02:48 PM [permalink]

Regime change is not possible in Iran at this point, but it may be possible to nudge the country in a more positive direction. Yes, I am talking about engagement. If the US shows some willingness to deal with Iran's so-called "pragmatic conservatives", this may help give them leverage at the expense of the hardliners. Admittedly, it's not going to be a regime of our liking, but it may be better than what is out there now. The key, I think, is trying to protect the relatively favorable image that Iranians have of the US; place the onus on the hard liners for their unwillingness to deal with the US. Encourage those mullahs who want to "do a China" in Iran. It's not democracy, but it's at least a step toward less hostility. Hopefully, over time, we will see some change in Iran's behavior. But it has to be made clear that Iran has to give up something to get something; no arms-for-hostages type dealings for short-term benefit. I recognize this is not terribly specific or exciting, but I can't think of anything better. Oh yes, let's avoid threatening to nuke Iran at this time; Iran is well aware of what we can do to it. Saber rattling is not likely to accomplish anything except increase Iran's hostility.

posted by: mws on 12.14.04 at 02:48 PM [permalink]

One of the reasons Iran economy is so bad
is all the capital it has invested in its
nuclear program. Which, as Yo and Appalled
Moderate have suggested, produce weapons
that cannot be used.

A complete, utter, total waste of resources.

And once those weapons are produced there
is another huge cost required to keep them
safe. And another huge cost required to
keep them operable. Even regular bombs
degrade chemically. And another huge cost
required to make them deliverable. Better
hope those pesky nukes don't accidentally
self-detonate on the launching pad. [Can
a country with no apparent building code
produce such systems?]

All completely useless expenditures of
both human and financial capital.

No sane, small nation surrounded by enemies
would make such an incredibly wasteful

However, letting your enemies BELIEVE
you have nuclear capability is obviously
worth a tremendously huge amount of capital.
Much like Napoleons hat being worth 40,000
troops on the battlefield. [Google
Arthur Wellesley for the exact quote.]

Which is another reason why the incredibly
natural resource wealthy Iran is a third
world pest hole. And tiny Israel, bereft
of all resource excepting human capital,
is the literal Oasis in the Desert.

posted by: pragmatist on 12.14.04 at 02:48 PM [permalink]

I think that the simple fact is that if you look at the list of "rogue" nations: Syria, Libya, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Pakistan, etc. then we can say that on the balance the Bush doctrine has been a net negative.

North Korea and Iran have increased nuclear proliferation, and despite hawkish delusional fantasies neither country seems ready to crumble from within any time soon. We're about to empower a theocratic Shiite state in Iraq at best and at worst it will remain a failed state destabilizing the region for years to come. Libya gave up a non-operational WMD program to get off sanctions. Pakistan is cooperating in restricting nuclear proliferation. Syria is actively engaged in destabilizing Iraq and by extension Sausi Arabia.

So you have two big negatives, a minor positive, a real positive, and a modest negative. On the balance, just looking at the list of rogue nations we're actually worse off than where we where five years ago.

Add to that the umbrage and negativity we've earned amongst our allies and alienating strategic partners such as Russia and China and it seems that we've lost considerable ground.

posted by: oldman on 12.14.04 at 02:48 PM [permalink]

To ensure democracy? Invade, of course - they'll welcome us with flowers. The regime's highly unpopular so that means the people will love us, right? And we're in the area anyway...

Wish I had a real answer.

posted by: Brian S. on 12.14.04 at 02:48 PM [permalink]

Simple, let the dollar work its magic. Announce the immediate end of all sanctions. Offer immediate and UNCONDITIONAL recogniztion of the government. Live with the nukes(if someone F**** with us like the Iranians have experienced since 1953 you can be damned sure we'd have them if we didn't). Send every trade delagation we can find invent etc to help develope their economy. The explosion in the black market alone will force the hard choices domestically as all the vested classes cannot control a thriving economy. Let Coke make ayatollah cola to confirm to Islamic dietary standards. Let Nokia send them cell phones that quote the Koran when they ring. In short do everything to offer them the goods and services of a modern economy and accept the fact it may look like the PRC for awhile. But once that dollar genie is out of the bottle look out.

posted by: Robert M on 12.14.04 at 02:48 PM [permalink]

IMO it is possible to get rid of the mullahs by subversion from the outside. The regime is vulnerable. But it would take time, and we don't have the time due to the Iranian nuclear weapons program.

My money is on an American invasion before the winter of 2005 makes operations too difficult, which means kickoff on or before @ 10/31/05.

posted by: Tom Holsinger on 12.14.04 at 02:48 PM [permalink]

There is now no realistic way to stop Iran from getting the Bomb. There never was, of course; just as the Norks started their program long before W was elected the Mullahs know that harshing on Iran has long been a bipartisan affair in Washington.

The China solution? China is growing more powerful and hostile every day, in the sense that their ability to exercise influence in opposition ot our interest is only increasing. A Coca-Cola invasion might succeed in Cuba, but has not accomplished such change in China. The best we can hope for is constructive detente until the Chinese people are rich enough to find nationalism and war as obsolete as the Europeans do. But this is OK- the Chinese are rational players at least, and less overtly opposed to our power than the Soviets.

The middle east? Well, we gave Iraq our best shot, and it is now up to the Iraqi people to decide whether they want to live in the future or the past. Bad daddy Saddam used to make everything happen, when we kicked him out they expected good daddy America to come in and make everything happen. Perhaps, had we gone all the way in 1991 before the sanctions starved the country and forced the cream of the non-Baathist elite out, it would have turned out better. But right now it looks little different than the scene at the end of Lawrence of Arabia... I never liked the idea that Islam in its current form might in fact be inimical to modern liberla government, but it seems that it just might be.

In terms of taste I am every bit a blue-state Yankee SOB, I live in Boston, prefer Merlot to Bud, have traveled extensively and speak languages other than English. But unlike my blue-state brethren I do not believe for one minute that peace is the answer. For all their preening about their superior worldliness, most liberals are really unwilling to stare into the abyss and realize that if you strip away the cell phones and Nikes, much of the world is every bit as medieval in spirit today as it was 500 years ago.

posted by: the snob on 12.14.04 at 02:48 PM [permalink]


A moderately effective Israeli air attack on Iran's nuclear weapons program, slowing it down by only a few months, would certainly buy any necessary time for an American invasion.

And it would be a two-fer, by focusing attention on Iran's program. Airborne sensor detection of the radioactive debris release would show just how advanced Iran's enrichment program is, and thereby foster the pre-invasion political preparations.

posted by: Tom Holsinger on 12.14.04 at 02:48 PM [permalink]

hey, "how iran will fight back" =D

...any US attack on Iran will likely be met first and foremost by missile counter-attacks engulfing the southern Persian Gulf states playing host to US forces, as well as any other country, eg, Azerbaijan, Iraq or Turkey, allowing their territory or airspace to be used against Iran. The rationale for this strategy is precisely to pre-warn Iran's neighbors of the dire consequences, with potential debilitating impacts on their economies for a long time, should they become accomplices of foreign invaders of Iran.

posted by: glory on 12.14.04 at 02:48 PM [permalink]


You left out the Martians invading, the heartbreak of psoraisis, and how the mullahs' secret weapon will make us all turn inside out and explode.

posted by: Tom Holsinger on 12.14.04 at 02:48 PM [permalink]

you mean the article? =D


posted by: glory on 12.14.04 at 02:48 PM [permalink]

You want to insure peaceful regime change? I guess Lloyds of London might give you a quote.

We can't even be certain we'll have peaceful regime change ourselves. How could we be sure it would happen somewhere else?

It's bad enough we believe we're the one world superpower who can defeat everybody else. Now we want to think we can reliably make them do what we want without even bombing them?

posted by: J Thomas on 12.14.04 at 02:48 PM [permalink]


We're more likely to see thousands of Iranian Muslims converting to Judaism than any of your catalog of horribles.


"JERUSALEM — The queries he receives from Iranian Muslims about converting to Judaism say less about the lure of the Jewish faith, Menashe Amir believes, than about the abysmal situation in the land of the ayatollahs.

"The main reason they ask about conversion is that they want to get out of Iran, and it has become more difficult to obtain visas to Europe and elsewhere," said Mr. Amir, longtime director of the Iran desk of the Israel Broadcasting Authority.

"They believe that if they convert to Judaism, they can receive refuge in Israel ..."

posted by: Tom Holsinger on 12.14.04 at 02:48 PM [permalink]

my "catalog"? i don't understand. are you referring to the article i linked to? it is not "mine" i assure you; i merely thought it was relevant to the discussion, is it not? i should say your defensiveness and implied accusations(?) says more about your own predilections (and insecurities?) than any supposed agenda i may or may not have. reasonable people can debate the merits of the article without having to impugn my character.

good day to you sir!

and cheers =D

posted by: glory on 12.14.04 at 02:48 PM [permalink]

Everywhere in blogland there is a constant conversation about what country my country will invade next. We have neither the money or the troops to OCCUPY Iraq correctly. What makes anyone think there is enough to OCCUPY Iran? We don"t have anywhere near an ethnic(kurd-abab) or religious split(Sunni-Shia) to find many allies in country like Iraq. Nor is the oil held in great quantity in areas of easy export or where there might be friendly hands to put it into. So let's take a deep breathe, rid ourselves of the feckless administrators of Iraqi policy and work the ongoing missions in Afghanistan and Iraq better than we have been.

posted by: Robert M on 12.14.04 at 02:48 PM [permalink]

They had peaceful regime change when the reformists were elected the first time. We weren't much more cooperative with that new regime than was the ole guardianship of the jurisprudent, as I recall.

posted by: buermann on 12.14.04 at 02:48 PM [permalink]

"No sane, small nation surrounded by enemies
would make such an incredibly wasteful

"However, letting your enemies BELIEVE
you have nuclear capability is obviously
worth a tremendously huge amount of capital. [....]

"Which is another reason why the incredibly
natural resource wealthy Iran is a third
world pest hole. And tiny Israel, bereft
of all resource excepting human capital,
is the literal Oasis in the Desert."

Are you telling us that israel's advanced nuclear weapons program is a sham? They sent that guy out to britain with his "proof" and then kidnapped him back and held him in solitary confinement for X years to perpetuate a scam? The nuclear pollution problem at Dimona isn't real?

And every time israel threatens to nuke arabs they're bluffing?

posted by: J Thomas on 12.14.04 at 02:48 PM [permalink]

1. The reformists never had real power. That was NOT regime change.

2. AFAICT, the biggest cause of mass discontent with the regime is economic distress. Trade would only reinforce the regime. This aint Cuba (if that approach would even work in Cuba)

3. I have 2 personal aquiantances whove been to Iran in the last 18 months, and both say that the people are fed up with the regime.

Best strategy - stay the course in Iraq, and build a model of a Shiite led democracy. Reach out quietly to dissidents.

posted by: liberalhawk on 12.14.04 at 02:48 PM [permalink]

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