Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, has an article in the current Newsweek on how the Obama administration ought to approach Iran. It is a relatively novel take on an ongoing (and tired) debate, in which new ideas and fresh approaches are rare.
I liked the article for its framework, but disagreed with the conclusion. Although a bit over-simplistic, Haass divides foreign policy into two schools of thought: a realist one, which deals with states as unitary actors and engages with them on foreign policy only, and a neoconservative one, which sometimes circumvents state governments and tries to influence activities within borders. Put another way, realists accept that they have to deal with unpalatable regimes, whereas neocons try to oust them.
Haass endorses the latter approach to Iran. He admits to being a 'flip-flopper' on this issue, having supported Obama's efforts to reach out to Tehran and use direct negotiations to try to pry Iran away from its nuclear program. But with talks going nowhere and research toward a nuclear bomb probably moving ahead, Haass calls for a change of tactic. Rather than coaxing the regime away from nukes, Washington should try to topple it by supporting the efforts of the opposition 'Green Movement.'
This is wrong for several reasons. The first is that there is nothing meaningful that Western governments can do to help this movement. In the article Haass suggests: 'speaking out' on behalf of the opposition movement, singling out the Revolutionary Guard for sanctioning, funding a project at Yale that documents human rights abuses in Iran, helping activists gain access to the Internet, and allowing the Iranian diaspora community to send money to fund the movement. I have no idea how the latter two could be accomplished from Washington and it's laughable to think that the Iranian regime will topple under the weight of any number of Ivy League human rights reports.
Short of military-led regime change, the Iranian government will only change under pressure from below. Haass doesn't talk about the internal dynamics of the opposition. He doesn't discuss the fact that the opposition leaders are longstanding political figures in Iran, whose political faction has existed since Mir Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi helped Khomeini topple the Shah. For eight years their reformist political wing held the presidency. And their statements, particularly recent ones that tacitly accept the legitimacy of the elections, are far from revolutionary.
Mehdi Karroubi recently discussed the opposition's strategy with the FT. The topic of regime change is noticeably absent from his speech. Rather, he explains that the opposition's current tactic is to peel away moderate members of the current regime in order cut short Ahmidenejad's tenure. The options range from "removing [him] from office to restricting him or reshuffling the cabinet." Moreover, the article points out that Khamenei will likely only capitulate to the demands of the opposition if the poor join their movement.
These facts all point to the unavoidable conclusion that if Iran is to change, it will be reformed not remade -- and that such reforms depend almost entirely on the political whims of Tehran elites and the actions of the Iranian poor. The US may want to help: but it simply cannot.
The tactic Haass outlines would have the reverse effect from what he hopes. When Ahmidenejad first entered office he gained legitimacy by a) making unreasonable populist promises to the poor (which were not kept) and b) creating the impression that Iran was under threat from the West. The latter tactic worked well. Haass argues that the regime is already painting the opposition as a puppet of the West. But the difference between calling the West hostile now, as opposed to five years ago, is that back then it was mostly true (at least in tone, if not in action). Claiming now that Western governments are providing aid to the opposition (Germany has now received the dubious honor of being included in this growing club) simply makes the regime seem pathetic and desperate, undermining its legitimacy rather than bolstering it.
So Obama should do...nothing. At least nothing more than he's already doing. He should be constant and persistent in extending and re-extending his 'open hand' to the regime, making it clear that the US is not belligerent and that it simply wants to talk. These negotiations may prove futile; in fact, there is a better than average chance that they will. But that doesn't matter at this point. Western diplomats should let the forces in Tehran play out as they will; they may soon find themselves pleasantly surprised by the outcome.