It was standing room only at the Carnegie Endowment today as the policy crowd gathered to hear Karim Sadjadpour, Abbas Milani, and Nick Burns discuss Iran, with David Ignatius moderating. Lots of interesting tidbits there, including some political ‘fashion notes’… Karim in a decidedly green shirt; Milani and Burns in ties that may (or may not) have qualified as ‘green’; Ignatius is a decidedly red tie and blue shirt.
Anyway, Milani talked at length, un-self-consciously and quite admiringly, about the events in Iran being a ‘color revolution.’ (So I wish his own choice of tie-color had been a bit more clearcut.)
I guess the main news, though, was Nick Burns– who resigned in April 2008 from being Condi Rice’s Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs– offering his fulsome praise for Obama’s slowly evolving stance on Iran.
- He’s been measured, serious, thoughtful. He has a longterm viewpoint.
… He was quite right to underline, as he did in his speech today, that ‘What’s going on in Iran today is not about us; it’s about the Iranians.’
Burns also sent a barely camouflaged side-swipe to his former bosses in the Bush administration when he said they hadn’t always seemed to understand that “Sometime megaphone diplomacy doesn’t work.”
My understanding is that the main reason Burns retired from the Foreign Service at a relatively young age was because, in his role handling the Bush administration’s relations with Iran, he’d felt very constrained by the president’s insistence on confining those contacts strictly to a limited number of interactions with the Iranian ambassador in Baghdad.
Anyway, it was interesting to hear the intensity of the praise he sent Obama’s way. He also argued that the events of the past ten days have sent a shock to all those in the US who used to argue that the US would have to confront Iran militarily “because it is such a formidable monolith… But now, we’re seeing that it’s not.”
Burns was also, significantly, the only one of the three panelists to point out that Mahmoud Ahmedinejad undoubtedly has some popular real support inside Iran– though he, like the others thought the election results had clearly been falsified.
Sadjadpour, who runs the Iran-study programs at the Carnegie Endowment, and Milani, who works at the right-wing Hoover Institution at Stanford University, were both unabashed supporters of the pro-Musavi movement, though Milani was more ideologically so than Sadjadpour. Sadjadpour seemed generally much more up-to-date with breaking events than Milani.
Sadjadpour said he had heard from Rafsanjani allies in Dubai that Rafsanjani had been trying to assemble a quorum of the Assembly of Experts, which is the only body that can rein in– or depose– the Supreme Leader (Khamenei). “There are around eighty of them. They are very old indeed– avergae age, ‘deceased’,” he said, “But thus far these efforts haven’t succeeded, because many of the ‘experts’ are actually dependent on Khamenei in one way or another.”
He also predicted that, with the diminution in the size of the pro-Musavi demonstrations,
- Now, the opposition will move to trying to paralyze the Iranian economy– the oil sector, the bazaars, the bus system, and so on.
He said that, having completed an in-depth study of Supreme Leader Khamenei’s published sermons and writings last year, he was convinced that Khamenei hated to bow under pressure, seeing that as a sign of weakness; but that Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards were also very capable of calibrating the amount of repression they brought to bear:
- This is another lesson they took from their own revolution in 1978-79, when they saw how the Shah’s use of excessive repression had merely fueled the revolution. This regime has the science of repression down to a science.
For his part, Milani said he had evidence that,
- three years ago, Khamenei ordered his social scientists to study all the color revolutions of recent years, figuring out what their early warning signs are, and how to deflect or counter them. But he forgot the close links these color revolutions have with the people, and how creative the people can be in organizing them.
There was quite a lot of discussion about the effects these events in Iran can be expected to have on the diplomacy and balance of power both in the Middle East and globally.
Burns advocated a measured approach to the issue of when Washington should move to re-engage with a post-election Tehran. He spoke quite clearly in favor of the US having a broad and serious negotiation with Iran. But he also said,
- We’ve got to be careful not to give too much, too soon. It would be a mistake for us to rush to negotiations on nuclear weapons or anything else.
Once we’ve concluded there has been a resolution of the dispute in Tehran we’ll need to make a decision on that. That may be one month from now, or one year.
But the Iranian government that emerges, whatever kind it is, will be weaker than what we’ve gotten accustomed to– for a number of reasons, but including the new problems they’ve been experiencing in Iraq.
I don’t want us to rush to give Ahmedinejad any legitimacy until we are absolutely sure that the reformers can’t succeed.
During the Q&A period, one of the early questions was from a Turkish journalist, who pointed out that Iran’s neighbors may see their interests differently. She noted that Iranian neighbors like Turkey, Iraq, and Azerbaijan have all now congratulated Ahmedinejad on his election victory.
In Burns’s reply he added that Russia and China have also now congratuated Ahmedinejad. He said he strongly hoped that some other democracies and regional powers would join the US in withholding their endorsement of the Ahmedinejad victory. “It can’t be that Obama, Gordon Brown, Nicolas Sarkozy, and Angela Merkel are the only heads of government who withhold their endorsement.”
Sadjadpour said he was “very disappointed” with the Turkish government’s position.
(Actually, this whole question of “recognition” of other governments, as constituting a non-trivial part of the de-facto legitimacy of any government, is something I have long been fascinated by. In democratic theory, of course, political legitimacy is supposed to derive from “the consent of the governed.” But who makes the determination of how to read that consent? Election officials, I suppose. But what if the election process itself is corrupt?)
My bottom line from the discussion: These individuals– including Ignatius– seemed generally to agree that there would be no quick resolution to the current crisis and that the Iranian regime would emerge noticeably weakened by it. Burns was the panelist who spoke out most strongly in favor of diplomatic engagement– at some point, yet to be determined. Milani and Sadjadpour seemed to be the most hopeful that Musavi could somehow stay the course and emerge the winner, though neither of them was joining the chorus of rightwing pundits who have been calling for Obama to come out much more loudly for Musavi. Both men seemed to recognize that that could well be a huge negative for Musavi’s chances, though Sadjadpour was more openly supportive than Milani of Obama’s restraint on the Iran issue.
My impression is that the opinions expressed by these two men were pretty representative of the views of most Iranian-Americans. Of course, the big question is how representative they are of Iranians inside Iran. That still remains to be seen.