Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

Iran, Democracy, and Nuclear Weapons

Posted in Iran by Dan on December 21, 2009

Democracy may not make much of a difference in Iran

With all of the talk about Iranian defiance over its nuclear program- and inspired by a Stephen Walt post at ForeignPolicy.com- I began to wonder if a democratic Iran would act any differently on the nuclear issue than it is today.  Is authoritarianism really that big of a factor in Iran’s nuclear policy?  And if it is, then it would seem logical to conclude that regime change could be the best long-term solution for the international community.

A neoconservative argument, I have to admit (absent the debacle in Iraq, ushering in a democratic movement in Iran by force may still be a credible idea in the U.S. Government).  But if the stalemate over Iran’s nuclear program could be resolved through a democratic transformation, such an argument could be quite useful.

After assessing the pros and cons of democracy- and whether it would create an enlightened leadership in Tehran with fresh ideas and moderate thinking- I came to a simple conclusion.  A democratic Iran, while it would be beneficial for the Middle East as a whole, would not alter Tehran’s stance on the nuclear issue in any conceivable way.

In fact, it is downright laughable that some in the U.S. Government (and those in the west generally) firmly believe that a democratic Iran would magically solve most of the outstanding issues in the Middle East.  The desire for a nuclear program within Iran has cut across partisan and ideological lines; both moderates and hardline Islamists in Tehran wholeheartedly support Iran’s quest for a nuclear capability (whether this is civilian or not). Over the past three years, the nuclear option has transformed into something much more significant than a few uranium enrichment plants. The program is now a symbolic part of Iranian nationalism, thus making it even marker to persuade the Iranian leadership to forgo the nuclear path.

Let’s say that Iran were to become a democratic state in the next decade. Would that actually ensure more compliance and cooperation with the United States? On some issues, such as human rights and economic growth, perhaps. But on issues the U.S. really cares about- like national security and oil prices- the answer is much bleaker. After all, democratic governments in Europe and Latin America have not necessarily caved-in to American pressure.

Regardless of whether a regime is democratic or not, all states have their own interests to promote.  Considering the strategic importance- and obsession- of a nuclear capability inside the Islamic Republic, all the democracy in the world may not persuade the country to abandon its most prized-possession.

-Daniel R. DePetris

13 Responses

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  1. HOOS said, on December 21, 2009 at 8:36 pm

    The regime change would help America quite a bit. After all We put Khomeini in power and your close friend Mr. Carter thought he was putting a Ghandi like figure in charge and we have paid for it ever since. Iran has a population very friendly to the west and Iran on our side will change the balance in the region to our favor. After all the Arabist policy that we have been following for 30 years has been a dead end. Think out of the box Mr. Walt. And by the way it would be good if you really understood Iran a bit better before talking hypothetically.

    • arvay said, on December 21, 2009 at 8:36 pm

      . . the idea that the US/Carter put Khomeini in power!

      You might benefit by studying some recent American history.

      Have no idea what you mean by an “Arabist” policy, the people who used to be called Arabists were long ago defeated by the Israel Lobby. If anything, we have been adhering to a Zionist foreign policy.

  2. Zathras said, on December 21, 2009 at 8:37 pm

    I appreciate long-term thinking as much as anyone, but you have to have a clear view of the road you’re driving on before you start daydreaming about what the ultimate destination might look like. A lot is likely to change between now and the time the Iranian government changes, and in the meantime we need to be thinking about whether political developments in Iran provide us with opportunities to address immediate problems.

    One of these is our chronic shortage of information about how decisions are made within the Iranian government, and about how this is changing. Another is our (equally chronic) inability to respond to the Iranian government’s provocations in language that means something to people in Iran, as opposed to boilerplate long accepted in Washington policymaking circles. A third is our difficulty deciding whether we are dealing with an Iranian regime secure in its power and certain of its ambitions or one within months or a few years of collapse; the events of 2009 should have led us to the conclusion that we are facing neither of these.

    The endgame in chess generally commences when most of the pieces have left the board, with a minority of the remaining pieces being of supreme and overriding importance. We’re not there with Iran yet, and may not be for many years. Yet the game has obviously changed recently, in important ways that may help us manage the problems presented by a regime hostile to the United States and potentially threatening to many of its neighbors. I’m content to deal with “regime change” in Tehran — whatever form that eventually takes — when it happens; for now, we’ve already gotten what we needed in Iran. The question is what we do with it.

    • Sin Nombre said, on December 21, 2009 at 8:38 pm

      Zathras (as usual) makes a good point about not day-dreaming too much about roads one aren’t even driving on yet, although I think he might underestimate that there does seem to be somewhat of a quiet but influential claque out there that is stumping for a Tehran regime change. (And the U.S.—and Israel too I think, and maybe others as well—is funding the MEK if I’m not mistaken, or at least supporting it in some way, so the issue isn’t entirely theoretical.)

      But I think Walt’s point is still a very good one even though it doesn’t mention something that I at least thought interesting in the past and may merit mention. That is, I thought it intriguing in the past when, repeatedly I think, the head religious guy in Iran and a number of other religious authorities there said that they thought that their view of Islam itself prohibited it from even attempting to obtain nuclear weapons.

      Now I don’t know if this is total bullshit from them, nor do I know if Iran does indeed have a nuke program today. But maybe it does have at least some validity and maybe it shows that hey, you remove the clerics from power there and think you are in the clear and suddenly you got some decidedly cold-and-narrow-eyed secular folks who don’t have any such religious qualms and whaddya got? North Korea maybe.

      Like I said, I dunno; maybe the mullahs were just blowing smoke, but maybe behind the curtain they *are* indeed a force that keeps Iran from going whole-hog into nukes.

      Again, maybe

  3. Grant said, on December 21, 2009 at 8:39 pm

    To begin I agree that a change in Iranian leadership couldn’t be expected to automatically shift interests in favor of the United States. Quite a bit of longterm efforts in Iran has in fact been to set itself against the United States (not that I can honestly blame them for it) and even when governments are changed policies are not so easy to alter.

    However I’m not certain that a change in government would mean a stronger Iran. Several of the most important areas that I would promote for a powerful economy; firm rule of law, diversification of the economy, and encouraging far more women to enter the job market, seem to be anathema to Iran. Rule of law only extends to where the government doesn’t interfere, the economy is even more dependent on oil than Saudi Arabia’s, and Iran’s take on women in power is well known. Could Iran emerge from all this as the dominant power in the Middle East? Perhaps, but if so then only because of fortune and her neighbors not seeing fit to make their own reforms.

  4. Direct_Hex said, on December 21, 2009 at 8:40 pm

    Iran will always be the regional power. There’s no real way of stopping it. Its an inevitability of geography, demography and history.

    The whole nuclear debate just makes that something the US has to deal with now, rather than 50 years from now. However, I have no idea why everyone seems to be convinced that the moment Iran gets nukes its going to use them.

    We know for a fact that any soveriegn state, except the US, with nuclear weapons has never used them in anger. Any state, including the US, with nukes has never nuked another similarly powered state.

    The mullahs may be religious but they aren’t crazy. The last thing they want is to nuke Jerusalem (holy site no.2 in Islam) and have several nukes heading their way in retaliation.

    The green movement will do exactly the same. Most of its leaders aren’t nuts either.

  5. Richard Wittyq said, on December 21, 2009 at 8:41 pm

    The power of the US is in long-term decline, for a single reason.

    Value-adding economy is migrating overseas. The prosect of domestically sited exports are narrow and growing narrower.

    The US is dominant in a smaller and smaller sliver of enterprise.

    The location of large corporate entities are largely irrelevant in a world of fluid capital. There is no “American” oil company, nor “American” car company. All large entities are owned by combinations of domestic and foreign instutitional finance and private equity funds.

    Our economic costs are high fixed costs, so siting domestically even for domestic markets is swimming upstream.

    Political power follows economic.

    • arvay said, on December 21, 2009 at 8:42 pm

      . . . not exactly with this . . .

      “There is no “American” oil company, nor “American” car company.”

      If that’s true, no one has informed the Commerce department, which continues to push for their interests around the globe, or the military, which defends their interests.

      But yes, we are in decline, and we’re currently dawdling while China grabs the lead in green technology manufacturing. The Germans are strong here, too.

      Our legislators are too bought-off by the declining domestic corporations to back anything like the national plan that could redirect our efforts. That would be pinko-commie planning, and Obama, the new moderate Republican president, will never push THAT.

      Often declining empires produce rich art and culture as the expend their resources, but all we have to show for all the killing we’ve done is Donald Trump — our version of the Medici — and reality TV.

      The gods are laughing.

  6. MAIGARI said, on December 21, 2009 at 8:43 pm

    Ever since the declaration by President Obama that the US is extending to all those who have unclenched their fists, the media has been generally awash with speculations on Iran. First and foremost, the Obama administration extended a hand only on the TV screens. The cladestine US subversion of Iran has never paused let alone stop. In the same breadth, the issue of iranian nuclear enrichment became a front burner topic with the US threatening all optiona are on.

    Could the US if they were in Iran position ahve accepted this outright ‘take it or leave it: olive offer (if t were one)? There is very little democracy in the middle east and certainly it is more democratic than Egypt, Saudi Arabia and even Jordan. Come to think of it, it is even more liberal when it comes to human rights when compare to Israeli treatment of Palestinians. Yes, the US can engineer hostilities and sometimes even overthrow of regimes that do not agree to her world view but that does not it correct.

    Today Iraq stands as a telling indictment of American interference in the middle east. There is no war nor peace in Iraq; thanks to US war on Saddam!

  7. janbekster said, on December 21, 2009 at 8:43 pm

    I suppose so long as we don’t talk in terms of the alleged Churchillian dictum of “ feed the Arabs, starve the Persians”, anything we all say is passable.

    One agrees with the gist of Prof. Walt’s message, that the problem with Iran is not really in whether this regime stays or is overthrown by outside machinations or internal revolution, rather, with the manner Iran has defined its national strategic interest, and the manner it will continue to do so.

    For the first time, the world; especially the superpowers, witness a new phenomenon in which a Near Eastern country, actually defines its national strategic interest beyond the circumference of its neighbourhood. The closest any country from the region came to doing that, was Hashemite Iraq, when late prime minister Nuri al Saeed defined Iraq’s national interest extending to the borders of the Soviet Union. Even Nasser’s United Arab Republic did not come close to the ambitious definition of Iran regarding its national interest.

    Therefore, in this respect one believes that, Iran is truly a new phenomenon on the international scene, moreover, it is acting with the pretensions of not only a regional power, but also a super-power. It is not only a Gulf power, but actually is also a Mediterranean power now, with an arch that envelopes all the oil rich Arab states within its Shiite Crescent, threatening at the same time the national security of Jordan, Egypt and Israel, and with potential capability to expand its influence to the “Stans” of the ex-Soviet Union, as well as Afghanistan.

    A regime with such an extension and influence, is not likely to give up such gains merely because others wish that to happen. Also, it is a folly to think that the current regime in Iran will be willing to negotiate its nuclear programme, which is essentially, the leitmotif of the status of a super-power. In addition, any regime which potentially replaces the current one, will not give up on the gains made by the current regime, nor will negotiate its nuclear programme. Therefore, the only two options for the US are, either accept Iran as a partner, and build its foreign policy on the basis of such realism, or, go to war against Iran and hit it hard, to make it impossible for Iran to pick the pieces of power after that, and even, make it more impossible for any replacement of the current regime to be able to contemplate any such current pretensions.

    At the same time, what is the status of the institution of Velyati-Faqih in all this?. I don’t think anyone can seriously think that, a change of regime, or the current regime would change its nature, so long as the leadership of Veli-Faqih remains as the main arbiter in Iranian politics. However, the Mullah vs. Mullah conflict which is still going on in Iran, indicates that the position is no longer held as, sacrosanct any longer. As a matter of fact, and one is making a wild bet on this, I dare say that Ayattullah Khamina’I is most likely to be the last office holder in this institutions, because Iran will gradually slip into a military and security controlled regime, with a religious veneer only. Even any potential replacement, I don’t think will be different to the character which the current regime will evolve into.
    Khairi janbek.paris/france

    • Jimmy W said, on December 21, 2009 at 8:44 pm

      Bureaucratic analysis indicates that the IRGC will soon sacrifice the Revolutionary Council to secure its own positions post-revolution. Especially because the entrenched bureaucracy in Iran makes wholesale regime change difficult.


    • smci60652 said, on December 21, 2009 at 8:45 pm

      “in other words, the United States has sought to maintain a balance of power in the region and make sure that there is no “regional hegemon” there.”

      But there IS a regional hegemon, it’s Israel.

      Other specialists have posited a situation in which the development of Nuclear Weapons is actually a terrible strategic option in Iran’s power calculations.

      It’s hard to imagine the current regime using such weapons against Israel unless there was a particularly belligerent air strike in the making, but the natural result of nuclearization in Iran would be proliferation amongst its neighbors.

      Saudi, Jordan, and Egypt would immediately ratchet up their attempts to nuclearize. And they’d use Iran as the basis for their efforts. That really puts the US in a tough bind. After 3 decades of maligning the Iranian regime and then fostering a bloody Sunni-Shiite civil war in the region, how can we possibly say no to our allies in the Gulf or Egypt when it comes to helping them develope a nuclear deterrent?

      And if its neighbors proliferate, then Iran’s considerable conventional warfare advantage diminishes vis-a-vis Saudi and the rest.

      End-game scenario? Every major power in the region has a nuclear deterrent, hence it’s no longer a unipolar subset of the world where only Israel can throw its weight around.

      This ofcourse assumes that ‘power’ in the scheme revolves around nuclear capability. And if that’s the case, then how REALLY was the US the only super power in a unipolar system these last 20 years?

      Can anyone really imagine the US gearing up for a war and China or Russia or India stepping in and threatening them with a nuclear deterrent in order to prevent such a war?

      It would be a grand coming out party for the next major Super Power.

  8. A Green Revolution? « بنسبة لنا said, on December 24, 2009 at 6:05 pm

    […] a democratic Iran would be more amiable on certain issues, but critics point that it would unlikely change its stance on the nuclear issue. However, a democratic Iran would be unlikely to be as hostile to […]

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