Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Potential Good in a Sad Fraud

Why an Ahmadinejad Victory is a Net Positive for U.S. Foreign Policy

As the Guardian Council agrees to recount votes (thanks to a partial about face from Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei), the question begs to be asked in greater depth than it has been, whether the U.S. is actually better off if Mir Hossein Mousavi manages to somehow find a way to emerge victorious over Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?

At first glance it is easy to see why support of Mousavi would seem to be in the interest of the United States. Mousavi is more willing to engage in the broader international community, he has the experience to deal with the economic woes currently plaguing Iran, and domestically he is without doubt more likely to push to increase freedoms of speech and press, access to universities, and advocate reforms for women.

However, in the theocracy that is Iran, the domestic values and freedoms Mousavi supports are unlikely to be translated from campaign rhetoric into laws granting increased liberties to the Iranian people. By 2004, the middle of President Khatami’s second term, many of his early reforms were rolled back, and new one’s were not even proposed in the Majlis (the Iranian Parliament), due to a certainty of rejection. Today, the Majlis is even more conservative, thanks in large part to the dismissal of thousands of so called reformist candidates from the ballots in 2008. Even if Mousavi was able to entice the Majlis to pass the domestic reforms he desired, they would have to then be approved by the Guardian Council and ultimately accepted by Khamanei, reducing their chance of coming to fruition even more.

And so, what would likely be left of a Mousavi victory in the years to come would be a failed domestic agenda, and stagnation on the international front, a positive for Iran but not for the U.S. A Mousavi victory would be a tremendous boon for Iranian nuclear development allowing Tehran to use negotiations to buy time to continue advancing their program, with virtually no potential for obtaining an agreement from Mousavi to cease it. In fact, Mousavi stated explicitly throughout the campaign that he will reject any proposal to halt Iranian nuclear development for peaceful energy purposes. While he says the issue of weaponizing is negotiable, the reality is that Iran’s so called peaceful nuclear program is at best a dual program to achieve weaponization and at worst simply a cover for it.

On this issue, one need only look at Mousavi’s domestic political situation to believe he means what he says. The Iranian people have consistently supported nuclear development for energy purposes and even the pro-Mousavi under thirty-five crowd, are resentful over what they see as international hypocrisy in not allowing Iran access to nuclear programs. Any varying by Mousavi on this issue as President (especially after being unlikely to deliver on promised domestic reforms), and he would permanently and irreparably damage his reputation in Iran, almost certainly precluding his re-election in 2013.

And yet, there is no doubt that with a Mousavi win, the U.S., backed by the EU, will be forced to spend at least one to three years negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program. Even if the U.S. reaches the point after a year or so, of declaring negotiations to have failed and desiring to take the next logical step of economic sanctions, it may find such a step extremely difficult if not impossible to achieve. Mousavi acting publicly as a “moderate” has a can’t lose prospect, by being able to then ask for further negotiations even after months or years of failed ones. In such a case, Russia, which has signed multiple deals with Iran on nuclear development, would be likely if not definite to veto any economic sanctions proposed at the UN Security Council. Regardless of what China did, European desire to find a negotiated settlement is so over whelming, that the bigger fear in such a situation is seeing France give cover to Russia by vetoing as well. Further, even if the U.S. managed to convince Russia, China, France, etc. to support or abstain and economic sanctions were passed, it would likely result in a painful long term ramification. Mousavi’s base of support, the moderate city dwellers and youth, would likely blame the U.S. for worsening, through sanctions, Iranian economic conditions, regardless of their actual impact.

An Ahmadinejad victory however, produces the opposite result. For one thing, negotiations are much less likely to last nearly as long as they would under a Mousavi Presidency, given Ahmadinejad’s horrible international reputation, viewed by most of the West as a less than serious partner for negotiations. In turn, economic sanctions are much more likely come to fruition sooner. The French would be very unlikely to veto, with the Russians (and to a lesser extent the Chinese), probably requiring some sort of trade with the U.S. for their vote or abstention. But any deal would inevitably come at a much lower price than if Mousavi were President given Ahmadinejad’s lack of global credibility. In contrast to a Mousavi Presidency, the moderates and under thirty-five populace, while partially blaming the U.S. and EU for worsening economic conditions resulting from sanctions, would likely place greater blame on Ahmadinejad, seeing sanctions as a penalty further incurred as a result of his embarrassing, unnecessary, and counter productive behavior on the international stage.

In the end, it is important to remember that it is Khamanei, not the President who will ultimately decide what happens with regard to any negotiations over Iran’s nuclear development. But as it stands now, an Ahmadinejad second term might just be more beneficial for U.S. foreign policy than a Mousavi first term, for one main reason: timing. A Mousavi victory increases the likelihood of Iranian nuclear weapons coming to fruition under the cloak of negotiations due to the almost certain longevity of such negotiations. Thus, if President Obama truly meant it when he said during the campaign that, “Iran's development of a nuclear weapon, I believe, is unacceptable…,” then it is better to have Ahmadinejad back in office. For a second term by the current Iranian President will result in either President Obama’s gifted team being able to somehow manage a break through or having to determine that the next step of economic sanctions is necessary. But one way or the other at least there will be some sort of clarity and completion before Iran’s nuclear weapons are fully developed and operational.

I champion and cherish free and fair elections as much as anyone and I sincerely hope that the truth somehow manages to emerge. If the result is a run off or a Mousavi victory then I will be extremely heartened to see democratic ideals winning out over theocratic desires. But anyone believing that a Mousavi presidency will be a dream come true for U.S. and general Western interests is likely misguided. Rather, a Mousavi presidency might just end up being our worst nightmare.

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