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Joe Cirincione

Joe Cirincione

Posted: June 17, 2009 12:26 AM

Iran Uprising Changes Nuclear Calculus


The Iran Uprising is a game changer. The regime has been delegitimized for large portions of the Iranian population. If Mahmoud Ahmadinejad prevails--and that is by no means certain--he will be greatly weakened, handcuffed in his ability to play the nuclear card as a nationalist rallying cry. Pressed at home, the regime will need to show some gains internationally; the nuclear issue must be compromised to realize those gains.

On Sunday, I was a realist, posting on my blog my agreement with leading Iran analysts. I said:

Post election, the Obama administration faces the same diplomatic challenges with Iran as before - chief among them containing Iran's nuclear program. While Mir Hossein Mousavi, the reformist hope, might have been able to reverse the fierce nationalistic politics Mahmoud Ahmadinejad injected into the Iranian nuclear issue, the ultimate arbitrator of Iran's policy is neither man, but the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei.


As Carnegie Endowment scholar Karim Sadjadpour notes, "We should be clear about what we're dealing with. Just as we deal with Assad's Syria and Mubarak's Egypt, we now have to deal with Khamanei's Iran."

By Tuesday, I had changed my view. I had painted my face green. Why? The massive outpouring on Monday that sent a 5.5 mile-long demonstration through Tehran. The stream of Twitter posts. The sheer resolve of the Iranian people not to accept the regime's rule.

This is no longer Khamanei's Iran.

The clerical regime has been delegitimized for millions of Iranians. Even under the best case for the regime - a recount that declares Ahmadinejad the winner by a majority--the president will be weakened. He will be the imposed leader, not the hero of the disfranchised against the corrupt elite. He will be unable to use the nuclear issue to stir nationalist passions, posing as the hero-president defending the nation against the oppressive West. He will be the oppressor.

The nuclear program could lose its security appeal. Just as conservatives in the United States promote missile defense as a security placebo, presenting it as the answer to foes real and imagined, only to see it crash when real problems come to the fore and its empty promise is exposed, the Iranian government's fetishization of its uranium enrichment program could collapse.

The program has nothing to do with Iran's real problems. It offers no solution to the economy, to equality, to security. It is a drain on the country, not its salvation. It will not be abandoned quickly, but its role and importance could be greatly reduced, its progress slowed, its threat contained.

A weakened Ahmadinejad will be pressed to compromise. As Omid Memarian notes, "If the Iranian government engages with the U.S. in the coming months and years under Ahmadinejad's second term, it will surely be harder for the Iranian government to ignore their responsibility to the Iranian people."

Iran will have an increased need for Western trade and investment to address at least one of the core issues generating the Uprising--the catastrophe that is its economy. Ahmadinejad will find his allies more distant, less willing to extend their protection against international sanctions. If President Obama's agenda with Russia works as intended, Russia will not only be pushed away from Iran, but pulled towards the US.

Leslie Gelb concludes:

[T]here isn't much Tehran can do to improve these conditions without reconnecting with the West and especially the United States. Western economic sanctions have not brought the clerical house down, but they have severely reduced investment, credit, and trade. Which means the bosses in Tehran will have to unclench their fists and make some face-saving gestures back toward President Obama. Also, there's no doubt that they understand that once they open the economic doors, the West will require that Iran's nuclear program be placed on the bargaining table as well.

If Ahmadinejad is forced out, prospects also improve. Some analysts have somewhat mechanically assumed that because Mir Hossein Mousavi was involved in the revival of the Shah's nuclear weapons program by the Islamic Republic in the 1980's, he would champion the uranium enrichment program now. If he had barely won election, and while the issue remained a nationalist touchstone spanning political camps, there was some truth to this prediction.

But that was before the Uprising. Nationalism now has new, more powerful and more meaningful expressions. Mousavi was always more open to dialogue with the West. As president, his discourse could now include the nuclear program with much less fear of attack.

Finally, the Uprising also changes US perceptions of the inevitability of an Iranian nuclear bomb, the feeling that time is not on our side, and gives us a much more sophisticated and nuanced view of Iran that counters the crude "Iran as Nazi Germany" portrait that has dominated most of the debate.

Obama has also handled the issue well, preventing the US from becoming an issue at all in the post-election conflict. He recognizes that the Uprising is not about us. It is about the self-determination of the Iranian people. The right wing strategy of regime change failed completely, for it never understood that only the people of a nation could change its regime.

As Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN) points out in support of Obama's approach, "For us to become heavily involved in the election at this point is to give the clergy an opportunity to have an enemy...and to use us, really, to retain their power."

All this increases the leverage for the US and other nations in renewed negotiations with the next Iranian administration--whoever is president.