Still Going Strong

At Foreign Affairs, I argue that many American commentators who write on Israel fail to account for processes of change within its domestic politics, leading to incomplete analyses on how Israel reacts to the Iran deal. A close examination of shifts within Israel’s security establishment yields a more complete picture:

Most depictions of how Israel sees the recent nuclear accord with Iran are consistently shallow. When explaining what the deal means for Israel, Western analysts and journalists tend to focus on the differences between close political allies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who denounced it as a “historic mistake,” and the Israeli security establishment (that is, serving and retired officials from the military and intelligence agencies), which is generally more tolerant of the deal. But it is misleading to think of Israeli policymaking just as a tug of war between those two camps, because disagreements between civilian and security leaders are normal, and because the public rhetoric on which such assumptions rest doesn’t allow for a consideration of wider trends and changes. Such a view leads to needlessly alarmist predictions about a coming split between Israel and the United States.

Follow the link for the full piece.

 

The Geneva Deal Hasn’t Weakened Netanyahu

If further proof was needed that the P5+1–Iran deal made in Geneva doesn’t much threaten Benjamin Netanyahu’s position in Israeli politics, the Israel Democracy Institute’s November Peace Index provides it.

Two questions stand out for what they can tell us about what Israelis think of their prime minister ’s responsibilities or failures for it. First, when asked to rate “the way in which Prime Minister Netanyahu has dealt so far with the issue of Iran’s nuclear weapons program” on a scale of 1 to 10 (with 10 being excellent): only 28.1% of Israeli Jews gave him a 5 or under. 4.9% don’t know/refused to answer. That leaves 67% at 6 or above (20.4% at 8, 17% at 10). That’s a pretty positive assessment overall.

Second, in the wake of Bibi’s harsh rhetoric against the Iran deal, and worries of another major American-Israeli dust-up, new-old Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman publicly disagreed with Bibi’s handling of the situation, contending that Jerusalem was asking too much of the U.S., which was forcing Washington to distance itself from Israel. The Peace Index asked if “excessive Israeli demands indeed are the main reason for America’s distancing itself from Israel of late?”

Of Israeli Jews, only 6.5% said “I’m sure they are”; 20.6% said “I think they are”; while 37.6% “think they aren’t” and 25.5% is “sure they aren’t.” In other words, a clear majority, closing on two-thirds, don’t believe Bibi is ruining the relationship with the United States.

These findings represent a longstanding trend: Israelis have long been comfortable with Bibi at the helm of the national security ship. In part this is because there hasn’t been a genuine challenger to him in several years, in part it’s because Israelis have more or less had some years of personal security from terrorist attacks, and in part it’s because Bibi has been very successful at balancing out firm public positions and tough rhetoric with an avoidance of armed hostilities. The exception that was the attacks on Hamas in November 2012 seems to prove the rule: Netanyahu was careful to use military force only up to a point because of the unforeseen military and political consequences.

The November poll is only a snapshot of a given moment in time, in the immediate aftermath of the deal, at a moment when Israelis are very likely feeling the need to huddle together in the face of an external threat. That could change as talks on a final deal proceed, if Iran or someone else undermines the Geneva deal, on the fallout of a military attack on Iran, or depending on what happens with peace talks with the Palestinians. But for now, Israelis are—as they have long been—generally satisfied with Netanyahu’s performance in foreign affairs.

Can Rouhani Deliver a Comprehensive Agreement?

This is a guest post by James Devine:

Ever since Hassan Rouhani was elected, the question everyone has asked about Iran’s moderate president is: Can he deliver? After Iran negotiated a deal with the P5+1 powers over the weekend, the answer appears to be yes. The deal has received the endorsement of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei, and Iran’s negotiating team was greeted by cheering crowds when they returned to Tehran. So far, so good, right? The real question is can Barak Obama deliver, right? Perhaps, but it is still early going. The deal made in Geneva is only an interim one, there is still six months to a year of negotiating to be concluded, and the really difficult issues lay ahead. I raise the points below not because I think Rouhani cannot succeed, or that the negotiations are doomed to failure. I raise them because these are the issues on the Iranian side that are of concern me and need to be monitored.

First, one of the reasons the deal has been so popular is that Rouhani and his negotiators have been able put the right ‘spin’ on it. On Sunday Rouhani claimed that the deal recognizes Iran’s right to enrich uranium and that Iran’s “enrichment activities will continue unchanged.” Similarly, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi, claimed the deal does not require Iran to change the “structure of its nuclear program”. In short, Iran gave up little, and the West realized that Iran could not be bullied. Not surprisingly, this narrative clashes with one being peddled in the West. US Secretary of State, John Kerry was quick to claim that Iran’s right to enrich uranium was not conceded, and the future scope of Iran’s nuclear program remains to be negotiated. Moreover a central part of the western narrative is that pressure works and that Washington is still able to apply pressure if it needs to.

Of course, both sides need to sell the interim deal to their respective public audiences, but they have to be careful in the way they do it. Neither side lives in a vacuum. The press in both countries is already reporting back on how the deal is being spun by the other side, and the Iranian Foreign Ministry is disputing the American interpretation of the deal. The two sides are likely trying to coordinate their messages, but it’s their opponents who set the tone of the discourse. For instance, the more the Republicans trash the deal, the more Obama has to defend it, even if it hurts Rouhani’s position in Tehran. This problem will likely get worse as we enter the next stage of negotiations.

Second, it is not clear how this deal or a final comprehensive settlement will impact the balance of factional power in Tehran. Khamenei has played the role of balancer in Iranian politics since taking over as leader. He makes sure competition does not get out of hand. None of the factions are allowed to get too strong, or too weak, and if a member of Iran’s political elite rises too high, Khamenei knocks them back down again. This is what happened to President Ahmadinejad, Khamenei’s erstwhile favorite, after the 2009 elections. Will Khamenei have to do the same to Rouhani?

In the short term this deal will give Rouhani a lot of political momentum, particularly if it translates into economic relief for the average Iranian. Although the interim deal only offers modest relief from sanctions, Iran’s currency has already jumped up a few percentage points relative to the American dollar. If a final deal is negotiated, and it ends all of the nuclear related sanctions, which is what the Iranian negotiators are demanding, he will be a hero. Given the divisions that exist between Iran’s elite, this could be destabilizing and the Leader may feel compelled to intervene.

Things have not progressed to that point yet, and perhaps they won’t. So far, Khamenei seems to be managing the situation by supporting Rouhani on foreign policy, but letting him fend for himself on domestic issues. This might continue to work. If it does, though, it might mean that the cost of a nuclear deal is stagnation on the human rights front.

Third, the last time Iran and the US were close to rapprochement was in the aftermath of 9/11. Just as the two sides were working together to put Hamid Karzai in power in Kabul, the Karine-A was intercepted carrying Iranian arms to the Palestinian Authority. The affair undermined Khatami’s credibility and gave hawkish neo-cons the excuse they needed. A few weeks later Iran was part of the axis-of-evil and the ‘new beginning’ in American-Iranian relations was still-born.

It is unlikely that there will be a repeat of this type of incident in the immediate future. Khamenei has warned Rouhani’s enemies not to interfere, and while Iran’s conservatives do not always do exactly what he tells them to, it is unusual for a member of Iran’s elite to publically defy him. In the longer term, though, the situation could change. If the final negotiations get bogged down to the point where Khamenei appears to lose faith, some conservative elements may feel they have licence to undermine the process.

Conversely, if things are going well, and Rouhani’s popularity increases to the point that his conservative enemies fear for their political survival, they may decide it is worth risking Khamenei’s wrath. This would not be without precedent. In the mid-1980s, as Ayatollah Ali Montazeri and Mir-Hossein Mousavi were losing political ground to Hashemi Rafsanjani and Ali Khamenei, Montazeri’s son-in-law leaked details of the Iran-Contra Affair to the Lebanese press even though the deal had Ayatollah Khomeini’s blessing. In this case the ploy back-fired. The whistle-blower, Mehdi Hashemi, was executed. And, rather than embarrassing Rafsanjani and Khamenei, the incident accelerated Montazeri’s fall from grace. This seems like it would be a hard lesson to forget, but the precedent is there.

Fourth, the interim agreement lays out the final comprehensive solution in broad terms: nuclear related sanctions will removed, Iran will be allowed to maintain a nuclear program consistent with its obligations under the NPT, and there will be strict supervision. However, the details have been left vague. Hammering them out will not be easy. Moreover, if there is a deal, some parts of it will have to be approved by the Iranian Majlis (parliament), such as the IAEA’s additional protocols. Like Obama, Rouhani faces a hostile legislature which has no desire to hand him a political victory. Rouhani will need Khamenei’s continued support to clear this hurtle.

To complicate things further, it is also unclear what a comprehensive deal would mean for Iranian-American relations. The interim agreement avoids saying anything that would sound like a ‘grand bargain.’ However, as long as Tehran remains hostile to American interests and allies in the region, it will be hard for the US to give up the most potent sanctions in its arsenal. At the same time, while Khamenei may want an agreement on the nuclear issue, he is not anxious for a real rapprochement with the US. In many ways, normalizing relations with the US would mean the end of the revolution and the beginning of a period of political uncertainty. If Khamenei is going to continue supporting Rouhani and his team as they negotiate a comprehensive settlement, they will somehow have to find the sweet spot between these two positions, “frenemies,” as Akbar Ganji puts it. It will not be easy.

Rouhani, Sanctions, and the UN

A guest post by James Devine:

Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, has created quite a stir as he departs for the 68th session of the UN General Assembly. Word has leaked that he has exchanged letters with US President Obama. In an interview last week with NBC he stated bluntly that Iran would never build a nuclear weapon. He subsequently published an editorial in the Washington Post calling for dialogue and imploring the West to take advantage of the opportunity provided by his surprising election. He has also managed to secure the release of numerous political prisoners detained in the wake of the 2009 riots.  On September 18th it was prominent activist Nasrin Sotoudeh and eleven others, then yesterday 80 more were reportedly set free. Rouhani was expected by most observers to be a quiet and cautious, but he has moved quickly and created a buzz reminiscent of Muhammad Khatami’s first calls for a “dialogue of civilizations” in 1997.

Skeptics have argued that this is little more than tactical maneuvering. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Rouhani a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” while others maintain that the regime in Iran is simply trying to wiggle out from under sanctions. According to them, Iran’s new flexibility is a sign that the tough approach is working and now is not the time to go ‘wobbly,’ as Margaret Thatcher would say if she were alive today.

This reading of Rouhani’s overtures, however, would be an oversimplification. Rouhani and the people around him have been making the same arguments since the 1990s, long before the current sanctions crunch. Rouhani is the protégé of the pragmatic former President, Hashemi Rafsanjani, and part of a loose coalition that includes Khatami and other reformers. He is a regime insider, but he represents a current within the elite that believes that Iran’s best interests will served by working with the West rather than looking east toward China and Russia. Their desire to improve relations with the West is not simply a tactic, it is a different perspective on Iran’s foreign relations—at least different relative to what we have witnessed for the last eight years.

Skeptics will be quick to counter that while this may be so, the only reason Rouhani is being allowed to pursue this vision is because the Iranian conservatives who hold the real power are feeling the economic pain. Once the pressure is off, they argue, the moderates will be reined back in and it will be business as usual. There is a great deal of truth to this argument. Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, has supported Rouhani’s initiatives at home and abroad so far, but he has probably not been converted to this way of thinking. Rouhani has political momentum after his upset electoral victory. If Khamenei were to oppose him now he would risk a popular backlash. What is more, he would take the blame for the continuation of sanctions.

Khamenei is being tactical, but if the President’s charm-offensive succeeds, the Leader’s stratagem may backfire and he may find himself trapped in a process he hadn’t intended to get so far. Rouhani has taken ‘ownership’ of the sanctions issue. He campaigned on easing sanctions during the election and has continued to emphasize the issue since taking office. He has also organized intellectuals and merchants in an international letter writing campaign. While the letters may not sway Washington or the Europeans, the campaign gives those who participate a stake in Rouhani’s policies and rallies support for his leadership. If he can claim any sort of success on the sanctions issue his political momentum will increase and it will be more difficult for Khamenei and the conservatives to oppose him in the future. Easing sanctions may reduce the outside pressure on the conservatives, but it will increase the pressure coming from the inside. Conversely, ignoring his overtures will doom him to the same fate as Muhammad Khatami, whose reform movement floundered when it failed to produce results and it supporters grew disillusioned.

Rouhani’s Cabinet

Guest post by James Devine:

Since Hassan Rouhani’s election, Iran watchers have been keenly anticipating his cabinet nominations. How this process plays out will likely yield valuable information about how Rouhani plans to deal with the polarized domestic political environment, what kinds of policies he hopes to purse, and how aggressive his conservative adversaries will be in their opposition.

On Iran’s political spectrum, his choices ranged from pragmatic conservative to moderate reformers. They all have plenty of experience, but none of them have had very high political profiles. The balance he is trying to strike should probably not be too surprising; he is trying to satisfy the Reformers and Greens who backed him after Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was disqualified from the elections, without waving any red flags in front of the conservative bulls in the Majlis (parliament) or the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, who have been making threatening noises about “seditionists” in the new government.

No one really expected him to pick high-profile reformers like former president Muhammad Khatami. Nevertheless, there was a possibility that he might reach across the aisle, so to speak, and pick a few more moderate conservatives as a gesture of good faith. It is still likely, though, that former long-time Foreign Minister, and Khamenei favourite, Ali Akbar Velayati will play an important role in Rouhani’s administration. It has been speculated he would take over as chairman of the Supreme National Security Council, a position that would also make him Iran’s chief negotiator on the nuclear file.

The choice of Ali Jannati for the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance is particularly interesting. The ministry plays an important role in controlling the media and freedom of speech, and therefore sets the parameters for allowable discourse within the Republic. Jannati is considered close to Rafsanjani but he is the son of prominent conservative cleric Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, the head of the Council of Guardians. This type of delicate balancing is typical of Iran’s complex factional political system. The younger Jannati may lean toward the reformist side but he is still tied to the regime by his relationship with his father, whose name Rouhani likely hopes will provide him with some political cover.

Rouhani’s choices are also suggestive in terms of foreign policy. Mohammad Javad Zarif, his nomination for Foreign Minister, is American-educated and has experience dealing with the United Nations and the US government. He has a reputation for favoring dialogue with the US, and is a logical choice for Rouhani, who has made easing sanctions a key foreign policy goal. Similarly, including Mahmoud Vaezi in the cabinet makes sense. Vaezi was expected by some to have Zarif’s job, but landed as the Minister of Information and Communication Technologies. Vaezi is one of the more conservative members of Rouhani’s political team, and mistrusts the US. Nevertheless, he is a former Deputy Foreign Minister dating back to the Rafsanjani era and has experience with both the Europeans and the Americans. Perhaps most interesting, he also has wealth of experience with the Saudis, having played an important role in the rapprochement that was achieved between the two states in the late 1990s. Rouhani has made improving ties with Saudi Arabia another one of his goals.

In the same vein, Bijan Namdar Zangeneh was likely chosen as Petroleum Minister to help smooth relations with Riyadh. Zangeneh held the same post earlier under Mohammad Khatami when he was brought in to undo the damage caused by his abrasive predecessor, Gholam Reza Aghazadeh. Zangenah helped negotiate a land-mark price-bandwidth deal with the Saudis in 2000. He will be asked to perform the same trick twice since the outgoing minister, Rustam Qassemi was also considered somewhat heavy-handed.

Finally, another name worth noting is Mahmood Sariolghalam. Sariolghalam did not receive a cabinet nomination but was tapped to become Rouhani’s Foreign Affairs Advisor. Sariolghalam is close to Rafsanjani. Moreover, his foreign policy outlook is decidedly Western-oriented. While Ahmadinejad and the hard-liners around him believed that Iran’s future lay in the east, through building up regional influence and courting China, Sariolghalam sees the US and Europe as Iran’s natural partner. Choosing such an advisor is a significant indicator of Rouhani’s inclinations.

What all of this means in practice is still anyone’s guess. Not only will it be difficult to make any substantive changes in Iranian policy, he still has to get his cabinet selections through the conservative dominated Majlis. Khamenei has reportedly seen the list and did not object. This may mean that Rouhani’s nominations will get a smooth ride through parliament, though that is hard to imagine. The conservatives will likely want to send Rouhani a message right away. Khamenei may therefore be leaving the dirty work to the deputies in the Majlis and the critics in the conservative press. That way, he can remain above the political fray. He can try to present himself as a neutral arbiter among the factions, and if the public reacts negatively to conservative opposition, he can avoid direct blame.

Even if he wants to give Rouhani some space, the rest of the conservatives may not be willing to go along with the program. As the last few years of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency demonstrated, the conservatives themselves can be an unruly bunch. They may lash out at Rouhani regardless of Khamenei’s wishes. Indeed, the election exposed the depth of the divisions within conservative ranks. It may take them a while to gather themselves and formulate a coordinated plan for dealing with Rouhani. After all, it took the conservatives nearly two years to figure out how to deal with Khatami when he was elected.

One way or another, the next few weeks will be telling.

Will the Egyptian Coup Affect Other Islamist Groups?

In the aftermath of the Egyptian military’s overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood government, observers have started to wonder what effect the coup will have on Islamist groups throughout the region. Shadi Hamid argues that the coup will have “profound implications for the future of political Islam, reverberating across the region in potentially dangerous ways.” It could well, he continued, convince such groups that participation in the political process is unwise. Less apocalyptically, Barbara Slavin contends that “Morsi’s removal is a warning that Islamic parties cannot count on religious identity alone to govern successfully and need to work constructively with others.”

The juxtaposition of these two pieces highlights the difficulty in trying to understand the coup’s potential consequences for the kinds of decisions other Islamist groups might make. But short of direct knowledge of the discussions Islamist leaders are holding behind closed doors, we cannot know for certain what drives their decisions. A glance at the history of Islamist involvement in pluralist politics suggests that the response is likely to be diverse and not a simple “no to elections.”

First, the specific countries or actors used for comparison matter. Hamid looks only at al-Qaeda, a group that has never suggested it might engage in the political process or that it should lay down its arms for a trial run at democracy. There’s no evidence that jihadist groups will change much of their behavior because of the coup. Alternately, will they plan more attacks out of fear they are on the defensive? Target more governments? Perhaps, but it’s also likely they would have done so if countries were becoming more democratic anyway, without the participation of Islamist parties.

Will McCants suggests that of comparable groups that do decide to participate, Salafi parties tend to be too radical and small to obtain broad support within the political system and so can participate without having to face the kind of choice the Brotherhood did. What Salafi violence might be precipitated seems due as much to intra-Islamist politics as anything else. (McCants continues that it’s too early to draw firm predictions.)

Slavin considers Turkey and Iran. But in the former, the AKP split off from the more hardline Welfare Party and may already have been undergoing a mild internal struggle over the character of the party. In fact, the military coup that ousted the first Islamist Prime Minister, Necmettin Erbakan, and the subsequent campaign to shut the party down convinced Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that participation in the democratic process was quite necessary. In Iran, the government is structured along a strict but specific interpretation of Shia Islam as conceived of by Ayatollah Khomeini that none of the main actors within the state want to change.

Second, the history of Islamist groups in the Middle East suggests that coups or similar “shocks” against them or Islamist parties in other states haven’t prevented non-jihadist groups from participating in democratic processes. In December 1991 the Algerian military cancelled elections in which the Islamic Salvation Front appeared to be doing very well, leading to a vicious civil war that lasted into the 2000s and killed over 100,000 Algerians. In 1997 the Turkish Armed Forces removed the first Islamist Prime Minister, Necmettin Erbakan, and then proceeded to purge Islamists from government, the bureaucracy, and the military.

Yet in 2002 the Justice and Development Party (AKP by its Turkish acronym) participated in national Turkish elections. In January 2006 Hamas participated in Palestinian elections. After its victory, Israel, the United States, Canada, and others began to hold back funds they had been channeling to the Palestinian Authority; after Hamas’s takeover of Gaza in June 2007, Israel—again supported by the US and Canada—imposed a blockade on the entire Strip. In July 2007 and then in 2011, the AKP continued to participate in parliamentary polls (winning the government both times). In 2008-2009 and 2012 Israel attacked Hamas in Gaza, forcing it to seek a ceasefire in both wars. And in the aftermath of the Arab revolutions, Islamist parties in Tunisia and Egypt actively participated in elections despite the fact that the military—once their nemesis—remained a powerful actor, while in Libya the process is complicated by the existence of both jihadist groups and parties that want to participate.

The evidence is only suggestive, but it’s enough to demonstrate that coups or similar shocks against Islamists haven’t precluded participation in subsequent democratic processes. But we need more than sweeping statements for effective comparisons, so that our conclusions are not skewed.

President Rouhani and Iranian Foreign Policy

Another important guest post from James Devine, in which he considers the foreign policy implications of the Iranian presidential election:

Few people predicted a Rouhani victory in yesterday’s presidential elections, even after he received the support of former presidents Muhammad Khatami and Hashemi Rafsanjani. On the whole, Iran watchers were resigned to the election of a loyal conservative. But now that’s he’s won the election, what does Hassan Rouhani’s victory mean for Iranian foreign policy? Probably not enough of a change to suit Washington, or Tel Aviv, or Ottawa; however, we may see some subtle changes that are nevertheless important.

On the nuclear issue, Rouhani will not likely alter that much in substance. The roots of Iran’s nuclear program are deep. While Tehran does not appear to have made the final decision to build a bomb, it has been putting the building blocks in place for more than 20 years. Its neighborhood is no less dangerous than it has been in the past, and the program has strong institutional support in the security services and Revolutionary Guard. Moreover, the peaceful development of nuclear energy has become a popular symbol of Iranian national independence. More, Rouhani is himself is tied to the program. He was chair of the Supreme National Security Council in its early days and Iran’s main negotiator on the issue for a period while Khatami was in power.

It is also unlikely that Rouhani will be able to improve Iran’s relationship with the Sunni Arab world. Although relations with the Saudis and the GCC improved while his allies Khatami and Rafsanjani were in power, the region is today too polarized for him to follow in their footsteps. Iran will continue to back the Asad regime in Syria and Sunni-Shi’a conflict in Iraq is on the rise. Even without these problems, Shi’a unrest in the Gulf will ensure that tension between Iran and the Sunni monarchs remains high. It is possible that having Rouhani in office may facilitate relations with Egypt to a degree, but this would still likely be limited by popular opinion within Egypt. To those who wish to isolate Iran, this is good news, but these tensions feed the violence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen and complicate diplomatic efforts on these and other conflicts.

If there is any room for substantive improvement, it might be Afghanistan. Iran’s interests are less diametrically opposed to western interests in the country. Iran has history of conflict with the Taliban, and it cooperated with the US in 2001 when the Taliban were overthrown, and again when Hamid Karzai was installed in power. The main issue dividing them, rather, has been mistrust.

Having said that, Iran will likely continue to hedge its bets by backing every group in Afghanistan willing to accept its support, and Iranian security forces in Afghanistan will be hard to rein in, even if Tehran wants to. What is more, the Iranian government received a Taliban delegation only a week ago, suggesting it is moving even further way from the western position.

Where there likely will be a change is in the tone of Iranian foreign policy. The substance of Iranian foreign policy may be dictated by regional dynamics and the constraints of domestic politics, but the way that policy is carried out may change. Rouhani campaigned on his ability to avoid needless conflict, so it is unlikely that he will be calling for Israel’s destruction or denying the Holocaust. Just as importantly, we will likely see different faces in the Ministry of Foreign Relations. Each Iranian president has brought his own people into this ministry.

When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came into power, many professional diplomats were replaced by fellow ideological travelers and cronies. Few of them had much experience. Rouhani will probably lean heavily on former members of the Rafsanjani and Khatami administrations. It would not even be surprising to see former Foreign Minister and conservative presidential candidate, Ali-Akbar Velayati, return to his old post. He and Rouhani have worked together in the past, and Velayati is trusted by Ayatollah Khamenei and the conservative elite. Like Rouhani, Velayati was also critical of Ahmadinejad’s controversial statements. This type of change may seem trivial given the events unfolding in the region, but it is not. There is a difference between managing conflict carefully and pouring fuel on the fire.

We may also see is a little more coherence in Iranian foreign policy. Since the revolution, Iran has had a difficult time speaking with one voice. This will likely continue under Rouhani. Conservative opponents will remain in control of the Majlis, and Khamenei’s leadership style is to let his underlings compete amongst themselves and only intervene when necessary. However, if Velayati is on board the administration would bridge the divide to a degree and it would be harder for conservative opponents to criticize policy if it was associated with someone so close to Khamenei.

If Rouhani’s election will make any difference, it will also depend in part on how the west responds. If the west wants to take advantage of these subtle differences, there may be some modest gains to be had. It is also worth noting that foreign policy success strengthened Khatami’s domestic position early in his presidency. Working with Rouhani may, then, be one way for the west to strengthen the moderate current inside Iranian politics. However, if the west decides that modest gains are not enough, and pushes for fundamental policy change, it does not matter who the president is: only Khamenei can make those types of decisions.

Politics and Pathologies in Israeli National Security Decision Making

Yesterday in The Atlantic I wrote about the politics and pathologies in Israeli national security decision-making, with a specific focus on the National Security Council.

Here’s how it starts:

Imagine this: Israel strikes Iranian nuclear facilities, destroying some and damaging others. Iran fires missiles back at Israel and “activates” Hezbollah on the northern border. Hamas, deciding this is an opportune moment, starts shooting its own rockets into the southern and coastal areas of Israel.

This is an entirely plausible scenario. It’s also one that Israel expects. What’s less clear is whether Israel has thought through the rest of the implications of a strike on Iran: the impact on the economy; the length of time citizens will need to be mobilized for military service; the reaction of its friends, allies, and neutral states; and how it will coordinate a multi-tiered response on all these fronts.

Follow the link for more.

Khamenei’s Gamble

Guest post by James Devine:

In a sense, the decision to reject the candidacies of Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s protégée, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie, was a safe choice. With them out of the way, the regime will be spared an inflammatory campaign, and none of the remaining candidates poses a threat to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. Nevertheless, it was a risky decision. Both candidates represent large and potentially powerful constituencies. In the face of economic sanctions, international isolation, and the Arab Spring, this might not seem like a good time to be alienating large parts of the population. It is likely though, that Ali Khamenei and his conservative followers thought out their moves quite carefully. In the short-term, their gamble is likely to payoff. The long-term however, may be a different story.

With Rafsanjani disallowed, the Green Party and Reform Movement are likely going to be in disarray. Rafsanjani was too much of a political insider to be their inspirational or intellectual leader. However, he had earned some respect by publically challenging the election results in 2009. He also gave them someone to rally around in this year’s election. With him gone, they may look to Hassan Rouhani as an alternative. However, he is probably too much of an establishment figure to inspire them. With the election route closed-off, the Greens and Reformers could take to the streets as they did in 2009. However they are nowhere near as organized as they were then.

Moreover, the regime has been remarkably effective at containing them since 2009. It has kept their leadership isolated, and journalists and activists have been arrested and intimidated. Indeed, as the elections have approached; the regime has acted preemptively, closing down newspapers and detaining activists. It is betting that without an election campaign to rile them up, and without leaders to call them out to battle, the Greens and Reformers will simply stay home. If there is any trouble, it will be isolated and manageable.

In the short-term, the regime may be right on this score. However, Rafsanjani was the last link the regime had to a large part of the population. Many of the Greens and Reformers have given up on the political system, but some still believe the Islamic Republic can be fixed. In the long-term, the regime may need these supporters. It is also possible that given time, they will get themselves sufficiently organized to be a real threat. The regime’s biggest advantage so far has been that the liberal opposition is too divided to act effectively. Some want to fix the system, some want to overthrow it and many are in between. The Council of Guardians may have finally given them common cause. The message they have just sent is that there will be no change, incremental or otherwise.

Ahmadinejad and his Islamic “neo-conservatives” are likely to be more of an immediate problem. In his eight years, Ahmadinejad has aggressively promoted his supporters, particularly in the security services and the interior ministry. He is therefore in a good position to be disruptive and he has never been one to shy away from a fight. Indeed, he has already challenged the decision to reject Mashaie’s candidacy.

Nevertheless, Ahmadinejad’s followers are all supporters of the Islamic Republic. They have internalized the ideology of the revolution and their political futures are tied to the continuation of the system. They are therefore unlikely to ally themselves with the Greens, or in any way try to overthrow the government. In the short-term, Khamenei is likely gambling that they will make some trouble, but that the regime will be able to ride it out. They will co-opt a few key members, arrest a few for corruption, and ignore the rest.

In the long-term though, this is a dangerous strategy, perhaps even more dangerous than alienating the Greens and Reformers. Ahmadinejad was the first real leader to emerge from outside the revolution’s original inner circle, and his followers are the Islamic Republic’s second generation of elite. Ahmadinejad also remains popular with the rural and urban poor, who make up the bedrock of the regime’s support. If the regime is not able to renew its elite, and if it alienates what’s left of its popular support, it risks the same fate as the ossified Arab Republics in Egypt, Tunisia and Syria. They could only rule by inertia and coercion for long.

Of course, the future is always uncertain, and Khamenei faces serious problems right now. In the short term, he is likely content to have the election fought over the economy. The candidates can debate which is more to blame: American sanctions or Ahmadinejad’s incompetence. As for the long-term consequences, people have been predicting the collapse of the Islamic Republic since 1980. They were wrong then; no doubt Khamenei is betting they will be wrong again.

Why Israel Struck in Syria

This weekend’s Israeli strike on Syrian targets is being given lots of attention by Western media and other analysts. As was the case with the January election, the tendency is to make assumptions and use Western prisms to explain Israeli behavior and from there assume many things about possible American behavior. This is normal to some extent, and the lack of complete information and Israel’s (relative) silence on the matter do make it necessary to guess. But a better sense of the history and decision-making processes behind Israel’s actions would lead to a more accurate explanation of the strikes.

First and foremost, the Israeli strikes on Syria are about preventing Hezbollah from obtaining “game-changing” weapons. In the most recent attack, this meant stopping Fateh-110 surface-to-surface missiles sent by Iran. Israel’s ability to maintain a decisive qualitative edge in military technology, resources, and ability to control the timing of any fight over its enemies is its own red line. If the Syrian civil war endangers this ability, then Israel will become “involved,” but it will remain a limited and specific involvement.

To the extent that there are always messages inherent in the foreign and security policies of states, yes, this was a message to Iran that Israel takes its red lines seriously and will act to reinforce them. But Israel has a long standing security posture that is very aggressive, relies on prevention and carrying the fight to others’ territory, and requires limited actions and reprisals designed to avoid escalation (though that certainly has happened at times). The strikes on Syria are only part of this historical pattern.

That pattern was seriously debated among Israel leaders at the beginning of the state. David Ben-Gurion, the towering figure of early Israeli politics (though he was physically short in stature) represented the more militarist position, arguing that military attacks on enemy targets were simply important tools of statecraft and even necessary. Moshe Sharett, the professorial-looking counterpart to Ben-Gurion, argued for a policy of moderation, contending that even limited strikes would lead to escalation and condemn Israel to years of fighting and undermine prospects for peace.

Ben-Gurion did not just defeat Sharett in that debate, but he succeeded in inserting his preference for limited attacks and counter-attacks into Israel’s security doctrine. The aim, he argued, was to degrade the enemies’ ability to attack Israel and let them know Israel would act to defend itself. It was also, in the form of larger assaults (1956, 1967), about getting the jump on its enemies before they would be able to harm Israel. With a small territory and population, Jerusalem’s believed that Israel simply could not withstand an invasion or an extended war.

In the first years of Israel’s existence, this military doctrine was represented by limited on-the-ground incursions into neighboring states. Ariel Sharon’s Unit 101 was created in 1953 for this very purpose, to strike swiftly at military targets and then slip back into Israel. Unit 101’s horrific attack on the Palestinian village of Qibya, in the Jordanian-controlled West Bank, in which many civilians were killed, let to its disbandment and incorporation into other special forces units. (This is also demonstrates some of the problems with even limited military actions.) Later, air strikes supplemented this strategy.

The growing threat of non-conventional weapons and the advances on weapons technology, particularly missiles and air defenses, has prompted Israel to modify this security posture to include a variety of other tactics, including a more active presence in other countries and hitting supply and transit routes and targets. But these, too, are mostly updated version of older policies.

Even more necessary is to avoid the temptation to use the Israeli strikes as the basis for arguing for American military intervention in Syria, whether by imposing a no-fly zone, ground troops to secure Syria’s chemical weapons, or some other action. This was especially the buzz on Twitter Saturday night when word of the attack came out.

But Israel’s abilities, goals, and responsibilities are very different from America’s. Israel has the ability to conduct limited and concise attacks on specific targets, and to engage in a brief war; but it doesn’t have the capability—and it’s doubtful it has the popular or political will anymore—to sustain a drawn-out presence in a neighboring country. Its goal is to prevent weapons and technology from reaching its primary enemy in this specific arena, namely, Hezbollah (the Syrian military is no match for Israel). It doesn’t see itself as responsible for everything else, including interfering in the succession process being played out so violently, protecting civilians from the horrific atrocities being committed against them, and influencing the outcome of the civil war and, from there, the region. All this is reserved for later consideration or others to deal with. Jerusalem defines its responsibilities, rather, as its immediate security needs and the near-term future effects of its actions.

Washington’s abilities are much greater, its goals are much broader, and its responsibilities are much bigger. Comparing Israel to the US under these conditions isn’t helpful for understanding America’s actions thus far or its capabilities for doing more. Adam Elkus tweeted a series of important ways that Washington can learn from the Israeli experience, but it’s about thinking in specifics, rather than too-general policy ideas.

Any analysis, then, that assumes Israel was acting to send a message to Iran, or that the strikes demonstrated the foolishness of the American position on imposing a no fly zone or other form of military engagement are flawed because they ignore the bases for Israeli policy.