The odds are bad

A colleague asked me yesterday what I thought about the Iran protests. I am naturally inclined to support Iranians who want to end what Bret Stephens calls the kleptotheocracy in Iran. But I do so with eyes open to the bad odds. Here is why I don’t anticipate success:

  • The demonstrations lack mass. While it is difficult to judge from abroad, all reports suggest that the numbers of protesters are relatively small. The literature suggests that something like 10% of the population needs to be mobilized in order to achieve success. That would be 8 million people in Iran. It is doubtful we are anywhere near that threshold.
  • Nonviolent discipline is lacking. Many of the daytime protests are nonviolent, but after dark some turn into riots, including attacks on property and security officials. You cannot expect restraint from the security forces if you are shooting at them, or even threatening them or attacking private and public assets. Nor can you expect to reach 10% mobilization. Successful civil rebellions require a determined commitment to nonviolence.
  • The allegation of foreign conspiracy is credible, even if not true. The loud statements of support for the demonstrations from the Trump Administration, which has ignored human rights issues elsewhere (Egypt, Turkey, the Philippines, Russia) and blocked Iranians from coming to the US, has made it easy for the Islamic Republic to tar the protests as not only non-Iranian in origin but also originated by Iran’s enemies.

I do not regard the following as important factors in determining success:

  • Lack of unified leadership. Mass nonviolent rebellions can be successful without unified leadership, which can even become a vulnerability. Pick off the leaders and the rebellion may deflate.
  • Few demonstrations in Tehran. Successful rebellions often start outside the capital, where the security forces are often stronger and more loyal than in the provinces. They bend easier there, refusing to use force, than in the capital.
  • The protesters are working class. Middle class mobilization can be much more difficult, because the regime will have co-opted many with jobs and perks. The economy has rebounded since the Iran nuclear deal lifted some sanctions, but the benefits haven’t trickled all the way down. It is disappointed economic hopes and joblessness outside the capital, not poverty levels, that are driving forces.
  • Pro-regime demonstrations. These may smooth the egos of the Supreme Leader and the President, but they won’t have much impact on popular opinion, especially as they are likely bought rather than spontaneous. If your boss orders you to get out in the street, doing so is not a reflection of popular will.
  • Failure so far of the IRGC to intervene. The regime is allowing President Rouhani to try to weather the protests and re-establish order without the kind of repression used in 2009, which is smart. If he fails, the hardliners will be happy to see him weakened. No one should doubt that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) will do its job to protect the regime if necessary.

Despite the laudable commitment of the protesters to criticism of the regime’s corruption, impatience with its theological excess, and opposition to its foreign adventurism, I am not sanguine. The Islamic Republic still has the political will, popular support, and brute force to protect itself and survive. The best that is likely to come of these protests is a broader political debate in Iran about how the Republic spends its resources.

That would be a very good thing. But it will only happen if the protesters are wise enough to cut back on the violence and avoid an IRGC crackdown.

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Iran options

There are now some ideas out there about how the US should respond to the protests in Iran. Dubowitz and Shapiro, Michael Singh and Eli Lake have chimed in. Here’s my compilation of their and other proposals. I don’t mean to suggest I support these, only that they are options. I’ll clarify my own views in a later post.

Two things should be clear from the outset: any US effort will be far more effective if it has broad bipartisan and international support, and only Iranians can determine how this episode ends.

  1. Consistent bipartisan public and diplomatic support, including at the highest level. This is what the Trump Administration is doing, with tweets by both the President and the Vice President. Congress might chime in with a resolution. President Obama could contribute his charisma and organizing skills. The US government’s broadcast networks will join in. The idea is to encourage protest against a regime the US finds oppressive, corrupt, and aggressive, in the hope that it will either modify its behavior or fall to the popular will. This public support could focus on revealing corrupt practices and documenting unjustifiable arrests by the Islamic Republic’s security forces, including objecting to them in diplomatic contacts. Public and diplomatic shaming of this sort will be more effective if some countries relatively friendly to Iran can be convinced to join in. Today’s meeting of the UN Security Council provides an opportunity for that.
  2. Sanctions against human rights abusers, corrupt officials and enablers. The Global Magnitsky Act and other US legislataion makes this pretty easy: the President needs only to name names to block their financial resources and travel. Treasury has started with entities linked to Iran’s ballistic missile program. While there aren’t a lot of Iranian officials putting their savings in US banks or visiting the Washington Monument, listing them gives other countries pause as well. If the Europeans join in such designations of individuals, that would greatly amplify the impact. Likewise high officials of the regime who have been welcome in the West and its media could be given the cold shoulder until the repression stops. The US could also levy sanctions against companies that supply Iran with repressive apparatus or help Tehran to block internet communications, and encourage the Europeans to join in.
  3. Encouragement to tech companies to keep its channels to Iranians open. I’m a bit perplexed what this means in practice, but Karim Sadjadpour is pushing it so it must be a good idea. If there are ways for the tech companies to circumvent or reduce the impact of the Islamic Republic’s efforts to block internet and social media communications, there is obvious virtue in encouraging the companies to do whatever is possible. That should include not taking at face value Tehran’s blackballing of individuals to remove them from social media, and blocking any censorship efforts beyond the confines of Iran.
  4. Heightened visibility and costs of Iranian activities in the region. One aspect of the protests is criticism of the Islamic Republic for spending the nation’s resources in Syria and Yemen rather than benefiting Iranians at home. This complaint could be encouraged by greater attention in the international press to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ sponsorship of Hizbollah, Shia militias, Hamas, the Houthis and its other proxies, as well as more effective efforts to counter them on the battlefield.
  5. Reduced diplomatic ties. The US can’t do this, because it only has a interests section in the Swiss Embassy that handles minimal essential services as well as diplomatic communications. But it could encourage the Europeans and others to lower the level of their representation.
  6. An end to the visa ban on Iranians. This move by the Trump Administration lends credence to the Iranian regime’s claim that the US is prejudiced not only against the regime but also against Iranians. Vetting of Iranians for US visas is already vigorous. The ban could be lifted to signal support for Iranians while opposing the regime.

None of these moves would do more than marginally increase pressure on Tehran. All would require US diplomacy to enlist the support of many other countries, something President Trump’s egregious behavior towards many of them has made far more difficult.

As Karim Sadjadpour puts it, “change will not come easily, or peacefully, or soon.”

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Great temperament

I hope the relevance of this more than two-year-old video is clear enough a day or two after President Trump threatened nuclear war against North Korea and went ballistic over the comments of a former White House adviser whom he fired. We needn’t mention his constant threats against the media, Hillary Clinton and her staff, and the Justice Department, the FBI, and even his own Attorney General. The man loses his cool faster, less appropriately, and more publicly than any president I can recall (that’s back to Truman).

Does it matter? I am told that President Obama, smooth and calm to a fault in public, in fact lost his temper and frothed at aides in private. I witnessed Vice President George H. W. Bush lose his temper over trivia on a visit to Brasilia, while I was waiting to brief him on the far more important issue of Brazil’s nuclear program. Nixon was acerbic, anti-Semitic, and vengeful in private and not much better in public. Truman wrote a scathing letter to a critic who savaged his daughter’s singing. I’m pretty sure Bill Clinton and George W. had their moments too.

Trump is different. He is angry much of the time and likes the effect his volatility has on others, so he flaunts it. He figures it helps him get his way. He thinks his berating of Iran for its crackdown on demonstrations will help the protesters. He has attributed North Korea’s willingness to talk with South Korea to his angry outbursts against Kim Jong-un. He imagines his criticism of China for failing to do more to restrain Kim will get Beijing to do more.

This tactical use of anger may work with Trump’s underlings, but it won’t with his international peers. “Insane,” the word foreigners are using to describe the President, is not a compliment in diplomacy. Nor does it necessarily mean he is crazy. What it is meant to convey is that he is not logical, rational, or reliable. His conclusions don’t follow from the premises, he reacts emotionally, and what he will do is unpredictable. On top of that, he is vain, conceited, and egotistical. He treasures compliments, overestimates his own influence, and resents slights.

One day Trump calls Pakistan his good friend, a few weeks later he is proposing to cut off hundreds of millions in assistance to Islamabad. Never mind that the US needs Pakistan’s cooperation to supply American forces in Afghanistan. He avoids any greater involvement in Syria than Obama but one day decides to react to Bashar al Assad’s use of chemical weapons with a massive cruise missile attack. Months later the chemical weapons are still being used without any US response. Where are all those critics who though Obama did not follow through sufficiently?

Trump may well stumble into war. Bullies have an inclination to escalate. But he has done zilch to prepare the United States for war with North Korea or Iran: no PR or Congressional campaign, no removal of US civilians from harm’s way, no argument in the National Security Strategy for the use of force, no nothing really. If he were to initiate hostilities with Iran or North Korea, I imagine he would have a hard time with both the public and the Congress, which simply are not ready for it, and of course much of the country would see the move as an effort to distract from the Russia investigation.

That of course is well understood in Tehran, Pyongyang, Beijing, and elsewhere. Trump’s intemperate threats are by now so empty of serious content that no one takes him seriously. He has few friends around the world. With the exception of Israel and Saudi Arabia, America’s allies wouldn’t support a military move against either Iran or North Korea at this point. Neither the ayatollahs nor Kim Jong-un seem much concerned, though both enjoy using a hostile Trump to encourage anti-American patriotism. China is meanwhile enjoying the fruits of Trump’s mistakes: the withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and his quiescence in the South China Sea.

Temperament matters. Like his America, this President’s is not great.




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Rouhani’s moment of truth

Ed Joseph, having asked some questions Tuesday, answers today: 
So now the true cause of the Iran protests emerges: an unprecedented release, possibly by President Rouhani himself and possibly due to new regulations, of secret parts of the Iranian budget revealing expenditures for pet hard-line projects like the country’s religious institutes.  This much more plausibly explains the intense anger of the protesters than vague, ‘disappointed expectations.’  Here’s how one protester recorded his reaction to the budget: “It made me angry,” said Mehdi, 33, from Izeh, a town in Iran’s poor Khuzestan Province, who asked that his family name not be used out of fear of retaliation. “There were all these religious organs that received high budgets, while we struggle with constant unemployment.”
Unfortunately for Rouhani, public anger appears equally distributed at him and the hard-liners.  A popular chant making the rounds is, ‘Reformers, Hardliners, the game is now over!’  So, even if the protests eventually fizzle out, some damage is likely permanent: the end of the dominant paradigm of an Iran caught in a struggle between ‘reformers’ (Rouhani, Zarif and their associates) and ‘hardliners’ (Khamenei, the religious establishment, the IRGC and their associates and henchmen.)  It certainly appears as if Iranians from across the country, even from rural areas thought to be bastions of support for the regime, discern little difference between the two erstwhile factions — indeed, see them as co-conspirators in a corrupt governing enterprise that impoverishes the people.
This means that it’s now Rouhani’s moment of truth: either stand up and distinguish himself from the hardliners, or die a death of irrelevance.  Yes, Rouhani would risk the wrath of those hard-liners, but now is the time to incur that risk, gambling that he can get the public on his side at this dramatic moment.
Here’s an imperfect historical precedent.  In 1968, widespread student protests rocked Communist, dictatorial Yugoslavia.  The usual police response failed to subdue the protesters.  Tito, rather than intensify the crack down on the students, watched for a bit and then sided with them.  “The students are right,” he famously said.  This took the wind out of the protests.  Some time later, Tito jailed the instigators or otherwise banned them from the Communist party, a course of action that Rouhani need not follow.  True, Tito was ‘supreme leader’ and Rouhani is not.  But given the stakes for Rouhani — and for his country — perhaps this could be inspiration.  What does he have to lose except his tattered reputation?
If Rouhani fails to find his patriotic mettle, then what replaces our guiding paradigm for understanding Iran?  After all, it was the hope for evolutionary change guided by reformers like Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif that undergirds the ten-year time limitation on enrichment technology development in the Iran nuclear deal. The idea was that the lifting of sanctions and improvement of the economy under the deal would create space for Rouhani, Zarif and others to wean Iran away from isolation and regional destablization, and ultimately, from the need to pursue nuclear weapons.  Up to now, the need to ‘support the reformers’ has restrained US policy on Iran.
This month is the deadline for Congress to act on President Trump’s October decision not to certify Iran’s compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the Iran nuclear deal, or JCPOA)  How will the protests influence how Republicans approach the issue?  Predictably, Trump and Pence are already seizing the opportunity to impugn the Obama Administration, which stayed quiet, out of caution, during the widespread 2009 protests.  Will Republicans take their anti-Obama obsession to the next level, and imperil the JCPOA itself?  Another question is how the protests will color the views of Democrats and Europeans who don’t want to kill the nuclear deal, but now have a weaker basis to sustain belief in it.  Without the Rouhani moderate vs. Khamenei paradigm, the core arguments left are tactical and tentative: ‘if we kill the deal, then we make the protests about us’ and ‘the deal still beats the alternative.’  That could embolden the JCPOA’s opponents and wreck Rouhani’s most important achievement.


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Size doesn’t matter

President Trump outdid The Onion yesterday, tweeting:

North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the “Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.” Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!

Apart from the obvious stupidity of engaging in a fourth-grade ego contest with a nuclear-armed dictator, this tweet alone demonstrates how unfit Trump is to be president. Let’s consider the reasons why:

  1. Kim’s warning that he now had nuclear capability (and implicitly could hit the US mainland with it, not only US troops in South Korea and Japan) had been issued two days earlier, not just before this tweet. Trump is often criticized for acting too quickly, but one has to wonder whether his TV schedule is allowing enough time for intel briefings, never mind reading a newspaper.
  2. North Korea is a lot less “depleted and food starved” than once it was. Kim has improved its economic performance notably, even if the benefits are largely swept up by a small elite. Does that sound familiar?
  3. American nuclear weapons are unquestionably more powerful than whatever Kim has got, but the real issue is whether Trump is willing to risk loss of Los Angeles or New York (never mine Washington DC). Any US threat or attack, conventional or nuclear, could escalate in that direction.
  4. The world sees tweets like this one as demonstrating that the President is not rational. Who wants to be allied, or even friendly, with a nut?

Size really doesn’t matter. Kim has what he needs: enough credibility for his nuclear and missile capabilities to deter the US from either attacking or pursuing regime change. Nor does he need to turn to those capabilities in the first instance. He has also got a more than credible conventional threat to rain artillery shells on Seoul and much of South Korea, killing hundreds of thousands if not millions of people, wrecking the world’s 11th largest economy, and ending the long peace in East Asia.

Kim’s problem is that he can’t be sure Trump is rational. The Administration likes to advertise this uncertainty as an advantage. No one really knows what the President will do, which he presumes will make them think twice before crossing him.

That however is not how things really work. Uncertainty in international relations makes people hedge. South Korea is doing that already by trying to open an “Olympic” dialogue with the North, which Kim has accepted. If he can open some space between US war threats and South Korean jaw-jaw, Kim will have achieved a great deal. The US will be marginalized from issues on the peninsula and reduced to a second-rate player in the Asia Pacific, where Trump has already ceded trade (by withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership) and the South China Sea to Beijing dominance. Kim will hedge too, turning to Russia to replace the support he has traditionally received from China, and trying to work something out on the economic front with the detente-seeking administration in Seoul.

Trump’s blustering and bullying is self-defeating. The Administration has been successful in tightening UN Security Council sanctions on Pyongyang. The President’s tweet will undo a good deal of the benefit from that significant achievement. He is isolating and weakening the United States, not to mention risking nuclear war. When will the Republicans in Congress wake up to their responsibilities?

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Excellent guide to a decaying enterprise

My friend Harry Kopp and his co-author John Naland have encountered a perfect storm in launching their third edition of Career Diplomacy: Life and Work in the US Foreign Service just as interest in State Department careers collapses and the institution itself goes through unanticipated trials in a new Administration that took office after the manuscript was finalized. It’s a shame the likely market of Foreign Service aspirants has contracted, because this book is a fine testament to the glories and challenges of Foreign Service life. It really is a life, not just a career.

Caveat emptor: I spent 21 years committed to it, moving my family every few years and occasionally risking life and limb in service to the United States. Mine were admittedly great posts: Brasilia once and Rome thrice, plus being Sarajevo’s most frequent visitor during the last year of the Bosnian war and two stints at the State Department working on global energy and later European issues. Harry Kopp was my deputy chief of mission in Brasilia. We also went to the same big high school but didn’t know each other then.

You won’t find a better or more readable account of the US Foreign Service as an institution, profession, and career than this. I’ve delayed publishing this review because I found the book so interesting I read it all with some care. You’d think 21 years would suffice for me to become my own expert and able to skip a few things, but I still found this book put things in a structure that enlightens. It also includes vignettes based on interviews with active duty and recently retired diplomats that illustrate in personal terms important themes.

Harry and John Naland, whom I don’t know, are keenly aware of the Foreign Service’s not always illustrious history and try to keep it in focus as they discuss its present and possible future. Even without the Trump Administration, there were already a big question marks:  what is to become of an institution, profession and career in the digital age of wide open access to information, an age when women and minorities are claiming their rights and everyone is expecting better and more equal treatment? How does diplomacy deal with civil war, insurgency and terrorism, all of which are a far cry from the state-to-state relations that traditionally dominate diplomatic discourse?

Those questions have become enormously more complicated with the advent of the Trump Administration. Diplomats thrive on objectivity, accuracy, and reliability. They seek to strengthen the country’s position internationally, or at least protect its vital interests and slow its relative decline. What is the fate of the Foreign Service in an age of Fake News, when America’s president thinks the country has to be made great again and tries to upend its alliances and the norms-based international order America constructed so assiduously after World War II?

I won’t pretend to have the answers. What I’m sure of is this: as presently constituted and in this Administration, the Department of State and the Foreign Service that staffs so much of it are not today well-equipped to meet these challenges. As Kopp and Naland suggest, the Foreign Service needs more training and less conformity, more risk-taking and less reliance on tradition, more innovation and less continuity. Instead, our diplomats are being ensconced in well-protected fortresses that prevent them from doing what many of them joined the Service to do: get out and talk to foreigners, understand other cultures and countries in depth and on their own terms, and use that knowledge to further US interests.

In Brasilia more than 35 years ago, I was the science counselor of the US embassy. Brazil has forsworn nuclear weapons and its barriers to computer imports have changed, though I suppose the Amazon is still a sensitive issue. I would have new tools available: access to the internet and much better and cheaper communications. But I would still want to do what I did more than three decades ago: visit laboratories, climb over and around nuclear facilities, attend a missile launch, speak at universities, take a small boat with Brazilian scientists to the meeting of the waters at Manaus.

Terrorism has made that kind of outreach perilous, and “Benghazi” has made the State Department more nervous and risk-averse than ever. The Trump Administration is cutting both staff and budget. The Pentagon, used to running risks and endowed with far greater and rapidly expanding resources with which to meet them, is taking over large swathes of diplomatic work, making State every more beholden to military priorities and perspectives. The diplomatic career is appealing less, others are encroaching on the profession, and the institution is enfeebled. The Foreign Service this book so ably describes is in trouble.

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