US support for ME uprisings depends on whether they can be used against Iran

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, Race for Iran, February 23, 2011

Our friend David Frum published an interesting post, “America Can’t Afford to Ignore the Chaos in Bahrain”, see here.

David makes some points with which we agree, as when he writes that “An entire American carrier battle group is based in Bahrain—there is no way the United States can avoid being implicated in the actions of the Bahraini government.” But we were disturbed by his bottom-line policy recommendation for the United States:

“Always and ever: Iran is the big play in the Middle East…Every regional decision has to be measured against the test: Is this moving us closer to—or further from—a positive change in the Iranian political system? That test should guide decisions about Bahrain and about a lot more than Bahrain.”

One of the reasons we were struck by David’s recommendation—and keep in mind that he is one of the most prominent and thoughtful neoconservatives to be found—is that it already seems to have been taken on board by President Obama and his administration (though they have not explained it anywhere near as clearly as David did). On that point, David Sanger of The New York Times told National Public Radio’s Diane Rehm on Friday, see here, that President Obama believes the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere “could create an alternative narrative to Al-Qaeda and an alternative narrative to Iran that the United States ought to make use of”.

It is in this context that we should understand why the Obama Administration, literally seven hours after Omar Soliman announced that Hosni Mubarak would step down as Egypt’s President after all, called the White House press corps back in and, as Sanger put it, “all but urged the protestors” in Iran, such as they were, “to get out and do more”. The Administration has clearly decided, as America’s strategic position in the Middle East erodes before our eyes, to “push back” against the Islamic Republic, in multiple ways.

Some of those ways will be more feckless attempts to manipulate Iran’s internal politics—as with the Obama Administration’s exhortations for domestic unrest in Iran. We were appalled to learn recently that the Administration is considering lifting the MEK’s designation as a foreign terrorist organization.

On that point, Bill Clinton’s Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, retired U.S. Army General Hugh Shelton, added his voice to those of retired generals James Jones—President Obama’s former national security adviser—and Anthony Zinni, calling for the MEK’s rehabilitation, see here. Shelton argues explicitly that Iran could exploit the wave of pro-democracy protests in the Middle East, and that, to forestall such a scenario, “Iran’s current regime is currently a government that needs to change”.

We have told every Obama Administration official and member of Congress with whom we have discussed the matter that it is hard to imagine a dumber, more counter-productive change in America’s already deeply dysfunctional Iran policy than to lift the MEK’s designation as a foreign terrorist organization and start supporting it as the “vanguard” of some mythical expatriate Iranian opposition. This would make the reliance of the Clinton Administration and the George W. Bush Administration on Ahmad Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress as the keys to successful “regime change” in Iraq look enlightened by comparison. But the chances of this happening are, sadly, increasing.

In its desperation to look like it can still shape events in the Middle East in some meaningful way, the Obama Administration is looking for other ways to press the Islamic Republic. Just a few days ago, Steve Coll—Pulitzer Prize-winning author and president of the New America Foundation—broke the story in The New Yorker that the Administration has started secret, preliminary talks with the Taliban, see here.

From an Iranian perspective, this is simply one more indicator of America’s unique combination of perfidy and incompetence in Afghanistan. During 2001-2003, the Islamic Republic provided substantial cooperation to the United States in its efforts to unseat the Taiban from power in Kabul and destroy Al-Qa’ida in its Afghan sanctuaries. Iran cooperated with the United States, in part, on the basis of U.S. representations that Washington wanted an independent and stable Afghanistan which would not be under the sway of the Taliban and its chief external backers, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

But Iranian officials warned that local populations would see a prolonged U.S. military presence in Afghanistan as occupation—a judgment borne out by subsequent events, as greater geographic penetration by U.S. forces since 2006 and the deployment of additional U.S. troops since 2009 have correlated directly with an escalating spiral of violence and instability. This, in turn, has once again empowered the Saudi- and Pakistani-backed Taliban, which has clearly made a comeback—to a point where Afghan President Hamid Karzai, now seemingly joined by the Obama Administration, judges that the only basis for a political settlement is power sharing with the Taliban.

As we have experienced directly, this leads Iranian policymakers to question not just America’s intentions in Afghanistan, but also its competence—and with good reason. If Karzai and the United States move forward on power-sharing with the Taliban, without engaging the major non-Pashtun factions (many of which have close connections to the Islamic Republic), it could, as Coll notes, “ignite a civil war along ethnic lines”.

And it is becoming apparent that the Obama Administration will back the Bahraini royal family in whatever level of brutality seems necessary to keep Bahrain in the “American camp”. In other words, the Obama Administration is responding to the wave of popular unrest across the Arab world by intensifying its pursuit of the sorts of policies that have so thoroughly alienated most of the Middle East’s inhabitants from U.S. foreign policy in the first place.