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Regarding Iran: No Good Options on the Table
Conference panelists (from left) included UCLA Burkle Center Director Kal Raustiala, UC Irvine Chancellor's Professor Etel Solingen, Duke University political scientist Bruce Jentleson, and Charles Kupchan of Georgetown University. (Photos by Todd Cheney)

Regarding Iran: No Good Options on the Table

More than a dozen Iran specialists gathered at the James West Alumni Center on Friday, May 13, to discuss that country's politics and global relationships. Fast-moving events in the Middle East and suspicions about Iran's nuclear program dominated discussion before an audience of nearly 250.

UCLA Today

More than a dozen Iran specialists gathered at the James West Alumni Center on Friday, May 13, to discuss that country's politics and global relationships. Fast-moving events in the Middle East and suspicions about Iran's nuclear program dominated discussion before an audience of nearly 250.

Sponsored by UCLA's Burkle Center for International Relations, the conference delved into the recent uprisings in the Arab world, Iran's popular opposition Green Movement, Iran’s evolving relations with Turkey, China and others, and the uncertain ramifications of a U.S.-brokered deal with Libya in 2003 that ended that country's chemical and nuclear weapons programs.

Some speakers said that the Libyan deal, in light of ongoing NATO intervention there, could lead Iran's strategists to conclude that "when an opportunity arises for regime change, the U.S. will take it, deal or no deal," a view summarized by Paul Pillar, a U.S. intelligence community veteran who is now a professor at Georgetown University. Reuel Marc Gerecht, another former Middle East specialist for the CIA who is now with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, countered that the deal was invalidated by a moral obligation to stop Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi from bombing his own people.

Pillar also lamented what he described as a too-narrow focus in Washington policy circles on the nuclear issue, "as if the number of centrifuges spinning at Natanz was a measure of the entire relationship."

While Iran insists on the right to pursue nuclear power for peaceful purposes as a new energy source, Charles Kupchan, also of Georgetown University, argued that negotiations aimed at stopping Iran from enriching uranium are essential "because the failure of engagement leads us to extremely unattractive options." At some point the United States would face a choice between letting Iran acquire nuclear weapons and bombing the country, he said.

"The door should be open until the 11th hour," Kupchan said.

Abbas Milani, director of Iranian studies at Stanford University, makes a point. UCLA Law Professor Asli Bali listens.

The nuclear issue also hovered in the background during Friday’s debates about the stability of Iran's government. Former NATO commander and retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark, a senior fellow with the Burkle Center since 2006, judged Iran's regime to be "in a death spiral." Citing a lack of near-term solutions on the nuclear question, he counseled patience and the continued use of cyber warfare to "buy time." Last year, in what Clark called "the first really powerful offensive cyber attack," the Stuxnet computer worm, reportedly launched by Israeli or U.S. agents, set back Iranian work on nuclear enrichment.

During a panel discussion on the Iranian regime's stability, Stanford University’s Iranian Studies Director Abbas Milani said that, culturally, Tehran looks like "Prague before the revolution" with its underground music and theater scenes and frequent evasion of book and film censors. Also, the women's movement is extremely sophisticated, and the society at large is educated and connected to the Internet, he said.

"The prospects for change strategically are very, very ripe," said Milani, although it will still be difficult to bring the regime down.

On June 15, 2009, up to 3 million Iranians assembled in the largest anti-government protest loosely organized by the Green Movement. Remarkably, the spontaneous protest featured no looting or violence, noted Karim Sadjadpour, an associate at the Carnegie Endowment. But so far, the Green Movement has not succeeded in the way of popular revolts in Tunisia and Egypt. Sadjadpour attributed that to the ruthlessness of the regime, which is not beholden to allies supplying military aid, and the lack of a single goal uniting protesters.

"The opposition needs to have some type of leadership which articulates clear demands for Iran's future," he said.

Commenting on Iran's internal politics, American Enterprise Institute fellow Ali Alfoneh concluded that "the Islamic Republic of Iran is very fast developing into a military dictatorship." Since 1997, membership in the Revolutionary Guard, he said, has become "the one single factor elevating people" both to political office and to leadership roles at universities, newspapers and businesses. When Iran's state-owned telecommunications company was privatized, the Revolutionary Guard demonstrated the ability to veto a legitimate private bid in order to promote bids by two shell companies.

While solutions are hard to identify, RAND Corporation political scientist Dalia Dassa Kaye said that the United States needs to nourish democratic alternatives in the region. A healthy "counter-model" in Egypt, for example, would do a lot toward undermining Iran's prestige in the Arab world, where people have sometimes seen the theocratic state as uniquely willing to stand up to the West.

"That no longer resonates when the Arab people themselves are overturning their governments," she said, adding, "We should be focused on our allies, on political reform, on the transitions that have been started in this Arab Spring."

Nearly all of the speakers expressed pessimism, at least in the short term, about negotiations between Iran and the United States.

Top row, from left: Reuel Marc Gerecht of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Mike Shuster of NPR News,  Trita Parsi of the National Iranian American Council, Burkle Center Director Kal Raustiala, and Charles Kupchan and Paul Pillar of Georgetown University. Bottom left: Jon B. Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Bruce Jentleson of Duke University, Deborah Avant and Etel Solingen of UC Irvine, Mahsa Rouhi of Harvard University, UCLA's Asli Bali, Burkle Center Senior Fellow Wesley K. Clark, Ali Alfoneh of the American Enterprise Institute and Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment.

Trita Parsi, founder of the National Iranian American Council, argued that a window of political opportunity for the Obama administration has passed. UC Irvine Professor Etel Solingen explained that Iran is a tough nut to crack because it is not only authoritarian, but fundamentally "inward-looking" and uninterested in better integration in global networks of trade. This makes historical precedents for rapprochement more difficult to find.

"China wanted to open up to the world economy, and Nixon obliged. It was a perfect match. You don't have that at all in Iran," Solingen said.

Mahsa Rouhi, a nuclear security fellow at Harvard University, said that negotiations have also been hampered by the West's reluctance to offer specific concessions to Iran. Instead, U.S. and European negotiators made the suspension of uranium enrichment a precondition of broader talks on regional security and other issues, she said.

"What is the international community willing to compromise?" asked Rouhi. "No one knows."