Seizing The Moment For Reform In Iran

Thousands of Iranians continue to rally in support of opposition leader Mir Hussein Moussavi despite an often violent government crackdown. Robert Kagan, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says President Obama has an opportunity to help spark democratic change in Iran, but he must act now.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Since the disputed presidential election last June, hundreds of thousands of Iranians have taken to the streets in protest, despite beatings, arrests and killings. In today's Washington Post, columnist Robert Kagan argues that these demonstrators present President Obama with a opportunity for a tear-down-this-wall moment, a brief chance for transformational change in Iran and throughout the Middle East, and a real chance to deal with Iran's nuclear ambitions before it's too late. He writes: The odds of regime change are higher than the odds that the present regime will ever agree to give up its nuclear program.

If you have questions about the risks and prospects for a regime change in Iran, give us a call: 800-989-8255. E-mail us: talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Robert Kagan's most recent book is "The Return of History and the End of Dreams." And there's a link to his column on Iran at npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION. He's here with us in Studio 3A. Always nice to have you on the program, Robert.

Mr. ROBERT KAGAN: (Columnist, Washington Post; Author) Thanks. It's good to be back.

CONAN: And while you're arguing in favor of regime change, it's important to point out you're not advocating a U.S. military offensive.

Mr. KAGAN: No, not at all. And, I mean, we have an opportunity, I hope, to be able to provide assistance and mostly verbal and maybe communications assistance in addition, perhaps, to some sanctions, tighter sanctions against the regime to help people who would like to see real reform in Iran who have taken the streets and risked their lives, and in some cases, lost their lives to pursue this cause.

CONAN: There had been a sort of calculus before these demonstrations erupted, which you write about in the piece, that the regime was very unlikely to give up its nuclear ambitions under any circumstances and there was very little possibility for regime change.

Mr. KAGAN: That's right. I mean, what's happened since the elections of June has upset a lot of calculations, including my own. I must - I would never have thought I didn't - I saw no signs that the Iranian regime was unstable before that. But now, I think if you look at the probabilities - and, you know, people ask, well, what are the odds of overthrowing the regime? Well, I don't know exactly.

I just feel like they're better than the odds that this regime, the present regime is going to give up its nuclear program, partly because in this ongoing struggle to hold onto power, I think the regime believes that getting a nuclear weapon is a critical element to holding onto power.

CONAN: And you say that if they do get it, it would, well, tend to bolster their support within the country.

Mr. KAGAN: They think that it'll be great victory. They're not the only ones. There are other dictators around the world. You know, you can look at North Korea, who also believed that getting a nuclear weapon is good for internal political control, as well as for gaining greater respect in the world.

CONAN: Yet to see that manifest itself in North Korea. But any case, we'll have to see how this plays out in Iran. There is also the case you argue that if the United States and President Obama seizes that tear-down-this-wall moment, it might deter an Israeli airstrike.

Mr. KAGAN: Yes. I mean, I think that if you look at the various alternatives out there for policy, one is diplomacy. I think that's unlikely to work. If diplomacy doesnt work, I think we're all aware that Israel is impatient and worried, and I think understandably so. If you were leaving in Israel, you'd be worried about an Iranian nuclear weapon.

CONAN: All you need to do is listen to the speech that President Shimon Peres gave at the Auschwitz story - anniversary today.

Mr. KAGAN: Right. And that's Shimon Peres, not Benjamin Netanyahu. I mean, this is a broad spectrum of opinion in Israel that believes they cannot tolerate Iran having a nuclear weapon. And so Israel's certainly contemplating a military strike. I think, therefore, if you look at those options, right now the best option is to use whatever influence we can to get real regime change in Iran.

CONAN: Part of the reason the administration is focused on diplomacy is not necessarily that they think it can work, but that they could bring China and Russia along to impose those meaningful sanctions you're talking about.

Mr. KAGAN: That's exactly right. I mean, one thing that Obama - the Obama administration and President Obama himself has certainly done, and I think quite effectively, is demonstrate to the world that the problem is not the United States. It's the leaders in Tehran who don't want to make a deal. Now they're engaged in negotiations to try to get some kind of Security Council resolution. I think we'll know by the end of February, roughly, whether Russia and China really want to play ball.

My fear is they dont. I don't think China has any interest in imposing sanctions, and I'm suspicious that Russia does, too. At which point, the administration will have to turn to its European allies and carry out sanctions that are, you know, just the United States and the EU.

CONAN: A coalition of the willing, to coin a phrase.

Mr. KAGAN: Well, yes. We don't want to go back there, but right. Yes.

CONAN: Well, you also talked about the prospects for transformational change. And, again, that's a phrase that will cause some people to think, well, the last time we heard about the prospect for transformational change, things did not go so well.

Mr. KAGAN: Well, the vocabulary is, you know, all words that we want to use are eliminated. But what I'm talking about is, just imagine the effect if you did get a political reform in Iran and the people who want to have an open system and want to move away from this rigid totalitarian Islamic theocracy - if they succeeded, what would the effect be in the Islamic world, in the greater Middle East?

Iran is such an important country. Its people are so vibrant and likely to be extremely successful. It really would, I think, have a transforming effect in the region and throughout the Muslim world.

CONAN: The - as we've seen, the protesters have considerable support on their side, but the government does too. Would you be afraid that, in fact, you might be calling - asking the president to call on the people in Iran - asking the United States to call on people to Iran - in Iran to rise up only to fear that they will be struck down?

Mr. KAGAN: I don't think the Iranian people are going to be responding to American calls. They are doing - they are taking their lives in their hands by themselves. What they're looking for, and we know this is true, is the sign that the world is with them, that the United States wishes them well, that the United States can be helpful if they want help. But we're going to see when they have the revolution - the revolution anniversary coming up in February -people are going to take to the streets if they want to. It has nothing to do with what the United States does.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. Our guest is Robert Kagan. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And let's start with Tom(ph). Tom with us from Clover in Wisconsin.

TOM (Caller): Good afternoon.

CONAN: Good afternoon.

TOM: I guess my concern is that, you know, there's already, you know, instability, you know, with the Green Revolution. I don't see, you know, continued saber rattling as helpful. It seems like outside forces would get the people in the street to say, well, wait a second. You know, let's push out against these outside forces. I think good things are happening. We should, you know, be supportive. But, you know, the last moves we made, I think, already -you know, when we made chats about regime change in the past, you know, led Iraq, strengthen Iran...

CONAN: Well, Tom, when you talk about...

TOM: I think there's some unforeseen consequences of getting involved.

CONAN: Well, let me just point out. When you talk about saber rattling, it implies a military threat, and Mr. Kagan said specifically he does not want to make a military threat.

TOM: Oh, I mean, come on. I mean, it's like if we don't do something, then Israel will attack. I mean, you know, I don't buy it.

CONAN: Robert?

Mr. KAGAN: Well, I'm sorry you don't buy that Israel might attack. I mean, look, you raised a very good question, which is, you know, what is the effect of an American president saying history is on your side, which, by the way, President Obama has already said. He has made some comments suggesting that he and the American people are on the side of the opposition protesters. As far as I could tell, their reaction to that has been that they're very happy about it.

I don't think that anyone can believe that Barack Obama intends to invade Iran or means the Iranian people ill. And I think that they welcome - you know, he's such a significant figure in the world. I think they welcome his support and would like to see more of it. So it's reasonable to ask whether this would be harmful. But I think we've seen evidence that it's not harmful.

CONAN: Okay. Tom, thanks very much. Let's go next to - this is Sam(ph). Sam calling from San Francisco.

SAM (Caller): Hello. Thanks for taking my call. I'm glad that you're having this discussion with Robert Kagan. I think he made some really important points about the situation in Iran and how to deal with it. I agree with him that the grand bargain that people have talked about should not be with the regime, but the grand bargain should be with the Iranian people.

CONAN: All right.

SAM: And I agree with him that the ramifications of having a better or more responsible government in Iran, which I think is a possibility - I don't think it's unthinkable - by supporting the Iranian people, I think that that would be the best option in Iran. Some people might - you know, some of the supporters of the regime might say that that's not doable. But I would say, you know, if you look at the support that the U.S. and the American people and Europeans gave to Nelson Mandela in South Africa, or to Lech Walesa and others in Eastern Europe, I think that was critical. And that's all that the Iranian people need.

I don't think - I don't know of any Iranians who are supporting a military attack. But the Iranians do want international support. I would like to see what Robert Kagan has to say about that.

CONAN: Let me just briefly say, the grand bargain is Iran would abandon its nuclear ambitions in return for diplomatic normalization of relations, open trade, greater open. So that's the grand bargain that is being described. Robert.

Mr. KAGAN: That's right. Well, I mean, what I have to say is that you put it better than I did and you should be writing the column. I thought that, you know, you put it exactly right.

The United States and Europeans have frequently placed themselves on the side of people seeking democracy whether it's in Ukraine or, you know, Georgia or elsewhere at critical moments. We have the Rose Revolution and the Orange Revolution and now, there is the prospect of a Green Revolution in Iran. And I think that it is important to the Iranian people to know that a country like the United States is on its side. And I also think there's more that we can do.

For one thing, all the efforts that the regime in Iran is making to make it impossible for people to use their cell phones or to communicate via the Internet, there are ways in which we can use our technological capabilities to make it easier for the Iranian people to communicate (unintelligible)

CONAN: And already have.

SAM: I agree with that. If you would allow me, I'd like to add just one short comment here. That there is - you know, some people make the argument against supporting - against the West and the Democratic countries supporting the by making the, I think, false argument that that would be interfering in internal Iranian affairs. I think thats quite false. The examples I would say would be like, again, the Anti-Apartheid Movement in South Africa that had worldwide support...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

SAM: ...including the American support...

CONAN: Eventually.

SAM: ...as well as, you know, international support for movement of Dr. Martin Luther King. I don't think anybody would consider the international support for Dr. King to be interference in internal American affairs.

CONAN: All right, Sam, thanks very much. Appreciate the phone call.

SAM: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with Robert Kagan about his article, his column in today's Washington Post, "How Obama Can Reverse Iran's Dangerous Course?" Youre listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And the prospect of an Israeli air strike is very real. I think that's true, what you say. Many people pointed out that it probably cannot be carried out without explicit United States permission if not aid.

Mr. KAGAN: You know, this is one of those discussions where, you know, I don't think anybody really knows what the Israelis could do, would do, want to do, don't want to do. So we're all in the realm of speculation here. I think that Israel would have to decide whether it wanted to notify the administration in advance or not. I can imagine the Israeli government thinking they would do the administration a favor if they didn't notify them, so the administration could say, hey, look, we didn't tell we didn't say they could do this. They just went ahead and did it. I think the Israelis believe they can do it without American...

CONAN: Without overflying Iraq.

Mr. KAGAN: ...without overflying Iraq, they understand. I mean, it by the way, one of the reasons that I'm a little bit worried about the Israelis strike is that it's a very difficult operation for them to pull off. They don't have the refueling capacity that American fighters have. They don't have the numbers. They don't have the kind of weapons that the United States would use. The bunker busting...

CONAN: And we're denied them by the Bush administration.

Mr. KAGAN: And we're denied then by the Bush administration. So it's a very difficult operation. I don't think the Israelis are under any illusion about that. But I don't think they are under an illusion either that theyre going to get American permission in advance.

CONAN: Email question from Mike(ph) in Portland, Oregon. Didn't the United States already interfere in Iranian politics before the 1940s and '50s using ostensibly non-military means, a CIA plot? Ad was that not a major factor in the rise of the current regime?

Mr. KAGAN: Yes. I mean, you know, when you think about American interference in many countries around the world, whether it's in Latin American or in some parts of the Middle East or in Asia, all the places of the United States has interfered over the years, you know, there's an endless cycle of interference. Sometimes we're interfering in ways that we now look back and wish we hadn't. Sometimes we're interfering in ways that we're glad that we did. There was interference in Central America that supported dictatorships and then there was an interference that supported turn to democracy.

I don't think the Iranian people would like us to compound the mistakes we may have made in the 1950s by now ignoring their pleas for support in their effort to gain political reform in Iran now. I dont think they would appreciate America now deciding that we have to be aloof now, when we could be helpful, just because we interfered in the way that they didn't like 40 years ago (unintelligible).

CONAN: And let's get another one more caller in. Rob, calling us from Richmond in California.

ROB (Caller): Yes. Hello? Dr. Kagan, I'm wondering if are the polls correct when they said the Iranian people want the nuclear program and do they realize that means the Iranian people are saying they want this totalitarian regime to get - which they oppose in en masse, that they want this Iranian regime to get nuclear weapons? If so, if they believe that, doesn't that undercut the hopes for a peaceful regime change?

Mr. KAGAN: Well, I think that, you know, you don't know what these polls really mean. You don't know what the Iranian people really think about these questions. But I think there is - you know, there are many people who believe that even those who opposed their regime might continue to support a nuclear program out of Iranian nationalist reasons or because, you know, Iran lives in a dangerous neighborhood, there's Pakistan and all these...

CONAN: And Israel.

Mr. KAGAN: ...and Israel, yeah. And I accept that possibility. My argument would be a new government in Iran which would be inevitably seeking to integrate itself into the international economy, would be seeking better relations with the United States and Europe and other countries, whatever else - even if it wanted to continue the program, I believe it would slow down, it might even put it on the shelf for a while this sort of mad rush to getting a nuclear weapon, which the present regime is on. I don't think a successor regime would pursue, even if they wanted to go forward in a nuclear program.

ROB: But do you think that the Iranian people actually believe that this regime is hell-bent on getting a nuclear weapons specifically?

Mr. KAGAN: I think that they are. I think that's not why they oppose it. I mean, if that's the point that youre making, I agree with you. They oppose it because they think that its going to become illegitimate as a result of the elections, and frankly quite a large number of Iranian people are tired of living in an Islamic theocracy like this. But I'm sure they are convinced that the regime wants to get a nuclear weapon.

CONAN: And briefly, as you look ahead to whatever sanctions may be announced, smart sanctions on the revolutionary guard and that sort of thing, is there something that would be a key to you that would indicate seriousness on the administration's part?

Mr. KAGAN: Well, I think the administration is serious about going ahead with sanctions. I think that they would like to get Russian and Chinese agreement, as we have discussed, which I think is going to be difficult. And then the question will be, can they move ahead anyway? The question is sanctions for what? And I think if you ask most of the administration officials, it would be sanctions to get a nuclear deal, not to get regime change.

CONAN: Robert Kagan, his column, "How Obama Can Reverse Iran's Dangerous Course," appears today in The Washington Post. His latest look is "The Return of History and the End of Dreams," and he was kind enough to join us today here in Studio 3A.

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