The Inertia Option on Iran is Still the Best

I hope Iran policy makers in Washington and Europe are reading histories of that world-changing year, 1989. I hope so because the time has come to do nothing in Iran.

By Roger Cohen

Published: Mon 21 Dec 2009, 9:29 PM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 12:51 AM

As Timothy Garton Ash has written of the year Europe was freed, “For the decisive nine months, from the beginning of Poland’s roundtable talks in February to the fall of the Wall in November, the United States’ contribution lay mainly in what it did not do.”

That inaction reflected the first President Bush’s caution and calculations. Its effect was to deprive hardliners in Moscow of an American scapegoat for Eastern European agitation and allow revolutionary events to run their course. The main difference between Moscow 1989 and Teheran 2009 is that the Islamic Republic is still ready to open fire. The main similarities are obvious: tired ideologies; regimes and societies marching in opposite directions; and spreading dissent both within the power apparatus and among the opposition.

Yes, the Islamic Republic has not arrived at a Gorbachevian renunciation of force. It is not yet open to compromise, despite calls for moderation from prominent clerics and now, it seems, from some senior army officers. It is still, in the words of the opposition leader Mir Hussein Moussavi, sending its Revolutionary Guards and Basiji militia to chase “shadows in the street.” I don’t know how long this situation can endure. Anyone who claims to be able to tell the Iranian future is lying. But it seems clear that the “political clock” has now outpaced the “nuclear clock.”

Iran has been messing around with a nuclear programme for some four decades. Pakistan went from zero to a bomb in about a quarter that time. Setting aside the still debatable objective of this Iranian endeavour (nuclear ambiguity or an actual device?), it’s not in the midst of the current political turmoil that Teheran is going to break out of its back-and-forth tinkering. Inertia is always strong in Iran’s many-headed system. Right now it’s stronger than ever — hence the risible, blustery confusion over a possible deal to export Iran’s low-enriched uranium.

All this says — nay, screams — to me: Do nothing. It is President Barack Obama’s outreach that has unsettled a regime that found American axis-of-evil rhetoric easy to exploit. After struggling, Obama has also found his sweet spot in combining that détente with quiet support for universal rights. Note the feminine possessive pronoun in this line from his Nobel speech: “Somewhere today, in this world, a young protester awaits the brutality of her government but has the courage to march on.”

I saw those bloodied women marching in Teheran in June and will never forget them. Their cause would be best upheld by stopping the march toward “crippling” sanctions on Iran. The recent House passage of the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act, which would sanction foreign companies that sell refined petroleum to Iran, is ominous. Rep. Howard Berman, who introduced the bill, is dead wrong when he says that it would empower the Obama administration’s Iran policy. It would in fact undermine that policy.

So would sanctions action from the so-called “P5+1” . When I’m asked where the “stick” is in Iran, my response is the stick is Iranian society — the bubbling reformist pressure now rising up from Iran’s highly educated youth and brave women. It would be a tragedy were Obama to weaken them. Sanctions now would do just that. Nobody would welcome them more than a regime able once more to refer to the “arrogant power” trying to bring proud Iran to its knees. The Revolutionary Guards, who control the sophisticated channels for circumventing existing sanctions, would benefit. China and Russia would pay little more than lip service.

As Elizabeth Shakman Hurd of Northwestern University has written, “the United States is empowering the dissenters with its silence.”

Sanctions represent tired binary thinking on Iran, the old West-versus-barbarism paradigm prevalent since political Islam triumphed in the revolution of 1979 as a religious backlash against Western-imposed modernity. The Iranian reality, as I’ve argued since the start of this year, is more complex. A leading cry today of the protesters in Iran is “God is great” — hardly a secular call to arms. These reformists are looking in their great majority for some elusive middle way combining faith and democracy. The West must not respond with the sledgehammer of sanctions whose message is “our way or the highway.” Rather it must understand at last the subtle politics of Iran by borrowing an Iranian lesson: inertia.

When the Berlin Wall came down two decades ago, Francis Fukuyama famously predicted “the universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” In Iran now, many of the forces of 1989 are present, but the reformists’ quest is not for something “Western.” It is more for an idea of 1979, an indigenous non-secular and non-theocratic pluralist polity. Obama, himself of hybrid identity, must show his understanding of this historic urge by doing nothing. That will allow the Iranian political clock to tick faster still.

Roger Cohen is Editor at Large of the International Herald Tribune. For comments, write to

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