Apr 16, 2012
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

Iran, the Arab Spring and the military option

Josh Linden, my classmate at Georgetown’s Democracy and Society MA Program, was kind enough to share with this blog his thoughts on using the military option against Iran. Here they are:

“After months of bellicose rhetoric and dispiriting reports on Iran’s nuclear program — all but confirming the private resignation among American and Israeli officials to the inevitability of military strikes — six world powers met with Iran last Friday for the first nuclear talks in over a year. The bar was set low, by all accounts, with the primary purpose to test Iran’s willingness to negotiate seriously, and in good faith. Having satisfied that basic condition, all parties agreed to continue the dialogue on May 23 in Baghdad.

Yet, there is a parallel thread in this ongoing saga that may ultimately prove decisive as world powers weigh their options: to what extent will Arab states support, passively or actively, coercive diplomacy or even aggressive military action?

 Nadim N. Rouhana addresses this question in a piece for Foreign Policy, using the Arab Spring and public polling data to challenge the conventional wisdom that Arab states view the Iranian nuclear program as a security threat. Rather than analyze Arab state behavior within the old framework of unaccountable rulers and elite interests, she writes that “the transformation in the relationship between Arab governments and their constituencies ought to be strongly factored into any discussion of a military approach to the Iranian nuclear question.” The implication is that the Arab Spring has fundamentally altered citizen-state relations to the point where Arab state policy will now better reflect the preferences and concerns of Arab citizens. Or put another way, regional governments may begin to reconsider their membership in the coalition to push back against the Iranian nuclear program.

It’s a tough sell, and the logic is less than convincing. There are two distinct, yet interacting arguments. First, drawing upon apoll by the Doha Institute, Rouhana points out that the Arab public, by and large, feels considerably less threatened by Iran than Israel and the United States. Further, a majority of those surveyed did not believe that Iran posed a threat to the “security of the Arab homeland.” The second — and more significant — argument, is that the Arab Spring has reoriented state incentives and directional lines of accountability. “Adapting to the sweeping changes of the Arab Spring requires a new paradigm about the Middle East, one that is cognizant and respectful of the democratic will of Arab public opinion,” she writes.

 Most observers, myself included, share Rouhana’s desire for an era of responsive, representative, and democratic governance in the Middle East. However, wishing for, and realizing, a democratic consolidation are two very different things. Though three regional states are undergoing historic transitions, it is wildly premature to presume that democracy is inevitable for any of them, much less that public opinion will be enough to dramatically reshape political incentives in countries whose previous institutions will not easily be washed away. And in the context of international security concerns — surrounding the particularly destabilizing issue of nuclear proliferation — democratic responsiveness is even less likely.

But there’s a more fundamental point: the translation of citizen preferences into public policy requires institutional mechanisms to capture public opinion, organize it into coherent coalitions, place those coalitions into positions of power, and negotiate according to incentives of those aforementioned political actors and alliances. None of the Arab states have shown the ability or willingness to follow this process, at least not on any sort of consistent basis. Even in countries that have regular elections contested by large political parties, accountability and incentives for those parties trend upward — toward the regime, in hopes of political and economic kickbacks — rather than downward toward citizen constituencies. The Arab Spring is a positive sign, but we should not mistake optimism and protest with a revolutionized political culture that will affect an issue as important as the Iranian nuclear program.

Still, going along with the assumption that Arab governments, having been shaken and destabilized by the Arab Spring, will now respond more consistently to the desires of their people, Rouhana’s main argument falls victim to one of the most common mistakes of political analysis: conflating opinion with priority. In other words, the Doha Institute poll that reveals Arab public opinion about Iran says nothing about how much those populations care about the issue, nor where they rank the Iranian nuclear program on their personal list of grievances or demands. And from what we’ve seen throughout the region, with protests organized primarily around issues of economic opportunity and political representation, I think it’s fair to say that the Iranian nuclear program is not the driving force behind Arab activism. Western leaders are wise to consider Arab government support before implementing any policy option toward Iran, and in the end, the outer limit of that support might indeed stop short of military action. But those calculations will likely still be made in isolation of democratic forces or processes, and instead serve the interests of the very people that Rouhana dismisses as the old guard: ruling families, regimes, and the client networks they have cultivated for decades.”

I agree with Josh that Rouhana might be going to far down the “wishful thinking” path. And I still can’t see a military strike against Iran being coordinated amongst any nations for the same reasons as always: none of them can afford the potentially explosive consequences of such an action. The Arab Spring may have in fact increased the risks of destabilizing the region, since many nations are going to be in a very fragile state for a while.

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1 Comment

  • Equally as important, the US is very unpopular in the Middle East, especially Egypt. This is another reason it’s difficult to believe that leaders in the region will go along with a US-led policy to contain Iran.

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Founded in 2004, Democracy and Society is a biannual print journal published by the Center for Democracy and Civil Society at Georgetown University. The D&S Blog provides web-only content, including special reports and investigative series, on issues relating to democracy and development.

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