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Brookings Institution’s Michael O’Hanlon on Iran and Iraq, and American policy there.

Thursday, June 25, 2009
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HH: I’m joined now by Michael O’Hanlon. He is a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., a frequent guest here. Michael O’Hanlon, welcome back to the Hugh Hewitt Show.

MO’H: Thank you, nice to be with you.

HH: Good to have you. Now tell me, Michael, do you think the game is over in Iran, that the mullahs have won this round and have repressed the dissent?

MO’H: Gosh, I think they probably will keep the dissent from overturning the election, if that’s what you mean. However, I hope I’m wrong, obviously, and I don’t feel that these are the sort of things that anybody is good at predicting, and certainly not me in regard to Iran. So I would be delighted to be proven wrong. Secondly, I don’t think anything will ever quite be the same, even if as expected now, Ahmadinejad remains president. I think that a number of things will change, including Iran’s impression that it is somehow the most important player in the Persian Gulf. I think this hurts the legitimacy of the Iranian regime quite a bit in that regard. And I also think it may strengthen the reformers to the future in Iran, or at least I certainly hope so. And that’s going to be a process that plays out for a long time. So in the short term, yes, they’ll probably suppress this, but I’m not going to declare them the winners. I think in reality, they’re going to hurt themselves in a lot of ways, thank goodness, with this rigging of the election.

HH: Now there were again violent, bloody protests in Tehran today, as the Basij just have, there’s tape now of them just firing as they flee crowds…wildly into the crowd. And who knows? You’re right. Revolutions can run their own course, and if the people of Iran surge back into the streets, there’s very little that can be done to do that. But what about Western governments? What should they be doing? I applauded the President’s statement last night. I’d like more of the same. What do you think the West ought to be doing, Michael O’Hanlon?

MO’H: Yeah, I think you’re right. I mean, I don’t expect that any Western policy is going to make a big difference, but I do think that we support values of democracy, human rights, transparency elections that are not just American values, I think they’re universal values. They’re certainly endorsed by a large number of countries around the world. And so it doesn’t have to be the ‘Great Satan’ endorsing this kind of process. It can be America speaking out on behalf of human rights everywhere. I think that should be the policy, even if we can’t be confident that it’s going to produce any immediate short term impact. I think sometimes, maintaining the consistency of a message has its own value, because then people around the world know that there is a champion of those values, or hopefully, more than one champion. And that’s the minimum requirement. Frankly, it’s not that hard to do. It shouldn’t be that hard for us to do that, because we’re simply repeating the great values that we believe in, and have supported in this country for a long time. And President Obama’s very good at rhetoric and speechmaking, so he should be able to do it. And as you say, he’s done a pretty good job the last few days. I was not as impressed at first. But I’m not predicting that the right choice of words will make a huge difference in the short term on the ground, but I still think it’s the right thing to do over the longer term.

HH: Now Michael O’Hanlon, you’ve been to Iraq on many occasions now, and the Ayatollah Sistani, the grand Ayatollah Sistani, is the undisputed leader of the Shia in Iraq. What is the role that he is playing that you can discern, if at all, in the current upheavals throughout Shia Islam?

MO’H: Well, I was reading some studies of Iraqi Shiism the other day, and you know, I think it’s basically a decision of Iraqi Shia that they’re not going to try to link their religious roles to the state the way the Iranians have. And so in that sense, they really believe in the separation of church and state at one level, which may sound a little funny, since Iraq is so predominantly Muslim. But on the other hand, they really seem to want to stay out. And I don’t believe that the grand ayatollah has played any role to speak of in this process, except by example, and you know, except by the way he conducts himself. And I’m a bit of an admirer of this guy. I wish he was easier to speak with and meet with. And he doesn’t like to speak with Westerners, and he doesn’t allow himself to be seen by TV cameras. But he still has a quiet inspirational role, and I think that’s about it in terms of what he’s doing in this particular set of events.

HH: While we’re talking about Iraq, let me get a question in. There are reports that in Fallujah and other places, barely beneath the surfaces, the American troop presence withdraws, there are rumblings of renewed sectarian violence. What are you hearing, Michael O’Hanlon?

MO’H: You know, I think I know what you’re referring to, and I think it was a New York Times story today.

HH: Yeah.

MO’H: It wouldn’t be sectarian violence in Fallujah, because they’re all Sunni Arabs. And that’s…I think the story was a little bit of a stretch. I think that a few times in 2009, there have been spikes in violence. And there was another terrible attack today in Sadr City, as you know, which is all Shia, and was perhaps planted by a Sunni. But in any event, it was in an all-Shia part of town. Yes, in a broader sense, there’s always the worry about sectarian violence restarting. But every single time we’ve seen a newspaper account acknowledging this possibility in 2009, it’s turned out that it was sort of a blip on the statistics, and if you then just waited a couple of weeks, things would even out, and Iraq would return to this sort of semi-violent, semi-normalcy that’s become the new normal in Iraq. And it’s not a great, easy place to live. It’s still one of the more violent countries on Earth. But the violence really has not been going up this year despite the predictions that it would, and despite the few bombings here and there that made people believe that it was starting to do so. We’re not out of the woods in Iraq, but so far, any time we’ve had this worry that we’re seeing a renewed upsurge in violence, it’s actually not been proven out by the ensuing events. And I certainly hope, of course, that’s the case here.

HH: I’m talking with Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution. Now let’s turn to Hamas and Hezbollah, and the impacts on these Iran-sponsored terrorist organizations, of the instability in Iran. What are you looking to see develop with these basically proxies of the mullahs in Iran, Michael O’Hanlon?

MO’H: Well you know, that’s very interesting, and that’s a place where this debate that President Obama sort of gave fuel to last week when he said he wasn’t sure how much it mattered who won, a comment I wish he had never made. But that’s still one of the issues that that comment leads you to debate. You know, some people would say Mousavi and other Iranian leaders support Hezbollah and Hamas themselves, they support the nuclear program in Iran themselves. They would basically be more or less the same kind of person to deal with, maybe in some ways more complicated because it’s kind of a smoother, gentler face on a still aggressive Iranian regime. However, I think that there’s the possibility for chance. And there’s a possibility that some of these revolutionaries have mellowed with time and with their observations that Iran’s role in this kind of a radical revolutionary way throughout the region hasn’t really brought their country any benefit. And so I would like to test out a different style of leadership and see if in fact they’re a little bit more willing to restrain the support for Hezbollah or Hamas, or especially recognize Israel, be willing to recognize Israel in the event of a peace deal. I think we have to assume that it’s an open question. The Iranian people are smart, they take in information, and they adjust their policies and their behavior accordingly. And my guess is that Ahmadinejad and Khameini have become outliers, and a lot of Iranians, while still not friendly to us, are more reasonable. And so the support for Hamas and Hezbollah, while it probably would not be cut off, might go down under a different leadership.

HH: Excellent. 30 seconds, Michael O’Hanlon, are we going to stop this North Korean ship? Should we?

MO’H: I don’t think so. I think you save that for when you know there are nuclear materials on board, or highly suspect there are nuclear materials aboard. I don’t think you do it for routine contraband, because it is an act of war. And I’m not sure it makes sense to escalate them that way.

HH: Michael O’Hanlon from Brookings Institution, thanks for spending some time with us. We’ll check back with you again as these developments continue to unfold.

End of interview.

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