Archive for the Iran Category

The Iran-Israel Bottom Line

Posted in Iran, Israel and the United States, Middle East Conflict with tags , , on February 12, 2012 by whatafteriraq

The news that Israel may conduct a Spring attack on Iran to cripple its nuclear weapons program is a matter of considerable public policy debate, largely because of the consequences such an attack could have not only for the Israelis and Iranians, but for everyone else as well, including Americans. As the discussions in the last two postings here have suggested, the prospects and options that surround them are problematical, to say the least. Amidst this controversy, planning apparently goes on in Israel, where it has been a priority issue for some time now.

The b0ttom line question about this whole issue area is what the Iranians will do if they achieve nuclear weapons status. The basic contention of those in Israel (by no means all Israelis) is that the Iranians will use those weapons against the Israeli state with the express intention of destroying the Jewish state. The primary public evidence they cite for this contention is the continuing string of vitriolic, anti-Israeli, anti-Semitic rhetoric of the president of Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; presumably they also have clandestine intelligence reports that reinforce this contention.  Others are not so certain this evidence is compelling, either dismissing it as rhetoric that is intended for creating internal support for the regime or as “brave talk” that would dissipate should the Iranians actually get the capability.

The answer to the question is absolutely critical to the decision the Israelis ultimately make and to whether the world–and especially the United States–should endorse and support their decision and action. If the contention is true, the Israelis have a strong existential basis for their proposed action–preventing an Iranian nuclear capability is a literal matter of national life or death. In that circumstance, extraordinary action, quite apart from whether anyone else accepts it, can certainly be justified, and it is abundantly clear that those Israelis who have crafted and who support the decision believe that it is. The problem is that they cannot prove their contention.

The difficulty that surrounds the Israeli plan and that causes a lively, often rancorous debate is whether the Iranian threat to Israel is what the Israelis say it is or not. The heart of the problem is that the truth cannot be be demonstrated, since the events it seeks to avoid have not occurred. At heart, it is a matter of speculation, and it is a basic truth that nobody–not the Israelis, not the Iranians, or anybody else–does or can know that truth. The only empirical test is to allow the Iranians to get nuclear weapons and see what happens next.

This, of course, is a gamble the Israelis are unwilling to take, since the worst case prospect is the endangerment of their national existence. It is the nature of national security planning everywhere to try to glean and prepare to prevent the worst case threat to the country, and a threat to national existence is the worst possible case. That the Israelis would take this possibility seriously and try to prevent it is entirely reasonable.

The degree of sympathy and support for the Israeli decision depends critically on how likely others see the Israeli worst case and thus whether they are willing to accept the second-order consequences of an Israeli action. While Iranian rhetoric creates an argument for the plausibilityof an Iranian nuclear intention, there is, after all, contrary evidence. Nuclear proliferation is, after all, not a new phenomenon: since the United States first obtained nuclear weapons, eight others have joined, not including Israel, which does not publicly acknowledge its nuclear arsenal. All these acts of proliferation have been decried at one level or another on grounds that the new member would act irresponsibly (which generally means actually using their bombs), and to date, none have. Why is Iran an exception? Once again, from an Iaraeli viewpoint, it only takes one contrary action.

No one outside Iran wants Iran to get nuclear weapons, but there can be reasons other than destroying Israel that are driving their program. One is simple prestige and national pride: great powers have nukes, and Iran wants to be thought of as a great power. Another is to deter an attack against them. There has been a fair amount of opinion that the real motivation of the Iranians has been to avoid an American attack against them, and many argue that if Saddam Hussein had not suspended his program, the United States would never have invaded Iraq. The deterrence argument, ironically enough, has been redoubled in the face of the Israeli threat. Would Israel be talking about attacking a nuclear-armed Iran? Almost certainly not. The irony is that threatening to attack Iran may actually stimulate the clandestine program so that Iran can announce before such an attack that they now have the bomb and that Israel had better think twice. This is a most unsettling and destabilizing prospect, since it also gives the Israelis an incentive to attack before it is too late. As any student of nuclear weapons from the American-Soviet nuclear competition can attest, the idea is to reduce (preferably to zero) the incentives for nuclear actions, not to increase them.

Will Iran use nuclear weapons against Israel if it gets them? I don’t know, and neither to those on each side predicting the outcome. Probably the Iranians themselves do not know: they may think they have the answer, but it is within a far different context than that of actual possession. I also understand, and think everyone else should as well, why the Israelis are as obsessed as they are on the subject; unlike the rest of us, their national lives are on the line if the answer is negative. The question for those of us who are not so potentially directly under the Iranian nuclear gun is how far we are willing to go to support the actions justified by Israeli concern. Since that support has negative consequences for everyone (admittedly not as dire as those facing Israel), the answer is neither simple nor straightforward.


If Israel Attacks Iran, Options Get Worse!

Posted in 2012 Presidential Election, Iran, Israel and the United States, Middle East and US Election, Middle East Peace, Obama foreign policy with tags , , , on February 10, 2012 by whatafteriraq

Scenarios about the growing possibility that Israel will attack Iran in was would very likely be a feckless attempt to destroy the Iranian nuclear weapons program and more or less permanently to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapons capability were discussed in this space earlier this week (“Israel, Iran, and the United States”) and generally concluded both that such anattack was becoming increasingly likely and that it does not serve U.S. interests. This column takes the analysis a step forward, with the purpose of trying to answer the hypothetical (at least for the moment) question of what happens after such an Israeli strike occurs. As the title suggests, the attractiveness of post-attack options for the United States are unpromising.

The heart of the speculation that follows is what does Iran do in response to an attack? In a literal sense, of course, we do not and cannot know in advance, and neither do the Iranians or the Israelis, which is why it is an exercise in speculation. The reader can disagree with the premises here, and I cannot refute them with facts not in hand; the same is true for my arguments against counter scenarios.

Two things seem safe to presume, however. First, if Israel attacks Iran, the Iranians will respond, almost certainly violently. They will have no choice for both domestic and international political reasons, and whatever they do will receive less criticism than their policy actions before such an attack occurs. Second, the nature, severity, and reactions to an Iranian counterattack will depend on the nature, extent, and effects of an Israeli raid. The more extensive and, presumably, effective an Israeli attack is, the larger the probable responses by the Iranians will likely be.

If it cannot restrain the Israelis in the first place (the fairly clear intent of the Obama administration), the United States will not have many options in dealing with Iranian responses. There will be international sympathy for the Iranians that does not exist now, because they will have been the victim of aggression under the provisions of the UN Charter, and the more dead Iranians (especially civilians) the raid produces, the more widespread sympathy will be, even among Arabs who the Israelis maintain actually approve of the general idea of punishing the Iranians and defanging their nuclear potential. The American post-attack position is thus conmpromised in that support for Israel in effect sanctions an illegal act of aggression that results in the deaths of innocent Iranians. The degree to which the United States will further be compromised depends on how complicit this country was in the attack in the first place: the more we were involved, the more we will fall within the blanket of condemnation. Possibly the most we can do is to warn eveyone–especially Iran–quietly that their retaliation cannot threaten Israeli existence. Doing so will not, of course, please either the Israelis or their more dogmatic supporters in the United States.

If an attack occurs, the Iranians will have several response options, depending on how extensive the attack was. The sronger the response, of course, the less it serves U.S. interests.

1. If the attack is small and the effects minor (in other words, if it fails from an Israeli viewpoint), they can simply complain about the act of aggression and use it as leverage to lift international sanctions against it. In the process, they will almost certainly blame the United States for helping to plan and execute the raid, with reminders of U.S. perfidy toward Iran in cases like Operation Ajax (the 1953 CIA operation that overthrew Iran’s only popularly elected government) and the shoot down of an unarmed Iranian commercial airliner in the late 1980s.

2. Since the Israeli attack is likely to be more successful than that (or the Israelis wouldn’t do it), then the responses begin to escalate. At a minimum, they would include additional resources to Hezballah in the form of additional rockets that will coming raining down on Israel. The Israelis will complain that these are unprovoked, and hardly anyone will believe them internationally (escept the political right in the U.S.). An Israeli raid equals more “terrorist” attacks against Israel.

3. Depending on the level of success the Israeli attack achieves, there are two additional actions the Iranians can contemplate. The first would be retaliatory air strikes against the Israelis. Such a response would possess symmetry to the Israeli raid, and given that they were responses to the original Israeli action, regimes that normally do not support Iran (such as Jordan) would likely not object to Iranian overflight to reach Israeli targets. The Israelis would, of course, object loudly both to the provisions of those rights and the attacks, raising the prospects of escalation to a broader conflict that could involve the region.

4. Ultimately, Iran could begin a retaliatory campaign intended or with the side effect of causing an escalation to general war in the Middle East against Israel. Hardly anyone wants to see this or argues it is very probable, but once the dogs of war are unleashed, they are sometimes hard to control.

None of these options, and counter responses to them, serve any visible U.S. interests. The cessation of the Iranian nuclear program would serve such an interest, but it is one of the most unlikely outcomes, and only becomes less implausible as the scale of the Israeli attack and thus the likely virulence of the Iranian response expands. The larger that response becomes, the more difficult the problem of U.S. responses becomes. Success on one objective makes other objectives (e.g. regional stability) more problematical.

Israel and many of its supporters seek to deny what Iran will (or may) do in reaction to an Israeli attack, and they may be right. No one can know for sure, but it is counterintuitive to believe that a chauvinistic, paranoid, authoritarian Iran will take an attack lying down. They will respond somehow, and one or more of the options suggested here seems reasonable. Each option puts the United States in an increasingly untenable position of defending Israel from a retaliation many around the world (including many who dislike Iran and oppose their nuclear weapons effort) will feel is either justified or understandable. In these circumstances, the U.S. can shoulder-to-shoulder with Israel, or it can side with the rest of the world. It is not a happy set of options.

The only way to avoid something like these dynamics is to avoid and, to the extent possible, prevent an Israeli attack in the first place. That is what the Obama administration is doing, and the radical right is condemning this as limp-wristed and inadequately supportive of our ally Israel. They are wrong!

Israel, Iran and the United States: All Options Are Bad!

Posted in 2012 Presidential Election, Iran, Israel and the United States, Middle East Conflict, US Domestic Politics, US Values and Freign Policy with tags , , , , on February 7, 2012 by whatafteriraq

The growing confrontation between Israel and Iran over the Iranian nuclear weapons program is spinning perilously out of hand, and it has within it the seeds of the most potentially dangerous threat to international peace since the Cold War ended over 20 years ago. What we are witnessing is a verbal ran-up to a military conflict between the Middle East’s only nuclear power (Israel) and its most militant, populous state (Iran). It is a conflict that would serve no one’s interests, would only result in a worse situation–possibly catastrophically so–for all parties, and in which the extremely emotional basis of the conflict is driving all sides, including the United States, to consider essentially irresponsible acts that endanger the country’s national security interests in dangerous way. All of this is occurring in a presidential election year (probably no coincidence) in which cool analysis and action is undermined by hot electoral rhetoric aimed at grabbing votes at the possible endangerment of this country’s interests and safety. It needs to be stopped now, before it gets any worse.

Consider the situation in terms of three steps and their possible consequences. The steps are the pre-war confrontation, the Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities (an event which, if it happens at all, will almost surely occur before the November election in the United States), and the Iranian response. All put the United States in an untenable, negative sum situation where, regardless of what we do, we will come out on the short end of the stick.

Start with the pre-war present. There are two salient features to consider. The first are Israeli threats that demand, in essence, that Iran stop and reverse its alleged weapons program (which, of course, the Iranians deny exists) before it proceeds any closer to a weapons outcome. The Israelis argue that if the Iranians get a nuclear weapon, they will use it against Israel, making the threat a truly existential one against them. Their assessment may be right or wrong, but there can be no doubt that the Neyanyahu government believes this scenario to be the case and from that perspective, a preemptive strike against Iran can make sense. That its consequences could be dire to Israel matters less from this perspective because Israel will suffer in either case. An attack is essentially taking an eye for an expected eye, and national existence is the stake. No Masada this time; the Israelis will go down swinging, if they go down.

This puts the United States, as the protector and guarantor of Israel, in a terrible position that the campaign rhetoric is only making worse. The Obama administration says it is “working” with Israel to defuse the crisis, which effectively means they are trying everything they can think of to try to keep the attack from occurring, at least partly because they recognize that if the Israelis launch a raid, all regional bets are off and that the worst case is a general Middle Eastern war that serves no one’s interests, and especially not the interests of the United States. GOP presidential contenders, on the other hand, are falling all over themselves and one another courting the Jewish vote in the United States by favoring unrestricted support for whatever Israel  decides to do. The most extreme view is held by Newt Gingrich, who summons the Holocaust to argue that anything less would be immoral.

The U.S. has essentially three options if an Israeli attack decision is unavoidable. None of them is especially good. They are:

 1. Full support for any attack the Israelis carry out, which can include actions of differing severity. The U.S. can participate in the raid in varying ways, such as providing air cover for the Israeli bombers heading for Iranian nuclear sites; we can provide satellite reconnaisance (which we undoubtedly already do) for the Israelis, including warnings of Iranian countermeasures; we can supply special ordnance (deep penetrating bombs) to the Israelis to penetrate underground facilities (the Israelis do not themselves have such a capability); or, at the greatest extreme, we can participate with U.S. bombers dropping bombs. The more involved we are, of course, the more we will be caught up in the wake of international reactions to the attack.

2. We can acknowledge Israeli plans, say we understand but don’t fully support their actions on any of a variety of grounds, BUT warn sternly that we will not allow a response by Iran that would endanger Israeli existence. We would still be blamed for not preventing the attacks, but the criticism would be more muted, and we would uphold our pledge to guarantee Israeli existence. Critics, however, would argue that is not enough.

3. We can tell the Israelis, very publicly, that they are on their own if they attack, although we will protect them from an existential response. This option, regardless of its merits, would be political suicide in an election year (part of why the Israelis, who realize this, will probably act before the November election).

Options 1 and 2 are the only really domestically viable options, but both of them tie the U.S. to the Israeli attack, and that has consequences. Rationalizations notwithstanding, an Israeli strike would be an act of military aggression–an act of aggressive war–that is illegal under international law and the UN Charter, which Israel signed, making the action illegal under Israeli law as well. Calling it “preemptive” does not aid legality, because acts of preemption are only justifiable under IL when a hostile act that they prevent is imminent ( enemy’s army massing on your border); the Israeli attack does not rise to that level. Thus, the United States indirectly supports violating international law by supporting the Israelis. The U.S, has, of course, done so in the past–the invasion of Iraq in 2003, for instance–but the world will at least rhetorically line up against an aggression. Moreover, the Russians and Chinese will undoubtedly co-sponsor at Security Council condemnation of the aggression, and the U.S. will be left with the unpleasant choices of supporting Israel in the face of overwhelming global disapproval or, as it did in 1956 at the time of the Suez War, of condemning the action of a close ally. Once again, electoral politics may require thumbing our noses at the world. Moreover, if the Israelis do attack, they will not be able to take out the Iranian program entirely, instead only setting it back, while Israeli attacks will take its toll in civilian casualties (collateral damage) that will only add to condemnation of the attacks. Anyone who can see some good in this for United States interests beyond some votes in the presidential election, is seeing something this observer does not.

As if that was not enough, an Israeli attack will trigger some very violent form of Iranian counterattack with equally or even more dangeous potential consequences for the U.S. and the region. Those possibilities, none of which are desirable from a U.S. viewpoint, will be the subject of the next column. All the options are bad!

Israel and the Iranian Bomb

Posted in Iran, Israel and the United States, Middle East Conflict with tags , , , , , on August 22, 2010 by whatafteriraq

The September 2010 edition of The Atlantic features a story on what it represents as Israel’s plan to attack and try to destroy the Iranian nuclear facilities before Iran can get to the point of producing a nuclear weapon–a prospect the Israelis argue is quite imminent, meaning the attack could come quite soon.

The article, by Jeffrey Goldberg, is titled “The Point of No Return,” and it is decidedly more sanguine about these prospects than one would assume from the normally fairly restrained Goldberg. Indeed, Goldberg seems at least receptive to, if not enthusiastic about, the purported Israeli plan, whereas his colleague Robert D. Kaplan, usually more hawkish on such matters, counsels Kissingerian restraint (deterrence) in his companion article, “Living with Nuclear Iran.”

The possibility that Israel would entertain and possibly even commit to an attack aimed at destroying the Iranian nuclear program is certainly nothing new, although it has been a prospect that most of us have set aside as sufficiently lunatic or far enough in the future to be intellectually avoidable. The Atlantic article strips away both of these veils, showing that the intent to attack permeates a great deal of the Israeli decision process (notably the top) and that the prospects are upon us. Goldberg indeed hints that he believes such an action is probably inevitable.

At the risk of distorting Goldberg’s argument, it strikes me that it has three basic parts. The first, and most familiar, is that the Iranian nuclear program represents an intolerable existential threat to Israel. In one sense, this is entirely true: Iran in control of a few deliverable nuclear weapons that the Israelis could not intercept (which may be the real meaning of the Iranian drone aircraft announced this week) could indeed destroy so much of Israel as to threaten its existence. The nature of that threat, however, needs qualification the Israelis rarely add.

First, Israel has arguably become “the state that cries existential threat” in much the same way as the little boy cried wolf. It seems that every threat the Israelis face is labeled existential, and that Israel responds militarily with actions/provocations that either make the threat worse or produce new threats. Israeli policy in Gaza is a poster child for this problem. Second, the Israelis act as if they were alone in all this. Not so. The United States and the Soviet Union/Russia have posed physical existential threats to one another since the perfection of the ICBM, and we have learned to adapt to and deflect the problem. Our mechanism (which is the Kissimgerian solution) is deterrence, an approach the Israelis reject because they Iranians are allegedly crazy, meaning they cannot be deterred. Third, the Israelis have posed an existential threat to Iran (and the rest of the Muslim Middle East) for over 40 years. The Israelis say that situation is different, because they would not attack anyone. If you were the head of an Islamic government in the area, would you accept that argument?

Second, the Israelis apparently think there is agood chance they can get away with an attack, because they have done so in the past with attacks against Iraq and Syria. Maybe so, but maybe not. Syria and Iraq were much more defenseless than Iran and were considered far less important than the Iranians. Iran is, after all, a very large, populous country with a wealth of natural resources that much of the world covets. Syria, in particular, is none of those things. Will the world sit so idly by in Iran is attacked? I, for one, do not want to find out.

Third, the Israelis are counting on American support for this endeavor–or at least that the U.S. will dampen opposition to the action. One Israeli air force officer even suggests it would be better if the U.S. did the bombing for the Israelis, since we have superior assets for such an attack. President Obama has, quite predictably, declared that no options are off the table in this situation, but a U.S. surrogate attack on the Israelis’ behalf is presumably right at the edge of the table, ready to be pushed off.

If any other country in the world proposed anything like what is discussed in this article, the international condemnation would be thunderous; even in the deeply divided partisanship of current American politics, if it was not Israel making the threat, both sides might suspend their guerrilla political war long enough to issue a condemnation. If the Israelis go ahead and make the attack (which, by the way, will almost certainly fail to destroy the Iranian program) the only places there will be rejoice will be in Jerusalem and the Republican National Committee.

This whole idea is ludicrous beyond description, and needs to be treated as such. If the United States government has not already done so, it should issue a private warning to the Israelis that they are strictly on their own and that their action will be condemned by Washington as quickly and as resolutely as was the joint British-French-Israeli invasion of Suez in 1956. If Israel unleashes these dogs of war, let it deal with the consequences alone. We have and should continue to support and protect Israel; we should not suborn Israeli aggression.

Iranian Wishful Thinking–One More Time!

Posted in Iran, Middle East Conflict with tags , , , , , , on December 22, 2009 by whatafteriraq

The ability of Americans to believe that Iran secretly wants to be just like us but is repressed by unrepresentative opponents never ceases to amaze me, and the dynamic is at work once again surrounding the funueral of “dissident” Grand Ayatollah Mir Hussein Montazeri.

Predictably, the death of one of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s original associates who turned against the current ruling class has energized the persistent minority in Iran that seeks modernization and westernization, complete with massive urban demonstrations and repressive reactions by the theocracy that rules the country. Thanks to modern technology, the images are available to us all, and they bring sparks of hope among westernized Iranian expatriates and Americans who firmly want to believe Iranians are “just like us” and that maybe, just maybe, the result will be genuine reform this time–by which we mean the adoption by Iran of western-style democracy or something like it. As the New York Times gushed in today’s edition, reaction surrounding Montazeri’s death has raised “the possibility that the cleric’s death could serve as a catalyst for an opposition movement.”

The key word here, of course, is “possibility,” because the real prospect is no more than the most remote possibility of change toward westernizing Iran and thereby lessening the animosity between Iran and the United States that has dominated Iranian politics since the 1979 Iranian Revolution and has its roots back into the immediate post-World War II period.

The belief that some Iranians would like to become westernized is not entirely baseless, of course. The whole thrust of Shah Reza Pahlevi’s White Revolutionwas to transform the Peacock Empire into a modern, competitive (aka westernized) society as a way to restore Iran’s historic place in the world. In the proces, Iran did develop an urbanized, educated, and westernized class, and some of that group and its successor generations are still found in the cities and provide the nucleus of the dissident movement. They did not then and certainly do not now represent anything like a majority of the population or the government’s support base, which is based in the highly religious, Shiite rural masses who view the theocracy as their natural leaders and the urbanized sophisticates in the cities as apostate unbelievers who would undermine Islam. When the regime reacts to protests by turning loose the Basij militias to stomp on reformers, it does so with the tacit consent of a fairly large part of the population.

These dynamics have history behind them, in at least two ways. One is that westernization, which is nearly universally associated with the Satanic Americans, undercuts the traditional values of one of the most traditional peoples in the world–rural Iranian Shiites. Change threatens them, and they correspondingly have little sympathy with agents of a change they can only oppose. Second, the dissident middle class in Iran has, over the years, proven pitifully politically inept. They could not keep the democratically elected Mossadeqh regime in power in the 1950s in the face of a CIA-backed coup, and they failed miserably to seize control in 1979, when their leaders felt certain they could gain power over the “country bumpkin” Ayatollahs whom we have learned to know and love so well.

Despite all this, we in the west wax ebullient whenever Iranians take to the street. Anybody to the political left of Ahmedinejad is seen as a democratizing savior, whether he is or not. Have we so quickly forgotten the euphoria associated with the loud dissidence of Mir Hussein Moussavi protesting that the elections earlier in the year that returned Ahmedinejad to power were rigged? In that euphoria, we forgot that Moussavi had been approved as a candidate by the Supreme Council, an endorsement he would hardly have achieved were he truly anti-regime. Similarly, Montazeri spoke out against the regime, but he did not threaten the system. Had he, he would not have been allowed to stick around.

So off we go again, spinning the stuff of dreams about yet another round of “reform.” Like all the preceding rounds, this will die off in a few days, and things will return depressingly to normal in Iran. That may not be the way we would like it, but it is the way things are in Iran.

Dealing with Iran

Posted in Iran, Israel and the United States, Middle East Conflict, Middle East Peace with tags , , , , on August 16, 2009 by whatafteriraq

With the dispute over the fairness of the recent Iranian presidential resolved–if not to everyone’s satisfaction–and the Iranian government’s response to demonstrators against the outcome repressed–once again not to everyone’s satisfaction–news about Afghanistan has pushed Iran off the front pages of American concern in the Middle East. But Iran is still there, and it is still a matter of concern.

In the most recent edition of Cases in International Relations (the fourth edition), I included a chapter on Iran, entitled “Pivotal States: Confronting and Accommodating Iran.” Its basic thesis is that there are regional powers in the world whose presence and influence cannot be ignored, and in the Middle East, that state is Iran. The problem occurs when regional pivotal states and world powers like the United States come into conflict, as the Iranian-American relationship regularly does. What is the United States, and for that matter Iran, to do?

The relationship is not without ironies, some of which surround Iran. Iran is, after all, the largest state in the Middle East, with an area slightly larger than Alaska and about three times the size of Arizona. At around 65 million, its population dwarfs that of its Arabian Gulf neighbors and is the third largest among Muslim countries (behind Indonesia and Egypt). Further, it is the second oldest country in the world, after China. It also has the area’s second largest known oil reserves (after Saudi Arabia) and occupies a strategic location, bordering on Iraq to its west and Afghanistan to its east.

Iran is also a mess. The Ahmadinejad regime has run what could (and probably should) be the region’s most vibrant economy into the ground, amassing substantial foreign debt, budgetary deficits, double digit inflation, and a high unemployment rate that particularly afflicts the urban middle class and the country’s youth. Things have gotten so bad that although the country is a major oil exporter, it must import gasoline, since its refinery capacity is inadequate to convert enough petroleum into fuel for its own domestic use. In these circumstances, it is suprising neither that there would have been plenty of opposition to Ahmedinejad in the election or that opposition should have been concentrated in the urban areas. Iran, in other words, is both a formidable concern and a basket case of sorts.

The United States-Iranian relationship is similarly a case of ironies and contradictions. At the most basic level, there is little real basis of antagonism between the peoples themselves, and indeed, during the period before the Iranian Revolution of 1979, people-to-people relations were quite good. There is little evidence that Americans dislike Iranians or vice versa.

The same cannot be said about the relationship between the two countries’ peoples and the other’s government: Iranians dislike the American government, and Americans feel the same way about the Iranian government. There are some good reasons for both sentiments.

Many Iranians dislike the US government because of its history of meddling in Iranian politics, especially in support of Shah Reze Pahlevi. Iransian remember well the role of the CIA in overthrowing the democratically elected Mossadeqh regime and in the CIA’s support for and training of the Shah’s secret police, SAVAK. Moreover, the American government was a key cog in the Shah’s White Revolution, an attempt to westernize the country. If one wants to rally public support behind a political figure or position in Iran, associating the opposition with the Americans is not a bad ploy to take: a kind of Lee Atwater/Karl Rovian approach to politics. On the other side, recollections of the Iran Hostage Crisis inflame Americans against the current theocracy in Tehran, although few Americans remember that the triggering event of the takeover of the US embassy in Tehran was the refusal of the US government to turn over the Shah to the revolutionary regime after the Shah was allowed into this country for cancer treatments.

 These animosities have a symbolic expression that adds to the heat if not light of the relationship. In Iran, after all, the United States is the “Great Satan,” and to match that soaring rhetoric, Iran is one of the unholy triad in the “Axis of Evil.” Nothing like high road politics!

These animosities extend to current issues. Among the reasons for Iranian dislike for the United States is America’s unrequited support for Israel, including tacit support for Israel’s militantly anti-Iranian policies. On the other side, the United States joins Israel in its denunciation for Iranian support for anti-Israeli terrorist movements like Hizbollah, support for militant groups in places like Lebanon, and in Ahmedinejad’s fiery anti-Israeli rhetoric. We have come a long way from the days when the largest foreign student group on many American campuses was Iranian and the United States and Iran were close military allies.

The United States and Iran currently face off against one another on two important matters. The first, and most public, is the question of Iranian nuclear program and the possibility the Iranians will attempt to build nuclear weapons. Like so much of the American-Iranian dialog since 1979, the discussion over this prospect is overheated. Iranian possession of nuclear weapons is “absolutely unacceptable” to the United States because of the danger it poses to the United States and the “existential threat” such possession would pose to Israel. Largely missing is exactly what threat a few Iranian nukes pose to the United States or why even the supposedly crazy Iranian regime would risk the utter destruction of the world’s second oldest civilization for the satisfaction of destroying a couple American cities. For that matter, an Iranian nuclear capability only balances the existential threat to Iran and the rest of the Islamic Middle East that Israel has posed for the last 40 years or so. Israeli not-so-veiled threats against the Iranian program do not add to the calmness and prudence of the debate.

The other question is Iran’s role in its own region, and more specifically, what it is prepared to do to assist in settling the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition to a long border with both countries, Iran has significant interests in both states that are not served well by ongoing instability and war. Early on in Iraq, the Iranians did provide assistance to American efforts, and it is not impossible to imagine that happening again, if the United States and Iran can cease giving one another the “one finger salute” and convince/coerce Israel to lower its middle digit as well. Such a pragmatic approach would never have appealed to the ideological ninnies of the Bush years, but hopefully there are at least some adults in charge now whose intellectual range extends beyond Vince Flynn and Brad Thor novels.

It is sometimes said that war is too important to be left to the generals, to which it might be added that diplomacy is too important to be left to the ideologues.  Iran is an important, pivotal regional power in the Persian Gulf area. It should start acting with the responsibility that flows from its stature; similarly, the United States needs to recognize what Iran is and quite treating it like an asylum where you cannot tell the keeprs from the kept. Only when both sides rise above the current level of dialog will we start dealing with Iran.

Getting Tough with Iran?

Posted in Iran, Middle East Conflict with tags , , on June 28, 2009 by whatafteriraq

As some level of turmoil ebbed and flowed in Iran last week, one thread of criticism in the United States, coming principally from Republicans like John McCain (whose defeat in the November 2008 election seems like a better thing almost every day), was that the United States–read President Obama–was not being “tough enough” with the Tehran regime. The implication was that the U.S. should “do something” to reduce the Iranian regime’s crackdown on Iranians demonstrating against the election results there.

Beyond its basic macho appeal (“walk softly, carry a big stick, occasionally hit yourself over the head with the big stick”?) such entreaties make, what exactly do they mean? Not very much, I fear.

The arguments against a “get tough” policy against Iran flow from defects in what exactly getting tough means. I have isolated three such arguments, although I suppose there could be more.

1. “We should back Moussavi, the people’s choice.” Hogwash. First, Moussavi is hardly the kind of person with whom the United States has common cause. He did, after all, come to prominance in Iran after the 1979 revolution on the basis of his hatred for the U.S. Second, the last thing any Iranian politician can afford is to be associated with the United States government. We need to remember, as some have pointed out, that the U.S. government (unlike the American people) is not well regarded in Iran. We did, after all, engineer the overthrow of Iran’s only democratically elected regime and did help train and direct SAVAK, the Shah’s highly repressive secret police. The “great Satan” description, offensive though we may find it, did not come from nowhere. Third, it is not clear that Moussavi’s popularity in Iran extends beyond the fact that is he the not-Ahmedinejad. Associating him with American support (which he does not seek) would assure he never rises beyond not-Ahmediniejad. Scratch that rationale.

2. “We should impose greater sanctions on Iran to make them back down.” This is the American chestnut response to crises generally, it seldom works anywhere, and will not work here. Why not? First, we already have sanctions against Iran that don’t work, and since we don’t import Iranian oil,what else can we embargo? Pistaccios? Caviar? Second, any sanctions that might work must come from the EU (whose members do trade with Iran) or the UN. Go talk to them.  Third, sanctions usually end up punishing the innocent, not those who sanctioners want to punish. Did Saddam Hussein or the Iraqi people suffer from American sanctions in the 1990s? You know the answer. Sanctions are a loser.

3.”As leader of the free world, we cannot turn our backs on what happens in Iran.” Nonsense–of course we can, and here’s why. First, the American foreign policy plate is full, and everyone knows it. Exactly how (other than sanctions) are we going to force the Iranians to do anything? Threaten them with military action? Get real here. Second, eventually we will have to deal with whoever rules Iran on regional matters (help with Iraq and Afghanistan) and about the nuclear program in the future. Is alienating them going to help that? Or is getting tough hitting ourselves over the head with the stick? Third, we are already overcommitted in that part of the world and are clearly in over our heads in terms of understanding and dealing with the region’s problems. A more active policy in Iran will simply make our mismanagement of the region worse. To paraphrase the old folk song and title of Richard Rovere’s book on Vietnam, “we’re waist deep in the big muddy, and the damned fools said (are telling us) to go on.”

Getting tough with Iran sounds good until you think about it for a nanosecond or more. What the Iranian mullahs are doing is reprehensible, and we are quite right in condemning it. Having said that, what is happening there is not primarily an American problem with American solutions. It is certainly an Iranian problem, and it may be a broader international problem that should engage the UN.  Beyond what we are already doing (admittedly not a whole lot), it is hard to see what–or why–we should be sticking our noses further under the Iranian tent.