July 20, 2004

Iran Watch

The CFR has issued a task force report on Iran (warning: PDF--albeit not a mega one).

Note Laura Rozen has some thoughts on the report worth checking out too.

The major take-ways from the Task Force report:

1) the Task Force found that "despite considerable political flux and popular dissatisfaction, Iran is not on the verge of another revolution" (correctly, in my humble opinion);

2) from that finding flows the conclusion that engagement is likelier a better policy option than military action right now (especially given how we are not, er, particularly well positioned right now to mount a regime change operation in Iran);

3) an ambitious "grand bargain" or, even, a more modest "roadmap" style delineation of the going forward relationship is not likely to be achieved at this juncture ("A quarter-century of enmity and estrangement are not easily overcome, the issues at stake are too numerous and complex, and the domestic political contexts of both countries are too difficult to allow the current breach to be settled comprehensively overnight.")

so therefore;

4) better for Washington to propose to Teheran a "compartmentalized process of dialogue, confidence building, and incremental engagement. The U.S. should identify the discrete set of issues where critical U.S. and Iranian interests converge, and must be prepared to make progress along separate tracks, even while considerable differences remain in other areas."

Let me tell you what "tracks" matter most for me: 1) Iran's role in Iraq and 2) Iran's nuclear weapons capability.

Of less immediate urgency, in my view, (though still obviously of significant import) are 3) Iran's support for terror groups like Hezbollah and 4) democratic reforms within Iran.

On "1", I think (like Les Gelb has proposed elsewhere) that we need to call for, at the appropriate juncture, a regional conference comprising all of Iraq's immediate neighbors (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, Syria, Turkey, and Iran).

The main goal would be to achieve pledges of non-interference (particularly territorial) with Iraq from each of its neighbors.

Skeptics will argue that the pledges wouldn't be worth the paper they were written on. And that having diplomatic contacts between Iranian and U.S. officials, at this level, would be giving Teheran one carrot too many.

But, given the critical import of the Iraq project to U.S. foreign policy objectives--and given the immense trouble-making so many of Iraq's neighbors could cause there--I think it behooves us to start moving this "non-interference" idea along in a more institutional framework.

Especially as, when U.S. troop levels begin to diminish in Iraq, the temptation of Iraq's neighbors to fill the vacuum will be even greater.

Not least, of course, Iran's.

We need to start this "track" to see if Teheran, acting rationally in its national interest (rather than purely through ideological lens), will make real compromises here (recall they were helpful to us during the Bonn 'loya jirga' process re: Afghanistan).

Now, unlike the Task Force members, I'm not so sure that it is in Iran's interest to necessarily have Iraq remain unitary (might they not simply wish to carve out some Shi'a lebensraum instead?).

But chaos isn't in their interests either.

And given that many Iraqi Shi'a feel a sense of residual Iraqi nationalism--even among some of the more religious, pro-Iran crowd--carving out parts of Iraq is not necessarily in Iran's best interest given that real conflict could result between and among some Shi'a factions.

On the nuclear issue, recall, as the CFR report points out, that a nuclear Iran enjoys wide support across the Iranian political spectrum--including many of the reformists.

An Osirak style operation in Iraq, even if feasible (the facilities are better concealed), would inevitably have the impact of re-invigorating nationalist sentiment through the Iranian body politic.

And, to be sure, any Israeli action will be seen to have taken place with tacit American approval (whether true or not). So Iran would be more apt to trouble-make in Afghanistan or Iraq--negatively impacting U.S. interests in both countries.

So while a military option (whoever undertakes it) can't be taken off the table all-together--it's certainly not an easy option that, willy-nilly, we or the Israelis should feel free to pursue whenever we think the planets are aligned just so.

A few final points.

Some will be angry with me that I downplay the importance of reform within Iran. Here is why--I'm concerned we simply can't back up all the rosy talk.

Put simply, I'm worried that students might die in large number while the U.S. stands pretty helpless on the sidelines.

On Hezbollah, as Richard Armitage has said, we do owe them a "blood debt."

But, compared to the nuclear issue and Iraq, and given that they haven't been attacking U.S. targets of late, I have to think we need to prioritize the other two "tracks" (Iraq, nukes) right now.

Last, there has been a lot of talk of late, pending the 9/11 Commission's report, that the real links between al-Q and a state were, not with Iraq--but with Iran.

A lot on the left, quite stupidly in my view, are now saying: "So, show us you are now going to go after the real culprits."

Look, I think it's quite likely that some al-Q terrorists were given 'safe passage' through Iran at various junctures.

But I would be astounded if Iran had foreknowledge of the 9/11 plot.

If they did, that changes everything.

But, in my view and until proven otherwise, they didn't.

And that's pretty important to keep in mind when figuring out next moves re: Iran policy.

Note that, in some ways at least, an alliance between al-Qaeda and Iran is even more unlikely than one between al-Qaeda and Baathist, secular Iraq. After all, Saddam was a Sunni.

Many radical Sunni movements, like al-Q, view the Shi'a as nefarious heretics to be viewed as, it's true, even worse than the Jews:

Radical Sunni Islamists hate Shi`ites more than any other group, including Jews and Christians. Al-Qaeda's basic credo minces no words on the subject: "We believe that the Shi`ite heretics are a sect of idolatry and apostasy, and that they are the most evil creatures under the heavens." For its part, the Saudi Wahhabi religious establishment expresses similar views. The fatwas, sermons, and statements of established Saudi clerics uniformly denounce Shi`ite belief and practice. A recent fatwa by Abd al-Rahman al-Barrak, a respected professor at the Imam Muhammad bin Saud Islamic University (which trains official clerics), is a case in point. Asked whether it was permissible for Sunnis to launch a jihad against Shi`ites, al-Barrak answered that if the Shi`ites in a Sunni-dominated country insisted on practicing their religion openly, then yes, the Sunni state had no choice but to wage war on them. Al-Barrak's answer, it is worth noting, assumes that the Shi`ites are not Muslims at all.

Still, especially in this region, 'the enemy of my enemy' can often be a friend--if just one of short-standing.

Or, as the CFR report puts it: "Nonetheless, both al-Qaeda's operational leadership and the radical hard-liners who dominate the senior ranks of Iran's security bureaucracy have demonstrated in the past a certain degree of doctrinal flexibility that has facilitated functional alliances, irrespective of apparent ideological incompatibility."

Well have to wait to see how "functional" (or "collaborative", to use an in vogue term for such things) that alliance was.

As I said, Iranian governmental foreknowledge of 9/11 would change everything--but I believe it highly unlikely.

But until that's conclusively disproven, I'll have to reserve the right to go all Mike Ledeen on you...

...until then, jaw jaw!

UPDATE: The view from Andrew "Bombs Away!" Sullivan....


Thanks for the "always-worth reading" kudos, Andrew. I wish that were the case on a daily basis, but I fear it often isn't (especially given a day job that keeps me way too busy to write as much as I'd like)!

Posted by Gregory Djerejian at July 20, 2004 12:00 PM
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