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 at July 20, 2004 12:00 PM

I think the issue is that OBL and others in the AQ hierarchy are pretty flexible re: the Shi'ites, but his backers in the Gulf are not. One thing I'm having trouble squaring is why OBL would feel OK with learning bomb-making from Hizb'allah but not OK with developing operational relationships with Iran. Is the distinction that in the latter case he'd be dealing with high-ranking members of an "apostate" clergy, whereas in the latter case he'd be working with operatives like Mugniyeh who pose no ideological risk to Al Qaeda?

Posted by: praktike at July 20, 2004 04:27 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Troop numbers will diminish in Iraq as they move into Iran or Syria.

Posted by: blaster at July 20, 2004 05:26 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Not if there is a gigantic Shi'ite uprising in Iraq.

Posted by: praktike at July 20, 2004 06:19 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

The US national interests do not require the conquest of Iran aka Iraq. A savage bombing campaign to destroy Iran's economic infrastructure followed up by occupation of the southern oil fields and pipelines would eliminate the Iran as a nuclear power or terrorist financier forever and would be good enough. We certainly have the planes, troops and defacto control of the ports and airfields to carry out such a plan without anyone’s help. Ruling out a military option is wishful thinking not a strategic fact.

Posted by: Thomas at July 20, 2004 07:28 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Isn't the Shi'a/Sunni separation overblown? Isn't the Shi'a Hizb'allah operating in Syria/Lebanon with the permission of Sunni Syria?

If they hate each other so much, why aren't the Iraqi Shi'a trying to break away?

Seems like a nice theory .... on paper.

Posted by: Chris at July 20, 2004 07:47 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

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.

Have we taken proper vengeance for 9-11?

How is it possible if we are still investigating the crime? The answer must therefore be no.

Vengeance really is a dish best served cold. We struck out in haste. I don't wish to debate past actions, however, except with a view towards not repeating them.

Future panic-driven retaliation must be avoided. We have sufficient time to destroy our enemies before they can destroy us. Why use a bomb when a sniper's rifle will do?

Posted by: martin at July 20, 2004 09:42 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

It amazes me how FCR and any other organization thinks that Iran is a worthy bargaining partner. There is only one option for Iran, regime change.

We should be filtering the willing versus the unwilling within Iran right now.

Posted by: Capt America at July 20, 2004 10:24 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Good analysis. One thing I would be interested in hearing is your opinion on the ethnic divides, as well as the sectarian ones. Not only is Saddam a fellow Sunni, he is a fellow Arab as well. (I still suspect that the level of collaboration with Al-Qaida was probably the same or less than the Iranian Government. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't have invaded and deposed him.) Al-Qaida was a predominently Arab group and while they and their franchise affiliates seemed to integrate others like Kurds, Turks, Chechens on a rank and file level, I don't recall hearing much about Iranians in Al-Qaida or its subsidiaries. There didn't seem to much of a role for Pakistanis and Afghanis either.

On the nuclear front, as with N. Korea, Pakistan, India and Israel, there seems to be little anyone can do short of military attack to stop a country from getting the bomb IF the leadership has proved that they are determined to get it at all costs. That is why I reject calls for offering deals.

Posted by: John in Tokyo at July 21, 2004 02:11 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


The Shi'ite/Sunni thing is just wrong, and it's an enormous impediment to understanding the terror masters. You say "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." Well, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (than which nothing more Shi'ite can be conceived) were trained in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon by Yasser Arafat's Fatah (than which nothing more Sunni can be conceived; it is a direct descendant of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood), starting in the early 1970s.

Give it up. These are discredited templates long embraced by CIA and State, and they are one of the many reasons we didn't see what was coming, and don't understand the nature of this war.

Posted by: michael ledeen at July 21, 2004 03:02 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I don't think that alliances between broadly secular Sunni and religious Shia are intrinsically unlikely.

But with Al Qaeda - whose theological base is explicitly and viciously hostile to Shi'ism - it's a different matter all together.

Posted by: David T at July 21, 2004 12:32 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Michael--I am well aware of the Hezbollah/Arafat connection. As you well know, Hezbollah is very influential in Lebanon as an active participant re: the ongoing conflict in south lebanon (still with the shaba farms).

what i'm arguing is that many al-Q types do not view Iran as a preferred partner given they loath the Shi'a as heretics.

that's not to say they haven't cooperated. the 9/11 commission report appears to indicate there was some degree of cooperation.

i want to see EXACTLY what the conclusions are and weigh them soberly.

the redline for me is having materially facilitated, with intent, 9/11.

and where we sit today, i don't think teheran did so.

Posted by: greg at July 21, 2004 12:49 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Michael Ledeen : 'The Shi'ite/Sunni thing is just wrong, and it's an enormous impediment to understanding the terror masters.'

The Sunni/Shi'a thing might not be the whole story, but it's part of it. Otherwise, what was al-Zarqawi's letter in February ? A US propaganda trick ?

Posted by: DavidP at July 22, 2004 08:32 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Michael Ledeen : 'Yasser Arafat's Fatah ...a direct descendant of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood...'

This is surely wrong : it was Hamas that developed out of the Muslim Brotherhood, not Fatah.

Posted by: DavidP at July 26, 2004 12:58 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

7930 http://www.online-poker-big.com check out this online poker site!

Posted by: online poker at September 27, 2004 01:20 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

4190 http://www.texas-holdem-now.com play texas holdem here!

Posted by: texas holdem at September 29, 2004 08:09 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

8831 http://www.casino-online-i.com the best online casinos on the web.

Posted by: online casinos at September 30, 2004 10:56 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

1679 http://www.play-poker-i.com cool place to play poker online

Posted by: http://www.play-poker-i.com at October 2, 2004 01:51 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

6382 How can this all be right? Check out my site http://www.pai-gow-keno.com

Posted by: keno at October 5, 2004 03:48 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

5356 Play poker here poker

Posted by: http://www.888-texas-holdem.com at October 6, 2004 01:46 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

559 Very well said in the first place! http://www.online-poker-net.com

Posted by: online poker at October 6, 2004 08:10 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

1165 http://www.texas-hold-em-i.com play texas hold em online here.

Posted by: texas hold em at October 11, 2004 08:27 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

7432 http://www.e-texas-holdem.info

texas holdem

Posted by: texas holdem at October 13, 2004 09:05 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
Reviews of Belgravia Dispatch
--New York Times
"Must-read list"
--Washington Times
"Always Thoughtful"
--Glenn Reynolds, Instapundit
"Pompous Ass"
--an anonymous blogospheric commenter
Recent Entries
English Language Media
Foreign Affairs Commentariat
Non-English Language Press
U.S. Blogs
Western Europe
United Kingdom
Central and Eastern Europe
East Asia
South Korea
Middle East
Think Tanks
B.D. In the Press
Syndicate this site:


Powered by