February 25, 2005

More On Iran

With Tehran divided over how to balance its nuclear ambitions with its economic needs, Washington has an opportunity to keep it from crossing the nuclear threshold. Since the economy is a growing concern for the Iranian leadership, Washington can boost its leverage by working with the states that are most important to Tehran's international economic relations: the western European countries and Japan, as well as Russia and China, if they can be persuaded to cooperate. Together, these states must raise the economic stakes of Iran's nuclear aspirations. They must force Tehran to confront a painful choice: either nuclear weapons or economic health. Painting Tehran's alternatives so starkly will require dramatically raising both the returns it would gain for compliance and the price it would pay for defiance.

In the past, dissension among the United States and its allies allowed Tehran to circumvent this difficult choice. Throughout the 1990s, the United States pursued a strategy of pure coercion toward Iran, with strong sanctions and a weak covert action program. In the meantime, the Europeans refused even to threaten to cut their commercial relations with Tehran, no matter how bad its behavior became. Iran played Europe off against the United States, using European economic largesse to mitigate the effects of U.S. sanctions, all the while making considerable progress with its clandestine nuclear program.

Today, the situation is different. A fortunate result of Iran's unfortunate nuclear progress is that Tehran will now have a much harder time hedging. Revelations that Iran has moved closer toward producing fissile material over the past two years could help forge a unified Western position. In the 1990s, Europeans could ignore much of Iran's malfeasance because the evidence was ambiguous. But with the IAEA recently having uncovered so many of Iran's covert enrichment activities--and with Tehran subsequently having admitted them--it will be far more uncomfortable, if not impossible, for Europeans to keep looking the other way. It is still unclear just how seriously Europe takes Iran's nuclear activities, but in public and private statements, European officials no longer try to play them down. Moreover, when during negotiations with the EU in November Tehran requested that 20 research centrifuges remain active, the Europeans refused. Such resolve marked a drastic departure from Europe's fecklessness during the 1990s. That Tehran quickly complied was a sure sign that it fears incurring the wrath of its economic benefactors.

Ken Pollack and Ray Takeyh, writing in Foreign Affairs.

Bush has certainly grasped the reality that Pollack/Takeyh sketch above about the critical import of a united Euro-Atlantic front on Iran strategy. Indeed, Bush repeated the need for a unified Iran policy like a mantra from Brussels to Bratislava during his recent Euro-tour. He correctly calculates that allowing Teheran to play, say, Paris off Washington only allows the clerics more room for maneuver in moving forward Iran's nuclear program by helping keep painful economic ramifications at bay.

This Foreign Affairs piece is one of the better ones I've seen in a while and you should definitely read the whole thing if you have any interest in Iran policy. Particularly good, in my view, was the quite succinct tour d'horizon of the divisions within Iran's non-reformist political powers centers:

Iran's conservative bloc is riddled with factions and their contradictions. But whereas reformers and conservatives differ over domestic issues, the divisions within the conservative faction chiefly relate to critical foreign policy issues. Stalwarts of the Islamic revolution launched by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 still control Iran's judiciary, the Council of Guardians (the constitution's watchdog), and other powerful institutions, as well as key coercive groups such as the Revolutionary Guards and the Islamic vigilantes of the Ansar-e-Hezbollah. The hard-liners consider themselves the most ardent Khomeini disciples and think of the revolution less as an antimonarchical rebellion than as a continued uprising against the forces that once sustained the U.S. presence in Iran: Western imperialism, Zionism, and Arab despotism. Ayatollah Mahmood Hashemi Shahroudi, the chief of the judiciary, said in 2001, "Our national interests lie with antagonizing the Great Satan. We condemn any cowardly stance toward America and any word on compromise with the Great Satan." For ideologues like him, international ostracism is the necessary price for revolutionary affirmation.

The pragmatists among Khomeini's heirs believe that the regime's survival depends on a more judicious international course. Thanks to them, Iran remained a regular player in the global energy market even at the height of its revolutionary fervor. Today, these realists gravitate around the influential former president Hashemi Rafsanjani and occupy key positions throughout the national security establishment. One of the group's leading figures, Muhammad Javad Larijani, a former legislator, argues, "We should not have what I would call an obstinate policy toward the world." Instead, the pragmatic conservatives have tried to develop economic and security arrangements with foreign powers such as China, the European Union, and Russia. In reaction to the United States' overthrow of two regimes on Iran's periphery--in Afghanistan and Iraq--they have adopted a wary but moderate stance. Admonishing his more radical brethren, Rafsanjani, for example, has warned, "We are facing a cruel and powerful U.S. government, and we have to be cautious and awake.

In a similar vein, the issue of Iraq is also fracturing the theocratic regime. In the eyes of Iran's reactionaries, the Islamic Republic's ideological mission demands that the revolution be exported to its pivotal Arab (and majority Shiite) neighbor. Such an act would not only establish the continued relevance of Iran's original Islamic vision but also secure a critical ally for an increasingly isolated Tehran. In contrast, the approach of Tehran's realists is conditioned by the requirements of the nation-state and its demands for stability. For this cohort, the most important task at hand is to prevent Iraq's simmering religious and ethnic tensions from engulfing Iran. Instigating Shiite uprisings, dispatching suicide squads, and provoking unnecessary confrontations with the United States hardly serves Iran's interests at a time when its own domestic problems are deepening. As a result, Tehran's mainstream leadership has mostly encouraged Iraq's Shiite groups to participate in reconstruction, not to obstruct U.S. efforts, and to do everything possible to avoid civil war. Hard-liners, meanwhile, have won permission to provide some assistance to Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army and other Shiite rejectionists.

Teetering between the two camps is Iran's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei. As the theocracy's top ideologue, he shares the hard-liners' revolutionary convictions and their confrontational impulses. But as the head of state, he must safeguard Iran's national interests and temper ideology with statecraft. In his 16 years as supreme leader, Khamenei has attempted to balance the ideologues and the realists, empowering both factions to prevent either from achieving a preponderance of influence. Lately, however, the Middle East's changing political topography has forced his hand somewhat. With the American imperium encroaching menacingly on Iran's frontiers, Khamenei, one of the country's most hawkish thinkers, is being forced to lean toward the pragmatists on some issues. [emphasis added]

This last point goes unnoticed too often. Rather than fully radicalize Iranian leaders, the reality of U.S. GI's on both their East and West has proven something of a reality check as compared to the old days when the merits or demerits of dual containment were debated in far away Washington think tanks. Put simply, when you have approximately 200,000 American troops near your borders, hyper-revolutionary zeal and saber-rattling takes a back seat to sober statecraft--if still occasionally on the zealous side. Also worth noting is how the Rafsanjani wing of hard-line pragmatists has historically focused on fostering cooperative arrangements with the Berlins, Moscows, and Beijings. These days, this is becoming less of an option, heightening the pressure on Iran to entertain serious compromises on issues of key concern to important Western capitals. In this regard, it's important too to get Russia and China more on board with the increasingly unified Euro-Atlantic view. And I think Bush made good headway, on that score, in Bratislava today with Vladimir Putin.

Are Pollack and Takeyh too optimistic that taking advantage of divisions amidst the hardliners, in combination with economic sticks and carrots, might help slow or stop Iran's nuclear weapons program? Well, truth be told, probably a little. But it's one of the better takes on where we are vis-a-vis Iran that I've seen of late. Put differently, if you are going to wave big sticks around; proffer a few big, juicy carrots on view too. The results just might surprise. A full-blown attempt to stoke a counter-revolution in Iran (safe-havens, major support to dissidents, thinly veiled military threats, covert action etc) could backfire in a huge way. Emboldened students could be the first to feel the wrath of Mullahs spinning all the activity as a Zionist-American plot to deny Iran a nuclear weapon and sparking a nationalist backlash. And who would protect them as they were slaughtered? In addition, risking unleashing massive destablization in Iran just might upset the regional apple cart. By any judicious measure, we have our hands more than full in Iraq (and Afghanistan) at this juncture. Therefore, and unless the hardest of hard-liners rush to brazenly thrust an Iranian bomb on the international community, a military option must be deemphasized in favor of robust, coordinated diplomacy. I think everyone (including, if reluctantly, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Feith) in the Administration get this. Bush certainly seems to.

Posted by Gregory at February 25, 2005 02:32 AM | TrackBack (23)

Is a military option toward the majority of Iranians outside the clerical leadership really the only one we have?

I would have thought the impact of last month's elections in Iraq would be greater in Iran than in any Arab country. Now it may be that the Bush administration lacks the means or the skill to start recruiting allies within Iran; obviously this detail can't be assumed after all we've seen over the last four years. But counting on Rafsanjani to be able to restrain the more homicidally inclined clerics in the Iranian government by himself seems a course fraught with risk.

Posted by: Zathras at February 25, 2005 03:32 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I would like to think that troops on either side of Iran now is making them think again; but it seems to me that is unjustified optimism. I don't think military pressure is making Iran slow down on the road to nuclear weapons one whit. I agree that economic pressure is the one that might work. There is, however, a problem. In an energy-hungry world, an Iran that sticks to its guns (sorry) and builds a nuclear cycle will likely always have at least one buyer if it wants to last out the seige. A pragmatic and flexible approach using "soft" coercion consistently over time is probably the only good path.

Posted by: Ralph at February 25, 2005 06:28 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

It is always disappointing to observe the penny psychology quotient in foreign policy analyses. If you were a country surrounded by former hyper-power troops -- with news here and there that its nuclear vassal in ME might attack at any moment -- would you make a dash toward a nuclear arsenal, or would you sit back and reflect? Reflect about what?

My question may have been posed in previous threads, if so I present my apologies, but I should very much like to know why the US refuses to join the Europeans in their discussions with Iran -- unless the answer lies in the original program, to which I have alluded elsewhere.

Posted by: else at February 25, 2005 01:32 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

i hope that when majority of iranians decide to overthrow the mullahs, that iran's military will side with it's people.

Posted by: john marzan at February 25, 2005 02:17 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

You may well be right that the US has its hands full in Iraq and Afghanistan (I have no doubt you know more about this than me), but with events breaking our way all over the middle east, and to some degree in europe as well, I'm not so sure.

Our military option may be limited, but one of the main issues of the Iraq invasion is, once you show you'll do it, the rules change and you're much less likely to have to do it again. That is, diplomatic pressure becomes far more persuasive once you show people the alternative.

Posted by: Ignatius Byrd at February 25, 2005 03:44 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I don't know about "penny psychology," but if my developing nuclear weapons program and record of enthusiast support of terrorism were the main reason most developed countries looked at mine with suspicion and hostility, I'd think about dropping the weapons program and not supporting terrorists. Maybe I'd spend some of the money saved to prevent hundreds or thousands of my own people from being killed every time there is a magnitude 6ish earthquake.

Unless, of course, I really wanted nuclear weapons with a view toward using them in a really satisfying act of terrorism and I didn't really care that much about a few thousand illiterate villagers.

Posted by: Zathras at February 25, 2005 04:44 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Mark Twain said, What colleges and universities conceal or cover up is as important as what they teach. What our great leaders and newspapers conceal in this Iranian nuclear discussion is quite important.
Samuel Huntington figured out in 1995 when he wrote The Clash of Civilizations that “the era that began in the 1840s and 1850s is ending, China is resuming its place as regional hegemon” and needs energy. “The Tehran-Islamabad-Beijing axis” will pull together for mutual benefit., and the China-North Korea-Pakistan-Iran nuclear connection will produce a group of allied states, all armed with nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, Huntington’s sagacity in seeing Chinese connections and influence- it is China that gave the bomb to North Korea and indirectly to Pakistan and Iran- is not matched by sensible policy recommendations or any understanding of Latino culture.

Western forces will not invade Iran. Open air attacks on Iran will ignite a crescent of fire extending into Palestine and Lebanon, leaving Israel worse off than it is today. Iranian nuclear weapons are no threat to the West. Yes, it would be nice to limit nuclear weapons to reasonable states, but that boundary was crossed when the Pakistanis built and distributed their bomb. The old ways won’t work; Bush and Blair can only make things worse.

Posted by: Anciano at February 26, 2005 10:17 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Concerning the latest news on the deal between Russia and Iran on the supply of nuclear fuel :

Provided the safeguards are adequate, this seems to satisfy most of the outlines for a resolution of the problem, as put forward by Carnegie and others. That is, that Iran should be allowed a peaceful nuclear programme, but allowing them to enrich uranium themselves is too risky and the fuel should be supplied by and returned to an outside power. That was always likely to be Russia. Condi's background in Soviet analysis could come in useful after all!

See here...........................................   ]

Posted by: DavidP at February 28, 2005 12:51 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

C-SPAN broadcast a speech by Khamenei to Iranian Air Force members (officers only?) in a mosque. The Air Force looked old, overweight and out of place. The younger members were continually shifting around, all that kneeling you know. I'll say, if that was a pep talk, I don't think it was too successful. The Iranian Air Force doesn't look that ready to take on the American Air Force and Naval Aviators.

Posted by: Jabba the Tutt at March 1, 2005 02:15 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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