Even as we wobble towards a coherent Afghanistan policy, Iran continues to be a massive thorn in our side. What do we do when all of our options are terrible?
Let’s try to understand the interests at play here:
Ahmedinejad: Mahmoud wants to stay in power, and after crushing the street demonstrations he cannot count on popular contentment. He needs to keep the Revolutionary Guards leadership well-paid, the clerics onside, and give the nation some reason to rally around him.
- Nuclear weapons are great; their pursuit unifies the nation and their receipt will change the terms of trade with the rest of the world.
- So long as the US is in Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran might as well harass our forces. No time like the present to wound the giant.
- Speaking of Iraq, a US departure would offer a great opportunity to link up – forcibly or otherwise – with the Shiite government.
Iran. Beyond the specific current government, there is some broad consensus in the country that it wants its moment in the sun and economic development. It is a very young country with rather less hatred for America than its leaders. However, it lives in a rough neighborhood and would like the bomb.
US. At one point we were ruled by crazy people who expected to run through the Middle East while people prostrated themselves in love. No longer. Now we want out of Iraq.
- We have a tough time leaving Iraq when Iran seems likely to meddle; an Iranian takeover would be seen as a colossal foreign policy blunder.
- The nuclear risk is terrifying. Iran’s entire defense posture is based on irregular warfare: the use of Hezbollah and other proxy armies to launch terror attacks against larger enemies. Iran would be awfully tempted to pre-position nuclear weapons for retaliatory purposes, and once deployed, it wouldn’t exactly have good command and control over the bombs.
Israel. The Israelis know that a nuclear Iran is one literal-minded ayatollah away from bringing down the walls. If they thought they had the capability to destroy the program from the air, they would have done so already. However, they cannot knock out the program, and were they to attack all sanctions would fall apart in the face of their aggression. Oh, and Iran would be sure to redouble its efforts and prepare for a first strike. The discussions of attack have to be seen largely as an attempt to goad the rest of the world into a diplomatic solution.
EU. The EU nations enjoy doing business with Iran and have much larger Muslim populations than the US, so they cannot be seen as pro-Israeli, but they would probably go along with sanctions or anything else that seems to have a chance of working.
Russia. Tough to see their interest set here. I suppose their main goal is to keep the US tied down. When the US was proposing Polish missile interceptors, Iran was a good way to tweak us. With a president who seems willing to let Russia do its own thing in its own sphere, however, is that sort of friction really helpful? Getting the US out of the area altogether would help Russia more than any weapons revenue.
China. The last bastion of support for Iran. The Chinese have everything to gain and nothing to lose from Iran staying rogue. If Iran gave up its weapons program and normalized relations with the West, it would be Western companies developing the country and Western militaries that could stand down. As things are, Iran is grateful for Chinese support. Furthermore, never good practice to allow the West to interfere in the domestic arrangements of a country that brutally represses pro-democracy demonstrators.
So what are the potential deals? What could we give Iran to get them to stop their nuclear program?
Nothing that I can think of.
Suppose we said “full normalization in exchange for verifiable end to nuclear development.” Everything we have for one item.
It still doesn’t work. We could never get comfortable that Iran was truly finished with its bomb-making program, to begin with. But suppose we took the position that full inspections would at least delay them. Ahmadinejad wouldn’t take the deal because full normalization doesn’t help him. It saps his grievance (“the world is against us”). It opens up the country and dilutes the moral power of the ayatollahs. It reduces the wealth of the sanctions-runners, who just happen to be the Revolutionary Guards.
We don’t really care if he stays or goes. If we thought he would play nice, we would let him get all Ghaddafi and grow old and batshit crazy on the throne. But he can’t trust us to be that nice. He needs to keep us at arm’s length.
We can’t break his regime through sanctions; sanctions only work against rich countries that notice the drop in standard of living and they sure won’t work with China and probably Russia ignoring them. We don’t seem willing to impose the gasoline tax that would crush the price of oil and really kick the regime where it hurts.
Perhaps that leaves us where Allenby is at 9:00 in the following clip:
Do nothing and play for time. In fact, go public with our ultimate position: we would be happy to have completely normal relations, exchange of ambassadors, trade, absolutely everything – if only the Iranians would demonstrate their willingness to have peace by verifiably ending their nuclear program and support for foreign military organizations. Put the burden on Ahmadinejad to convince his people those are unjust terms. And sit way back while they have the debate.
There isn’t much else to do.