War with Iran?

| Tue Jan. 17, 2006 6:45 PM EST

Over the weekend, Atrios among others wondered whether the Bush administration was going to gear up for an attack on Iran—if not for the purpose of actually doing something about Iran, which seems unlikely, then at least for the purpose of putting the Democratic Party in a corner. Atrios is probably right to say that thinking about this in terms of actual policies—i.e., "What should the U.S. do about Iran?"—is fairly useless and thinking about this in terms of politics is the only reasonable way to go. But there are more than enough clever folks out there spending all their time pondering how the Democrats can "outflank" the Bush administration, so I'll stick with policy talk, I guess.

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Reading over various news reports, there are, it seems to me, four pressing and genuinely ambiguous questions about Iran:

1. Is President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad really as crazy as everybody says?

2. How much power does Ahmadinejad really hold in the Iranian government, and is it true that the people who actually run the show—for instance, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei—are "pragmatic" folks who can be persuaded to negotiate with the West or even disarm, given the right incentives?

3. How much does Iran have to lose by going nuclear, and do the people in charge care?

4. What kind of time frame are we talking about here? When could Iran, conceivably, get nuclear weapons?

A lot, I think, follows from what the answers are here. So fourth question first. A recent National Intelligence Estimate, leaked last year to Dafna Linzer of the Washington Post, suggested that Iran was still ten years away from making a bomb. A recent CRS report on the subject, meanwhile, noted that if AQ Khan sold Iran the very same nuclear weapon design he sold Libya, then Iran's only "remaining technical hurdle (albeit the most difficult) would be fissile material production." No time frame on that, though. Still, the presumption is that there's still a fair bit of time. Ahmadinejad could conceivably be out of office before Iran can even produce its first nuclear test. Keep that in mind.

On the first question, whether Ahmadinejad is really as war-mongering as he appears or not, Scott Peterson wrote a semi-alarmist story in the Christian Science Monitor about how Iran's president may hold very deep-seated millenarian (apocalyptic, even) views about the imminent return of the Mahdi. Suffice to say, a man who believes the rapture is on its way is, as Peterson says, not very willing to compromise on much of anything. He might even feel the urge to use nuclear weapons, should he get them, or at the very least, get up to a lot of nasty stuff behind a nuclear shield. That's the generally accepted theory.

On the other hand, there's Ray Takeyh and Karim Sadjapour in the Boston Globe. I should mention that I place a great deal of trust in anything Takeyh has to say about Iran, partly because he strikes me as something of a knee-jerk dove on Iran, and anyone who writes about things with a very strong presumption against going to war seems like someone with a sensible head on his shoulders. Takeyh and Sadjapour think that Ahmadinejad's rants of late, especially his promise to wipe Israel "off the map"—which is hardly a new sentiment in the region—amount to little more than attempts to increase his support within the country by triggering a confrontation with the United States, and thus give Iranian hardliners the upper hand in government. See also Sanam Vakil's piece in the Lebanon Daily Star today for a similar analysis.

So there's that. It's also plausible that Ahmadinejad's Holocaust denials and the like may be attempts to curry favor with other Arab governments in the region—after all, if Ahmadinejad says that an Iranian nuclear program is intended to wipe out Israel and confront America, rather than, say, establish Iranian dominance in the Middle East, that might help make, say, Saudi Arabia feel less jittery and maybe even more supportive of Iran's program. That would mean that Ahmadinejad doesn't actually plan to spark a nuclear war and be the man responsible for the obliteration of Tehran; all this talk is just tactical. Who knows?

That leads to question number two. At a general level, Ahmadinejad probably doesn't run things in Iran. The former president, Mohamed Khatami, certainly didn't, and that's because the Iranian presidency just isn't a strong position. On the other hand, the man in charge, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has reportedly always felt insecure about his position as Supreme Leader, partly because his clerical credentials are so flimsy, and has certainly yielded in the past to the ayatollahs on his right. (There's a long-running question, for instance, about whether Khamenei has any say over various activities by the IRGC, including their infiltration in Iraq and support for al-Qaeda.) As always in Iran, lots of intrigue and power struggle-type activities are going on in the back halls.

What that means is hard to say. Takeyh, along with Kenneth Pollack, (who may have gotten Iraq dead wrong but tends to speak a lot of sense on Iran) have suggested that the Iranian regime has split between those who want to pursue nuclear weapons at any economic cost, and those "pragmatists" who are casting a wary at the dismal economic situation in Iran and would probably prefer to engage with the United States and Europe. Here's the reason:

Iran's massive youth bulge is straining the nation's economy, and young Iranians' demands for social freedoms are challenging a principal goal of the revolution itself. Currently, the Iranian economy is generating roughly 400,000 new jobs a year, but more than 1 million new workers are entering the workforce every year. The ensuing rapid rise in unemployment has fed unrest with the regime, and the technocrats who manage Iran's economy have warned that only massive, foreign investment (to the tune of $20 billion a year for the next five-year plan) will be needed just to keep the status quo from deteriorating any further.

Moreover, the Iranian national oil company estimates that it will need $70 billion over the next five to ten years to refurbish Iran's decrepit oil infrastructure if the country is to continue to produce at current levels. Unfortunately for the mullahs, the only places that Iran can find these levels of investment are in Europe, Japan, and the United States. (Although some claim that rising oil prices, coupled with investment from Russia and China will suffice, none of Iran's own economists believe it.)

Last week, Saeed Leylaz, an Iranian analyst quoted by the Guardian sounded a similar theme. After noting that Khamenei had backed Ahmadinejad's hard-line approach, he also noted that ultimately, Khamenei was doing so not to pave the way for the obliteration of Israel or anything of the sort, but mostly to spur the U.S. into offering serious incentives for disarmament:

Mr Leylaz said: "This is not the beginning of enrichment. But diplomatically it's very aggressive and intended to gain advantage for the Iranian side. We've had two plane crashes in the past month caused by American economic sanctions against Iran. Those accidents are forcing Iran to take a more aggressive stance towards the sanctions. The regime wants to start real negotiations with the US, because it doesn't think the Europeans are authorised to negotiate properly. This move is aimed at breaking the circle and getting America's attention."

Another analyst said: "This decision is about forcing the west to come up with something substantial and serious. Iran wants rewards for not turning its nuclear programme into a weapons programme. The Russians are saying, come and do uranium enrichment on our soil, but there's no reward for that. The regime is saying, if you want us to work with the Russians, there's a price - which is lifting the sanctions, security guarantees, economic incentives and recognition of Iran's role in the region."

And here's another quote from a "senior Iranian official" to Newsweek, pointing in the exact same direction:

A senior Iranian official close to Ayatollah Khamenei, who insisted on anonymity, says Iran's ultimate goal in this complicated game of chess is to win security guarantees from the United States at a time when American troops are in several countries on Iran's borders. "How can the world expect us to sit back and not defend ourselves?" he asks.

That seems right. All you need is a working map of the region to figure out why Iran wants nuclear weapons. Every single nation that borders the country is either occupied by U.S. troops (Iraq, Afghanistan), or is a staunch American ally—many with U.S. bases on their soil (Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Pakistan, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait). Understandably, the mullahs feel a bit cagey about the nearby presence of a belligerent nation that frequently invades sovereign nations for no good reason.

Would security guarantees and real economic incentives from the United States convince the Iranian government to give up its nuclear program—or, at the very least, outsource its uranium enrichment to Russia? Maybe. Maybe not. What I don't understand is why this isn't worth trying. The United States would have to negotiate directly with Iran, which would contradict the Bush administration's longstanding preference not to "appease rogue regimes," true, but a little loss of face is about the worst that would come of trying. If it fails, then move on to step two. But the upsides to a serious attempt at engagement are very high.

Meanwhile, it's not as if the United States would have to negotiate with its tail between its legs. The conventional wisdom, I take it, holds that Iran has the upper hand over the United States—Iran can always stir up trouble in Iraq, after all, while the U.S. can't credibly threaten an invasion since it has no soldiers available. But as Dariush Zahedi and Omid Memarian recently wrote in the New York Times, Iran has its own very glaring vulnerabilities and has its own reasons for seeking peace:

Many of Iran's ethnic and religious minorities see themselves as victims of discrimination, and they have not been effectively integrated into Iranian economic, political or cultural life. Some two million disgruntled Arabs reside mainly in the oil- and gas- rich province of Khuzestan. The United States could make serious trouble for Tehran by providing financial, logistical and moral support to Arab secessionists in that province. Other aggrieved Iranian minorities would be emboldened by the Arabs' example - for example, the Kurds and the Baluchis, or even the Azeris (though the Azeris, being Shiites, are better integrated into Iranian society). A simple spark could suffice to set off centrifugal explosions.

Furthermore, the plummeting Iranian economy will only worsen if the United States succeeds in referring Iran's nuclear file to the Security Council, whether or not meaningful sanctions follow. Such a referral would accelerate capital flight, deal a blow to the country's already collapsing stock market, devastate its hitherto booming real estate market, and wipe out the savings of a large part of the middle class. It would also most likely result in galloping inflation, hurting Iran's dispossessed, whom the Ahmadinejad administration claims to represent.

Of course, that's what the United States is trying to threaten now: a referral to the Security Council and further sanctions. There are some signs that Iran doesn't want to go there, so maybe that will get Iran to comply with the IAEA—if China and Russia agree to sanctions. But without any "carrots" being extended, it's unlikely that the Iranian government will see any reason to seriously change course.

Even if the United States succeeds in "punishing" Iran, further sanctions could do no more than devastate the Iranian population, and probably kill off any hope of democratic change in the country by wiping out Iran's middle class, as happened in Iraq during the 1990s. Further confrontation seems like the perfect way to stifle liberalization—although certainly many "Iran hawks" think that negotiating with Iran will only strengthen the mullahs and kill off hope for democratization. Omid Memarian wrote a good counter to the hawk view here.

Ideally, meanwhile, the international community should set a long-term goal of a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East, as I mentioned last December, and as Mort Halperin argues today. Whether that's a reasonable goal or not, it's ultimately less likely to happen if the United States keeps throwing sanctions at Iran until the country can no longer breathe, and more likely to happen if Iran can become integrated back into the international community. Perhaps that's mushy-headed, but so what? And if absolutely nothing can stop Iran from going nuclear, accommodation seems like the smarter goal anyway. Is Iran more likely to act belligerently in the future if it a) is isolated from the rest of the world and has nothing left to lose or b) has decent ties with the West? I don't often agree with Thomas Barnett, but on this issue (and on China), he makes a lot of sense.

MORE: Irfan Husain points out that Iran may be casting a wary eye towards Pakistan these days, and the prospect of a nuclear-armed, radical Sunni state to its east. Ze'ef Schiff, defense editor of Haaretz, agrees that "diplomatic and political maneuvers on this issue have not been exhausted."

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