Iran Plan?

Iran: probably going nuclear; likely tied to al-Qaeda. What to do?

| Thu Jul. 22, 2004 3:00 AM EDT

Brace yourself for a long, bitter Iran debate. The 9/11 Commission's forthcoming report is expected to weigh in on the country's links to al-Qaeda, as reported by Newsweek and other magazines. Indeed, all signs point to a major shift in U.S. policy towards Iran. The only problem is that no one, not even the president, seems to have any clue as to what the new policy should actually look like.

On Monday, President Bush announced that "we're digging into the facts" to uncover any connection between Iran and September 11. The president may sound cautious, but behind the scenes, officials and intellectuals are hitting distinctly more hawkish notes. A U.S. government official confided to Scotland's Sunday Herald that "there will be much more intervention in the internal affairs of Iran" if George Bush is re-elected. Meanwhile, Michael Ledeen, an influential neoconservative scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, has urged an even more aggressive policy against Iran. But what does any of this really mean?

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Merely "taking a hard line" against Iran does not make for a coherent agenda. The U.S. first needs to figure out what, exactly, it hopes to achieve in Iran. We need to come to terms with what we can reasonably expect Iran to do, and what we must learn to live with. None of those questions have yet been answered -- or, for that matter, seriously discussed -- within the administration. Officials have long mocked Bush for lacking an Iran policy. The danger is that a new, more hawkish stance will amount to nothing more than further incoherence shrouded in aggressive overtones.

Thankfully, some scholars are putting actual effort into figuring the situation out. On Monday, a Council of Foreign Relations (CFR) task force, led by Zbigniew Brzezinski, released an in-depth report (PDF) of Iran, including recommendations for U.S. policy.

Perhaps most controversially, the CFR report dismisses the idea that a democratic revolution will topple Iran's theocracy. To date, the White House has more or less sated itself on this hope, using it as an excuse to avoid dealing with Iran's repressive regime. But as the report states, the conservative clerics "remain firmly in control" of power. Iran's most prominent reformists, meanwhile, have been largely unwilling to call for drastic change -- most of them, as Jahangir Amuzegar has noted, are "firmly committed to the union of mosque and state." Finally, U.S. support for student movements and "Third Force" reformers, far from shaking things up, will do little more get more protestors killed and allow Iranian hardliners to paint their opponents as American puppets.

Whatever our Iranian policy ends up looking like, it will have to keep these facts in mind. Fortunately, things are looking up. As Amuzegar argues, "Trust in the power of Islamist ideology has declined." The country's youth are closely attuned to Western ideas, and in recent years conservatives have relaxed some of the tighter rules and restrictions around the country. But for the moment, the rate of change will be gradual, erratic, and largely beyond our control.

On to the issues. Iranian policy towards Iraq remains the thorniest problem at the moment. The CFR report argues that, on the positive side, Iran has a compelling interest in preserving the stability in Iraq, as well as in "encouraging the ascension of a friendly fellow Shia government." On the other hand, Iran has "cultivated ties with a wide range of political actors… including extremists, as a means of maximizing their potential leverage."

So what are Iran's objectives in Iraq? For starters, fears that Iran is trying to install a puppet Shia theocracy in Iran are probably overblown. Look at the main Shiite actors in Iraq. Even though Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani has ties with Shiite leaders in Iran, he has also repudiated Iranian-style clerical rule for Iraq, and is more of a moderate Islamist. Moqtada al-Sadr also has ties with Iran, but remains too much of a nationalist (as many Iraqi Shiites are) to accept Iranian dominance in Iraq. Indeed, as Ray Takeyh, a professor at the National Defense University, noted, "Iran's leaders recognize that the long-suppressed Shiite populace in Iraq has no intention of subordinating its national aspirations to Iran's geopolitical ambitions." One could add that Iran's Shia government has little interest in allowing hostile Sunni insurgents to gain too much power. At the moment, then, the main Iranian goal seems to be to build broad popular support and forge friendly ties with whatever majority Shia government gets elected next year. This isn't really the sort of thing the U.S. can thwart, even with the threat of sanctions or strikes.

In this light, then, the CFR recommendations for Iran-U.S. cooperation over Iraq make perfect sense: "The United States should work with Tehran to capitalize on Iran's influence to advance the stability and consolidation of its neighbors." If John Kerry, say, truly wanted to internationalize the occupation, he could start by talking up the virtues of a pluralistic, stable Iraq with her neighbors.

Afghanistan is a more difficult case. As Amir Taheri observes in the New York Post, Iran supports the Islamist warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who has raised hell in the countryside, and presents a severe threat to Hamid Karzai's bid for the presidency. Unless the U.S. commits to further peacekeeping troops and spending in this region, Iran could very well scuttle Afghanistan's already-slim shot at democracy.

Of course, meddling in Iraq and Afghanistan is not half as troubling as Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons. On this issue, the CFR report makes some surprising observations. For one, "Israeli nuclear capability" is apparently "not one of the primary drivers for Iran's own program." Iran's push for nuclear weapons is motivated largely by national prestige and a need to maintain strategic leverage against the U.S. Moreover, "the nuclear temptation is widely shared across the Iranian political spectrum." (Recall Iran's reformist editor Shirzad Bozorgnehr telling the Washington Post, "I hope we get our atomic weapons.") In that case, it's not likely that regime change would end Iran's nuclear aspirations. Indeed, it's worthwhile to note that Pakistan pushed through its nuclear arsenal under a succession of democratic governments in the '90s. While scholars like Michael Ledeen may clamor for a "democratic revolution," we should bear in mind that this hardly solves the underlying problems.

What, then, are the solutions? The arguments against full-scale military action are legion. We barely have enough troops to pacify Iraq; invading Iran would be logistically impossible. Even a smaller air strike against Iran's budding nuclear facilities, as Israel has advocated, could prove disastrous. The Iranian government has scattered its nuclear program out around the country, and a partial or unsuccessful Israeli strike would leave Iran poised for nuclear counter-action. Finally, as Jane's Intelligence Digest argues, a U.S. strike at the behest of Israel would strip the U.S. once and for all of its role as an "honest broker" in the Middle East peace process. Indeed, with such a move we could potentially foment instability across the region for decades to come.

The CFR instead suggests working through the Security Council to induce Iran to give up its nuclear program. The problem here is that thus far, China and Russia, both with vetoes on the council, have proved unwilling to censure Iran.

In the end, the U.S. may very well have to live with a nuclear Iran, pace President Bush's assertion that he "would not tolerate" such a situation. This does not mean sitting back and doing nothing. As scholar Ilan Berman has suggested, in the short term the U.S. could pursue aggressive counter-proliferation measures, including intelligence-sharing and a clampdown on smuggling, as well as bolstering regional security.

In the long term, however, the U.S. will need to be able to exercise serious leverage over Iran. On this topic, the CFR report is at its sharpest, advising a "process of dialogue, confidence building, and incremental engagement." The linchpin here is for the United States to "adopt measures to broaden the political, cultural, and economic linkages between the Iranian population and the wider world." This translates into drawing Iran more tightly into the international economic order, so as to wield more effective influence there.

There is every indication that this policy could make real headway. At the moment, Iran's economy is limping along, plagued by high unemployment, inflation, and an over-dependency on oil rents. With a coming population boom, the country will need as much as $18 billion a year in foreign investment to keep its workers happy. Already, under Khatami, various privatization schemes have helped open up the country's economy. The U.S. has plenty to offer here, such as an invitation into the WTO, and such economic incentives will give Washington far more leverage than the current unilateral sanctions against Iran. Ultimately, improved economic ties could be the only surefire means to get Iran to give up the bomb.

To be sure, gradual engagement has its problems. As the CFR report admits, "it is highly improbable" that Iran will withdraw its support for Hezbollah, or work for a solution to the Israeli-Palestine conflict, regardless of the circumstances. But consider the alternatives. Until the Iran hawks give us more than snarls and impotent cries of "moral clarity," they remain a movement without a policy, and a threat to real progress.

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