Whizzing Into the Persian Wind, Part I



Willard: They told me that you had gone totally insane, and that your methods were unsound.

Kurtz: Are my methods unsound?

Willard: I don't see any method at all, sir.

-- Apocalypse Now

When I pick up on the chatter in some quarters about a supposedly imminent military confrontation with Iran, the above snippet of dialogue flies through my mind. Policy toward Iran has been incoherent and frankly incomprehensible from the day Iran got put on the "axis of evil" list.

Consider: the United States military takes down two governments to the East and West of Iran, both of whom the Iranians had longstanding feuds with, leaving Iran the only regional power left standing. Rather than working with Iran from the get-go on both of these operations, which would have been the natural Machiavellian thing to do, the Bush administration chooses instead to antagonize them and continues to do so even now. The Iranians shrug and play right along, allowing al Qaeda members to stay in their "custody" and meddling in Iraq, since there's nothing in it for them to do otherwise -- and every reason for them to keep the US bogged down and busy, since Bush has already telegraphed a big fat "YOU'RE NEXT" message to them.

If you're the Iranian Supreme Leader, what do you do in this situation? Pretty much what they're doing now: jerk everyone around and eat the clock, all the while reaching for the Bomb as an anti-invasion insurance policy as fast as you can get it. All you have to do is get one functioning nuclear missile and you're set, and the odds of anyone being both able and willing to stop you are slim. The Iranians are not stupid; they know full well that there's currently no political will in the US for yet another war, and that starting one would be political death for the already beleaguered Republicans.

If you're George Bush, what do you do in this situation? Stick your fingers in your ears and go la la la la la, apparently. The current posture adopted seems to be that immediate halting of Iran's nuclear weapons program is a non-negotiable demand, which is kind of a strange strategy, since in order to make non-negotiable demands you have to be in a position of significantly greater leverage than your opponent. If your opponent is willing and able to make you pay more than you're willing to accept, then everything becomes potentially negotiable.

Now, I don't know what George Bush wouldn't be willing to accept as the cost of a military escalation with Iran, but I sure know what I wouldn't be willing to accept: Iraq being tipped further into chaos, which is exactly what would happen, among other things. Conservative hawk Peter Brookes lays out the gruesome possibilities:

The Iranian regime is already up to its neck in the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. It could certainly increase its financial/material support to the Sunni insurgents, Shia militants, al Qaeda, and the Taliban to destabilize the new Baghdad and Kabul governments -- and kill Coalition forces.

And don't forget about Iran's other "secret" weapon -- oil. As the world's No. 4 oil exporter, Tehran could rattle oil markets and major economies (e.g., Japan, South Korea, France, Italy) by slashing output. It could also mess with other nations' oil exports -- attacking tankers in the Gulf using mines, subs, patrol boats or anti-ship missiles.

The mullahs could unleash their terrorist attack dogs Hezbollah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad against Israel, killing untold numbers in suicide attacks -- and scuttling any peace process prospects. Iran could also pound populous Tel Aviv with its Shahab missiles mated with chemical/biological warheads.

He also suggests that this could push Iran into greater co-operation with al Qaeda purely out of spite, which is less certain but not totally implausible. Earlier in the column he also outlines the technical challenges of actually disabling Iran's nuclear program, although if anything he underplays them: every credible wargame of Iran scenarios has concluded that it isn't possible to disarm Iran by airstrikes, only to set them back. And as the old saying goes, one does not wound a king.

And that's not even counting the cost of killing thousands of Iranian civilians, the effect of which would be to alienate an Iranian population that's not generally hostile to America. A full-scale invasion of Iran would be even worse than targeted bombings -- it would make Iraq look like a pleasent stroll down the Euphrates.

The Bush administration needs to think long and hard about what it's doing here. There is a way they can potentially salvage something from the current mess, but sadly the lack of imagination they've shown up to now has not made me optimistic. More to come in Part II.

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The general problem with

The general problem with Iran policy is that it has been defined since 1979 as no-win. The US effectively removed all influence it had on the nation by imposing trade sanctions and failure to remove them over time has ensured that this has been the status quo. Iran is difficult to deal with because the US has only military leverage to go on (this is also true of North Korea, largely with Cuba, and was true of Iraq). There is very little you can do with pariah states once they manage to survive and the lesson of the 20th century is that the internal workings of these states will often ensure their survival.

Bush has seriously eroded the potential for progress on this issue and cannot himself undertake the necessary steps to begin a program of engagement and subversion. It will take another election and a serious change of leadership to allow the US to cash the democratic get-out-of-jail-free card (as with England and parliaments), even then large diplomatic costs will be incurred.

Iran is not a reactive mass

Iran is not a reactive mass but an active agent. The core problem with your starting point is that you've already denied Iranian agency by making this mess contingent on and stemming from bad US policies. I disagree, because when the US was quiescent re: Iran and paying them no mind, they *still* did everything they're doing now. THe only difference is after 9/11 Bush started putting active pressure on them, and now Ahmadinejad is open about what Iran is doing rather than the duplicitous and sniveling doubletalk of Hashemi/Rafsanjani. Iran's antisocial/antiworld policy is sui generis- it is exacerbated by bad US policy but Iran's leadership is not simply *reacting* to US action.

Steve, what you say is

Steve, what you say is largely true, but I quibble on two points: 1) I don't think comparing Iran to North Korea, Saddam's Iraq or Cuba makes complete sense, because it's less totalitarian than all of them and power is much more distributed than in any of those three countries. 2) I think Bush could still have a "Nixon goes to China" moment with Iran, but he's made it hard on himself by rhetorically and diplomatically painting himself into a corner up to this point. Which is a large part of why I'm not optimistic.

Brian, I'm not sure I understand how you think I'm "denying them agency" -- by this standard, that's what all of economics is, since all I'm saying is that they respond to incentives. To quote a passage I like from Arnold Bennett's The Human Machine:

All individualities, other than one's own, are part of one's environment. ... Treat them as inevitable. To assert that they are inevitable is not to assert that they are unalterable. Only the alteration of them is not primarily your affair; it is theirs. Your affair is to use them, as they are, without self-righteousness, blame, or complaint, for the smooth furtherance of your own ends. There is no intention here to rob them of responsibility by depriving them of free-will while saddling you with responsibility as a free agent. As your environment they must be accepted as inevitable, because they are inevitable. But as centres themselves they have their own responsibility: which is not yours. ... If we regard ourselves as free agents, and the personalities surrounding us as the puppets of determinism, we shall have arrived at the working compromise from which the finest results of living can be obtained. The philosophic experience of centuries, if it has proved anything, has proved this. And the man who acts upon it in the common, banal contracts and collisions of the difficult experiment which we call daily life, will speedily become convinced of its practical worth.

Re: Ahmadinejad, he isn't representative of the Iranian government as a whole, which I'm going to touch on in Part II. As for the "duplicitous and sniveling doubletalk of Hashemi/Rafsanjani", I will repeat something I've said elsewhere in a different context: hypocrisy and fudging are our friends. I don't care if they talk out of both sides of their mouths as long as they can be brought to behave in a more co-operative manner. Poking them in the eye at every opportunity does not help that goal and only benefits the small faction of hardliners like Ahmadinejad.

Matt- The premise denies

Matt-

The premise denies agency by starting with the US, saying "this is what we've done" and then proceeds to "what does the Iranian supreme leader do *after* the US has done all of this?"

This is a common starting point that I see in a lot of foreign policy type commentary, where the explicit premise is that US sets the tune and the world dances and the critical implication is if the US stopped setting the tune, the world would stop dancing. I say that ignores/denies the fact that the world has its own ideas and plans, independent of US actions, that may still be inimical to US interests. Its a specific reaction to the "Switzerland!!!" argument we hear ad nauseum from Paleolibs/cons - that all of our foreign problems would magically go away (or shrink to teeny little bits) if we just withdrew from the world and had Switzerland's foreign policy. Errrnt. The US is a convenient proximate excuse, not the ultimate or proximate cause, of terrorism and other nasty aspects of the World-Over-There, with rare exception.

My specific point is this- the Iranian government has a positive and independent agenda of malice aforethought versus the world, and to those ends will and has been promoting mayhem against its neighbors and further afield. Further, Bush's rhetoric *did not create this positive and independent agenda*. Regardless of Bush's words/deeds/etc, Iran would be pursuing this malicious agenda. There is no cause and effect here that would suggest a "way out" of the Iranian problem by means of changing US doctrine.

I would say that acting as though the Iranians were "puppets of determinism" is not a good rule of thumb, certainly not better than a policy of actually comprehending the opponent (and they are our opponent, currently). If Iran is an agent with independent motivations that can actively change its methods, a decision rule or theoretical rule that starts with the premise that Iran's behavior (in this case read: motivations and desires) is determined by ours is going to fail miserably.

As to "responding to incentives", let us look at the situation if Iran is an independent agent- IF, as the record shows, Iran wants to spread mayhem amongst its neighbors to gain power for itself (for whatever reason), and IF it can do so by avoiding the high cost alternative/consequences (Western intervention), then what incentive is being offered to the dedicated 'defector'/prudent predator when a conciliatory diplomatic stance is offered versus a hardass one?

Only assuming that Iran is not an independent agent can one think that playing nice with the Mullahs (given what we know) will give us a better outcome than we have now- because the assumption also carries with it that Iran is mean now because of things we've done and not because of any agenda or purpose on their part.

I know that since you haven't put out part 2 that much of this is premature and perhaps not aimed directly at your core argument- I'm just saying it to present my priors and positions and explain why I might think you're denying agency with the initial stab.

As far as Ahmadinejad not representing the government & such-

I will repeat something I’ve said elsewhere in a different context: hypocrisy and fudging are our friends. I don’t care if they talk out of both sides of their mouths as long as they can be brought to behave in a more co-operative manner. Poking them in the eye at every opportunity does not help that goal and only benefits the small faction of hardliners like Ahmadinejad.

Thats the big "if", now isn't it? The plain facts on record are that despite what Hashemi and Rafsanjani said, Iran did then all of the things we consider bad and nefarious today- exported terror, destabilized and meddled with their neighbors, promoted insurgencies, worked on WMD, etc etc. Hypocrisy and fudging *gave the regime cover*, or rather gave Europeans cover to avoid dealing with the obvious problem. The world pretended that maybe there was a legitimate moderate influence in Iran and all we got was more of the same since the 80s- terror funding, illicit nuclear weapon programs, fomenting revolution in Afghanistan & Iraq (probably Azerbaijan too, who knows), and generally carrying on cranky. While Ahmadinejad is a loon, he's put the fundamental truth & character of the regime on display- open, apocalyptic contempt for the West and the Sunnite Ummah. One can turn your last sentence around (the whole para, really) to the Mullahs, as Ahmadinejad has gone *out of his way* to antagonize Bush, the US, and the desperate-to-like-him-otherwise Germans & French. He's not serving their goals well by being a cock of the walk...

All of this being said I will agree that in all likelihood we've been *too* strident in our public diplomacy/lack thereof with Iran, but the solution is not engagement but a credible and muscular commitment to containment *along with* some carrots for behavior, and perhaps some support for counter regime elements... shrug. IN any case, we should probably take part of your quotes advice to heart (though not the conclusion), in that Iran is inevitable until it isn't, and the US must act accordingly (without the idea that we had anything to do with creating their malevolent agenda nor that our behavior will determine theirs in a passive way).

Brian, A smell of straw

Brian,

A smell of straw pervades throughout. You may see that sort of argumentation a lot in foreign policy discussion, but not in mine. The world doesn't revolve around the US, but I concentrate on its role because its actions are part of Iran's decisionmaking environment just as Iran's actions are part of the US' decisionmaking environment. Bennett's dictum applies in both directions, depending on whose shoes we're putting ourselves in. I could write a polemic about what Khameni ought to do, but that wouldn't be as interesting to us, would it?

I never denied for a moment that the Iranian government has its own agenda, but as with any government its priorities are many and sometimes conflicting. Just like any actor, they'll change their actions if they think it's worthwhile to do so. If anything you seem to be attributing more singlemindedness and determinisitc rigidity to their behaviour than I am, in suggesting that Bush's behaviour has had close to zero effect on them. This is a palpably dubious contention.

IF, as the record shows, Iran wants to spread mayhem amongst its neighbors to gain power for itself (for whatever reason), and IF it can do so by avoiding the high cost alternative/consequences (Western intervention), then what incentive is being offered to the dedicated ‘defector’/prudent predator when a conciliatory diplomatic stance is offered versus a hardass one?

The obvious unasked question here is why do they behave that way? I'd say the strategic goal of their meddling in Iraq has been pretty obvious: to keep the US tied down and busy in Iraq while they complete their nuclear weapons program, because Bush has already made it clear on numerous occaisions that he's gunning for regime change in Iran. But they also don't want total chaos in Iraq (yet), which is why they've been softpedalling it; they can do much worse yet, if they come to believe they have nothing to lose. They hang onto al Qaeda leaders because the US offers them nothing in return for handing said al Qaeda guys over, but I'd bet dollars to donuts that Iran would be willing to use them as a bargaining chip in exchange for concessions on other things.

The plain facts on record are that despite what Hashemi and Rafsanjani said, Iran did then all of the things we consider bad and nefarious today- exported terror, destabilized and meddled with their neighbors, promoted insurgencies, worked on WMD, etc etc. Hypocrisy and fudging gave the regime cover, or rather gave Europeans cover to avoid dealing with the obvious problem.

I'm not arguing that the Iranian regime just want to be a bunch of nice boys at heart, sheesh. I know full well what kind of bastards they are, my argument (part of which is still to come) is that the posture employed thus far is not going to do anything to get what we (presumably) want, so a different approach that I think is more likely to get at least some of what we want is less bad.

One can turn your last sentence around (the whole para, really) to the Mullahs, as Ahmadinejad has gone out of his way to antagonize Bush, the US, and the desperate-to-like-him-otherwise Germans & French. He’s not serving their goals well by being a cock of the walk…

Absolutely, Ahmadinejad is a moron and the elites both inside and outside Iran know it. But he's also ultimately ignorable, as I will get to later...

the solution is not engagement but a credible and muscular commitment to containment along with some carrots for behavior, and perhaps some support for counter regime elements…

Tell me again how well containment worked with Saddam. Or Cuba. Or North Korea. No thank you, I think I'd like door number three please... as for that last suggestion, let's just say it's a really bad idea, for reasons that will hopefully become clear soon.

Matt, Negotiation requires

Matt,

Negotiation requires good faith, unless its buying time for an invasion. There is no good faith on the Iranian side as it is currently set up.

I have no doubt that they're stirring things up in Iraq to try and pin us down, but the critical error that they are making is that there are 2 completely undeployed, armed, rested, and ready branches of the US Military that could totally ruin their day- the US Airforce and the US Navy. We have options and I think they've perhaps fatally miscalculated the US' ability to render their military and industrial infrastructure moot- which is dangerous.

[geek] As Khan said, "I dont have to beat you... I just have to hurt you..." [/geek] and the US can hurt Iran far more than Iran can hurt the US.

[Old socialist cliche response] Containment v. Saddam was not really tried. [/OSCR]

Yeah, supporting insurgents within Iran is not a good idea. Given that they won't negotiate in good faith, have shown a determination to develop a nuclear weapon with the stated, explicit intent of genocide, are working to destablize their neighbors, what is on the table? Do nothing (ala China/Russia) or... what? Given what we know, it would seem that threats of military action or at least the constant middle finger are the least worst option left to us now.

I agree, though, that Bush's bravado prior to Iraq invasion was counterproductive; the miscalculations were all in our favor and, for the moment, they were somewhat cowed (and the apocalyptic nitwit Ahmadinejad was not at the helm).

Brian, Good faith can be

Brian,

Good faith can be enforced. As you correctly point out, the US is still quite capable of doing a lot of harm to Iran, and if push comes to shove it would probably be easier to hit a few "soft targets" (i.e. Iranian government officials) than to bother focusing on the nuclear program. And there are other things the US can offer Iran -- trade deals, recognition & prestige, etc -- which would be contingent on good behaviour.

And not to give too much away, but their "stated, explicit intent of genocide" is bullshit. They've been repeating it for 25 years, and if you believe they're serious enough to actually try it then I have a bridge to sell you.

Matt, When dealing with

Matt,

When dealing with apocalyptic autocrats bent on power, always take them at their word. [Godwin alert] Its not like Adolf didnt spell out exactly what he eventually did once he got in power years in advance [/Godwin].

I want to believe you, (and am quite interested in seeing the 2nd part of your argument) but I dont think the Mullahs will go for it under any circumstances- they are not "rational" in the Homo economicus sense and in large part their own power depends on their (unilateral) rejection of and opposition to the United States. So long as that is the case, I sadly believe that we cannot enforce any good faith aside from one you described- cowing them by blowing up their govt buildings. Though why stop at govt buildings, of course, since the Helmand (?) complex is visible from the air, it can be hit from the air, fortifications be damned.

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