Whizzing Into the Persian Wind, Part III
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. The mullahs see this fight as one to ensure the survival of their regime—with American assurances.
-- "Iran's Rogue Rage," Newsweek
In Part I, objections were lodged against the apparent screwyness of US policy toward Iran. In Part II, some basic assumptions were laid out and argued for, in preparation for forming an alternative policy. So finally, what do you do with Iran? Like any complicated diplomatic affair, this will be a melange of threats, assurances, and quid-pro-quos. There are also a couple of potential jokers in the deck.
"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."
-- Saeed Leylaz, Iranian political analyst
Iran's economy is stagnant. Thanks in a large part to poor economic policy and externally imposed sanctions, its only three major exports are energy, pistachios, and rugs, and its infrastructure is in lousy shape. Iranians are fed up with this backwardness and even the government acknowledges the problem and wants to do something about it. But much like the current ruling class in China, they're caught between desire for economic connectivity and the fear of the dangerous content that inevitably comes with it.
As Catallarchy readers no doubt recognize, freedom is 90% economic. Giving people the liberty to travel where they want and to buy and sell what they want does more to weaken the grip of an authoritarian government and improve the lot of those stuck under it than any amount of hectoring about human rights and democracy. The proper stance for now is to softpedal political reform while pushing economic reform, all the while dangling the carrot of trade.
Make them an offer they can't refuse: in exchange for co-operation in ending violence in Iraq and helping the nation get up on its feet (something they have an interest in anyway, absent the futile US policy of regime change), the US ends all trade sanctions against Iran, yoinks them off the Axis of Evil list, drops the regime change line, and reopens diplomatic relations. Iran gets an economic boost and recognition as the key security pillar in the region -- contingent on it actually behaving responsibly. And if they throw in the al Qaeda leaders they've got under "arrest", the US will unfreeze those several billion dollars worth of assets it's had locked up since 1979.
Yes this is naked bribery and yes the mullahs will no doubt spin it as a victory for them -- but in the end, we'd get what we want without firing a shot. And making it so that they actually have a lot to lose by acting up will go a long way toward encouraging more careful behaviour on their part. Let them continue to talk tough if they want, so long as they cut the desired deal.
My attitude toward a nuclear-armed Iran has been relatively sanguine up to now, but this rests on one very big, important premise: for deterrence to work reliably, the US must restate its nuclear policy with clarity and credibility. The president must commit publicly to a policy akin to Don Corleone's policy in The Godfather:
"I'm a superstitious man, and if some unlucky accident should befall Michael -- if he is to be shot in the head by a police officer, or be found hung dead in a jail cell... or if he should be struck by a bolt of lightning -- then I'm going to blame some of the people in this room; and then I do not forgive. But with said, I pledge -- on the souls of my grandchildren -- that I will not be the one to break the peace that we have made today."
As long as Iran behaves and is willing to be transparent about it, they get no further hassle over their nukes. If a nuclear explosion occurs in any populated area -- in Tel Aviv, New York, or anywhere else -- any nuclear nation not considered "trustworthy" will immediately be blamed (without actually naming them, this would be Iran, North Korea and possibly Pakistan), and nuclear retaliation will be swift and disproportionate.
Some faint-hearted people will no doubt scream and whine over this, but the bottom line is that clear nuclear deterrence saves lives. And hey, we can always point to Chirac and say "France does it too"!
The Sistani Wildcard
I noted in Part II that overt US sponsoring of Iranian opposition groups is quite likely to do more harm than good, but there is still a possible way to foment internal upheaval indirectly. Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani is the most respected and influential religious leader alive for Shi'a in both Iraq and Iran, and is on record as rejecting Khomeinist clerical rule. He has been critical of the Iranian government on numerous occaisions and has spoken out many times in favour of democracy and tolerance.
Here's a possible pathway: imagine it's 2009, the US has resumed something resembling "normal" relations with Iran, Iraq is gradually stabilizing, and the US has reduced its troop presence in Iraq to ~80K. Sistani becomes increasingly vocal in his criticisms of the Iranian government, urging peaceful resistance against it and agitating for democratic reform in Iran. Maybe he even comes out with a fatwa declaring the Khomenist government heretical and making resistance to it an imperative among his followers -- which notably includes a significant portion of the Iranian armed forces. Suddenly the condition that the military be willing to stand down in the event of mass demonstrations looks a lot more possible.
Would this be sufficient to topple the clerical regime in Iran, and is it likely? I don't know, but it's a very real possibility that should be kept in mind. It's also one that the US has very little control over, however, and there's always the possibility that Sistani might kick the bucket before it has a chance to happen. The US should quietly prepare for and encourage such an eventuality, without relying on it.
As I was writing this, I saw the news that Khameni has officialy endorsed talks with the US. This is important. The reality is that the US and Iran have been engaging in low-key meetings off and on for quite a long time, but these have always been on the down-low and never officially acknowledged by the top leaders on either side. The fact that both have now publically come out and agreed to official talks is a significant signal that sanity is begining to prevail, and causes me to slightly revise my expectations upward. Both sides are indulging in the requisite face-saving tough talk, but the fact is that it's a start. Insh'allah, we may avoid a truly stupid collision yet.