Whizzing Into the Persian Wind, Part II

In Part I, I gave a broad overview of the United States strategic situation vis-a-vis Iran. Next, let's clear some decks with a few basic reality checks. The following are what I think are baseline expectations that need to be borne in mind for any successful Iran policy.

1) Iran is not going to give up the quest for nukes voluntarily.

The Iranian public overwhelmingly supports the nuclear program, and it's the one thing the entire regime is united on. They want it for regional prestige, influence, and security. Nonproliferation is a chimera and not even necessarily desirable -- think of every practical objection ever made to gun control, consider its poor track record, and ask yourself why anyone thinks it'll work at the scale of nations. The problem in either case is not weapons, it's the aggressive use of weapons. The solution is to make it so that nobody sees using the weapons as being in their own interest.

2) Democratic revolution is not going to happen.

As this Strategy Page entry points out, you need two conditions for a successful democratic revolution: a majority that really wants democracy, and security forces that are willing to stand down in the face of mass demonstrations. The existence of the former is questionable, but even taking it as a given the existence of the latter is very, very unlikely.

Furthermore, activists within Iran have made it abundantly clear that any overt attempt at supporting a democratic movement within Iran will likely do more harm than good: "This is something we all know, that a way of dealing with human rights activists is to claim they have secret relations with foreign powers. ... This very much limits our actions. It is very dangerous to our society." If you read the whole article, it becomes easy to see how overtly assisting dissidents within Iran can actually inadvertantly weaken them rather than strengthen them.

It's not something that can be definitively ruled out, but we have to file an internal revolution under "I'd like a pony" -- would be nice, but hope is not a plan.

3) Ahmadinejad does not matter unless people let him.

Let us grant that for all appearances, Iran's President is batshit crazy. But let us also recognize that Iran's President is actually weaker than the United States executive -- he couldn't even get his first three picks for oil minister appointed, and the Expediency Council essentially has a veto over anything he does. If Iran got useable nuclear weapons tomorrow, Ahmadinejad would assuredly not be the man with his hand on the button. So his antics are completely beside the point.

Moreover, there's already a mounting backlash against him: Ahmadinejad's bloated budget and aggressive attitude is annoying the ruling clerics, the $10B decline in the value of Iran's stock market since he took over is annoying the capitalist class, and a 13.5% (and rapidly climbing) inflation rate is annoying the public that elected him. There's already been one assassination attempt on him. Ahmadinejad's days are already numbered, and the only thing that can save him is if the West makes a hero of him.

I can put it no better than an Iranian newspaper editor quoted in the linked article: "If you leave him alone, he will become a bankrupt politician within a year. With greater pressure, only the extremists will benefit."

4) The Iranian regime is deterrable.

This one is generally the hardest sell, because people have a rather incorrigible tendency to take rhetoric at face value, despite ubiquitous evidence that humans generally can't be taken at their word. Looking purely at actions can clarify much, however. And looking at Iran's actions, it's hard not to come to the conclusion that they've been behaving at least as rationally as the Bush administration, if not maybe a little moreso. A nuclear-armed Iran would be cause for concern, but no moreso than Pakistan and significantly less than the Soviet Union ever was.

People's thought process on Iran seems to run like this: they're ruled by Islamist theocrats, and Islamist theocrats believe all sorts of kooky things, ergo these people are not rational. But this tendency to impute the psychology of suicide bombers to Iran's leaders doesn't seem well-founded at all. If I were drawing up a psychological profile of the ruling set in Iran, here's what I'm looking at: a bunch of religious guys who lived through both the fairly brutal secularist Shah and a very bloody war with Iraq, both of which provided ample opportunity for anyone of a disposition to be martyred. This is a pretty strong selection pressure for pragmatism. They were young men then, and now they're old men who sit around reading religious texts and having theological and political discussions.

Does this sound like a bunch of big risk-takers to anyone? Does this sound like men who are eager to die? Hardly. Yes, the mullahs have been intoning their supposed commitment to the destruction of Israel for the better part of 25 years, but as Hitchens reminds us, that didn't stop them from buying arms from Israel to fight off Saddam Hussein in the 80's. These people are cynical and corrupt, not fanatics. And as Tyler Cowen noted a while ago, political power in Iran is distributed in councils, which tend to be collectively more conservative in their behaviour than any of their individual members might be.

With these as basic working assumptions, I'll outline my preferred policy toward Iran in Part III.

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The final argument here

The final argument here could equally have been made about Saddam. He was a pragmatic dictator first concerned with keeping his own power. Yet recent evidence (these phone conversations I keep hearing about) seem to point to the fact that he wanted to attack the US by proxy, and we have definite evidence he tried to assassinate Bush-41. Pragmatism isn't a defense if they think they can get away with it.

But I do in a way see your point. Iran's leaders could be roughly similar to those in Saudi Arabia; they don't care what happens as long as they stay in power. If that assumption is correct, Bush's strategy of constantly antagonizing them could be the worst possible move. The Saudi's don't exactly keep their own house clean, but they know they have a financial stake in not pissing us off. The Iranians have no such stake, because we've not engaged them in such a way to cause them to need our continued support.

So it comes down to your assessment of those leaders. Are they pragmatic folks looking to keep their own power, and willing to make deals and stand down if we engage them? Or are they ideologues who want to destroy the "great Satan" or Israel, and will pass WMD to terrorists if they think they can get away with it?

Brad- Thats kind of my


Thats kind of my bottom line, too. As I said in the comments before, I think there is more of an ideological component in the Iranian leadership, but as Matt points out if it is true that the leadership is somewhat devolved and by committee, that might lead to pragmatic conservatism. OTOH it may be that ideological old men feel either nothing to lose or want to see the Promised Land in their lifetimes, so you get the opposite effect (more radical instability with age). From what I see, it looks like the latter rather than the former.

But I don't really see an either-or dichotomy- we pose as big Anti-China-Bad-Commies all the time, and also do billions of dollars in business. Contrary to Einstein, we both have peace and 'prepare' for war in a sense with China. Certainly we can lift the silly embargo with Iran and still point a gun at them. That's probably the best of both worlds in any case- trade often and carry an itchy trigger finger.

"Now everybody just stay cool, I'm going to slowly leave the oil on the floor, you just slide the money over... stay cool, stay cool..."

Brad & Brian, If the

Brad & Brian,

If the political power in Iran were largely centralized in one man like in Saddam's Iraq and Kim Jong Il's North Korea, I would more likely be with you guys and be a lot more worried than I am. (This is why I think NoKo is far more dangerous than Iran.) Even given what I feel is the obviously cynical and pragmatic psychological profile of the mullahs, governments controlled by lone individuals, as a rule, are more prone to risky behaviour and megalomaniacal miscalculation than ones that are more collegial in their distribution of power.

A large part of that is the social dynamics -- there's a lack of negative feedback to the dictator that causes him to go further in kooky directions than he would if there was someone else to stand up and say "that's a really bad idea." This is what happened with Saddam's numerous strategic fuckups, though I think there's much more evidence in his profile to suggest he was always a bit of a crazy fool from the get-go -- starting a war with Iran did nothing to help him. The mullahs to date have not done anything remotely suggesting anywhere near that level of nuttiness.

Brian's analogy with China is a bit ironic, since I actually think the most of the posturing there is harmful too. But I agree with the general point that threats and deals are not mutually exclusive, and indeed both are often required together in cases like this.

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