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.

Soft Power

"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.

Hard Power

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.

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And lo the scales fall from

And lo the scales fall from my eyes, and I see. I endorse the McIntosh Policy :)

As The Balko pointed out with the World Baseball tournament, the best thing to happen for Cuban dissidents in a long time was a dissenter holding up a "Castro Sucks" poster behind home plate on live TV to Cuba. :D That bit probably did more than all the sanctions so far. We'd do a lot better to topple his regime if we'd let people travel and trade with them. The resentment is already there that the government has all the goodies while the common folk live in poverty; it could only get worse with ever more travelers showing off the disparity (especially ex-pat Cubans coming back showing off the bling). Ditto for Iran; a poor and backward people are going to be too poor and backward to either mount an insurrection or care (unless it gets really really bad). Show them a better way through economic growth, and then...

(granted in China it's not really happening, but give it time yet I 'spose)

Brian, I'd say China is

I'd say China is progressing along pretty well. There's still some danger there, but China is increasingly becoming a capitalist country. There is enough foreign investment there to make enormous changes, and as long as they don't do anything stupid (like nationalizing all that investment), it will be fine. China, like Iran, is ruled by a bunch of old true-believer types. But when they start to die off (sooner for China than Iran, I presume), the changes will be swift.

I'm beginning to see where you're going with this. Maybe I can chalk this up not to Bush's bungling, but to a Rove-ian strategy designed to act tough with Iran before negotiating, to show that we won't be pushed around once the negotiating starts?
Nah, it's probably just Bush bungling, but this is a positive sign that we might step back from the precipice.

Precisely, Brian. Brad, It

Precisely, Brian.


It is possible that this was all part of some master plan, but I'm inclined to doubt it -- given my skepticism toward the competence of government officials in general, my null hypothesis is always mediocrity and muddling.

One thing I also forgot to note is that Ali Larijani is likely going to be the one handling the talks on the Iranian side. He's head of Iran's NSC, answers directly to Khameni, and has de facto been Iran's head nuclear negotiator. Both sides are publicly denying that the nuclear program will be discussed, which of course usually means it will be...

Matt, you rock.

Matt, you rock.

Why thanks, Gadfly!

Why thanks, Gadfly!

[whistles, looks innocent]

Evidently even catallarchy

Evidently even catallarchy bloggers aren't above petty censorship. Way to start off, Matt.

I know, isn't private

I know, isn't private property great?

Evidently even catallarchy

Evidently even catallarchy bloggers aren’t above petty censorship. Way to start off, Matt.

Only against chickenshit trolls. Figure out what censorship is, Stefan.

Not really sure what you

Not really sure what you mean Jonathan. I'd accuse you of libel, but as a libertarian even I can see the hypocrisy in that. :roll:

As for the policy proposal, I agree that Matt is a little too lenient about the possibility of Iran possessing nuclear weapons. The proposed solution of blaming any non-"trustworthy" nations for nuclear attacks has some obvious flaws - for one, if an enemy of Iran wanted it destroyed, they could make such an attack themselves. And of course if there is more than one nation that is untrustworthy it's not clear how "swift" retaliation is possible if you can't tell which one is responsible.

Not really sure what you

Not really sure what you mean Jonathan.


"As long as Iran behaves and

"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."

And moral?

Once New York has been nuked deterrence is moot. Would you really then obliterate those three countries, at least two of which (not to mention the majority of citizens of all three) are probably innocent of the crime?

Censorship my ass. You have

Censorship my ass. You have the whole internet to post on Stefan. Go post your complaints about Catallarchy in NT comments if you like; I let almost any nonsense pass.

John, the point of making

John, the point of making the threat credibly is to prevent just such an eventuality.

But once such an eventuality

But once such an eventuality had occurred would you really then obliterate those three countries, at least two of which (not to mention the majority of citizens of all three) are probably innocent of the crime?

Regretfully, you would

Regretfully, you would have-too. Of course, you'd only have to do it once. After that, the principle purpose of all national governments will be to prevent anyone from deploying nukes, because failure to prevent such action is the surest way to lose the next election.

Yes, John. Maybe you missed

Yes, John. Maybe you missed it but this is how we all survived the Cold War.

I must add this.. As i am

I must add this..

As i am out of my leauge on scholary affairs...what if..

The plan from the begging was to isolate Iran on two fronts, exposing and at the same time taunting them, to do their worst. We have invaded two countries and done our best to limit causalties and set up a government that was at best, palatble.

Then you turn your eyes to the biggest problem IRAN. Sure the have oil and means to make us suffer, but we have been through that before and ingenious reveletions have carried us through. So as the US if we were to defer to strategies still excepted by the 'geneva conventions', provoke them to a single strike first response scenario. THey bite the bullet, what next?

(I find no glory or satisfaction in the suffering of inocencts, but that is the problem of the ruling gov.)

Go in, whipe them out, (China, Russia et al) will be shitting kittens. Yes, we will suffer on the price of oil, all the more reason to explore the value of pig shit powered cars!

But in the end, what do we have? 4 dollar gas prices? Doubt it would last long. THe Shrihias would have to take a good long look at their future.

I know that my post is ignant in most grammetically approved turms, but my point is...

If we can demcrocy goin in the ME (hell even if we dont). We need to show our resolve in finishing this once and now! Lets see who is on our side and who isnot.

Please tell me how im an idiot

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