Saturday, May 22, 2010

Bullying Iran

Perhaps the US should take a breather from its vilification campaign against Iran.

US foreign policy can get curiously ossified at times. Our stance toward Cuba is an example, which after the trauma of the Bay of Pigs and Kennedy's assassination, seems to have drifted into auto-pilot, not thinking too hard of what would be best for our interests, let alone what would be best for Cuba and the region.

Likewise, we seem to be carrying on a long-term grudge against Iran, dating from their Khomeini-ite revolution. It is frankly embarrassing to see the US try to bully Iran, to little avail, on its uranium processing and nuclear weapons policy.

Barack Obama took a promising tack when he first come into office. His reduction of pressure resulted in a deep destabilization of the Iranian government during its fraught elections. The equation is clear- the more pressure we apply, the more recalcitrant the Iranian government is, and the more support it gets at home, squeezing just a little more mileage from those tired old great Satan slogans. Bullying by the biggest country on the block never looks very good.

But now, the Obama administration has tacked back to a campaign of vilification, with embarrassing speeches by Hillary Clinton at the UN about how terrible Iran is, and how the nuclear non-proliferation agreement is not a residuum of neo-colonialism, but the self-evident and permanent apotheosis of universally accepted international relations.

Unfortunately, it is all too transparent where this change in policy comes from- it comes from our symbiotic relationship with Israel, which is running scared over a nuclear threat from nearby governments that hate it. It is also a neocon hangover from the Bush years and before. It also comes from our own difficulties with Iran's role in Iraq and Afghanistan, on the borders of both of which it sits, and with Islamism in general.

What are the risks? First is the risk of Iran actually carrying out its threats of wiping out Israel with a nuclear bomb. I think it should be clear that the chances of this, even when Iran does aquire a bomb, are minuscule. The history of nationalistic and diplomatic bombast is a long and painful one, but rarely reflected in action. Iran, even while indulging in clownish rhetoric, has shown a pattern of measured power projection, including provocations on its borders and through its Shiite friends in Lebanon and Palestine. Its relationship with Syria was mostly strategic, when it was mortally threatened by their mutual neighbor, Iraq. The unanticipated benefit of gaining Arab street cred by irritating Israel via its Hezbolla clients was purely gravy.

Not to mention that Israel has plenty of deterrent capability in the form of nuclear bombs of its own, hopefully well-protected from attack, and quite a bit more to the point, from its own rather numerous religious crazies. So I'd assign this prospect to pure fantasy. As far as terrorist appropriation of such a weapon goes, we are into this scenario pretty deeply already with Pakistan, with no accidents to date. I'd rate Iran better run, with better technical and cultural coherence than Pakistan, and thus estimate that Iran could control its bombs at least as well.

Second is the risk of Iran rising to become a true regional hegemon, supplanting US influence to some extent. This is a more serious threat, and certainly has Saudi Arabia quaking in its boots, as well as Israel. The ironic aspect of this is that the more we bully Iran, the more credibility it gains, both at home and in the Arab world. On the other hand, the more doctrinaire its policies- the more theocratric and economically closed it is- the less likely it will gain and consolidate this kind of influence. The more open it is and accepting of modernizing influences, the more successful it will be economically and culturally in what is, after all, a rather diverse Arab world and one that is majority Sunni.

So I would see this threat as self-limiting, which to say that insofar as Iran is dangerous, it will not be attractive to others in the region, whatever its purely military power. Israel serves as an example, having all the military power one could hope for, yet hardly being a hub of local cultural or political influence, for obvious reasons. The only influence it does have is not due to its military power at all, but due to its democratic system which serves at least in form as a counter-example to all others in the region.

Additionally, the real problem with Iran's nuclear ambitions is local- with its volatile neighbors. It isn't the US that needs to worry about Iran's bomb. We have plenty of distance and bombs of our own. If we had our diplomatic wits about us, we would let the local powers (i.e. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, perhaps Iraq) take the lead, and have them ask the UN for relevant sanctions, etc. One could even imagine a common front between those countries and Israel, if Israel hadn't completely alienated everyone in the region. The nascent denuclearization movement in the Middle East is such a local initiative, and the US should support it rather than torpedoing it at the behest of Israel.

Compared to the risks, what are the opportunities? The grand prize is obviously flipping the Iranian state from its Khomeini-ist system to something more democratic and less militant. Any other opportunities pale in significance, such as prying Iran away from Russian influence, or cutting Iran's oil revenue by restricting trade and establishing green energy, etc. Such an enormous change came very close to happening in the last election cycle. The population seems deeply interested in such a resolution, though it is hard to tell what the true proportions of sentiment are. All of our policy should be aimed at promoting this process. As noted above, our bullying has the opposite effect, consolidating the current state, and accentuating its interest in getting exactly the weapon at issue. Unless we have a big stick to wield, (and we don't), we'd be better off speaking softly.

Our policy should be to speak the truth and engage where we can. We should not recognize the current state as legitimate, since it is not (ditto for Afghanistan, unfortunately). We should also not sign off on nuclear treaty compliance that doesn't exist. But our target should be the vast population that yearns for modernity and for a voice in the context of a fully autonomous and democratic Iran. We needn't encourage Iran to build a bomb, but should at least recognize their desire for such a deterrent, beset as they are with US forces on both sides, and having faught a catastrophic war just 25 years ago. Israel, for its part, would be better off mending its own wretched relationships with the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world rather than egging us on to foolhardy diplomatic/military adventures.

Iran is a historically rich, sophisticated country with plenty of its own problems, like rebellious minorities, a corrupt and ideologically rotten elite, and energy needs that may outstrip its pace of energy development. The Khomeini-ist state is an unfortunate problem, for its subjects as much as for us. But it has shown a good deal of practicality over the years, and ultimately can't win against its own people, as they are increasingly aware of conditions and trends outside their country, and of their own power. It seems a good deal more fragile than, for example, the Chinese government, due to its internal complexity and an ideology that has diverged substantially from that of the public at large.

The risks are small, and the opportunities are large. My prescription would be to pursue quiet containment against the government of Iran while accentuating democratic, open principles at every turn in public, as we should universally in our foreign policy. We should promote travel between our countries, as well as non-sensitive trade and other exchanges. The enormous Iranian expatriate community in the US would probably welcome such an approach and be an important medium of improved relations as well as cultural change.

  • Who cheerleads for more bullying? What a feud. After the kindness of Cyrus, you would think they would be a little more grateful.
  • Afghanistan- still coming unraveled.
  • ...or perhaps not so much. Shalizi on Afghanistan- wealth of links, etc., including a detailed political network analysis.
  • Evolution- still a dirty word.
  • The Euro is on its death-bed. Dissolution, or pan-European government and fiscal policy- that is the stark choice.
  • More on the Euro.. mentioning its trend toward pre-Keynesianism. Why aren't we doing more post-Keynesianism here in the US?
  • A Keynesian prescription for Britain.
  • More on criminal, er, financial, racketeering.
  • Big government fights back against free information.
  • God is here .. at minute 26.
  • Bill Mitchell quote of the week, speaking of Europe particularly:
"So a classic mainstream argument that unemployment is caused by excessive real wages and government regulations. If you took time and analysed the shift to profit share over the period he analyses, you will realise that productivity was running ahead of real wages. So where was the real wage overhang?"

No comments:

Post a Comment