The Iranian Dilemma

Iran looms on the horizon.  Resumption of technical talks with Iranian officials does not alter the gloomy outlook for resolution of the dispute’s underlying issues.  Sanctions clearly are not forcing Tehran leaders to yield to American demands. While there is no evidence that the Islamic Republic (IRI) has decided to develop a nuclear weapon – or accelerated its related programs, pressures to take preventive action will continue to mount.  Israel’s tactic of threatening unilateral action so as to force Washington’s hand may have lost credibility but Congressional pressure is unrelenting. The assault on Chuck Hagel provoked by his earlier statements suggesting that serious engagement provided an alternative to coercion is the handwriting on the wall. It is underscored by the latest move to legislate a further turn of the sanctions screw.

President Obama’s obvious preference is to kick the can down the road – as it is on most everything that is contentious or risky. That luxury may be denied him. For he has boxed himself into a corner from which he cannot spin a semantic escape. The White House has declared repeatedly that it will not tolerate Iran’s developing as much as the capability to build a bomb. No definitive measure of ‘capability’ has been enunciated. However, the administration takes ever occasion of a technical development – real or imagined, possibly weapons related or not – to pronounce that Tehran is edging closer to that threshold. Those declarations are magnified by the powerful lobby pressing for military action. Moreover, lurking in the background of official thinking is an unmistakable  preference for regime change. Eliminating the IRI as an obstreperous, antagonistic player in a greater Middle East made more dangerous by the Arab Spring’s turbulent postscript is seen as solving an array of problems for American foreign policy – the prolonged Syrian civil war, protests by Shi’ites in Bahrain and other Gulf statelets, their spillover effects in Iraq, and  Hezbullah’s challenge in Lebanon. In fact, there is hardly a regional trouble spot where the Obama administration doesn’t stretch the evidence to inculpate Iran. Overthrow of the mullahs is not a stated goal or firm commitment; it does shape attitudes toward options on the nuclear issue, though.

The White House, therefore, will have to make up its mind whether its war or peace – attack nuclear sites or engage Iran on terms of respect for Tehran’s legitimacy and Iran’s own perceived security interests. And perhaps do so sooner than it likes.

The relentless campaign of arousing fears by depicting the IRI as diabolically menacing  makes the Obama people victims of their own propaganda – whether or not they believe it. For the effect is to raise the political bar that the White House must surmount if it ever considers a true diplomatic dialogue with Tehran.  The political environment both discourages fresh thinking and militates against action were the intellectual judgment ever made that a course correction is called for. Obama, by playing this game, is further narrowing his options in the vain hope that tough talk will scare the Iranians into yielding. When that gamble fails, he will find himself facing either a war he doesn’t want or the daunting task of reversing political course against strong headwinds. That unforgiving dilemma is the outgrowth of taking the path of least resistance.

A rigorous reappraisal of the United States’ interests and aims in dealing with Tehran is long overdue. Instead, we have seen an unceasing reiteration of the case for confronting Iran and insistence that its leaders see the world the way we do. That applies to the commentariat as well as to official Washington. They all begin with the premise that Iran is a hostile, threatening power with whom some form of co-existence is a near impossibility. The nuclear prospect along with the implicit threat to Israel is the main reason for that. There are other indictments being made that reinforce that judgment. Let us take a look at them before addressing the nuclear question.

One item in the bill of particulars indicts Iran for aggravating the situation in Iraq (their neighbor and former mortal foe) by meddling in intra-Shi’ite politics and by urging Premier Maliki to foster an avowedly Shi’ite state. Their activities allegedly are directed at blocking reconciliation with the country’s other sectarian communities – above all, the Sunnis. Their ultimate objective supposedly is to enlist Iraq in the Shi’ite, Iranian led camp vying for leadership in the Islamic world. Whatever truth there may be to this ascription of motives, the charges come from a country that invaded and occupied the country on the most flimsy grounds for eight years – and sought to turn it into a base for the spread of American influence in the Middle East.  How would we interpret the situation if the positions were reversed?

Two, to indict Iran for supporting terrorism when the United States is supporting terrorist acts in Baluchistan, placing the seal of approval on MEK, launching cyber war against technical institutions, and may possibly be an accessory to the murder of Iranian scientists similarly is not tenable. In addition, there is no factual basis for charging Iran with launching terrorist acts directed at the United States or its citizens.  Three, Iran’s material and political backing for Hezbullah is a particularly noxious sin by Washington’s account. We should remember, though, that Hezbullah’s enemy is Israel. Its primary field of political action is Lebanon. Its precursor organization attacked American forces in Lebanon when we intervened there to manage the Israeli invasion of 1982 and wound up taking sides in the civil war. We also should keep in mind, as others in the region do, Israel’s attack on Hezbullah in 2006 with full American backing that killed or wounded a few thousand Shi’ite civilians – an act calculated to intimidate civilians and scare them away from Hezbullah.

The point is not to draw up a balance sheet of rights and wrongs. Rather, it is to correct a stark portrayal of the situation that depicts a simplistic morality drama between the forces of good and evil.

*  *  *

An appraisal of Iran’s significance for regional security is inseparable from the sharp line of contention being drawn between Sunnis and Shia across the region. Washington does not encourage this development, nor though does it seek to counteract it. For America’s allies and tacit partners all are located on the Sunni side of the divide.  Sectarian tensions that overlap with power rivalries do serve the purpose of reconstituting the tacit coalition in support of the status quo which was the centerpiece of Washington’s strategic thinking about the Middle East before its being disrupted by the Arab Spring. The United States, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority under Abbas all saw a convergent interest in combatting the forces of change. Setting Shi’ite Iran as the new common point of negative reference holds out the hope of reconstituting the coalition.

The dangers of deepening fault lines between the Middle East’s Shia 
and Sunnis carries grave risks of sparking new, uncontrollable conflagrations. That prospect is downplayed.  A policy of seeking to exploit it conforms with a primitive logic, though, in the absence of a more sophisticated strategic design. Since Washington has depicted Iran as the region’s gravest threat, and since it has tactical alliances with Alawite  Syria (a Shi’ite offshoot) and Hezbullah, and since we fear without  solid grounds Tehran’s using Shi’ite communities in the Gulf as instruments of their alleged imperial ambitions – then it follows 
that all these other parties are our enemies as well. Therefore, the conclusion that America should support the Sunnis; so we act in a manner that militates toward a recrudescence of Islam’s sectarian war – with Washington taking sides.

Iraq? Well it, too, is politically dominated by a Shi’ite leadership that 
is getting closer and closer to Iran. The Maliki government also has sounded the alarm bells about the prospect of a victory by the preponderant Sunni insurgency in neighboring Syria. Last Thursday Iraqi army units fired on FSA positions across the border in Syria. So, does this primitive logic 
 suggest that we treat Iraq, too, as an enemy? That’s hard to do since we are the 
regime’s godfather, since we refuse to admit that the Iraq adventure has 
been an utter failure, since there are careers bound up with that fiction. Therefore we cannot venture beyond muted expressions of concern that Baghdad is some sort of “fellow traveler” of the Persian led Shi’ite bloc in this emergent sectarian conflict.

The question of perspective in a nutshell is this: are we debating tactics for bringing to heal a rogue, hostile regime? Or, are we assessing what can be done to avoid a cataclysmic war by reaching agreement on terms that satisfy our reasonable concerns and Iran’s legitimate security concerns?

* * *

The nuclear issue is the immediate, most compelling point of contention – if not the be-all and end-all of the United States’ conflict with Iran. Most assessments begin by stating that all agree that a nuclear capable Iran is intolerable. Whenever an interpretation features the phrase “all agree,” it’s the signal to alert your critical faculties. Nuclear Iran need not be a danger to all the world – whatever American policy-makers (and their European courtiers) think. Let’s take a look at the logic. First, there is no definition of what a nuclear Iran means: a capability entailing the technological, hardware and fuel elements? actual weapons? how many with what delivery systems? Without specification, we are dealing with fuzzy abstractions that evoke feelings, not rigorous strategic thought.

Second, some reputable analysts (e.g. Paul Bracken) declare that “You don’t have to fire a nuclear weapon to gain a strategic advantage from it. This is perhaps the most important lesson from the decades of the Cold War.”   History points to quite a different conclusion. Who actually gained an advantage from possession of nuclear weapons? The United States in Korea and Vietnam? The Soviet Union in Afghanistan or in controlling Eastern Europe? France? Britain? India? Pakistan? South  Africa? Israel circa 1973? The only benefit of nuclear weapons is to deter another nuclear armed state. That, strictly speaking, is not an “advantage.”

Third, the reality is that most in Washington seem to fear a nuclear Iran because it then can dissuade the US or Israel from threatening it. In addition, it MIGHT
dissuade us from a conventional attack since the mere presence of nuclear weapons in a country whose integrity is threatened gives pause. None of this is aggressive.

Fourth, would a “nuclear” Iran actually be a danger to the  “whole world?”  By all evidence, China does not give a damn about 2 or 3 or 30 Iranian nuclear weapons and has no reason to, just as it has no worries about Indian or Pakistani nuclear weapons. Why? It is not contemplating a confrontation in the Persian Gulf and does not see Iran as led by madmen.  The Russians, who live next door, aren’t panicked either.

It is discouraging and distressing that the vast majority of commentary on Iran precedes on dubious premises that are neither adequately justified nor open to debate.  The Obama administration is deaf to the voices of skeptics. Unhappily, that leaves them scanning the skies for a magic carpet that will extricate them from the dead-end they have entered.

Their righteous attitude towards Iran deepens their dilemma. It is a righteousness built on the twin pillars of belief in America’s intrinsic virtue and ignorance of Iran. However one judges the United States’ objectives, our approach disregards Iranian aberu – or pride and face-saving. Quite the opposite. Some in the Obama administration are dedicated to putting Iran in its place so as to confirm American hegemony over the Gulf region and farther afield – as well as to intimidate any other would-be proliferators. They want not just concession but humiliation. This grand objective involves more than a bit of vanity. It smacks of the Cold War mentality when the whole world was viewed through a Manichean lens. It smacks of the 1990s when a triumphant America seemed destined to reign supreme. It is anachronistic for today’s world.

Humiliation is a dangerous and delicate business. Especially so when the party whom you intend to humiliate is a proud people and its leaders willful – if not indeed criminal by your own lights. That is why Rome imagined sowing the fields of Carthage with salt. That is why Prussia’s humiliation of France in 1871 led to the former’s own humiliation in 1919. Better to crush your avowed enemy than humiliate him and allow him to nurse vengeance; all the more so when you have scattered valued possessions  throughout the neighborhood on which he can wreak his revenge. Of course, all of this matters little if Washington believes it can dominate the region forevermore and smite the violators of its hegemony as it chooses. If it cannot, then our leaders have best wise up as to the psychology of dealing with rivals. If history is not their cup of tea, they might try the saga of the Corleone family.


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Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.

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