Perhaps a better headline for this post should have been: Is there anything to be done about Iran?
But since I am an inveterate warmonger and fire breathing neo-con – at least according to some of my more unbalanced critics – the idea that there actually is something to be done militarily about Iran appeals to my militaristic soul.
Unfortunately, warring with the Persians would not solve any of our problems in Iraq and would probably even make things worse in the Middle East. The thought of not only fighting an insurgency against Sunni Islamists, al-Qaeda terrorists, and unreconstructed Baathists but adding to the mix several tens of thousands of enraged Shias joining the revolt against our occupation would make any troop increase in Iraq a futile exercise. And like it or not, Iran is now a regional power in the Middle East – an inevitable outgrowth of their own growing aggressiveness over the past decade and not as a result of anything the US has done in Iraq – and an attack on Iran would have unforeseen and unintended consequences for the region.
Since I firmly believe this to be the case, allow me to let my softer, feminine side dominate this discussion. Who knows. Maybe they’ll let me join the “Glenn Greenwald Fan Club” or perhaps even invite me to a shindig sponsored by Code Pink.
In truth, we are in a bind when it comes to doing anything about Iran. I reject the notion that one course or another proposed so far would “solve” anything. “Diplomatic overtures” made to the insular, treacherous, and fanatical mullahs who currently are in control of Iran would only reveal our weakness and, in the end prove futile. This is because Iran has absolutely no reason to talk to us. When negotiating, it is usually a prerequisite that both sides could benefit by coming to some kind of agreement – unless you’re a liberal or a denizen of Foggy Bottom. Then negotiating simply for the sake of talking becomes a goal in and of itself.
In the case of negotiating with Iran, there is nothing the US can concede consistent with our national interest while the issues we want resolved with the mullahs – a halt to nuclear enrichment and their assistance in stabilizing Iraq – are both non starters with the regime. Those who advocate negotiations to resolve these matters are delusional dreamers. It is much more likely that any bi-lateral talks we undertake with Iran will end up in delay, stalemate, and total failure. Iran will build their bomb and come to dominate Iraq no matter how long we negotiate or what we give up in return for any vague promises of cooperation by the mullahs.
We can’t bomb them. We can’t talk to them. Can we contain them?
As unsatisfactorily a course of action it may appear to be on the surface, containment would seem to be the only viable option open to the United States consistent with our interests in the region. For this, we have history and tradition on our side – elements that for once can work for us in the Middle East instead of against us. The fact is, Arab states have a laundry list of grievances against the Iranians going back hundreds of years not to mention the fear of Shia nationalism that the mullahs have unleashed in Iraq, Lebanon, and among the Shia minorities in other Arab states. The major powers in the region – Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia – would welcome our assistance in trying to block Iranian ambitions to dominate the Middle East with their nuclear weapons and unsavory brand of Shia hegemony.
Would we have to arm those countries with nuclear weapons or allow them to develop their own nuclear program to counter the Iranian threat? Not necessarily. Extending America’s nuclear umbrella to include protecting our friends in the region from Iranian nuclear blackmail would be considered a radical escalation but, at the same time, better than the alternative of going to war. The question would be whether nations like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, and the Gulf States would welcome such a guarantee of their sovereignty. And at the moment, that would appear to be unlikely. Our slow, painful egress from Iraq is not instilling much confidence in our friends regarding American steadfastness or staying power.
More likely, we could work to upgrade the conventional militaries of our Arab friends. This will not sit well with the Israelis but they will probably acquiesce without too much grumbling. They should realize that our efforts to stymie the Iranians would benefit their strategic position as well. And most of the Arab states at risk would welcome our relaxing the stringent rules against exporting some of our more advanced weapons systems.
But of overarching importance would be to get the Europeans on board with any containment effort. It isn’t a question of sanctions although more stringent penalties meted out by the United Nations would be helpful. By having our NATO allies signing on to a policy of containment as they did during the cold war, the west would be presenting a united front to the Iranians. This would probably not convince them to halt enrichment or deter them from meddling in Lebanon or Iraq. But it would definitely affect their calculations if they attempted to interfere in other states where Shia minorities are growing increasingly restless – largely at Iranian instigation but also as a result of a rise in Shia pride and Shia nationalism.
This is an historical movement that has been rising since even before the Iranian revolution and many of the states affected, especially in the Gulf region, are already dealing with Shia aspirations in the political sphere in one way or another. Change comes slowly but change is coming. And the last thing countries like Yemen, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia need is Iran flagging the latent mistrust and feelings of oppression felt by Shias all across the Middle East.
I realize how unsatisfactory a policy containing the Iranian menace is seen by many of my friends on the right. But when the alternatives are unacceptable or would cause more problems than they solve, there are times when only bad choices present themselves and we must choose the least awful among them.
What about fomenting revolution in Iran?
This, unfortunately, is also a non starter at this point. As in Russia during the reign of communists, the Iranians have brutally suppressed and eliminated democratic organizations and individuals with the potential to lead them. Any effort to supplant the mullahs would take many long years of carefully laying the groundwork for democratic groups to gain any ground at all. With the stranglehold on elections the mullahs enjoy (they say who runs for office not to mention their practicing fraud, intimidation, and outright stealing of elections), any peaceful transformation of Iranian society is a long term project with an uncertain outcome.
How about funding an insurgency? I suppose if we want to support groups already fighting the regime like the MEK (Mujahedin-e Khalq), we could take them off the State Department list of terrorist organizations and give them money and arms. But the question is what kind of leaders would be thrown up by backing such groups? Our efforts in eastern Europe succeeded because we supported a democratic opposition that, in the end, was in favor of a peaceful transition of power. Needless to say, it worked beyond anyone’s expectation although it took a quarter of a century to bear fruit.
I don’t think it would take that long in Iran but I do believe it will happen as a result of a combination of forces – death of the old guard, rise of material expectations that the mullahs can’t meet, and an opening of Iran to new ideas – all of which could take a decade or more.
By all means we should be supporting freedom in Iran. But to expect results anytime soon is unrealistic.