Friday, March 12, 2004
What are we going to do about Iran?
It seems to me, Iran is in the process of calling the bluff that North Korea already called us on. Iran is threatening to withdraw from the NPT, declare themselves a nuclear power, and dare the USA or anyone else to do something about it.
What are we going to do about it?
For several years now, the Michael Ledeens of the world have been saying that all we need to do is spend more money on Persian-language Voice of America broadcasts and the Iranian people will rise up and overthrow the regime with nary a shot fired. Well, the good people of Iran have been raging against their leaders with increasing volume, and the leaders don't seem to be concerned. I fail to see how the VOA makes a decisive difference in this particular contest.
In 1991, we learned how fragile a one-party dictatorship can be when you lose the support of the people and the leadership doesn't have the guts to send in the tanks to crush them. Gorbachev killed a handful of Lithuanians and then lost the stomach for fighting; when he was overthrown in a coup, Yelstin climbed on a tank and everyone pretty much knew the game was up.
But in 1989, we learned how strong a one-party dictatorship can be when you lose the support of the people but the leadership does have the guts to send in the tanks to crush them. China's Communist Party dictatorship did not crumble in the face of the Tiananmen protests; it crushed the protestors under tank treads and rolled on into the future. When the regime ultimately falls, it will not be due to repercussions from Tiananmen; the regime has outlasted those events by 15 years, and I'd say the statute of limitations has run out on the explanatory power of those events for anything that happens from here on.
I've argued before that one side benefit - a key one - of our position as occupiers of Iraq is that we now have troops on pretty much all of Iran's borders. We have troops to the west in Iraq, troops to the east in Afghanistan, and troops to the north in bases in former Soviet Central Asian states like Uzbekistan. If events in Iran were to escalate from protest to actual revolution, as they did in Romania after Timisoara, I reasoned, the presence of American troops in a position to intervene would have a deterrent effect on the regime if it contemplated sending in the tanks, and an emboldening effect on the regular Iranian army (which is not particularly fond of the regime) should it choose to side with the people.
If I'm right about this (which I'm not sure I am), and if I'm right that the regime knows its popularity continues to wane, then they know time is not on their side. And if time is not on your side, you may become risk-seeking, because a stable situation bleeds you to death, but a risky chance could change the situation for your benefit.
North Korea has done everything but dare us to attack them because of their nuclear program. And what we've done is stand our ground, refusing to take action and refusing to fold. When and if North Korea actually detonates a nuclear weapon, our Korea policy will officially and catastrophically have failed. The consequences for the security regime of Northeast Asia are hard to reckon, but they sure don't seem good to me.
Iran is now following the North Korean path. As the inspections noose tightens, they are increasingly threatening to simply walk away from the table and go ahead with their nuclear weapons program openly. Do we have a credible response?
I'm not convinced we do. A surgical strike against Iranian facilities is unlikely to succeed completely given that Iran has multiple, independent program facilities, some of them hardened, and probably some of them unknown to us. But I'm not convinced a full-scale war is feasible either, diplomatically or militarily. Diplomatically because, frankly, after the Iraq WMD debacle this Administration in particular would have a very hard time convincing anyone that war was the only way to respond to a proliferation threat. No one is going to back such a proposition now: not Tony Blair, not even Bush's own electoral base. Perhaps things would have been different if the pre-war diplomacy on Iraq had gone better, or if WMD had not been so essential a part of Bush's case, or if the Administration had not clearly believed the threat was greater than intelligence indicated, when in fact it was substantially less. But as things stand, we would have a very hard time building the diplomatic case for military action against Iran.
But we could, of course, potentially take action without diplomatic cover, if the threat were serious enough, couldn't we? I'm not so sure. I'm not sure we have good military options against Iran. The country is four times the size of Iraq, about the size of Alaska. Much of the territory is mountainous. The regime has not been worn down by years of sanctions the way Iraq's was, nor do we have substantial internal allies as we did in Afghanistan. It would be foolish to predict that the mullahs would fold at the outset of the conflict. I'm not suggesting that we couldn't defeat the Iranians in battle; it wouldn't be much of a contest, in the end. But "in the end" may be too long. We are not operating in a context where we can initiate an open-ended military conflict. In any preemptive attack on Iran, we'd have to win decisively and quickly or suffer diplomatic consequences that would be prohibitive.
Moreover, the resources we'd need to bring to bear to defeat Iran would be considerable, and these forces are largely engaged elsewhere. One reason we went to war with Iraq when we did is that we'd been building up our strength for combat and couldn't simply maintain that force in place indefinitely. We prepared as if we were going to war for sure; if we had backed down, we'd have had to stand down. We have nothing really in place for war against Iran.
And even if we had the resources available for successful combat operations, we would need vastly more resources to occupy the country. And how many countries are we going to occupy simultaneously - Bosnia and Afghanistan and Iraq and Iran?
I bring all this up not because I think we should be going to war with Iran, but because we have to be prepared to take military action in order to threaten military action. Threats that are not credible are worse than no threats at all, because they make other threats less credible, and hence make war more likely. That's what happened with North Korea: we declared North Korean nuclearization to be unacceptable, but nuclearization is proceeding and we can't seem to do anything about it. So now Iran is tempted to call our bluff, withdraw from the NPT, and openly pursue nuclear weapons. If they successfully call our bluff, we have really big problems. So what can we credibly threaten?
I'm increasingly frustrated by right-wing commentary that suggests that all we need is the will to win, and left-wing commentary that consists of nothing but carping, worrying and Monday-morning quarterbacking. If will were all it took we'd all be speaking German today. I do not want a nuclear Iran. What are we going to do to prevent one?