Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

For some reason, I think I have something to say to you. You think you have something to say to me? Email me at: gideonsblogger -at- yahoo -dot- com

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Tuesday, December 21, 2004
Follow-up to yesterday's Iran post (and thanks, in passing, to John Derbyshire for linking in The Corner - I don't do enough thanking of people who link, so here's a blanket apology to all the people who have linked more than once but whom I keep forgetting to thank. And now I'm in trouble with anyone who linked whom I didn't just link to. Oh, well.)

Anyhow: one option I left off the list of options was: raise the stakes. That is to say: right now the diplomatic option on the table is threat of sanctions vs. promise of security guarantees. Iran's incentive, in this game, is to do everything they can to keep the game going while cheating as much as possible on the side. But what if we raised the stakes? What if we did what Reagan did in his second term - engage in public diplomacy aimed at completely ending the Cold War rather than simply lowering tensions?

I bring this up apropos of Laura Rozen's post yesterday regarding a paper drafted by Mark Palmer and George Shultz for the Committee on the Present Danger calling for dramatic new engagement with Iran, along with a strategy to isolate and harass the Supreme Leader and his clerical clique. It's a strategy worth discussing.

When the Iranian people have, in recent years, protested against the ruling regime and agitated for change, I have generally described the possible outcomes in terms of Russia 1991 versus China 1989.

Michael Ledeen and other neocons who believe peaceful revolution is imminent in Iran believe that we could topple the regime merely by providing rhetorical support to the people when they protest. If the President says, "we stand with the Iranian people"; if we drop leaflets; if we broadcast a message of freedom over the airwaves; etc. - if we do all these things, the Iranian people will rise up, cast off the mullahs, and install a democratic and friendly government.

This has always struck me as a fantasy, precisely because the mullahs were more likely to be ruthless like Deng was than soft like Gorbachev was. Who knows if Andropov had lived until 1991 whether the Soviet Union would still be standing or not? The fact is: we don't. (We know that the Soviets could no longer afford to fight the Cold War. But we don't know whether, under an Andropov, the judicious application of violence might not have kept the Communist Party in charge even while retreating from Central Europe, standing down conflict with the West, and inaugurating major economic change.)

But that doesn't mean there's nothing we could do to shift the odds in favor of revolution in Iran. One pre-war argument for war in Iraq that made sense to me was that the war would enable us to intimidate the mullahs into not crushing their people Deng-style should a true open revolt materialize. But this turns out not to have been the case: the war has made us more dependent on Iranian good will, and hence less eager to confront the regime, while giving us no additional levers against the clerical leadership.

So: could we get any traction by doing something totally counter-intuitive, by engaging directly with the Iranian people in a dramatic and high-level way?

The main suggestions of the report are as follows:

- Declare our willingness to reopen the embassy in Tehran.
- Vastly expand broadcasting into Iran.
- Open direct relations with the Iranian military on areas of mutual interest and concern.
- Push hard for large-scale cultural, academic and professional exchanges, with a particular emphasis on bringing democracy advocates from Iran to the U.S.
- Target sanctions at specific individuals in the clerical leadership, and open foreign prosecution in absentia of key figures like Khamenei and members of the secret police.
- Discuss openly a possible "return to the mosque" by Khamenei as both a way of delegitimating his rule and offering him a face-saving exit strategy.

This would be a very different approach from the set of carrots and sticks currently being waved in front of the regime. Currently, basically, the Europeans are offering the regime better trade deals, and want us to offer security guarantees as well in exchange for a verifiable end to the Iranian nuclear program. The CPD approach is effectively an attempt to go over the heads of the regime and reach the people directly, while limiting threats to the regime's leadership personally.

It's also a much more expansive embrace of Iran than contemplated by most of the neocon cheerleaders of a new Iranian revolution. I haven't read Michael Ledeen's book, but I don't recall him suggesting in any of his articles that we offer to reopen our embassy in Tehran. Indeed, his notion seems to be that engaging with the Iranian people means refusing to deal with the regime in any way while lobbing propaganda bombs by radio and the internet, whereas the CPD report much more realistically suggests that engaging with the Iranian people means engaging with the Iranian regime, but on specific terms, those terms being: that we communicate directly with the Iranian people and we don't flinch from actions under international or domestic law against specific members of the regime.

It's an interesting proposition. One of the most interesting aspects is the way in which it deals with the nationalism problem. China has gotten enormous mileage out of fanning Chinese ethnic nationalism and paranoia, fears of foreigners perennially trying to cripple China, steal from China, divide China, etc. The Iranian regime does the same thing, and also has some success. I have no doubt that American sponsorship of an opposition would discredit that opposition in many Iranians' eyes, and that direct confrontation - to say nothing of an attack - would rally much of the country behind the regime, howsoever much they may despise their leadership in "normal" times. By openly declaring our desire for better relations, by reopening the embassy, by expressing eagerness for greater trade, greater cultural exchange, etc., we'd certainly be blunting the regime's inevitable argument that we're just trying to take advantage of the Iranian people for our own nefarious ends.

You can imagine some other wrinkles on the above. Why stop with declaring our willingness to open an embassy? Why not have the President declare his willingness to go to Tehran to address the Iranian people, in a kind of Sadat-goes-to-Jerusalem moment? Why stop with our own speculation about a "return to the mosque" by Khamenei? Why not see if Sistani, the "only indispensable man in Iraq" whom we neglected to cultivate pre-war because he wasn't a Chalabi crony but whom we're now reasonably friendly with, would articulate that message? He's only the most important cleric in the Shiite world, and he has a profound interest in keeping Iran at bay (albeit he also has a profound interest in not getting too close to us).

Yes, there are obvious contradictions in the proposed approach. On the one hand, we're supposed to be prosecuting Khamenei in absentia; on the other hand, we're supposed to be initiating military-to-military contacts and conducting student exchanges. Does it seem very likely to you that we could do both at the same time? Not to me, either. But maybe I'm not sophisticated enough about these things. There's also the problem that, having invaded Iraq and deposed a Sunni-led dictatorship, and invaded Afghanistan and deposed a crude Sunni theocracy, to now openly court friendship with Iran - even if we rhetorically attack and do other things to undermine clerical rule alongside that courtship - would certainly suggest to much of the Muslim world that we've sided with the Shiites against the Sunnis. That would have implications for our continued good relations with, for example, Pakistan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Just saying.

In any event, whatever the contradictions, one can imagine how an across-the-board effort to engage with all of Iranian society, combined with a willingness to use force where international law is on our side (example: to stop al Qaeda groups transiting from Pakistani Baluchistan to eastern Iranian territory and finding sanctuary there, or to police a post-Syrian-withdrawal Lebanon), could put the regime on the defensive and ultimately bring about the desired revolution there, in a way that either direct military confrontation or mere rhetorical support for the opposition certainly would not.

Could it work? Maybe. But the real question is: on what time frame could it work.

The approach above bears some resemblance to the approach the U.S. took to the Soviet Union, beginning with the Helsinki Accords and the Jackson-Vanik amendment. That human rights-based PR offensive certainly had a role in undermining the Soviet Union. But you also have to consider the Reagan military buildup and missile placement in Europe; the escalating economic strain on a bankrupt Soviet Union of maintaining a war footing; the wild card of whether SDI could actually work, and how that would affect the strategic balance; the collapse in oil prices and its affect on Soviet oil revenue; the failure of the Afghan adventure; the revival of the American economy and the apostasy from Marxist economics by the Chinese under Deng; and the serendipitous combination of sophistication and naivete in the character of Mikhail Gorbachev.

How many of these other elements are in place? Iran is flush with new oil money; even if the people are hurting, the regime isn't. Iran is not engaged in an expensive arms race with anyone; in fact, since the U.S. just knocked out two dangerous neighbors, and since they know they have no hope of taking on the U.S. in a conventional war, they are probably less concerned than ever to keep up the strength of their conventional forces. Iran is not suffering a crisis of legitimacy because of a losing foreign adventure. Iran has not seen a series of dispiriting defections by allies, as the Soviets did when Sadat kicked out his Soviet advisors or when Deng declared that to get rich is glorious. Most important, there is no Gorbachev in charge in Iran. And I seem to recall that Reagan didn't shift gears from saber-rattling to charm-offensive until after Gorby came on the scene.

But even if the analogy is applicable, it took ten to fifteen years to work in the case of the USSR. Does anyone think that even a pretty good arms control deal can guarantee a non-nuclear Iran for fifteen years?

As Foer points out in his piece, we really have a choice between the narrow, pressing question of Iranian nukes and the broader question of the future of Iran and whether they remain an enemy. One thing I think the CPD guys are kidding themselves on is the notion that opponents of the regime would happily dismantle the nuclear program. News flash: the Shah had a large-scale nuclear program. And since his day, India and Pakistan have gone nuclear and Israel's nuclear arsenal has become an open secret. I can completely understand why a democratic and reasonably friendly Iran (as friendly as, say, Brazil, or South Africa - not a military or diplomatic ally, but no one we'd have any reason to want to shoot at) would still want the bomb, because Iran is in a very dangerous neighborhood and many of its neighbors and rivals have nuclear weapons. But even if a post-clerisocratic Iran was willing to contemplate renouncing nuclear weapons, we aren't going to get to such a place quickly enough. And in the meantime, the existing regime is almost certainly going to nuclearize as anti-regime-change insurance.

So: could we live with an Iranian bomb in the context of the kind of effort the Shultz proposal envisions - engaging with Iran and the Iranian people even while taking actions to delegitimate the regime? I think that's the question Shultz & Co. be asking. To assume that a strategy of critical engagement - that's probably a good phrase to describe what they're talking about - would also be a good anti-nuclear strategy is to assume the best-case scenario - probably better than best-case. That's a poor foundation for policy. They should describe their strategy as a way of dealing with Iran that, in the best case, will work in tandem with a traditional arms-control approach to forestall nuclearization and, in the worst case, will work in tandem with a traditional containment strategy to keep Iran from using its nuclear deterrent as a shield behind which they wage aggressive war (directly or by proxy) against its neighbors and our allies. If they can't defend it in those terms, then it's probably not a defensible policy, because the tradeoffs I've outlined above are real.

In the end, I still skeptical. I think the Iranian regime is strong and ruthless, and their response to a campaign like Shultz suggests would be to crack down harder on dissent and crank up a charm counter-offensive internationally. I think it would be like herding cats to keep the Europeans - i.e., the French - on message, and the Chinese and Russians would be totally unhelpful (do the Chinese really want to set a precedent for helping to undermine a party-based oligarchy through critical engagement? wouldn't a similar strategy be applicable to, well, them?). I think we'd find our PR strategy of "reaching out" to the Iranian people would rapidly conflict with the "stick" half of the carrot-and-stick that's supposed to produce a verifiable deal on nuclear material, to say nothing of making it practically impossible to bring legal actions, either civil or criminal, against Khamenei or members of his circle personally. And I think that the repercussions of an Iranian atomic test would so radically change the dynamics of the region that they would swamp any effect that our charm offensive had.

But I should have listed this as one of five options for how to deal with Iran, and was remiss in leaving it out. Critical engagement is an option. It may even be the least-bad. It would certainly be a surprise, coming from the Bush Administration, as much as from the CPD.