Monday, June 25, 2007

Does Iran understand the game it is playing? 

The dovish case for emphasizing negotiation in the West's confrontation with Iran relies on the idea that the mullahs have a history of acting rationally, in the sense that they play the game of brinksmanship fairly well. The reason for that reliance is obvious, because if the other side does not ultimately act rationally you cannot negotiate with it with any assurance that it will respond predictably (this was the basis for the principle case for war against Saddam -- he had a long track record of behaving irrationally). Although I am not exactly a dove with regard to Iran, I generally believe that Iran acts rationally with regard to its self-interest, even if that self-interest is founded on divine revelation.

Joshua Muravchik makes the contrary case:

Several conflicts of various intensities are raging in the Middle East. But a bigger war, involving more states--Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Iran, the Palestinian Authority and perhaps the United States and others--is growing more likely every day, beckoned by the sense that America and Israel are in retreat and that radical Islam is ascending.

Consider the pell-mell events of recent weeks. Iran imprisons four Americans on absurd charges only weeks after seizing 15 British sailors on the high seas. Iran's Revolutionary Guard is caught delivering weapons to the Taliban and explosives to Iraqi terrorists. A car bomb in Lebanon is used to assassinate parliament member Walid Eido, killing nine others and wounding 11 more.

At the same time, Fatah al-Islam, a shady group linked to Syria, launches an attack on the Lebanese army from within a Palestinian refugee area, beheading several soldiers. Tehran trumpets further progress on nuclear enrichment as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad repeats his call for annihilating Israel, crowing that "the countdown to the destruction of this regime has begun." Hamas seizes control militarily in Gaza. Katyusha rockets are launched from Lebanon into northern Israel for the first time since the end of last summer's Israel-Hezbollah war.

Two important inferences can be distilled from this list. One is that the Tehran regime takes its slogan, "death to America," quite seriously, even if we do not. It is arming the Taliban, with which it was at sword's point when the Taliban were in power. It seems to be supplying explosives not only to Shiite, but also Sunni terrorists in Iraq. It reportedly is sheltering high-level al Qaeda figures despite the Sunni-Shiite divide. All of these surprising actions are for the sake of bleeding the U.S. However hateful this behavior may be to us, it has a certain strategic logic: "The enemy of my enemy is my friend."

What is even more worrisome about the events enumerated above is that most of them are devoid of any such strategic logic.

Read the whole thing.

In general, I think the choice between "diplomacy" and "military action" is a false one. The question is, to what degree should coercion of one sort or another be the idiom through which we negotiate with Iran, and should some of that coercion be violent?

Given Iran's provocations, here is a serious question for both the hawks and doves who comment on this blog: If our goal is to change Iran's behavior, are we more likely to do that by reducing the threat we pose to Iran (and thereby alleviating Iran's sense of insecurity) or increasing the threat to Iran (and thereby stimulating a desire within the theocracy to appease us)? The former is the dove case, and the latter is the hawk case, each stripped to its bare essentials.

Very few people who discuss Iran ask the question so starkly, and that troubles me.


By Blogger Purple Avenger, at Mon Jun 25, 10:30:00 AM:

People in that part of the world, historically respect force and historically take advantage of perceived weakness.

Failing to accept this reality has been the downfall of many.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon Jun 25, 11:13:00 AM:

The argument for negotiating with Tehran’s mullahs rests upon several flawed presumptions:
1. Iran’s regime is stable and the Iran’s rulers have sufficient power to suppress opposition.
2. The West is willing to offer to Iran something that Iran wants.
3. Iran’s ayatollahs are willing to compromise their ideological aspirations.(Khomein's Shia manifest destiny)
4. Tehran’s commitment and pledge can be trusted.
Iran’s regime is stable and the Iran’s rulers have sufficient power to suppress opposition

To begin with, the notion that in 21st century a theocratic regime with barbaric rulers out of stone ages can be stable is absurd. Stability of a government requires adaptability, pragmatism and popular support. Tehran’s rulers lack all three. They have survived so far by carrying out widespread suppression of the opposition groups which has led to hundreds of thousands of executions and imprisonments - instigating and carrying out a foreign war to shift the focus of the people’s dissent - creating a notorious militia of one million strong for policing the population - assassination of dissidents inside Iran and abroad - and crashing movements of women, students, workers, teachers, and other groups. The proponents of negotiation are betting that Iran’s mullahs are capable of continuing this state of terror. Borrowing a famous quote, I suggest these enthusiasts should control their irrational exuberance. The truth of the matter is that the current regime has never been stable. If mullahs themselves had confidence in their stability, they would have not needed this rein of terror. A sagging economy, youth unemployment, poverty, lack of political, social and religious freedom, despised government, and corrupted officials, have the potential to topple the ruling regime any day. Every one of these indications have been on constant ascend. The ruling mullahs may survive the turbulence of the events a few more years – maybe more – maybe less. This is far from being stable.

2. The West is willing to offer to Iran something that Iran wants

Atop the mullahs’ wish list has always been security assurance from the West. Specifically, this has meant impeding opposition to Iran’s regime. United States and Europe have responded affirmatively by placing Iran’s main opposition groups Mojahedin-e-Khalgh (MEK) and National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) in the terrorist list for the past ten years. This categorization has tied the hands of the enemies of ayatollahs and has eased Tehran’s worries. Nevertheless Tehran’s behavior has not changed. They desire an unhindered path to regional dominance. They have never been shy about publicly declaring their strategies goals. While West has facilitated their path somewhat, it is not conceivable that the civilized world would tolerate an Islamic fundamentalist super power under mullahs. Debilitating the opposition to mullahs will only lead to Tehran asking for the same about the next opposition group. What else can possibly Tehran ask for from the west? World peace?

3. Iran’s ayatollahs are willing to compromise their ideological aspirations

In a previous article1 I have discussed in detail that the Islamic Fundamentalism is an all encompassing ideology that aspires to return to the golden era of genesis of Islam. Tehran’s fundamentalists seek to establish a powerbase in the Middle East. Tehran’s infiltrations in Iraq and Afghanistan are not ad hoc and random acts. These are well planed, cohesive and systematic actions by shrewd rulers who are motivated by ideology. The prize is monumental. The beginning of an Islamic empire- re-emerging after 1400 years- in control of the life, thought and possession of hundreds of millions - in control of sizable portions of world oil supplies – and equipped with nuclear weaponry. Three decades ago Ayatollah Khomeini set in place a roadmap that has been followed by Tehran after Khomeini, including under Presidents Khamenei, Rafsanjani, Khatami and finally Ahmadinejad as a cohesive and sustained strategy. Tehran’s rulers believe their strategy has been triumphant and it has given them a super power status in the region. It is childishly naïve to hope that at this point in their presumably victorious path mullahs would consider abandoning their ideological aspirations.

4. Tehran’s commitment and pledge can be trusted

Jack Straw, former British foreign secretary and a friendly face to ayatollahs, once said that in negotiating with Tehran, they would sell you a table, only for you to realize after the deal that it is missing legs. Islamic fundamentalist rulers in Iran have again and again demonstrated their Machiavellian style in the international politics. Lying, deception and demagoguery, are all legitimate tools that can be cleverly utilized by these shrewd rulers. Isn’t Iran’s nuclear developments an excellent example of their deception? After their two decade clandestine nuclear project was revealed by the opposition group MEK, they have attempted a variety of tactical negotiations and agreements just to buy time. Even more hilarious than that is mullahs call for international cooperation to fight terrorism in the world!

Any negotiation without these four prerequisites is a futile endeavor. It is time that the interest groups who promote engagement with the Hitlers of our time to end their shortsightedness.

Prof. Kazem Kazerounian teaches at the University of Connecticut.

Please read Khomein's "Islamic Government" (not just for Iran) to understand the ideological underpinning of why the Islamic Republic was established in the first place.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon Jun 25, 11:46:00 AM:

..."Too often, policymakers prioritize diplomacy and deals over their substance and content. Now, we're paying the price for that kind of thinking.
Nor is Odom correct to assume that welcoming Iran and North Korea into the nuclear club will bring security. Cold War stability is a myth; the United States and the Soviet Union were simply lucky that nuclear crises did not spin out of control. Add the messianic ideology of some factions of Iran's clerical leadership to the mix, and the efficacy of traditional deterrence is even less certain. If Odom does not recognize the primacy of ideology to Iran's theocratic leadership, he misunderstands the Islamic Republic's motivations for its long embrace of terrorism and its defiance of international norms. Arguing that the Iranian leadership opposes al Qaeda is undermined by the findings of the 9/11 Commission. Pragmatism in Iran's theocratic circles is often more about bridging the Islamic sectarian divide to combat Western culture than a sincere effort at diplomacy. Although external regime change is out of the question, policymakers in the United States should neither preserve rogue regimes against their own demographic pressures nor rescue them from their economic failures. Offering inducements to them on the nuclear issue would do just that."


By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon Jun 25, 12:05:00 PM:

"What strategic consequences ensue from Iran's economic misery? Broadly speaking, the choices are two. In the most benign scenario, Iran's clerical establishment will emulate the Soviet Union of 1987, when then-prime minister Mikhail Gorbachev acknowledged that communism had led Russia to the brink of ruin in the face of vibrant economic growth among the United States and its allies. Russia no longer had the resources to sustain an arms race with the US, and broke down under the pressure of America's military buildup.

The second choice is an imperial adventure. In fact, Iran is engaged in such an adventure, funding and arming Shi'ite allies from Basra to Beirut, and creating clients selectively among such Sunnis as Hamas in Palestine.

I continue to predict that Iran will gamble on adventure rather than go the way of Gorbachev. A fundamental difference in sociology distinguishes Iran from the Soviet Union at the cusp of the Cold War. Josef Stalin's terror saw to it that the only communist true believers left alive were lecturing at Western universities. All the communists in Russia were dead or in the gulags. By the 1980s, only the most cowardly, self-seeking, unprincipled careerists had survived to hold positions of seniority in the communist establishment. Only in the security services were a few hard and dedicated men still active, including Vladimir Putin. These were men who saw no reason to fight for communism 70 years after the Russian Revolution."

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon Jun 25, 12:08:00 PM:

I would only state that the "tactics" being employed by Iran in trying to expand its sphere of influence, as cited by Joshua Muravchik, may not seem logical to him, but may be eminently logical to those in Iran fomenting strategy.
Ultimately, they may indeed be logical or illogical; but that perception is in the eye of the strategist making it.

Yes, I think they have a very clear idea of the game they are playing, logical or illogical as that may be.

Do we?

TH, you have a handsome teenage son. My oldest son is only a few years younger. In a few more years, this is going to come to a head, one way or another. We have a large stake in how this situation plays out RIGHT NOW, because of the potential for a larger war, with our sons as draft-age young men, under President Hillary Clinton, in a war that may or may not come. The Battle of Iraq is almost over, in my opinion (one way or the other). The larger Battle for Iran may be in the wings.
Or not.


By Blogger Georg Felis, at Mon Jun 25, 01:18:00 PM:

This is the classic mistake of generalized Anthropomorphism, treating a country as a single human-like entity instead of a collection of people all interacting. Iran’s behavior becomes more understandable when you think of it as being led by a group of religious fanatics, each of which can only expand his power base by overblown rhetoric and physical threats, much as if a city bus were being driven by the most loud and obnoxious group of passengers without regard to street signs.

Iraq was able to be treated more as an individual. Saddam’s irrational behavior was either because he was nuts (probable) or because he knew that irrational behavior would gain him more in international and internal leverage.

It is quite difficult to confront a nutty dictator, they do not respond well to diplomacy, threats, gifts or reason. (see: Castro, Chavez) About the only thing you can do is kill him and hope the next one is more open to reason, behavior more acceptable in the 60s than the 00s. We presently are conducting a three part (insert noun here) against Iran, regular diplomatic leverage, quietly stirring up internal dissent, and individual spy craft against specific mullahs. I would argue that a fourth unintentional force may actually be what undoes the whole mess, commercial capitalism. Stealth Cell Phones and Wal-Mart instead of Missiles and Bombs, we can only hope.

I am a hawk. And a realist. Iran has quite a ways to go before we should drop bombs on it, conventional or radioactive, but we should be prepared to do so if needed and make it quite plain that we are ready. Like the Great Seal, eyes on the olive branch but arrows at the ready.  

By Blogger Theo Spark, at Mon Jun 25, 02:45:00 PM:

Imadinnerjacket and the Mullahs are so unpopular in Iran. THe only way they can survive is to get into a conflict with the Coalition forces and play the nationalism card. Galtieri played it in the Falklands and lost lets hope the Mullahs screw up as well.  

By Blogger D.E. Cloutier, at Mon Jun 25, 03:25:00 PM:

"The only way they can survive is..."

Castro wasn't supposed to survive either.

To Georg

"Seducton" may emerge as the only realistic option. Right now the U.S. looks like a gorilla thumping his chest in a cage.  

By Blogger Final Historian, at Mon Jun 25, 03:30:00 PM:

I happen to think that the Iranian Leadership is acting fairly rationally right now, excepting possibly its "President". However, the amount of power he actually possesses when it comes to foreign policy, especially expeditionary foreign policy, is still uncertain.

I will maintain, however, that the Iranians are playing smart so far, and look set to be on track to achieve their objectives, or at least, what I presume to be their objectives. They are playing a dangerous game, yes, but playing it well.  

By Blogger Purple Avenger, at Mon Jun 25, 03:35:00 PM:

The Iranian "objective" is clearly to just keep stalling and keep the centrifuges spinning.

All their responses must be viewed with that in mind.  

By Blogger Christopher Chambers, at Mon Jun 25, 03:41:00 PM:

Remember when Saddam was an ALLY of Reagan's and Daddy Bush against Iran? Useful, wasn't he. And of course he had nothing to do with 9-11 so TH please stop the mutha-friggin bootstrapping now for this war ("his irrationality" blah blah). Maybe his supposedly irrational ass would've been a nice foil against the mullahs and the loons within Iraq? We've supported bigger thugs and scumbags than him during the Cold War, so how about it?  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon Jun 25, 03:45:00 PM:

Gorrilas actually have pretty gross hygiene (eating their oen feces and vomit).
Can't you come up with a better metaphor for the US? :)


By Blogger D.E. Cloutier, at Mon Jun 25, 03:51:00 PM:

To David


By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon Jun 25, 04:15:00 PM:

There will be no peace in the middle East until the populace achieves the state of Conflict Fatigue. As did the south during the civil war, and Germany/ Japan in WW II.

Where is Bill Sherman when you need him. Can you imagine the March through Dixie to the sea in today's politically correct environment?  

By Blogger Purple Avenger, at Mon Jun 25, 11:45:00 PM:

Remember when Saddam was an ALLY of Reagan's and Daddy Bush against Iran?

Yea. That support lasted 3 years start to finish, and grand totaled less than $300M.

Your point?

FYI -- your socialist south American buddies the Brazilians sold Saddam more weaponry than the USA ever did. Bet you didn't know that.  

By Blogger Unknown, at Tue Jun 26, 12:03:00 AM:

Remember the entire administration of Iran are totally unsophisicated. None have left Islam countries for any exposure beyound religion. They know nothing of the world and certainly nothing of the USA.

They game they are playing is equivilent to a computoer game. I doubt if they know what we know of their own population.

And for that they are dangerous...  

By Blogger Mannning, at Tue Jun 26, 12:45:00 AM:

My thesis is that one needn't negotiate at all with the Iranian rulers, which is fortunate because they are rogues of the first order when it comes to "talks."

They know very well what we want from them: 1)to cease the program of nuclear build up; and 2)to cease their international terrorism program and financing of fanatics.

Thus, we have given them warning after warning that their programs are endangering the West.
We see no valid response to date, except calls for talks!

We need, therefore, to simply begin to assemble a large force around Iran, without talking our heads off. The force should be large enough to impress, and it should be located as near to Iran as we can get on land, sea and air. As the build up continues, there will come a point where we must either attack Iran or begin to scale the force down. All of our rhetoric should be directed at making this threat a real one in the minds of the Iranians. It is then a matter of their choice: be attacked, or to give in to our demands.

My personal belief is that they will not give in. We will attack. Nice if they do give in, but my tealeaves say they will not budge. So "Let slip the dogs of war!"  

By Blogger Mannning, at Tue Jun 26, 01:10:00 AM:

We need several things to make this approach work:

1) more troops, on the order of 500 thousand; and,

2)the will to proceed by our people and government.

At the moment, I fear we have neither.  

By Blogger Chris, at Tue Jun 26, 01:03:00 PM:

A military attack on Iran does not have to be a full-scale invasion. A naval blockade combined with a serious and sustained bombing campaign against their nuclear and military installations should prove quite effective.

It will not be without cost, but this is the type of war-making that we excel at.

Iran, of course, will attempt to foment unrest via their proxies in Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

What, they're already doing that? Maybe the mullahs don't have as many cards as we think they do.


By Blogger Georg Felis, at Tue Jun 26, 08:49:00 PM:

Lee, they're not unsophisticated, they have a distorted worldview, i.e. the US is the Great Satan, lazy (will not take any action to stop them getting The Bomb), dumb (is unable to admit Iran is actually getting The Bomb) and corrupt (the only actions we take are those that our Jewish Overlords have ordered us to take). I would presume they got those ideas by watching Network News. (sarcasm off) And Islam is fated to take over the whole world, so whatever they do is Good, and whatever we do is Evil. Come to think of it, that does sound an awful lot like the Evening News…  

By Blogger Mannning, at Wed Jun 27, 01:10:00 PM:

In my view, blockade and bombing of key Iranian facilities would lead to a desperate reaction by the Mullahs.

They would declare war. They would flood Iraq with fighters, including well-trained troops to knock us off base. They would fight us in the Gulf with missiles. Finally, they would stir up as much trouble elsewhere in the ME and most likely in America as their planted terrorists could manage. American deaths and destruction would rouse the nation as no other steps could.

Our reaction to these events would be driven by public sentiment to retaliate against Iran even more strongly, including a full declaration of war, a further buildup of troop power, and devastating raids on important infrastructure targets in Iran. It would also initiate a full economic shutdown of any business with Iran.

We would initiate a draft immediately.

This full-court press would last for a period of perhaps six months, hoping that Iran would cave in. After that it would be a lightning invasion.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon Jul 02, 07:42:00 PM:

I assume this is a blog by an American, for Americans and their American-centric worldview. The responses here perfectly outline what is wrong with the United States today, and why it is hated so much in the rest of the world.

As an 'outsider', let me try to articulate a few of the questions that immediately crop up in the minds of ordinary people in the world when the question of the US-Iran conflict comes up:

1. Why is the United States in the Middle East?

2. Why is it the business of the United States who is in power in Iran? Did it not have enough fun overthrowing an elected government and installing a despot on a hapless population three decades ago?

3. Why does the US government feel it has the right to first meddle in a region, create a crisis, then launch a war, kill thousands to try to fix that crisis (and fail)?

4. Why is 'The Great Satan' a despicable epithet but 'The Axis of Evil' is not?

5. Why is protesting American policy 'anti-americanism' but calling for the death of 'mad mullahs of Iran' just being 'hawkish'? Or maybe you haven't invented the term anti-Iranianism' yet?

Do the Americans so confidently posting on this blog, realize that they are drunk with self-righteousness? Do you people, some advocating carrot-and-stick policies, some advocating warfare, realize that you need to get down from your high horses and talk to others as your equal?
You guys need to understand one thing. And understand it clearly. Toss that crap you keep hearing and believing about the rest of the world out to get you because they are 'jealous of your success' or because they are some kind of sub-human species who are so evil that they cannot tolerate the heaven-on-earth that is the United States.
No, it is all much simpler than that. It's all because nobody likes a bully. And the harder a bully kicks you, the stronger the desire for revenge becomes. Talk to us, people. Talk to us as equals, as human beings, and you will see that 9/10s of the world's people that you so despise, are just like you after all.
Right now, the world just sees you as a bunch of jerks, drunk with power, holding the biggest guns and kicking the rest of us who are down and out.

Let Iran forge its own destiny. The rest of the world will tell you, they are much much more scared of the United States than they will ever by of Iran. If only you would listen.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sun Nov 09, 07:40:00 AM:


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