Politics, Strategy and Iran

It is difficult, if not impossible, to have a coherent discussion of foreign affairs during an election year.  As I argue in my new book, Losing Hurts Twice as Bad:  The Four Stages to Moving Beyond Iraq, politics is the … Read More

By / September 22, 2008

It is difficult, if not impossible, to have a coherent discussion of foreign affairs during an election year.  As I argue in my new book, Losing Hurts Twice as Bad:  The Four Stages to Moving Beyond Iraq, politics is the eternal enemy of strategy.  National interest always takes a back seat to partisan political interests until campaigns come to an end.

Unfortunately, world events always refuse to wait for our elections to be over.  How rude.

Generally speaking, electoral pressures encourage candidates toward the irresponsible.  Fearful of looking weak, candidates struggle to out-macho each other at every turn and prove to the electorate that they are the one most able to keep the country safe.  Wisdom and prudence simply do not garner as do many votes as do belligerence and bombast.  Most Americans, it often seems, would rather vote for Yosemite Sam than George Kennan.

We certainly see this dynamic at work in this election cycle.  Last month, a remote, rather inconsequential conflict in the Caucasus was elevated by both campaigns into a test of Western mettle against the re-arming Russian bear.  Never mind that there are no U.S. interests whatsoever at stake in South Ossetia and Abkhazia; if the presidential candidates are to be believed, the fate of the world lies in the balance.

The same dynamic will unfold this week as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran comes to New York to speak at the United Nations.  His visit has provided a good opportunity for hawks to remind us all of how much danger we are in from the possibility of an Iranian nuclear bomb.  Michael Ledeen of the American Enterprise Institute tells us that Ahmadinejad is in love with death.  A bipartisan group of foreign policy notables reminds us that "everyone needs to worry about Iran."  Sarah Palin may have been the first candidate to jump on board the be-very-afraid bandwagon, arguing that Ahmadinejad "must be stopped," but she will not be the last.

It may prove very difficult for the United States to resist the temptation to elevate the backwards, medieval Iranian regime into our next enemy du jour.  Iran may be the main state sponsor of terrorism in today’s world, and its government certainly continues to espouse a rather extreme form of Islam, but it need not be a threat to the interests of the United States.  The Iranian economy is a basket case; its military, little better.  The Islamic Republic may be able to stave off collapse for as long as petrodollars keep flowing in, but they will not be able to mount anything resembling a serious challenge to U.S. power.  They are important only to the extent that we make them so.  Wise policy, therefore, would ignore them, which we could begin to do once we got out of Iraq.

Instead there will be serious pressures from right-wing circles in the United States in coming months and years for military action to prevent the Iranians from developing nuclear weapons.  Tehran has been "six months away" from an atom bomb since I was in junior high; nevertheless, today there is reason to believe that they may actually be drawing fairly close.  Cooler heads may suggest that such a move may well be inevitable, and that the United States would do better to try to determine how it will deal with, rather than prevent the emergence of, a nuclear Iran.  Not only are the military options unlikely to work, they are also unnecessary. 

One of the great truths in international politics is that small countries and big countries never really understand one another.  The weak cannot ever fully trust the strong, since one mistake can lead to the destruction of their country; the strong, on the other hand, don’t understand the level of paranoia that their overwhelming power creates in the weak.  It is only by keeping this in mind can we comprehend the dynamics of the relationship between Iran and the United States.

Iran has seen its neighbors to the east and west attacked and quickly conquered.  It has made a series of diplomatic overtures, which were apparently answered with its inclusion on the "axis of evil."  Its economy is in shambles, with most sectors centrally controlled and remarkably inefficient.  About ninety percent of its population receives its income from the state.  Both unemployment and inflation rates are in the double digits.  Iranian military spending rose dramatically following the U.S. attack on Iraq, but it still is only around $10 billion per year.  The United States, by comparison, spends around $750 billion, once the costs of Iraq and Afghanistan are factored in.  Any war between the two would last about a half hour, and both sides know it.  Perhaps it is little wonder, then, that Tehran has decided to seek the ultimate equalizer, nuclear weapons.

The United States sees in Iran an expansionist, irrational Islamic fundamentalist state that is actively trying to dominate the Persian Gulf.  Its President is an old-school populist demagogue, fond of denying both the Holocaust and the existence of homosexuals in his country.  They support terrorist groups in Lebanon and Israel, and actively work to undermine Iraqi democracy (and kill U.S. troops).  These kinds of actions are the mark of an enemy, a state certainly not to be trusted with nuclear weapons because unlike rational states, there is no guarantee that Iran can be deterred.

However, as my book explains, those foreign policy analysts who call themselves "realists" see no reason to believe that that the Iranians will prove to be much different from any other state.  The theocrats in Iran have the same main priority as any other ruling group:  self-preservation.  Never before in the history of the world has any country committed suicide.  No leader has ever worked his or her way up the ladder of government to achieve the top position only to kill himself and his countrymen.  Gross miscalculation has of course occurred – Saddam Hussein comes to mind – never but intentional national suicide.  Nuclear weapons tend to concentrate the mind, virtually eliminating the possibility of miscalculation.  Leaders know that if they use these weapons, they will be destroyed in an overwhelming response.  Any Iranian use of nuclear weapons would be suicidal, not accidental.  And entirely unprecedented.

Were they to get a nuclear weapon, the leaders of Iran would not launch it against Israel unless they were prepared to see their rule, and their desire for a Shi’ite power bloc, come to an end.  Giving a bomb to Hezbollah or Hamas would be the functional equivalent of using it, because since nuclear explosions leave radiation "signatures" that can be traced back to the point of their origin.  There would be no possibility, therefore, to deny how these groups got their bombs, and Tehran (or at least the regime) would still face retaliation.  Realism therefore counsels that even theocrats would act rationally with the ultimate weapon, no matter how much bluster emerges from Tehran.  What Iran does is far more important than what their clownish president says.  And overall, Iran – like every country – tends to act in accordance with its national interests.  Destruction of the state is certainly not one of those interests.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves.  Iranian nuclear weapons are not inevitable.  In fact, if we were truly interested in seeing their program shut down, we would get our troops out of Iraq post haste.  Our presence in Iraq ironically makes an Iranian bomb more likely.  Defense planners in Iran make the reasonable calculation that the only thing that could prevent them from meeting the same fate as their neighbors is a nuclear deterrent.  It is entirely rational that they would want one, and it would be the goal of any Iranian regime, whether it be a democracy or theocracy, as long as the threat posed by the United States seems to be so high. 

We will probably have to wait until this election is over to have a rational discussion of foreign policy.  Until then, we can hope that the candidates will not feel the need to follow through on their ridiculous campaign statements once they get into office.  The willingness to flip-flop away from irresponsibility is no vice.

Christopher Fettweis, author of Losing Hurts Twice As Bad, is guest blogging on Jewcy, and he’ll be here all week.  Stay tuned. 

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