February 12, 2010

Cut the Gordion Knot, Already

Last week, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad promised to deliver a “telling blow” against “global powers” on Feb. 11, the 31st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, and yesterday, right on schedule, we found out what that blow was. Iran, he boasted before a bussed-in crowd, is now a “nuclear state.” He and his Revolutionary Guards have not yet built a nuclear weapon, but they have — assuming they’re telling the truth — made enormous progress by enriching uranium at the crucial 20 percent threshold.

Yet while millions of Iranians are in open rebellion against their own hated government, the United States is still making policy as if they did not exist. Obama administration officials are ready to impose sanctions, but they’re doing it for the wrong reason. Sanctions, a senior official said, are “about driving them back to negotiations because the real goal here is to avoid war.”

All of us — Left, Right, and Center — worry about war with Iran. “Doves” hope to skirt a small- or medium-sized conflict, while “hawks” dwell on the threat of nuclear war. Doves would rather Iran get the bomb than go to war, while hawks would back anti-government demonstrators or destroy the weapons facilities outright. Every approach is risky, and I don’t know which is best, but this much is all but certain: we won’t be in the clear until the leadership, and perhaps the whole state, is replaced.

Sanctions might help at this point, but negotiations — which the unnamed official hopes to return to — will not. Resistance is at the core of the regime’s ideology. Expecting Ahmadinejad and Khamenei to give that up is like asking Fidel Castro to scrap socialism or Benjamin Netanyahu to let go of Zionism. The odds of it happening are near zero. If that was unclear a year ago, it shouldn’t be now.

No one can know if Iran’s opposition will topple the government, but the odds of it happening are well above zero. If Ahmadinejad and Khamenei bolt the country next month, will anybody really be all that surprised? It would look obvious and inevitable in hindsight. Pessimists say the regime is durable, and maybe it is, but communist governments in Europe looked that way, too, and they weren’t. CIA analysts said it about Iran’s shah in 1979, and they were wrong.

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at February 12, 2010 10:53 AM
Comments
We are left with the unfortunate conclusion that Hope and Change was not the sort of universal sentiment that much of the electorate assumed. It either was a narrowly-focused exhortation to a specific domestic political agenda, or just another effective marketing tool. Which raises the question why the Hope and Change tour did a gig in Berlin during 2008?

If Hope and Change was not inclusive enough to capture the imaginations and aspirations of the Iranian people and others in the rest of the world, why take the message outside the US borders?

Not a hopey, changey word has come out of this administration for the subjects of the regimes in the Middle East, especially Iran. Such a lost opportunity, one with a fearful cost.
Posted by: Dan D at February 12, 2010 12:47 pm
Regime change to...?

A general strike next? As resource-intensive as the cost can be to a regime, is it ultimately easier to get people NOT to act than to force (enough) key performers to keep performing?
Posted by: Paul S. at February 12, 2010 2:04 pm
I've been following Iran for years now. The more I study it, and the more I gather a grasp of its politics, the less I understand. I've been certain that I had a firm grasp on what was going on at times, only to see the country do something completely opposite. There's only one conclusion I have been able to reach. From a US-centric perspective, Iran is incomprehensible. Only folks as familiar with the entire region as Michael is have a chance at figuring it out.
Posted by: C Kelsey at February 12, 2010 4:00 pm
If you don't know what the right choice is, then who does?
Posted by: Ali at February 12, 2010 5:25 pm
Ali: If you don't know what the right choice is, then who does?

Nobody.

Some people think they know, but they don't.
Posted by: Michael J. Totten at February 12, 2010 5:28 pm
One might venture that half the reason the region is so messed up is because too many people who don't know thought they did know.
Posted by: C Kelsey at February 12, 2010 5:33 pm
At irantracker.org, echoing C Kelsey's and Michael's assessment:

"This week marked another round of tensions within Iran, and although the regime may have passed this test, it remains impossible to issue a conclusive verdict on the viability and strength of the opposition."
Posted by: Paul S. at February 12, 2010 8:11 pm
One might venture that half the reason the region is so messed up is because too many people who don't know thought they did know.

That's the easy way out, C Kelsey. There have been a few outsiders who interfered in the region thinking they could promote one outcome over another and got it totally wrong, but I think the blame for most of the problems in the ME the locals bear most of the responsibility. One of the reasons westerners have so much trouble dealing with the IRI is that the IRI are a bunch of effing liars. They seem to enjoy engaging in elaborate deceptions. How do you deal with somebody who lies to you so often that you can't believe a word they say? When you automatically assume that any agreement they enter into or any offer they make will be disregarded on a whim at the earliest convenience? It isn't outsiders that make that regime behave in that way, and the only fault in somebody who takes them at their word or who attempts to negotiate with them in good faith is for being playing the fool. The parade of people who want to play that part never seems to end, though. Especially in Europe. But even here in the US we have our fair share.
Posted by: Craig at February 12, 2010 10:19 pm
[...] Totten, Cut the Gordion Knot, Already: Last week, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad promised to deliver a “telling blow” against [...]
Posted by: Cut the Gordion Knot, Already « Geoff's Blog at February 13, 2010 8:15 am
Craig, you indeed have a point. However, the fact that the players in the ME tend to lie constantly simply adds another layer to confuse us into making mistakes in the reagion while at the same time believing that we know what we're doing in the region. I have been given to understand (read "I have no proof")that plenty of EU nations lie all the time and yet we still conduct meaningful foreign policy with them as nations.
Posted by: C Kelsey at February 13, 2010 9:03 am
Except for the sanctions regime in regards to Cuba all of the other countries in that position have simply become more agile and aggressive in dealing with their economic problems. Taiwan, Israel and even South Africa grew their economies at a much faster rate then countries without sanctions or embargoes. But I actually think sanctions could work in Iran because it essentially is a mercantilist economy and simply is not geared toward the kind of large scale entrepenaurial actions that can drive a nations economy.
Posted by: Pat Patterson at February 13, 2010 12:00 pm
I have been given to understand (read "I have no proof")that plenty of EU nations lie all the time and yet we still conduct meaningful foreign policy with them as nations.

Well, the way I look at it is that nobody is completely honest. Who hasn't lied about the reason they were missing a day at work or school? Or made up a story about the traffic being bad when the real reason you were late is you overslept? And so on. But there is a world of difference between that mild and relatively harmless deception and a pathological liar who is dishonest for no particular reason, even when the truth word work just as well. I've met a few pathological liars in my life and my reaction has been to stay as far away from them as I possibly could. I would suggest the US adopt the same policy towards the IRI and other regimes in the ME. Unfortunately, our addiction to oil makes it necessary to deal with the region on some level.
Posted by: Craig at February 13, 2010 4:10 pm
What would be so bad about a 1953-style CIA regime change operation (as a worst-case scenario)? It would prevent them from supporting the resistance bloc and stop their nuclear program. Plus, the "changed regime" could be more democratic.
Posted by: Ali at February 13, 2010 4:20 pm
Ali,

Most Americans, including me, hate the idea of CIA-sponsored coups.

If a democratic Iran emerged from a coup, I would be okay with that, but you never know how these things will turn out. And if it turns out badly, it will be partly our fault.

I don't think it is going to happen.
Posted by: Michael J. Totten at February 13, 2010 4:29 pm
Both times the US supported Coups in Iran (1953 and 1979), it was to support Khomeini and his clerical allies. Both times, it ended badly for America and Iran.

Ali, why do you think America or the international community (Europeans, Arabs, Russians, Asians) can do a better job this time?
Posted by: anan at February 13, 2010 6:44 pm
A couple of comments/questions: Is the Resistance in Iran against that country's acquisition of nuclear weapons? Do they advocate a foreign policy significantly different from the present one? Would an Iran run by the resistance pose no threat at all to Israel? Do they want to destroy Israel? What about the US?

From what I've read, the leadership of the resistance movement in Iran does not differ much from the current regime. Am I wrong? I hope so, but I don't think so.

If the questions all asked above are answered "no" then does it matter who rules Iran?

As for what to do about a nuclear Iran, I think the answer is also obvious. Destroy their nuclear capabilities immediately and do so repeatedly. Whatever the mess afterward, and whatever the loss of life, it will be far worse should Iran develop nuclear warfare capabilities. Apart from the NYTimes editorial board, does anyone think Iran is a rational actor?
Posted by: Think of England at February 14, 2010 7:29 am
The IRI is defined by its ability to lie, to the west and to its own people. I don't have the time or the desire to explain the rationalization for the lies. But, like a house of cards, the IRI will eventually crumble from within because the leaders lie not only to others but to themselves. The current uprising is courtesy of a lie gone too far, one which even many of the most loyal to the regime cannot process. It was a bad stumble by the IRI and the opposition has taken full advantage. But the opposition is not a unified mass, rather, a collection of disparate and competing groups with differing visions of a post-regime Iran united only in opposition, not unlike the 1979 revolution which was followed by the systematic murder not only of the Shah's people but also of the minority revolutionary groups. It is best to remember that the most vocal and tech savvy, those able to get their message out to the west today, are not necessarily representative of the majority of the opposition.
Posted by: blackpoint at February 14, 2010 9:44 am
Think of England,

The Iranian opposition includes leftists, liberals, moderates, and conservatives. It includes every atheist in the country -- and there are a lot of them.

No, they do not wish to destroy Israel or America. Iran was allied with Israel and America before 1979, and will be again. The ancient and most serious foes of Persians are Arabs.
Posted by: Michael J. Totten at February 14, 2010 10:57 am
Think of England,

I have to think that even if the opposition somehow rested control of the government from the current regime their nuclear policy wouldn't change that much. At this point nuclear "something" (be it power or weapons) has been a national goal for so long that it's going to remain a goal and a source of pride regardless of who is in charge. Michael has an excellent point about Iran being allied with Israel and America in the past.

I had a professor who was in Iran in the mid 80's. He would tell stories of these massive parades that would march through Tehran shouting "death to America". At one point, he claims he was standing in the shade of a building watching such a parade go by. A man from the parade peeled off to have a smoke next to him. They started talking about America. The man expounded on how he loved America for quite a while. Then another group marched by and he rejoined the parade shouting "death to America". I don't know if it's really a true story, but it is compelling.
Posted by: C Kelsey at February 14, 2010 11:18 am
Who cares if a politically moderate Iran has a civilian nuclear energy program? As long as they don't build reactors like the Soviets did at Chernobyl, I couldn't care less.
Posted by: Michael J. Totten at February 14, 2010 11:22 am
US policy has never been against civilian nuclear energy production. However, it is a tremendous waste of money. Iran would see a significantly larger return on investment in the development of oil refineries. The export of oil is currently offset by the import of refined gasoline, an inexcusable waste of the countries most valuable resource.
Posted by: blackpoint at February 14, 2010 11:37 am
"Who cares if a politically moderate Iran has a civilian nuclear energy program? As long as they don't build reactors like the Soviets did at Chernobyl, I couldn't care less."

I generally agree. The risk is any of those countries over there could revert to a non-politically moderate country. Then again, I suppose that's a risk everywhere.
Posted by: C Kelsey at February 14, 2010 12:38 pm
Around whom and what can (how many?) resistance voices coalesce, I wonder.

I stopped by an Iranian American Community of Northern California (www.IACNorCal.com) rally held yesterday in San Francisco. This is completely outside my knowledge base, so I'll just quote from their pamphlet and learn more from you folks:

"The solution to the Iranian problem is neither appeasement of a terrorist regime nor a foreign war, but democratic change by relying on the Iranian people and their organized Resistance. The Iranian Resistance's President-elect Mrs. Maryam Rajavi put forth this option during her address to the European Parliament in December 2004. The terror label against the main Iranian resistance group, the Iranian Mojahedin, is the most important impediment to realizing this change, and its sole purpose was to appease the regime in Iran."
Posted by: Paul S. at February 14, 2010 4:19 pm
MeK (Mujahedin-e Khalq) is a marxist group that was one of those original 1979 revolutionary groups which Khomeini turned on in the years immediately following the revolution. They killed Americans in Iran long before the revolution. They supported the takeover of the US Embassy in Iran and the holding of American diplomats as hostages. They supported Iraq in the Iraq-Iran war. They have been designated a terrorist organization by the US since 1997.

If you believe that the enemy of your enemy is your friend, then MeK is for you.
If you believe that the only good terrorist is a dead terrorist, then you might want to stay outside of the kill zone. There is nothing democratic about the MeK agenda.
Posted by: blackpoint at February 14, 2010 4:54 pm
Thanks, blackpoint.

Michael's topics, and certainly this one, are usually above pay grade, as a friend says.

"Maryam Rajavi's 10 point Plan", point 8 :"We recognize private property, private investment and the market economy."

'Sounds more Milton Friedman than Karl Marx. Of course, telling me you "recognize" something doesn't reveal what your plans for it are. And here in San Francisco the "local color" adds shades of meaning as well.
Posted by: Paul S. at February 14, 2010 5:42 pm
A leopard doesn’t change it’s spots but its spots can be effective camouflage. MeK has learned that spouting the correct rhetoric can effectively camouflage its true intentions and gain broader support among gullible liberals in the West. Shortly after the invasion of Iraq, the US disarmed the MeK camps. MeK supported and was supported by Saddam (enemy of my enemy). The current Iraqi government wants nothing to do with them but can’t get rid of them. No one else will take them and, if sent back to Iran, they will be imprisoned and executed. Not that most Iraqi’s really care but, for the sake of appearances, it is a bit too early for that yet.

In a post-regime Iran, they may be welcomed by some but definitely not all. Depends on who takes control.
Posted by: blackpoint at February 14, 2010 6:31 pm
So, if I'm reading the article correctly, the emotional satisfaction of cutting the Gordian knot is outweighed by the risks of doing so: one or both boulders may fall outwards, causing injury or death; the rope may snap and cause injury or death; the rope may be made of something a sword can't cut, causing injury to my hand/wrist on impact.

Without researching the problem, considering the outcomes, and then making lots of effort to mitigate the dangers, it's probably best to leave the situation as-is, pending further study.

And while we study, the rope in the knot may prove to be old and rotten enough, that it will fall apart on its own.
Posted by: gus3 at February 15, 2010 1:34 am
Pat Patterson's earlier point about mercantile and entreprenurial economic environments got me wondering; if I assume the Iranian opposition is a motley array of feral cats nobody can herd, any guesses about how long this economy can be locked down this tightly? Comparisons with elsewhere seem apples-and-oranges, but maybe not; I'm no economist.
Posted by: Paul S. at February 15, 2010 1:48 pm
Make that a motley array of Persian cats nobody can herd. They are not feral. In fact, they have been remarkably non-violent during demonstrations. But cats as a rule are independent and not herd animals.

I can't answer your economic question. There are too many variables. But as the Euro tanks, chalk another hit against Iran on the board since they walked away from the dollar for many of their oil contracts a couple of years ago.
Posted by: blackpoint at February 15, 2010 4:45 pm
Yes, "feral" does imply wildness, not just disarray.

China imports petroleum products (and American debt), and has to keep pumping out product to keep their lid on unemployment and general discontent, but the night-and-day difference vis a vis the U.S. alone would seem to take that regime and its tactics out of any comparison pool.
Posted by: Paul S. at February 15, 2010 6:04 pm
Present day Iran is a modern day Austro-Hungarian empire of disaffected nationalities. Shouldnt we be promoting an independent Kurdistan (especially since Turkey is no longer our ally), reuinion of Iranian Azerbaijan with the nation of Azerbaijan, Ahwaz province with Iraq, and an independent Baluchistan?
Posted by: Clement Fong at February 17, 2010 6:19 am
"since Turkey is no longer our ally" ???

What are you talking about? Turkey has 5 OMLT (embedded advisor teams) with the ANA and additional POMLT with the ANP. Turkey is lead advisor for the 111st ANA Kabul capital Division.

Turkey is also contributing to ANA staff college and the ANA's 4 year academy (which Turkey helped create in January, 2005.)

The Turks have two PRTs (Provincial Reconstruction Teams) in Afghanistan; in Kabul and Wardak.

Turkey is a valuable ally in the global struggle against extremism. Turkey is helpful in many other global challenges. How is Turkey "no longer our ally"?
Posted by: anan at February 17, 2010 11:49 am
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