Mr President, Make a Deal with Iran
I’ve heard the controversial speech, I’ve done some reading, and I’ve come to a conclusion:
The only way to reduce the instability in the Middle East is to begin a diplomatic rapprochement with Iran. Period.
Spare me the long lecture of historical irrelevancies – I know they were behind the Beirut bombings, and a bunch of other bombings. I know they are not an ally. I know their buffoonish former President was quite distasteful. I know that Iran would be a far more popular country if the official dress code for women mandated, say, the pencil skirt instead of the hijab.
This is not out of appeasement, or blindness, or because of Obama, or Netanyahu; this is about raison d’Etat, and not just for America but for Israel, and Jordan, and all of America’s allies, partners, and friends.
Or, How a Republican Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Barack Obama’s Iranian Diplomatic Effort
I spent the summer of 2006 working the cash register of a gas station alongside Interstate 80 in my hometown of Grinnell, Iowa; pretty much in the middle of the country. I had recently finished college, where I’d studied political science and geography – a terrible idea, don’t ever do that – and was preparing to start law school that fall – also a bad idea.
I had given a presentation on Lebanon as the final exam in my public speaking course just months earlier, so the region was already fresh in my memory when the headline-grabbing 2006 Lebanon War broke out.
Remember the 2006 Lebanon War? Israel was provoked by Hezbollah into invading southern Lebanon, where combat operations left dozens of towns in ruin, and – and I cannot stress this enough – Israel failed to destroy Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia that serves as Iran’s proxy army in the Levant.
As a low-wage service employee, I could only respond to customers’ comments with shrugs and sighs. As a manufacturing technician and severely underemployed graduate degree-holder, I am no longer burdened by this restriction, and can spout off about the Iranian nuclear showdown and the US-Israeli relationship to anyone who cares to pay attention, and I believe the US should try a political settlement with Iran.
Iran is a party to the Nonproliferation Treaty and thus, they are not entitled to possess nuclear weapons. They are enriching uranium, which is actually allowed under the NPT, but nobody trusts them to keep it restricted to civil purposes. I get the dilemma. The American people are also sick of the Middle East and are not eager to make war on Iran despite the deep antipathy felt towards it, and the Iranian question must be viewed in the grand balance of all of America’s interests at home and around the world. Politics, the art of the possible.
The Persian Enigma
What real, political power would Iran get with a bomb that they don’t already possess? Perhaps more to the point, what geopolitical gain did North Korea achieve by become a nuclear-armed Pariah State, which Iran now covets?
Much of the Iranian debate has been based on an assumption that the Iranian regime is suicidal, apocalyptic, and bent on genocide; that it is a regime that cannot be deterred with the American strategic arsenal, because they are simply too unhinged. I simply don’t buy it.
The Ohio-class submarine, with its 24 Trident II ballistic missiles, each carrying 8 Teller-Ullam design thermonuclear warheads, each yielding 700 kilotons, is unsuitable for deterrence…. All 14 of them…. Because Iran is just too crazy.
Ex-CIA Agent Robert Baer challenged that assumption directly in his book “The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower,” arguing that Iran’s actions have followed an arc of development since the Iranian Revolution. Iran perhaps is not the foaming-mouthed extremists building a nuclear spark plug to ignite the apocalypse that so many commentators would have us believe… Glen Beck comes to mind.
Baer’s work is certainly worth a look, and he has written several other books as well as given speeches which are readily available on the internet. In addition to extensive research, he was a case officer in Lebanon in the 1980’s – the Iranians killed his boss, in fact – and he ultimately leaves us with the point that there is really no alternative.
The Iranians, according to Baer, have a firmly held belief that they are – for lack of a politically correct term – superior to the Arabs, and are at least equal to all the other “Great Peoples“ of the world. Iran is the inheritor of 4,000 years of civilization, and their superiority over the “Bedouin” is a belief seemingly shared by the Persians, Azaris, Balochis, and probably even the remaining Iranian Jewish population.
Meanwhile, much of the Arab world is in turmoil; the artificial states that are the legacy of the Sykes-Picot agreement could only be held together with authoritative regimes, and as these imposed “Westphalian State” institutions erode, the traditional Arab community and tribal power structures are coming to the forefront, and not in an altogether peaceful way.
Spreading influence over their neighbors, for Iran – the non-Arab, Farsi-speakers with real and well-established state institutions – is sort of an obvious move. Add in the Sunni Wahhabist insurgency in the form of the Islamic State, and in the Iranian mind the barbarians are approaching the gates.
What are we supposed to do? Draft an army to kick them out of everywhere they have gained influence? Completely defeat the Islamic State ourselves, along with whatever Sunni militia rises to take its place? Three million troops ought to do the job. Of course, we’ll have to stay there for 50 years.
Iran and the NPT
The gist of the Nonproliferation Treaty, of which Iran is a signatory, is that in exchange for the right to peacefully use nuclear technology, a state agrees not to develop weapons.
There is a massive hole in the NPT framework – by allowing civil nuclear programs, you are essentially allowing the entire infrastructure of a nuclear weapons program. Becoming a “threshold nuclear power” is then actually allowed under the NPT.
Turning natural 0.7 percent fissile uranium into 4.0 percent fissile uranium is well within the bounds of the treaty, and would be appropriate in manufacturing fuel pellets for the series of Pressurized Water Reactors that Tehran is looking to build. Those reactors would serve to reduce domestic demand for hydrocarbons, which are Iran’s main export and source of foreign currency, so there is method to their actions.
Of course there is no trust in the Iranians’ willingness to act within the letter of the law. This feeling is based at least in part on the view that Iran is a rabid genocidal tyranny building a doomsday machine to usher in a thousand years of darkness; and blamed by Tehran on “western colonialist, imperialist hypocrisy” and whatever else they can dredge up.
Regardless of trust and lack thereof, the fact that uranium is being enriched is not sufficient cause for war, even if they are enriching to higher fissile percentages. Nor is it cause for endless confrontation which ultimately leads nowhere.
Frankly, I’ve come to doubt that they have any ambitions of setting off a bomb any time soon. It won’t get them what they want.
They absolutely want to be a major force in the region, and they don’t need a nuclear weapon to achieve that aim – they have already achieved much of it in any event, but they cannot continue their goals of projecting power over their near-abroad if they chase all of their neighbors under the nuclear umbrella.
They also have an enormous youth population that needs to be housed, employed, and given some room in society to assemble a future for themselves, and the regime must accomplish this in order to maintain long-term domestic cohesion. The youth generation is all for Iran’s regional power ambitions by all account, and hold immense pride in their culture and nation, even if they hate the mullahs intensely.
Addressing the youth problem will require greater international economic engagement from the regime, which ultimately means making overtures to America and the West.
They don’t want to be a North Korea 2.0; Iran can tolerate quite a lot of sanctions, but not complete isolation. Ironically, the only thing that is likely to create the sort of international consensus necessary to isolate Iran could be a nuclear test, which is why pressing for an ever-better deal as Mr. Netanyahu urges might be difficult in the P5+1 setting.
Maintaining international cooperation to keep pressure on Iran to abide by the NPT, as well as the broader interest of nonproliferation around the globe, require that the Iranian nuclear question be handled by the book. Politics – especially international politics – the art of the possible.
Assuming the decision swings the other way, and Washington decides that Iran must not be allowed to have any nuclear capabilities of any kind, what should be done to prevent them from enriching uranium?
How can the United States, which couldn’t stop people from distilling illegal whiskey in our own country, effectively stop Tehran from running uranium hexafluoride through a series of centrifuges? And, somehow stop it without triggering a general war in the Middle East?
Sanctions would be ignored by the regime, which would carry on with enrichment in spite of international pressure if the price of lifting them would be completely dismantling the nuclear program. Sanctions would also be circumvented by smugglers, and possibly even rendered inoperable if the support for sanctions by the Russians or the Chinese should flag.
We could bomb the facilities; but the Iranians could rebuild them, and we’d have to bomb them again. Iraq had one reactor in the 1980’s; Iran has far more extensive facilities located in several different areas.
What of the nuclear engineers and technicians? There has to be thousands of people in Iran with nuclear industry experience, who would be ready to begin again.
Regime change then; full-scale invasion along with a massive occupation force to establish a new government and establish post-war order. Until we go completely broke.
The US has the capacity to defeat the Iranian military in a direct confrontation, but regime change would involve direct ground invasion, and the US would then face a Fabian war of attrition based on the same asymmetric tactics Hezbollah used in Lebanon in 2006, only this time conducted by the Revolutionary Guard Corps itself.
Boots on the ground in the Gulf is precisely what the American people have grown so tired of in the last 14 years. Dead soldiers, wounded veterans, and massive bills to pay for conflicts where a sense of progress is rare and fleeting, and where so much of our military might is sidelined. The Ohio-class submarine is excellent in the struggle for power politics – it just screams “Don‘t Tread on Me” – but it is useless in regime change, surgical strikes, nation-building, or winning hearts and minds.
Emphasizing regime change over deterrence gets the American power equation backwards; all the powerful kit sits idle while Americans are maimed by improvised explosive devises.
What option is left? Diplomacy.
The stage could be set for a workable deal. Despite all the risks and worry, if Iran is to be prevented from going fully nuclear, the only realistic way is to give the Iranians a diplomatic reason to behave. Diplomatic and economic engagement could provide those reasons, risky though it is.
Israel wants Hezbollah off of its northern border. The US wants out of land wars in Asia and an end to the instability in the region. Iraqi Kurds want some security and self-determination. The peoples of Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey are all at risk if the region falls to complete chaos or to militias that are too violent for words. Many parties want the Islamic State militants destroyed. The entire civilized world wants fewer armed non-state actors in the Middle East, and a reduced level of violence overall.
All of these things can only be addressed by reaching some type of accord with Iran, whether we like it or not.
We should have brought them in from the cold when Mohammed Khatami was president, in my opinion. The plain fact is that unless Iran itself provokes a war, the American people will not support direct military action. Iran must scuttle the present talks if further sanctions are to receive support.
Any deal won’t be perfect, but there has to be a first step and now is as good a time as any to give it a shot.