The regime in Iran isn’t about to fall

Editor’s Choice

26 July 2010
The regime in Iran isn’t about to fall

Fareed Zakaria
AS Barack Obama goes through one of his most difficult periods as president, you might wonder what it would have been like if the other guy had won. We will never know, of course, but in one area, John McCain provides us with some clues. He would have tried to overthrow the government of Iran.
In a speech on June 10, later published as a cover essay in The New Republic, McCain urged that we “unleash America’s full moral power” to topple the Tehran regime. The speech highlights one of the crucial failings of McCain’s world view, one in which rhetoric replaces analysis, and fantasy substitutes for foreign policy. By now, it’s become something of a mantra among neo-conservatives that we missed a chance to transform Iran a year ago. Reuel Marc Gerecht, writing in The New York Times, compares Iran’s Green Movement to “what transpired behind the Iron Curtain in the 1980s” and accuses Obama of being passive in the face of this historical moment. Bret Stephens, a columnist for The Wall Street Journal, imagines that a more forceful Western response could have set off a revolution.
I have been deeply supportive of Iran’s Green Movement. I wrote glowingly about it, highlighted it on television, and showcased its advocates. But I do not think there is much evidence that it was likely to overthrow the Iranian regime.
To believe that, one has to believe the government in Tehran is deeply unpopular with a majority of Iranians, holds onto power through military force alone, and is thus vulnerable to a movement that could mobilise the vast majority in Iran who despise it. None of this is entirely true. The Iranian regime has many, many opponents, but it also has millions of supporters. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may have actually lost the presidential election of 2009, but it was a close contest in which he got millions of votes. What little polling has been done in Iran, coupled with the observations of people who have been there, all suggest that the regime has considerable public support in rural areas, among the devout, and in poorer communities.
Newsweek’s Maziar Bahari, who was jailed by the government for four months on trumped-up charges, believes that the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, remains the single most popular political figure in Iran.
McCain reveals a startling ignorance about the Iranian regime when he argues, in his speech, that it “spends its people’s precious resources not on roads, or schools, or hospitals, or jobs that benefit all Iranians — but on funding violent groups of foreign extremists who murder the innocent.”  While Tehran does fund militant groups, one of the keys to Ahmadinejad’s popularity has been his large-scale spending on social programs for the poor. The regime lays out far more money on those domestic programs than on anything abroad.
The comparison of Iran’s Green Revolution to the velvet revolutions of Eastern Europe is mistaken. In 1989 dissidents had three forces on their side; nationalism (because communism had been imposed by force by a foreign power), religion (because communism repressed the church), and democracy. The Green Movement has only one; democracy. The regime has always used the religiosity of the people to its advantage, but it has also become skilled at manipulating nationalism.
In May, the Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty was awarded to Akbar Ganji, one of the bravest advocates of nonviolent agitation and secular democracy for Iran. Ganji was jailed for six years in Evin Prison, mostly in solitary confinement, for his writings against the government. In his acceptance speech, Ganji explained that US foreign policy does have an impact on Iran’s freedom movement but not quite in the sense that neo-conservatives mean.
“Even entertaining the possibility of a military strike, especially when predicated on the nuclear issue,” Ganji said, “is beneficial to the fundamentalists who rule Iran. As such, the idea itself is detrimental to the democratic movement in my country.”
The regime bends international issues to its favour, and has become vocal about what Ganji calls the “gushing wound of Palestine … [which] worsens the infection of fundamentalism.” He pointed out that Tehran continually reminds Iranians of America’s “double standards” in opposing Iran’s nuclear program while staying silent about Israel’s arsenal of atomic weapons.
Ironically, those hoping to liberate Iranians are the very same people urging punitive sanctions and even military force against Iran. Do they think that when the bombs hit, they will spare those who wear green?
Fareed Zakaria is Editor, Newsweek International.
Newsweek International, USA   –   25 July 10
©Newsweek International. All rights reserved. Reprinted by arrangement.

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Middle East Roundtable: Israel and the NPT

Editor’s Choice
25 June 10
Middle East Roundtable 
Israel and the NPT

No to strategic suicide
 Emily B. Landau
The 2010 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference that ran for most of the month of May produced a final document adopted by the member states by consensus. Although the NPT was extended indefinitely in 1995, agreement on a final document–which must enjoy consensus–was widely regarded as a significant goal due to the serious challenges that today threaten the viability of the treaty. For US President Barack Obama in particular, to be able to declare this conference a “success” after the failed 2005 RevCon was especially important against the backdrop of his nuclear disarmament agenda and the steps he took in this direction in the months leading up to the RevCon.

Consensus was achieved, but at a considerable price. Egypt threatened to withhold its agreement–and that of the close to 120 non-aligned states that Egypt leads–to any final document if its Middle East agenda was not accepted. Egypt sought to exploit this conference, as it has attempted many times before, as a platform for singling out Israel and forcing it to join the NPT and negotiate a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone in the Middle East. Obama proved vulnerable to this Egyptian political blackmail due to his keen desire to secure a consensus document.

Thus the US conceded to Egyptian pressure; this led to Israel being named specifically in the section on the Middle East, as well as the inclusion of a call for a conference on a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone to be convened in 2012. Iran, on the other hand, was not mentioned by name in the final document. This was the outrageous result of all NPT member states bowing to Tehran’s threat to single-handedly block consensus on the final document if Iran was specifically mentioned as a state in violation of its NPT obligations. The fact that Iran has been judged in non-compliance by the International Atomic Energy Agency sadly did not seem to bother the member states in agreeing to this stark omission.

Israel has chosen not to be a member of the NPT–and no state can be forced to join an international treaty–because the NPT is incapable of addressing the security concerns that underscore the rationale for its nuclear deterrent. As a broad-based global treaty, the NPT admittedly would have a hard time taking specific inter-state contexts into account. But Israel’s security predicament is nevertheless inextricably linked to this context.

While the practical difficulty for the NPT to address specific regional configurations may be understandable, the underlying logic of targeting nuclear weapons without regard to the context of interstate relations cannot be accepted. In fact, the academic literature that probes the question of “why states go nuclear” always goes directly to context: security considerations, prestige factors and domestic-based imperatives, among others. And it is the security considerations that very often top the list.

So if the motivation for going nuclear is most often security considerations, can security be ignored when we relate to efforts to reverse the situation? Security is present even in the NPT itself, in the form of the basic compensation given to non-nuclear weapons states that join the treaty–compensation for the concession they made by forswearing nuclear weapons: cooperation on nuclear technology for civilian purposes, the commitment of nuclear weapons states to move toward disarmament and the right to exit the treaty if their “supreme interests” are jeopardized.

For Israel, the nuclear question cannot be approached before regional conditions are very much improved. The Obama administration has expressed strong support for this position. While conceding to Egyptian demands within the framework of the RevCon, outside the confines of the treaty conference government officials have clarified that no discussion can take place on a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone without movement toward comprehensive peace in the region. Moreover, it has been noted that singling out Israel in the NPT final document will not be conducive to securing Israel’s consent to the 2012 conference.

It would nevertheless be a good idea to differentiate between the highly negative conditions under which the idea of a conference on a Middle East WMDFZ was raised and pushed forward of late, and the idea itself–which is not necessarily negative. The challenge for all states in the region is to see how a regional security discussion that was already conducted for four years in the early 1990s could get back on track. At the very least, such dialogue would have to encompass all forms of WMD, include Iran in a meaningful way–sitting side by side with Israel–and focus on improving regional relations and stability before turning to capabilities.

Calls for Israel to join the NPT are a euphemism for calls for Israel to immediately disarm the nuclear capability it is assumed to have. There is no basis for expecting Israel to participate in such strategic suicide. Calls for arms control and regional security dialogue are a different matter. If construed correctly–namely, focus on the context within which weapons exist–these could be a way forward for the region.
Dr. Emily B. Landau is senior research associate and director of the Arms Control and Regional Security Project at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), at Tel Aviv University. She teaches nuclear arms control at Tel Aviv and Haifa universities.

President of what?

Mark Perry
Biographer John Milton Cooper tells the story that just after winning the presidential election of 1912, Woodrow Wilson returned triumphantly to his boyhood home.

This was the standard American local-boy-makes-good tour that traditionally includes a bevy of photographers, a handful of swooning relatives and one or two lost but wide-eyed friends. In Wilson’s case, the swooning relative was his elderly (and failing) Aunt Janie, who remembered Woodrow as “Tommy”, his boyhood name.

“Well, Tommy, what are you doing now?” she asked, as the photographers pressed forward. “I’ve been elected president, Aunt Janie,” Wilson said. “Well, well,” she answered, “president of what?”

American historians have an uneasy relationship with Wilson. They extol his ideals and quote his speeches, but view him as impressively ineffective. At key points in his presidency (particularly at its end), Wilson proved incapable of transforming his ideas into political programs. An avowed anti-colonialist, he issued a menu of international principles (his “Fourteen Points”) that committed America to the spread of democracy and support for self-determination.

It was his greatest moment, but it was only a moment: arriving in Versailles for the conference he hoped would endorse his program, Wilson spent his time slumming with imperialists. They listened carefully to his fine talk on self-determination then sent him packing. Having misjudged Europe, Wilson then misjudged America, supposing his fellow citizens would agree to his vision for a new international order.

Wilson’s campaign to make America the guarantor of this new order failed, destroying first his health and then his legacy. Misjudging others is forgivable, misjudging your own people is not. Woodrow Wilson was president alright but he didn’t know of what.

Thus Wilson and perhaps Barack Obama.

In mid-April, the Obama administration held a first-ever nuclear security summit in Washington to “establish a more cohesive international legal framework that would make it easier to prevent nuclear terrorism.” Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu refused to attend, citing concerns that he would come under pressure to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Then, when President Obama urged all nations to sign the NPT, Israel (in a statement issued by Ehud Barak, Israel’s defense minister) said it would refuse.

It’s important to note that Israel is not the only nuclear “refusenik”. It is joined by Pakistan and India. A fourth country, North Korea, acceded to the treaty, then broke it. That is to say, while it might seem politically wise to promote an equal standard for all states on the nuclear issue, the simple truth is that simply signing the NPT will not guarantee compliance, or limit proliferation. Iran (for instance) has signed the treaty, but it is unclear whether the Iranians are in the process of breaching it.

But what Israel has done is different. Pakistan and India have told the world of their weapons, while North Korea at least had the good sense to withdraw from an agreement it would not keep. Israel refuses to speak of its nuclear stockpile, refuses to be a part of the treaty and avows that it is a special case. Additionally, Israel’s defense of its position suggests that it believes that signing a flawed treaty is worse than not signing one at all. Put another way, Israel argues that since other nations ignore (or violate) agreements, it gives them the right to do the same.

“Israel has never threatened to destroy other countries or nations,” Barak said, “whereas Iran today, and in the past also Syria, Libya and Iraq that have signed the treaty, have broken it systematically with explicit threats on Israel’s existence.”

This is casuistry. Israel doesn’t need to threaten other countries. It has a nuclear bomb.

What is Barack Obama to do? During the mid-April nuclear security summit, President Obama was invited to critique Israel’s position on the NPT and nuclear weapons. He refused. “As far as Israel goes, I’m not going to comment on their program,” he said.

This was not a surprise. The Obama administration has regularly refrained from overt criticism of Israel in apparent fear of Israel’s political power on Capitol Hill and with American voters. The result has been a series of foreign policy retreats: on settlements, the peace process, Israel’s flotilla adventure and, now, the NPT.

It’s a mistake. Like “Tommy” Wilson, Barack Obama is misreading the American public. The publication of Mearsheimer and Walt’s “The Israel Lobby”, Jimmy Carter’s “Peace Not Apartheid”, the 2008 bombing of Gaza, General David Petreaus’ statement that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “foments anti-American sentiment” in the Middle East, and the killing of a 19-year-old American (or, “a person holding an American passport”, as the Washington Post describes him) aboard the Gaza flotilla have all contributed to a growing sense of unease, even resentment, of Israel among the US public. There is in America a growing, significant, palpable and undeniable belief that Israel and America’s views of the world are incompatible and worse: that Israeli actions are actually undermining America’s international goals.

It is possible for Obama to reverse Wilson’s misreading of the American public, reforge the damaged Israeli-American relationship and stay true to his ideals. The American public will applaud a painful but necessary “reset” of America’s relationship with Israel and a clear enunciation of American ideals.

The message from Obama can be a restatement of his important (but overlooked) May 22 address to the graduating class at West Point, where he emphasized America’s commitment to rebuilding international institutions, reemphasized our nation’s commitment to international law and recognized the right of sovereign states to peace and security. The message is simple: the fact that some nations flout international law does not give Israel the same right; that there are criminals in the world does not give Israel the right to be one.

The perfect should not be the enemy of the good.
Mark Perry is the author of “Partners in Command, George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower in War and Peace”. His most recent book is “Talking To Terrorists” (Basic Books, 2010).

A just peace is the best non-proliferation guarantee
Waleed Sadi
Israel’s nuclear weapons saga preceded the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that came into force in 1970. The country started producing and stockpiling nuclear bombs from plutonium reprocessed in its Dimona nuclear facility in the Negev as far back as 1958.

Right from the outset Israel developed a policy of opacity regarding its nuclear program, presumably to drive home a two-pronged message to the Middle East. One was that if push came to shove and its very existence was at stake it had the military tools to destroy all enemies.

The second was to eliminate or at least reduce the risk of nuclear weapons proliferating in the region by “pretending” that Israel was not a nuclear power and therefore there could be no reason for the other states to acquire nuclear weapons. Israel sandwiched its ambiguity in this regard with the repeated pledge that it would not to be the first to use its arsenal of mass destruction.

But keeping the Arab world guessing isn’t working. It has for decades been an open secret that Israel is a nuclear state.

Israel’s anxiety about its very existence dates back to its fears that the Arab world would never accept its existence as an “alien” state in the region. The Israeli leaders who ushered in their country’s nuclear program had convinced themselves that the end game as far as the neighboring Arab and Muslim nations were concerned would be nothing short of the elimination of the Zionist state. In other words, the founding fathers of Israel were aware of a sense of guilt that the creation of their homeland had come about on the ashes of another people and that sooner or later this injustice would be corrected. This Israeli posture was and still predicates the need for Israel to maintain its monopoly over nuclear weapons in the region.

In fulfillment of this strategy, Israeli warplanes bombed Iraq’s nuclear reactor and research facility in Osirak in 1981 and Syria’s alleged covert nuclear site in Deir Ezzor in 2007. Israel’s peace of mind will not be complete, however, until it rids Iran of nuclear facilities capable of enriching uranium for military purposes.

Israel’s contingency plan to execute a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities is therefore in the cards, at least for the time being. Unlike Iraq and Syria, however, any military strike against Iranian nuclear sites will not necessarily eliminate Iran’s nuclear capability. For one thing, Iranian nuclear facilities are farther away than the Iraqi and Syrian sites. Second, Iran’s nuclear sites are numerous, scattered all over the country and hidden in bunkers deep underneath the ground. Third, the Iranian military is superior to anything that Iraq or Syria ever produced and its retaliatory strength is such that it does indeed serve as an effective deterrent.

Against this backdrop, the NPT will not save the day. Besides its many imperfections, the 189 member states of the accord cannot even agree on its three pillars, especially with regard to nuclear disarmament. What the provisions of the NPT call for is simply to conduct “negotiations in good faith” to end the nuclear arms race with a view to achieving nuclear disarmament. There is nothing in the treaty that specifically calls for the elimination of nuclear weapons and this is where the real problem lies.

Only four countries have decided to remain outside the ambit of the NPT, namely Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea. India joined the nuclear club in 1974 and is reputed to have a nuclear arsenal of no less than 150 warheads. Pakistan acquired nuclear weapons in 1998 and is believed to possess between 80 to 120 warheads. Israel has stockpiled more than 200 nuclear weapons, enough to blow the entire region to smithereens. No one knows for sure how many nuclear bombs there are in North Korea, which acceded to the NPT back in 1985 but withdrew in 2003.

That said, the nuclear genie is already out of the bottle in the Middle East. Israel’s state of mind excludes a disarming of or even reduction in its nuclear arsenal. Even if Israel acceded to the NPT at this late hour, there is really nothing specific in the NPT that would require it to relinquish its nuclear capability. The most that can be achieved by Israeli membership is to place its nuclear facility or rather facilities under the international supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The problem does not, however, end with Israel. There is no way that Iran will accept to roll back its aggressive program to acquire nuclear weapons. Tehran has already crossed the line for the manufacture of nuclear weapons with its ambitious uranium enrichment program. For all intents and purposes, the current Iranian leadership has already taken an irreversible decision to acquire nuclear weapons.

The probable scenario of Iran becoming a nuclear power is the application of mutual deterrence between it and Israel. As long as both nations risk nuclear annihilation, they would most probably avoid using nuclear weapons. That would seemingly leave Arab countries out in the cold as long as Israel is determined to go to war to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons in any nearby Arab countries. This situation, however, cannot last forever. Sooner or later, some Arab countries will decide to go nuclear themselves, including Egypt and possibly Syria.

Turkey cannot be so easily contained in this regard either and could be well on its way to acquiring nuclear weapons of its own. As long as Ankara remains a key member of NATO, however, its nuclear ambitions may remain in check if for no other reason than being unnecessary for its own security. NATO’s nuclear umbrella would be sufficient for Turkeys’ security purposes as long as NATO remains intact.

Israel still holds the key to stopping the proliferation of nuclear weapons and this objective can be attained only if it supports, in good faith, efforts to achieve a durable and just peace with the Palestinians and other Arab states still in a state of war with it. This would be the only effective way to reverse the tide of nuclear proliferation in the region beyond the stage it has already reached.

The absence of regional peace would no doubt lead to the spread of weapons of mass destruction. It is imperative that Israel mend its national psyche and recognize that its long-term survival is predicated not on nuclear weapons but rather on becoming a true partner in a new Middle East. The longer the international community waits to attain this objective, the harder it will become to free the region of all kinds of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear ones.
Waleed Sadi is a former Jordanian ambassador to Turkey and the UN and other international organizations in Geneva. He is currently a columnist for the Jordan Times and Al Rai newspapers.


Iran’s small victory
Sadegh Zibakalam
The fact that the United States was forced to assert that Israel should consider joining the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is tantamount to a victory for the Islamic regime in Tehran. Ever since the Iranian nuclear crisis emerged about seven years ago, the Iranian leadership has accused the international community of closing its eyes to Israel’s nuclear arsenal and focusing instead on what Iran’s leaders persistently defend as their country’s peaceful nuclear program.

It was of course difficult for US leaders to mention Israel in the NPT Review Conference’s final declaration, since this was a de facto confession that Tel Aviv possessed nuclear weapons–an issue hitherto officially denied by successive Israeli leaders. Why should the Islamic leaders regard it as a victory if Israel acknowledges that it does indeed possess nuclear warheads? The answer is provided by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad: the Islamic regime not only denies fiercely that it intends to build a nuclear weapon, it has also proposed that the Middle East be a nuclear weapons-free zone.

During his meeting with the Turkish and Brazilian presidents in Tehran last June, Ahmadinezhad stated publicly to the international media in the name of the Islamic regime, “let us make the Middle East a nuclear weapons-free zone.” The Iranian media then reported that Iran’s “revolutionary proposal has astonished the Zionist regime and its principal supporter the US.” Any progress in that direction would naturally be welcomed by Tehran as a “clear indication that it is on the right and peaceful track”. If Israel does not acknowledge that it possesses nuclear warheads, the Iranian “grand proposal to bring peace and stability to the region” would stay on paper.

More importantly, as Ahmadinezhad added, “the starting point for any meaningful beginning toward making the region a nuclear weapons-free zone is all the states in the region, including the Zionist state, joining the NPT and working with it sincerely and honestly, much as Islamic Iran has done.” In other words, it is not only Ahmadinezhad and other Iranian leaders who have benefitted from Israel’s refusal to join the NPT. The Islamic regime is cooperating with the NPT and yet is being punished by the 5+1. At the same time, Israel possesses nuclear weapons and refuses to join the NPT. Under these circumstances, it is very difficult for anyone to criticize Iran’s nuclear program.

The latter has become a hotly debated political issue. The hardliners have successfully managed to turn the nuclear question into a nationalistic-political issue. The reformists have continuously been accused of giving in to the wishes of the US and the other western powers by accepting, when they were in power, a two-year voluntary freeze on the country’s uranium enrichment program. Ahmadinezhad accused the country’s nuclear negotiating team that talked with the West under reformist President Mohamad Khatami of “treason” for halting the enrichment program for two years. In contrast to the “traitors”, he has pursued the nuclear program with great stamina and determination.

At least for some Iranians, the country’s nuclear program is far more than a dispute with the West. Under Ahmadinezhad, the nuclear issue has been turned into a struggle with the “arrogant powers” who want to prevent Islamic Iran from acquiring advanced nuclear technology. In other words, the nuclear dispute with the West is not over the potential threat that Iran will acquire nuclear weapons but rather over the West’s unjust treatment of “an independent Islamic state that has dared to stand against [the West’s] unjust and aggressive behavior”.

Israel and its nuclear arsenal are frequently cited by the Iranian leaders as a clear example of the West’s hypocrisy over the nuclear issue. While the West has objected neither to Israel’s nuclear warheads nor to its refusal to join the NPT, it has punished Iran–which according to the West’s own intelligence sources is many years away from nuclear weapons capability and which has cooperated fully with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

It is against this backdrop that any new Israeli response to the NPT demand must be perceived from the Iranian perspective. While the Iranian leadership took credit for including Israel in the final declaration, in the long run, Israeli cooperation with the NPT actually pulls the rug out from under Tehran’s feet. After all, as long as the state of Israel refuses to cooperate with the NPT, Iranian leaders can accuse the West, the IAEA and the 5+1 of approaching Iran unjustly and with bias as it confronts “the world’s arrogant powers”. The Iranian leadership will continue to turn the nuclear issue into a “holy crusade opposing western encroachment against Islam”.

On the other hand, Israel’s cooperation with international bodies over its nuclear program as recommended by the Review Conference would make it harder for Iran to cite international injustice against the only true Islamic state. Politics makes strange bedfellows; it is not inconceivable that Israel’s joining the NPT would force Iran to reconsider its nuclear program and revise its approach toward the IAEA
Sadegh Zibakalam is professor of political science at Tehran University.

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Thinking About the Unthinkable: A U.S.-Iranian Deal

Editor’s Choice

3 March 2010

By George Friedman

The United States apparently has reached the point where it must either accept that Iran will develop nuclear weapons at some point if it wishes, or take military action to prevent this. There is a third strategy, however: Washington can seek to redefine the Iranian question.

As we have no idea what leaders on either side are thinking, exploring this represents an exercise in geopolitical theory. Let’s begin with the two apparent stark choices.

Diplomacy vs. the Military Option

The diplomatic approach consists of creating a broad coalition prepared to impose what have been called crippling sanctions on Iran. Effective sanctions must be so painful that they compel the target to change its behavior. In Tehran’s case, this could only consist of blocking Iran’s imports of gasoline. Iran imports 35 percent of the gasoline it consumes. It is not clear that a gasoline embargo would be crippling, but it is the only embargo that might work. All other forms of sanctions against Iran would be mere gestures designed to give the impression that something is being done.

The Chinese will not participate in any gasoline embargo. Beijing gets 11 percent of its oil from Iran, and it has made it clear it will continue to deliver gasoline to Iran. Moscow’s position is that Russia might consider sanctions down the road, but it hasn’t specified when, and it hasn’t specified what. The Russians are more than content seeing the U.S. bogged down in the Middle East and so are not inclined to solve American problems in the region. With the Chinese and Russians unlikely to embargo gasoline, these sanctions won’t create significant pain for Iran. Since all other sanctions are gestures, the diplomatic approach is therefore unlikely to work.

The military option has its own risks. First, its success depends on the quality of intelligence on Iran’s nuclear facilities and on the degree of hardening of those targets. Second, it requires successful air attacks. Third, it requires battle damage assessments that tell the attacker whether the strike succeeded. Fourth, it requires follow-on raids to destroy facilities that remain functional. And fifth, attacks must do more than simply set back Iran’s program a few months or even years: If the risk of a nuclear Iran is great enough to justify the risks of war, the outcome must be decisive.

Each point in this process is a potential failure point. Given the multiplicity of these points — which includes others not mentioned — failure may not be an option, but it is certainly possible.

But even if the attacks succeed, the question of what would happen the day after the attacks remains. Iran has its own counters. It has a superbly effective terrorist organization, Hezbollah, at its disposal. It has sufficient influence in Iraq to destabilize that country and force the United States to keep forces in Iraq badly needed elsewhere. And it has the ability to use mines and missiles to attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf shipping lanes for some period — driving global oil prices through the roof while the global economy is struggling to stabilize itself. Iran’s position on its nuclear program is rooted in the awareness that while it might not have assured options in the event of a military strike, it has counters that create complex and unacceptable risks. Iran therefore does not believe the United States will strike or permit Israel to strike, as the consequences would be unacceptable.

To recap, the United States either can accept a nuclear Iran or risk an attack that might fail outright, impose only a minor delay on Iran’s nuclear program or trigger extremely painful responses even if it succeeds. When neither choice is acceptable, it is necessary to find a third choice.

Redefining the Iranian Problem

As long as the problem of Iran is defined in terms of its nuclear program, the United States is in an impossible place. Therefore, the Iranian problem must be redefined. One attempt at redefinition involves hope for an uprising against the current regime. We will not repeat our views on this in depth, but in short, we do not regard these demonstrations to be a serious threat to the regime. Tehran has handily crushed them, and even if they did succeed, we do not believe they would produce a regime any more accommodating toward the United States. The idea of waiting for a revolution is more useful as a justification for inaction — and accepting a nuclear Iran — than it is as a strategic alternative.

At this moment, Iran is the most powerful regional military force in the Persian Gulf. Unless the United States permanently stations substantial military forces in the region, there is no military force able to block Iran. Turkey is more powerful than Iran, but it is far from the Persian Gulf and focused on other matters at the moment, and it doesn’t want to take on Iran militarily — at least not for a very long time. At the very least, this means the United States cannot withdraw from Iraq. Baghdad is too weak to block Iran from the Arabian Peninsula, and the Iraqi government has elements friendly toward Iran.

Historically, regional stability depended on the Iraqi-Iranian balance of power. When it tottered in 1990, the result was the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. The United States did not push into Iraq in 1991 because it did not want to upset the regional balance of power by creating a vacuum in Iraq. Rather, U.S. strategy was to re-establish the Iranian-Iraqi balance of power to the greatest extent possible, as the alternative was basing large numbers of U.S. troops in the region.

The decision to invade Iraq in 2003 assumed that once the Baathist regime was destroyed the United States would rapidly create a strong Iraqi government that would balance Iran. The core mistake in this thinking lay in failing to recognize that the new Iraqi government would be filled with Shiites, many of whom regarded Iran as a friendly power. Rather than balancing Iran, Iraq could well become an Iranian satellite. The Iranians strongly encouraged the American invasion precisely because they wanted to create a situation where Iraq moved toward Iran’s orbit. When this in fact began happening, the Americans had no choice but an extended occupation of Iraq, a trap both the Bush and Obama administrations have sought to escape.

It is difficult to define Iran’s influence in Iraq at this point. But at a minimum, while Iran may not be able to impose a pro-Iranian state on Iraq, it has sufficient influence to block the creation of any strong Iraqi government either through direct influence in the government or by creating destabilizing violence in Iraq. In other words, Iran can prevent Iraq from emerging as a counterweight to Iran, and Iran has every reason to do this. Indeed, it is doing just this.

The Fundamental U.S.-Iranian Issue

Iraq, not nuclear weapons, is the fundamental issue between Iran and the United States. Iran wants to see a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq so Iran can assume its place as the dominant military power in the Persian Gulf. The United States wants to withdraw from Iraq because it faces challenges in Afghanistan — where it will also need Iranian cooperation — and elsewhere. Committing forces to Iraq for an extended period of time while fighting in Afghanistan leaves the United States exposed globally. Events involving China or Russia — such as the 2008 war in Georgia — would see the United States without a counter. The alternative would be a withdrawal from Afghanistan or a massive increase in U.S. armed forces. The former is not going to happen any time soon, and the latter is an economic impossibility.

Therefore, the United States must find a way to counterbalance Iran without an open-ended deployment in Iraq and without expecting the re-emergence of Iraqi power, because Iran is not going to allow the latter to happen. The nuclear issue is simply an element of this broader geopolitical problem, as it adds another element to the Iranian tool kit. It is not a stand-alone issue.

The United States has an interesting strategy in redefining problems that involves creating extraordinarily alliances with mortal ideological and geopolitical enemies to achieve strategic U.S. goals. First consider Franklin Roosevelt’s alliance with Stalinist Russia to block Nazi Germany. He pursued this alliance despite massive political outrage not only from isolationists but also from institutions like the Roman Catholic Church that regarded the Soviets as the epitome of evil.

Now consider Richard Nixon’s decision to align with China at a time when the Chinese were supplying weapons to North Vietnam that were killing American troops. Moreover, Mao — who had said he did not fear nuclear war as China could absorb a few hundred million deaths — was considered, with reason, quite mad. Nevertheless, Nixon, as anti-Communist and anti-Chinese a figure as existed in American politics, understood that an alliance (and despite the lack of a formal treaty, alliance it was) with China was essential to counterbalance the Soviet Union at a time when American power was still being sapped in Vietnam.

Roosevelt and Nixon both faced impossible strategic situations unless they were prepared to redefine the strategic equation dramatically and accept the need for alliance with countries that had previously been regarded as strategic and moral threats. American history is filled with opportunistic alliances designed to solve impossible strategic dilemmas. The Stalin and Mao cases represent stunning alliances with prior enemies designed to block a third power seen as more dangerous.

It is said that Ahmadinejad is crazy. It was also said that Mao and Stalin were crazy, in both cases with much justification. Ahmadinejad has said many strange things and issued numerous threats. But when Roosevelt ignored what Stalin said and Nixon ignored what Mao said, they each discovered that Stalin’s and Mao’s actions were far more rational and predictable than their rhetoric. Similarly, what the Iranians say and what they do are quite different.

U.S. vs. Iranian Interests

Consider the American interest. First, it must maintain the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz. The United States cannot tolerate interruptions, and that limits the risks it can take. Second, it must try to keep any one power from controlling all of the oil in the Persian Gulf, as that would give such a country too much long-term power within the global system. Third, while the United States is involved in a war with elements of the Sunni Muslim world, it must reduce the forces devoted to that war. Fourth, it must deal with the Iranian problem directly. Europe will go as far as sanctions but no further, while the Russians and Chinese won’t even go that far yet. Fifth, it must prevent an Israeli strike on Iran for the same reasons it must avoid a strike itself, as the day after any Israeli strike will be left to the United States to manage.

Now consider the Iranian interest. First, it must guarantee regime survival. It sees the United States as dangerous and unpredictable. In less than 10 years, it has found itself with American troops on both its eastern and western borders. Second, it must guarantee that Iraq will never again be a threat to Iran. Third, it must increase its authority within the Muslim world against Sunni Muslims, whom it regards as rivals and sometimes as threats.

Now consider the overlaps. The United States is in a war against some (not all) Sunnis. These are Iran’s enemies, too. Iran does not want U.S. troops along its eastern and western borders. In point of fact, the United States does not want this either. The United States does not want any interruption of oil flow through Hormuz. Iran much prefers profiting from those flows to interrupting them. Finally, the Iranians understand that it is the United States alone that is Iran’s existential threat. If Iran can solve the American problem its regime survival is assured. The United States understands, or should, that resurrecting the Iraqi counterweight to Iran is not an option: It is either U.S. forces in Iraq or accepting Iran’s unconstrained role.

Therefore, as an exercise in geopolitical theory, consider the following. Washington’s current options are unacceptable. By redefining the issue in terms of dealing with the consequences of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, there are three areas of mutual interest. First, both powers have serious quarrels with Sunni Islam. Second, both powers want to see a reduction in U.S. forces in the region. Third, both countries have an interest in assuring the flow of oil, one to use the oil, the other to profit from it to increase its regional power.

The strategic problem is, of course, Iranian power in the Persian Gulf. The Chinese model is worth considering here. China issued bellicose rhetoric before and after Nixon’s and Kissinger’s visits. But whatever it did internally, it was not a major risk-taker in its foreign policy. China’s relationship with the United States was of critical importance to China. Beijing fully understood the value of this relationship, and while it might continue to rail about imperialism, it was exceedingly careful not to undermine this core interest.

The major risk of the third strategy is that Iran will overstep its bounds and seek to occupy the oil-producing countries of the Persian Gulf. Certainly, this would be tempting, but it would bring a rapid American intervention. The United States would not block indirect Iranian influence, however, from financial participation in regional projects to more significant roles for the Shia in Arabian states. Washington’s limits for Iranian power are readily defined and enforced when exceeded.

The great losers in the third strategy, of course, would be the Sunnis in the Arabian Peninsula. But Iraq aside, they are incapable of defending themselves, and the United States has no long-term interest in their economic and political relations. So long as the oil flows, and no single power directly controls the entire region, the United States does not have a stake in this issue.

Israel would also be enraged. It sees ongoing American-Iranian hostility as a given. And it wants the United States to eliminate the Iranian nuclear threat. But eliminating this threat is not an option given the risks, so the choice is a nuclear Iran outside some structured relationship with the United States or within it. The choice that Israel might want, a U.S.-Iranian conflict, is unlikely. Israel can no more drive American strategy than can Saudi Arabia.

From the American standpoint, an understanding with Iran would have the advantage of solving an increasingly knotty problem. In the long run, it would also have the advantage of being a self-containing relationship. Turkey is much more powerful than Iran and is emerging from its century-long shell. Its relations with the United States are delicate. The United States would infuriate the Turks by doing this deal, forcing them to become more active faster. They would thus emerge in Iraq as a counterbalance to Iran. But Turkey’s anger at the United States would serve U.S. interests. The Iranian position in Iraq would be temporary, and the United States would not have to break its word as Turkey eventually would eliminate Iranian influence in Iraq.

Ultimately, the greatest shock of such a maneuver on both sides would be political. The U.S.-Soviet agreement shocked Americans deeply, the Soviets less so because Stalin’s pact with Hitler had already stunned them. The Nixon-Mao entente shocked all sides. It was utterly unthinkable at the time, but once people on both sides thought about it, it was manageable.

Such a maneuver would be particularly difficult for U.S. President Barack Obama, as it would be widely interpreted as another example of weakness rather than as a ruthless and cunning move. A military strike would enhance his political standing, while an apparently cynical deal would undermine it. Ahmadinejad could sell such a deal domestically much more easily. In any event, the choices now are a nuclear Iran, extended airstrikes with all their attendant consequences, or something else. This is what something else might look like and how it would fit in with American strategic tradition.

STRATFOR   –   1 Mar 10

This report is republished with permission of STRATFOR