Problems with the Squeeze Iran Strategy (And a Reluctant Hat Tip to Ron Paul)
Robert Wright in the Atlantic, expert on everything from God to foreign policy, notes that, apparently just for absolutely random reasons that have nothing to do with an actual educated and wise overall perspective on history and policy, because God forbid he have to admit Ron Paul is actually intelligent on foreign policy in a way no one else in national politics is, Ron Paul is right that we seem to be deliberately pushing Iran toward war:
A week ago Ron Paul tried to convey how the ever-tightening sanctions on Iran–which may soon include an embargo on its oil–look from an Iranian point of view: It's as if China were to blockade the Gulf of Mexico, he said–"an act of war".
This is sheer conjecture; Ron Paul is no expert on Iran. But now someone who does have relevant credentials has weighed in, and the picture he paints is disturbingly reminiscent of the one Paul painted. It suggests we may be closer to war than most people realize.
Vali Nasr, in addition to being a highly respected expert on the Middle East, belongs to a family that, according to Lobelog's sources, has "a direct line into Iranian Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's inner circle." In a Bloomberg View piece that is getting a lot of attention, Nasr reports that "Iran has interpreted sanctions that hurt its oil exports, which account for about half of government revenue, as acts of war." Indeed, the Iranian leadership now sees U.S. policy as "aimed at regime change."
In this light, Iran's recent threats–notably that it will close the Strait of Hormuz in response to an oil embargo–shouldn't be dismissed, says Nasr. "The regime in Tehran is ready for a fight."
The good news is that Nasr thinks war can be averted. The bad news is that to accomplish this America and other Western powers need to "imagine how the situation looks from Tehran"–not exactly a favorite pastime among American politicians these days…..
Iran's nuclear scientists have recently evinced a tendency to get assassinated, and a mysterious explosion at a military facility happened to kill the general in charge of Iran's missile program. These things were almost certainly done by Israel, possibly with American support. If you were Iranian, would you consider assassinations on your soil grounds for attacking the suspected perpetrators?
Well, we know that some notable Americans think assassinating people on American soil is punishable by war. After the alleged Iranian plot to assassinate a Saudi Ambassador in Washington was uncovered, Bill Kristol (whom you may recall from our previous run-up to a disastrous war)recommended that we attack Iran.
But I'm guessing that if I tried this Iran-America analogy out on Kristol, he might detect asymmetries. For example: We're us, whereas they're just them.
Underlying our Iran strategy is the assumption that if we keep ratcheting up the pressure, the regime will eventually say uncle. A problem with this premise is that throughout human history rulers have shown an aversion to being seen by their people as surrendering. Indeed, when you face dissent, as the Iranian regime does, there's actually a certain appeal to confronting an external threat, since confrontation tends to consolidate domestic support. As Nasr puts it, "the ruling clerics are responding with shows of strength to boost solidarity at home."
This doesn't mean Iran's rulers haven't wanted to make a deal. But it does mean the deal would have to leave these rulers with a domestically plausible claim to have benefited from it, and it also means these leaders can't afford to be seen begging for the deal. When President Ahmadinejad visited New York last year, he gave reporters unmistakable signals that he wanted to negotiate, but the Obama administration chose to ignore them. After Ahmadinejad "went home empty handed," reports Nasr, power increasingly shifted to Iranians who argued for confrontation over diplomacy.
Even so, Iran's foreign minister made another appeal to re-open talks only days ago, suggesting that they be held in Turkey. But, as the New York Times reported, western nations interpreted this overture "as an effort by Iran to buy time to continue its program." Got that? If Iranians refuse to negotiate it means they don't want a deal, and if they ask to negotiate it means they don't want a deal….
There are historical analogs to this sort of thing, U.S. provocation and refusal to use diplomacy intelligently contributing to the start of a war, and the outcome was bad for all concerned. While the insulting way Wright frames this infuriates the Paul fan in me, it's nice to see this outlook expressed, especially in the Atlantic, a magazine that loves nothing more than long feature articles war-gaming our looming and necessary wars with nearly everyone in the world.
Yes, intelligent application of empathy can actually help forge a foriegn policy that contributes to peace and prosperity, and it's not an accident that the only national politician who gets that talks sense on Iran.