The second in a series exploring how to manage the Iranian challenge...
The first hint of how to approach Iran is contained in the long-winded phrase "anti-Western, ultra-nationalist, theological conservative, politically radical Shi'a." Before trying to defeat the enemy, it's wise to figure out who the enemy is and, indeed, whether or not the adversary truly is or need remain an enemy. An adversary will become an enemy when so defined: Treat an adversary as an enemy and the adversary will respond in kind, thereby "proving" the "truth" of your original error.
We can assume that all Iranians love their country and want to see their society continue to exist, but beyond that, the 70 million people of this nation caught between the 19th and 21st centuries constitute a collection of highly disparate groups, few of which started out "anti-Western." It's the long, sorry history of Western interference in
The details are complicated, but the bottom line is not:
[For evidence that Washington remains far from ready to address the Iran issue with an open mind and intellectual rigor, see this report on the appointment of Dennis Ross.]
The "ultra-nationalist" component in
As for the "Shi'ite" component,
Even to know that it's "theologically conservative" says little. We may, for example, find the attitudes toward women of theologically conservative Shi'ite hard to stomach, but our own treatment of women has undergone a revolutionary shift over the past century; if we see ourselves as leaders, it does not follow that we can always insist that others obey our own timetable. Moreover, every major religion on earth today encompasses highly discomforting contention between its conservative and liberal wings. Such moral debates are important and a valid issue to be considered during foreign policy formulation but should not be confused with decisions about war and peace.
The first step in resolving the problem of
Having made the challenge very complicated by asserting that
· Security: the need for national physical and economic security as well as the need of a regime for political security; thus, this incorporates concerns about “regime change” from the outside and illegal narcotics that might destabilize society.
· Influence: both the international bully and the committed idealist proselytizing to the world want influence. An intermediate position would be one that insists upon being consulted on regional matters but is willing to compromise on the specifics.
Different communities within a society will react in different ways. One may emphasize economic security more than military security. Another may feel independence merits greater economic sacrifice. Some may translate “influence” into a demand for political control of neighbors; others may see it in terms of the right to proselytize, and over time the two can get confused (think of the confused relationship between British movement into 19th century
Combining these three drivers generates a model of behavior distinguishing eight different scenarios representing eight ideal types. These are ideal types because this is of course just a model, so no single scenario (i.e., no octant) can be expected literally to predict actual behavior. Nevertheless, the model may usefully guide expectations and structure thinking about the conditions likely to elicit certain types of behavior.
Consider, for example, the red octant (upper, rear, left), symbolizing an Iran that desires a great deal of influence, perceives itself as lacking security, and which is striving for an extremely independent foreign policy line.
· Security. How Iranians actually assess their security is difficult to determine. There can hardly be any doubt that Iran today in fact exists in a severely challenging political context: Bush Administration rhetorical threats have still only been qualified, not eliminated; Israeli rhetorical threats are being stepped up; U.S. military bases continue to surround Iran; the Israeli military threat only grows; Sunni Arab hostility is palpable; anti-Iranian terrorist groups roam its borders; Sunni Taliban insurgency threatens to bring its old Afghan Taliban enemy back into power; the Pakistan Baluchi instability threatens to spill over into Iranian Baluchistan. In addition,
Influence. "Influence for what?" is of course the question. To marginalize a state absolutely is to ensure absolutely that the state will be hostile. No state can logically be expected to accept an international political system that marginalizes it: the ball is in the system's court. That is, it is up to the system to make the first move, take some measure of risk, and test the intentions of the marginalized state by allowing it some influence. There are many ways in which Iranian influence in its region can be of benefit to the U.S., as is finally beginning to dawn on Washington. The world will not learn which Iranian decisionmakers may accept types of influence the U.S. might find acceptable until Iran is given the chance. The mere offering of options to Iran would alter the history of the region and force Tehran to make tough choices.
Numerous points of contention touched on above remain essentially untested. A key untested question in dealing with
Ahmadinejad’s neo-con war generation faction seems to fit squarely within the red octant, for example. Other factions may occupy more complex political spaces. Most Iranian factions can be expected to support the right of
Mousavi can be expected to agree with Ahmadinejad that
The West has cluttered its negotiating table with negative options and cut off its own nose by its arbitrary blindness to positive options. The multi-party rightwing faction that has controlled Israel for the last generation has encouraged this attitude in great part as a cover for its own expansionist agenda. In allowing itself to be led by the nose, Washington has needlessly sacrificed American security on the false alter of "Israeli security," in the process endangering the security of both countries. A case in point is the issue of nuclear research. Singling
In sum, real space exists between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi. Beyond that momentary difference, so many options exist for offering Iran substantive choices at low risk to the West that momentum toward new positions could be created in innumerable ways. The overall approach is important, as stressed in the original article that provides an overview of how to manage the Iranian challenge. But the details are also important, as will be discussed...
A future post in this series will take a more detailed look at the array of options for testing Iranian intentions that are at the disposal of Washington in the fundamentally critical arena of national security. As far as can be determined from the pubic record, American decisionmakers do not appear to have done more than scratch the surface of the options that a sincere and imaginative group of policymakers might "put on the table." Stay tuned.