Thursday, April 9, 2009

Managing the Iranian Challenge

This post begins a new project studying how to manage the Iranian challenge. The project will expand on an article published by Foreign Policy in Focus.

Skill, patience, consistency, logic, and understanding go a long way toward the design of an effective foreign policy. These attributes — perhaps obvious but frequently in short supply among foreign policy decision-makers — build a much firmer policy foundation than rude and emotional outbursts, erratic challenges, public bullying, contemptuous disdain, or efforts to isolate and demonize. With a new administration in place, now is the time to ask if U.S. policy toward Iraq can shift from viewing Iran as an "ultra-nationalistic, theologically conservative, politically radical, or Shi'ite" state and instead design a foreign policy based on skill, patience, consistency, logic, and understanding.

Despite the many emotional and poorly reasoned public claims to the contrary, it isn't obvious that Washington needs to "do" anything at all about Iran. Iran certainly isn't threatening the national security of the U.S. homeland. Iran does, however, resist Washington's desires and challenges its goals in the region. If Washington perceives Iranian foreign policy as a problem requiring resolution, solutions are well within its grasp without recourse, either to knee-jerk hostility or a war of aggression.

Aside from outright fear of "the Iranian threat," other explanations for Washington's hostile attitude toward Iran of course are possible. It may be that Washington perceives Iran has neither intent nor capability for dangerous offensive action, and simply finds empty rhetoric a useful tactic for distracting the world from other American plans. Although the game of getting people excited about an imaginary danger can easily backfire, politicians have tried it before and will do so again. Or it may be that Washington will be satisfied with nothing less than control over Iran's hydrocarbon resources and the elimination of any regional resistance to Israeli military dominance. Certainly, there continues to be significant sentiment along these lines among neo-cons who either want to control global oil supplies or put extremist Greater Israel dreams ahead of U.S. national security.

If such calculations have seized the imagination of Washington decision-makers, then the tensions will continue with their associated consequences. Ahmadinejad will continue to be empowered and will play the "American threat" to the hilt to defeat the more cautious in former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi in Iran's upcoming presidential election; both the Iranian "neocon" war generation (led by Ahmadinejad) and the Shi'ite revolutionary old guard (led by Supreme Leader Khamenei) will continue to use the "American threat" to strengthen their control at the expense of Iranian moderates. Israeli expansionists will continue terrifying both Israeli and American publics with their descriptions of "Iranian Nazis," as a cover not only for their absorption of the West Bank and destruction of Palestinian society, but also for whatever further expansionist ambitions they may have. On both sides, the ignorant will point with fear to the remarks of hypocritical leaders to justify calls for extremist measures, whether they be the acquisition of nuclear weapons or "preventive" war.

The longer the situation endures, the greater probability of someone somewhere either miscalculating and slipping into a war by mistake or being provoked by a third party, whether it's Israel maneuvering the U.S. into eliminating its main adversary or a Sunni jihadi group trying to get the U.S. bogged down in yet another Mideast war. Even if such dangers are avoided, the longer the situation continues, the more an unnecessary confrontation caused by inept politicians will become viewed as the natural and inevitable baggage of a battle to the death.

However, if Washington decisionmakers in fact perceive the Iranian regime as posing a problem to be solved, they possess a full bag of low-risk tools for tackling the job.


Subsequent posts will examine the nature of Iran's challenge and offer a methodological approach for thinking rigorously about how to design an effective foreign policy response.

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