Friday, April 16, 2010

The U.S.' Iran Problem

The U.S.' Iran Problem

Melik Kaylan,

Has President Obama made a single decisively correct maneuver for American interests abroad? The Bush years delivered bangs and blunders aplenty, so one could at least hazard a plausible guess at the country's strategic direction. The Obama era's foreign policy, even to the seasoned eye, is harder to see. This may be precisely as it should be--the Founding Fathers famously thought that diplomacy required the kind of mandarin discretion that only the Executive Branch could employ. But it does drive the commentariat into a frenzy of overactivity--maximum noise with minimum data--and leaves the public all the more bewildered.

Is President Obama egregiously soft-treading the problem of Iranian nukes? Everyone on the right seems to think so. Yet a great deal of the hard work must take place behind the scenes, negotiating with the intractable presidents of various uncooperative countries, so how can we know anything? Nowhere have I seen a clear dialectical sequence laid out of the possible options. What is doable and what isn't being done? American media commentary on foreign policy has proved as useless as financial commentary before the great Wall Street meltdown. So, enough partisan blather. Let us study the global chessboard move by move, as no doubt they have done in Beijing, Moscow, Tehran and elsewhere, and see what they're seeing.

Is the entire non-axis-of-evil world opposed to Iran's nuclear ambitions? The answer is no. The Chinese really don't care either way. They see no direct threat to their interests from a nuclear Iran. I would argue that the Russians do care but not a great deal. They care more about the concessions from the U.S., such as offers to stay out of their backyard in Georgia and Ukraine and Central Asia. In theory, Iranian nukes would sit a lot closer to Russia's Caucasus territories than to the West. But the Russians know that the Mullahs cannot afford to threaten Russian lands. That way lies crushing disaster for the Iranian regime.

If neither China nor Russia care deeply about Iranian nukes, how on earth does the U.S. get them on board with sanctions? What on earth is it offering? Does anyone know? Would the American public allow it if they knew? Please, Moscow, take back your near-abroad empire. And China, exercise hegemony over Burma, North Korea, Taiwan and elsewhere. We won't challenge your moving in on Africa while you can challenge us with your burgeoning navy in the Pacific. No way would the American public stand for those deals.

Are we ready to go to war against Iran? For good or ill, the answer is no. The fact is Iraq has virtually exhausted our appetite for intervention. It has empowered Tehran, Moscow and Beijing immeasurably. If the U.S. will not fight Iran, what's all the saber-rattling about? The opinion-noisers on the right know the country's mood. What do they have in mind? Well, there's Israel, and much of the Arab Sunni world tacitly supports an Israeli attack. Why are we holding back Israel? The answer I've heard most often in power circles is that Iran will move massively in retaliation to first destabilize Iraq and Afghanistan, and second, block shipping in Hormuz before attacking oil fields in nearby Arab countries, thereby plunging the world's economy into chaos. The U.S. economy certainly can't take it. But then, neither can the economy of China. Ah, now we may be on to something.

Here then is a possible incentive for China to get on board--the kind one naturally wouldn't see bruited about publicly. Israel attacks Iran. The world economy collapses. China suffers acutely. The White House to China: “We're trying to hold the Israelis back, we really are, but we cannot restrain them forever. How about those sanctions?” It's an awfully risky bluff, for sure, and the Chinese may not buy it knowing how much the U.S. also has to lose. Still, I would bet that China keeps a very close eye on Israeli preparations.

The same scenario must hold true for Moscow--or does it? Not really. Russia has suffered several economic meltdowns since the Soviet Union ended; they don't seem to mind. For the Chinese government, which runs a one-party state, affluence generates legitimacy. The economy collapses and next thing you know the people will be demanding representative government. For the Russians, empire matters more than affluence--even to the electorate.

What about interim measures such as embargoing Iranian regime bank accounts around the world along with any bank or company that does business with them? Months ago the indispensable Web site published a list of where the regime's top officials keep their money around the world, from Malaysia to Dubai to Turkey. Now the site has published the alarming but predictable news that Iran is buying shares in China's banks. The U.S. could, with enormous effort, drive all Iranian money abroad into Chinese and Russian safe havens--but who would benefit? The reality is the U.S. simply lacks the clout to bring the world to heel on Iran voluntarily, short of initiating military conflict either directly or via Israel.

That leaves direct pressure on and within Iran itself. Here, the situation is as we see it. I was briefly in the northern city of Tabriz four years ago, even before the disputed election, and I couldn't find a regime supporter anywhere in homes, streets, cafes or taxis. The people manifestly hate the regime throughout Iran, as do they in Burma and North Korea. But in all such places U.S. enmity merely proffers an opportunity for China to step in and do business. The U.S. could certainly do more to support the unrest in Iran, but Iran would unleash a proportionate response in car bombs across Iraq and Afghanistan.

Still, unless I'm missing something, the anti-Ahmadinejad Green Movement offers us the only option for putting decisive pressure on Iran. It will work in the long run, but how long is long? Probably long enough to allow the regime to get nukes. The counter argument, never uttered in public anywhere, goes: They cannot nuke their own people. So regime-change to democracy, even one with primitive nukes, may be the best of all the options open to the U.S.

I do not like it any more than you do--Iranian nukes seem imminent, whereas regime change appears a longer way off. But if anyone sees another outcome, I wish he would take the public through the concrete steps instead of righteously tub-thumping about President Obama kowtowing to U.S. enemies. We got here because President Bush gambled U.S. power in one throw on the invasion of Iraq. Turned out the U.S. didn't have enough power to pull it off--or to restrain critical countermoves elsewhere. The invasion was as underplanned geostrategically as it was militarily. The commentariat should cool down the polemics. Delusions of U.S. grandeur only end up diminishing our clout....