27 May 2010

More Iran

Aptly titled

Since I can't sleep.

US foreign policy toward any particular nation is likely to possess a complex pile of favored actions that they take which serve our mutual interests, favored actions which serve our interest, favored actions which serve somebody's interest (presumably powerful political factions on one side or the other), and unfavored actions which either serve the other side's interest (presumably at our, or an ally's expense) or serve nobody's interest. This means that taking a uniformly friendly or hostile approach will probably not do very much good. This is also so because international relations often assume something of a zero sum battle, particularly between nations with a history of violence and mutual acrimony as the US and Iran has, that it will become necessary to both beat with the stick and the carrot at times, but also to maintain the carrot with the stick in full view. The catch is that the carrot must exist and be legitimately useful and one cannot expect that the penalties can only be inflicted by one side. The US has some leeway here, in part because the relative power is unbalanced so heavily in its favour, but especially with some of its allies because Iran has a history with some of them as well which is less than helpful to its interests, but it also disposed of some important leeway by invading a neighbouring country under similar (and ultimately false) pretenses as those we are now leveling at Iran.

So the downside as I see it in this whole affair is that it's unclear what it is we can offer Iran at the moment other than possibly taking away the beating stick (sanctions and threats of more sanctions that probably cannot be imposed anyway) for a second.

It would seem to me that a perfectly acceptable position would be to allow Iran to enrich uranium itself, under international inspections, for use in energy and medical applications and to purchase the equipment for doing so or the enriched fuel itself from other nations. I suspect one reason this is not acceptable to Iran is the false-equivalence this reaches in regards the position of Israel under the NPT agreements and inspections regimes, ie, that the US and its allies (or in this case, its co-signatories) get too much leeway to establish the rules as they see fit rather than apply them fairly and equally. If we're talking about the DPRK, then I think there's a strong case to be made that the rules are fairly useful and equally applied (but accomplished nothing since North Korea withdrew from the treaty without consequence). If we're talking about Pakistan or Israel, it's a big giant grey area that needs to be cleared out. International rules are kind of a voluntary club as it is, only enforced to the degree that countries want them to be, but some of them, like nuclear power and weaponization regimes, could have some hazardous consequences if they are violated at will.

I would state that it is certainly not in our best interest to allow Iran to enrich uranium for weapons manufacturing purposes, and definitely not in the interest of some of our regional allies (including Turkey, which helped put forward a reasonable first step treaty that doesn't actually address our concerns), but without a coherent idea of what influences we can bring to this situation, it is not clear what we can actually achieve that would prevent this outcome, if Iran's leaders merely wish to pursue it. Thus if our interest in this way is unattainable, it seems clear we need to pursue less ambitious interests, such as a steady approach that continues to present Iran as the unreasonable party which rejects sensible demands and agreements that can be quickly achieved (like the one Turkey helped with), rather than making us look like the bullies we can so often be caricatured as in places like Iran. Making overt and expansive demands might have been reasonable under different circumstances or in the past, and almost certainly would have been viewed as somewhat correct in light of a history of hostile rhetoric and action, even threatening actions like the embassy seizure during the Islamic revolution and a large full scale shooting war with Iraq in the 80s. It is not reasonable now, even regarding Iran's sponsorship of terrorist organisations abroad and possible training or supply of regional guerrilla networks in Iraq or Afghanistan opposing and killing American soldiers (again, because we have little capacity to stop either).

There was a long standing presentation that somehow democratic reforms would ameliorate this problem, both because it is assumed that democracies are less belligerent, (which seems an increasingly dubious notion given recent events), less likely to use atomic warfare than religious theocrats and consequently that somehow such democracies would not want to pursue aggressive military programs like nuclear bombs, and also that somehow democratic Iran would not see some nationalistic democratic interest in pursuing uranium enrichment for more peaceful ends and the problem of what to do about a nuclear Iran will just will itself out of existence if we wish into power Democratic leadership and reform. Ironically this seems like the one part of the Obama foreign policy position that has been consistent: that someone like Mousavi being in charge instead will make no significant difference on these points. Since that is more or less the crucial long-term problem in our relations with Iran, it's not reasonable to shift goals to something like "we will install a more favourable government more amenable to our demands", because such a government probably does not exist and our ability to install one doesn't either.

In truth, I lean more toward Walt's second explanation for why this hasn't shifted. I don't think most people in DC have much ability to shift gears on this subject because, like the health care debate (the actual one, not the media one) did, it requires some radically different thinking and open discussion and dialogue to find a new and more effective approach. It's pretty easy by contrast to stand around and look tough without actually doing anything about the problems. We can pretend for some time that Iran won't end up with a nuclear bomb if they want one (or ten) and pretend that we have policy actions and influences to bring to the table that will prevent it. But since we don't, I prefer not standing around with our thumbs up our butts for the next 5 years.
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