04 April 2015

Iran

So. On to more pressing business.

I've been following the Iran sanctions and negotiations with some interest for months. Some thoughts

It has been a stated position that Iran has had an interest in pursuing a nuclear programme and weapons associated with it for about 3 decades now. They've had one going back to the 70s in the Shah days (with the help of the Israelis actually at that point, paradoxically).

Supposedly all of this was about preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. I am dubious. I would submit if it were, an agreement very much like we just obtained would be the best and most plausible way to ensure that not happen. There are more "certain" ways to prevent it, such as annihilate the entire country and its government in particular with a full-scale or tactical nuclear assault or invade it and overturn its government as we did with Iraq, but neither of these are "best" case scenarios (both are extraordinarily messy and not without considerable risk to American security) and neither is worth the cost if we can achieve that outcome peacefully. That is: they are not serious options anyway and persons suggesting that they are should not be taken seriously. In theory we could suppose that our actions in opposition to Iran's purported goals here are only consequential as it regards Iran, but they are not.

One of the main reasons and arguments against a nuclear armed Iran isn't that Iran could exert more diplomatic or regional hegemonic dominance against its rivals. Iran already has the capability to do this (provided it doesn't hamper its economy through mismanagement or its economy isn't hampered by crippling sanctions from abroad). It does not need nuclear weapons to do so, and in fact probably benefits more from an environment where it does not have them. The main argument is that an environment where Iran pursues and achieves nuclear weapons also is an environment where its rivals in the area may do likewise (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey). Considering we are discussing a region of the globe that is highly unstable politically, and contains some number of extremist political or religious groups that are effectively anarchist in IR terms or at least likely to seek to possess such weapons to further their bloody and undesirable goals in the region, the proliferation of nuclear weapons in that region would be a rather noteworthy policy goal to seek to prevent.

We are already aware of reasons that we would prefer such weapons not exist in unstable countries in the form of Pakistan (or many of the post-Soviet republics that turned their weapons held over to Russia). For example, Pakistan's government began moving its nuclear arsenal around on lightly defended trucks because it feared the US would seize or destroy their arsenal if the situation became (more) unstable otherwise. That is not an example of a type of behavior we would want a nuclear armed country to be engaging in.

We are also aware of the lack of use by rogue states. North Korea has had its own weapons for some time. No use has occurred. Iran, while we are told is a highly ridiculous religious entity capable of doing something so self-destructive as to use an arsenal of nuclear weapons as soon as it attained them, is not even in that rather reductive and absurd scenario more strange than North Korea and it provides no evidence that they are likely to use weapons either. It is generally strange to make this assumption that their intention in acquisition is to immediately use them to destroy their rivals. Were they to attempt to do so with say, Israel, they would themselves be immediately destroyed by just the Israeli counterstrike, much less that of other countries. Pakistan and India have had less than cordial relations for decades also and no exchange of nuclear arsenals has yet occurred.

This does not mean that such uses are impossible, but it suggests that the obtaining of nuclear arsenals serves other purposes besides attempting to suicidally annihilate rival states. From a rational perspective, the opposition to a nuclear-armed Iran by countries like Israel or Saudi Arabia and to a lesser extent, the United States, is understandable. Rival nations in possession of destructive weaponry is not a desirable outcome. Opposition to any diplomatic means (by the US and other powerful nation-states) of obtaining that result is more frustrating, but still understandable. What is at stake there isn't a nuclear Iran at all, but rather a more normalized relationship with Iran vis a vis the West. If the US more often listens to Iran than it does, and takes into account its interests more communicatively, instead of only interpreting those interests through the mantras we are told via Israel or Saudi Arabia, or other interlocutors, then the favored nation status of those states diminishes and they would have to compete more for our diplomatic attention and financial or military assistance, and they would be doing so with a rather loathed rival actor in play. In some respects, this reminds me of the British cutting Transatlantic cables from Germany to the US during WW1. They could control the news Americans received and coerce our involvement in a war (that we had little or no stake in). Saudi Arabia and Israel (and Turkey) are not powerless nations, and other Gulf States likewise possess some level of economic and military power that they could align themselves to oppose Iranian attempts at regional dominance, and cooperate with Iran or oppose them where it suits themselves with or without our intervention and constant attention. But through a decades-old level of strife between the US and Iran (and the UK and Iran going farther back), and decades-long level of disconnection and no communication, or means of such, we are in a position where we are left backing much of what the Saudis or Israelis might want, and not determining our interests such as we should have any in the region for ourselves, as we did effectively prior to 1990. Our involvement in the region post Desert Storm seems to have been excessive in response to aggression that could be contained and destroyed from that point with sanctions and offshoring the responsibilities to the local and endangered nation-states. Those states have substantially built up their military capabilities with American or Western hardware and equipment.

There may be diplomatic reasons for the US to involve itself in their regional conflicts (eg, fighting ISIS), but these are not the same as saying that these are going to be our interests in the region. A general hegemonic interest in the region would be to maintain a relative balance of power and stability, and assure the oil-producing states do not go to war with one another or plunge into total chaos. And that's about it. What sounds like the worry is that the Saudi and to a lesser extent the Israeli governments believe we are too busy thinking for ourselves. Perhaps we will err in our thinking, but it would be equally foolish for us to pursue no diplomatic efforts with their rivals to conclude key strategic goals on the basis that such client states believe we should not (when it substantially and overtly benefits them for us not to do so).
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