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January 08, 2006

Will Iraq Tie Our Hands on Iran?
Posted by Suzanne Nossel

Ahmadinejad With all eyes on an Iraq and an executive branch both out of control, Iran under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has not so quietly emerged as about as frightening a rogue state as can be imagined.  Iran has long kept us up at night as a proliferator, a terrorist haven, a theocracy, and a regime hostile to the United States. 

Ahmadinejad has added to that dangerous brew a streak of what appears to be meglomaniacal paranoia coupled with unfettered nationalism and utter disregard for what the rest of the world thinks.  If this streak continues, Ahmadinejad may given North Korea ’s Kim Jong Il a run for his money for the world’s weirdest and most dangerous despot.   The evidence:

  • Though in the midst of sensitive negotiations with the Europeans on the future of Iraq’s nuclear programs, Ahmadinejad this week announced plans to resume research on nuclear fuels starting tomorrow, a key step toward building nuclear potential and a flagrant violation of a 2004 accord with the EU.
  • On Thursday, a high-ranking Iranian delegation stood up IAEA Chairman and Nobel Prize Winner Mohamed El Baradei, rebuffing the nuclear watchdog's effort to glean more information about Tehran's nuclear plans.
  • Ahmadinejad has made a series of noxious anti-Semitic public statements, saying that Israel should be wiped from the map and that the Holocaust was myth.  Harsh reproach from the US, Europe, the Pope and Kofi Annan has only egged him on. 
  • Back home, Ahmadinejad has rhapsodized about the imminent return of the twelfth imam, a messianic figure who will rise only once sufficient chaos is created in the world.

Bottom line:  Ahmadinejad appears to be off the rails and bent on expanding Iran’s nuclear capabilities.  Meanwhile, the results of December’s Iraqi election could heighten his influence there as well.

All of this underscores the gravity of the defeat of reform-minded Iraqis who fought against Ahmadinejad in last year’s Iraqi election.  See this fantastic New Yorker article by Laura Secor on the demise of Iran's reform movement.  One activist she interviews suggests that the West's overemphasis on Iran's nukes to the exclusion of a focus on political reform may have helped doom the country's dissidents.

The real question is what to do next.  To date, Russia and China have blocked forceful action on Iran ’s nuclear program within the IAEA and the UN Security Council.  Both countries have deep economic ties to Iran and dependency on its oil which they don’t want to see disrupted (see the note here on the rise of energy-driven geopolitics). 

Despite the hurdles, the Administration is again pushing for a UN referral for Iraq's program, one that would lead to the imposition of sanctions.  Rising Russian frustration with Ahmadinejad could potentially override Moscow's opposition to action.  But even if China and Russia were to somehow agree to forego Iranian oil, given the continued chaos in Iraq and volatility in oil markets, the prospect of higher global prices due to a cut in supply cannot be attractive for the Administration.

One alternative that may have some potential include a sports boycott that would exclude soccer-crazed Iran from the World Cup, akin to what was done for apartheid South Africa and Milosevic's Serbia.

If that doesn't work (and its unlikely to work quickly), then what?  It's tough to imagine the Administration commencing a bombing campaign against Iran when we remain so deeply mired in Iraq.  Allowing Iran's "research" activities to proceed unfettered would undercut what President Bush has claimed as the raison d'etre of his Administration:  confronting threats and forces of evil.

A scenario in which its de facto impossible for the US to pursue what the world would likely view as the legitimate use of force in response to WMD in the hands of a rogue Middle Eastern regime precisely because of our prior illegitimate use of force for the same purported goal is not out of the question.  Iraq just might wind up tying our hands in the real battle we may face over nukes in Iran.


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If this streak continues, Ahmadinejad may given North Korea ’s Kim Jong Il a run for his money for the world’s weirdest and most dangerous despot.

I agree with you entirely about the character of Ahmadinejad Suzanne. My only demurral, and the one bright spot, is that Achmadinejad os not a "despot". The Iranian President has constitutionally limited powers, and many strong rivals and checks within the government. Post-revolution Iran has actually held its unusual constitutional arrangement together fairly well, and evolved a fairly complex form of government, with three main branches and competing bureaucracies.

That is not to say that there would be nothing to fear from Iran if Ahmadinejad weren't there. But Ahmadinejad is is a wild buffoon, and is a disater for Iran's diplomacy. I have to believe that some of the more experienced Iranian grownups are going to do something eventually to sideline this incompetent crackpot.

Even the Ayatollah has at various times urged Ahmadinejad to calm down although it may be one of those wink wink nudge kind of things ("Of COURSE Israel should be wiped off the map, but don't say it OUT LOUD!")

Ugh, as I noted on TPMCafe, I have little hope for this because our own president seems to be nuts as well.

The Washington Post had a good article back in October that suggested the ayatollahs are worried about this guy as well:

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Shiite Muslim cleric who
holds ultimate authority in Iran, has altered the country's power structure by granting a relatively moderate panel new authority to supervise an elected government increasingly dominated by religious

"This is more than symbolic. This is the leader saying, 'We're moving too far right,'" said Karim Sadjadpour, who follows Iran for the International Crisis Group, a research group based in Brussels. "I'm
loath to call Rafsanjani moderate, but in the current context, he is a voice of moderation."

OTOH, I'm not sure what can be done about this besides banning their soccer team from foreign travel. The Atlantic Monthly war gamed an Iran military option and discovered it wasn't really feasible:

In the end, according to our panelists, the president should understand that he cannot prudently order an attack on Iran. But his chances of negotiating his way out of the situation will be greater if the Iranians don't know that. He will have to brandish the threat of a possible attack while offering the incentive of economic and diplomatic favors should Iran abandon its plans.... [Marine Corps Colonel Thomas X] Hammes agreed: "The threat is always an important part of the negotiating process. But you want to fool the enemy, not fool yourself. You can't delude yourself into thinking you can do something you can't."

And this is assuming no one in Iranian intelligence has found that article, or the others also indicating the impracticality of military action.

On the other hand, as Dan Kervick said, Iran has a number of centres of political power, with a clerical council holding perhaps the ultimate power in any conflict. While we certainly have no reason to love the Ayatollahs, for the most part they are not actually insane.

In a way, by ceding defeat and dropping out the reformers may have given the hardliners enough rope to hang themselves. The Ayatollahs may end up wishing they had not interfered so much in the democratic process in the first place.

" If this streak continues, Ahmadinejad may given North Korea ’s Kim Jong Il a run for his money for the world’s weirdest and most dangerous despot."

He has a ways to go to beat out Bush for the second spot. And Bush is pretty high for "most dangerous", though maybe in third place for "weirdest".

If you haven't already seen it, check out this op-ed from Ray Takeyh in the Baltimore Sun. I think he makes some good points.

I ask this very seriously: In what way does each of the points indicating Iran's dangerous tendencies differ from the Bush Administration's dangerous tendencies?

Seriously. Which administration is most likely to actually attack another country? Which administration is most likely to act in such a way as to destabilize the Middle East? Can we see ourselves as others might see us?

(I take point three to be Ahmadinejad throwing red meat to the home crowd, not that different from our president's occasional forays into fear-mongering.)

"It's tough to imagine the Administration commencing a bombing campaign against Iran when we remain so deeply mired in Iraq."

Why do you find that tough to imagine? I can imagine it easily.

After all, Bush's two big surges in popularity came after 9/11 and the start of the invasion. Bush does best when he has the chance to look decisive in a crisis. And it's easier for him to look good starting another war than with another terrorist attack.

I agree with the War Game analysis that the worst possible course of action would be an Israeli pre-emptive strike. I also believe that this is the most likely outcome for all the reasons stated in the discussion.

Consider Israel’s position. They are the stated target. Not China, Russia, France, England Germany ect... Israel doesn't enjoy the luxury of a "wait and see...maybe it's not that bad...last resort" option. Diplomatic stalling provides for an unacceptable outcome for Israel (remember Pearl Harbor?) While the rest of the world "War Games" political fallout and does a cost analysis of oil prices, Israel gets closer and closer to the inevitable reality that, a nuclear weapon producing and delivering capable enemy, threatens their existence. Given Israel’s airstikes on the Iraqi nuclear facilities against all political "advise" anyone who doubts Israel’s willingness to act in self-defense is ignorant.

Furthermore, the cost analysis will reveal that it is cheaper to defend Israel against political fallout than to invade Iran and effect a regime change with military tactics. Iran’s 5% of world oil production just equals a 5% increase in market share for the other oil producing entities. They don't seem to mind charging more for their oil anyway. (Just ask Exxon)

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