Thursday, July 12, 2007

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The thing about handling Iran...

Over at, Monica Maggioni makes a case about how the U.S. should handle Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that will be familiar to readers of this blog:

In Tehran, the mood is quickly shifting. And it’s easy to feel it every time you stop to buy a newspaper, have a coffee, or wait in line at the grocery store. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s star is fading fast.

Since his election in June 2005, Iranians have had conflicted feelings about their president. At first, he evoked interest and curiosity. And there were great expectations from this humble man who was promising economic reform, an anticorruption campaign, and a rigid moral scheme for daily life. Then came fear—when Ahmadinejad began to destroy any chance of good relations with the outside world.

But today in Iran, laughter is supplanting fear. Mocking the president has become a pastime not only for rebellious university students, but also members of the establishment and the government itself.

Behind the high walls of Iranian palaces or in the quiet of Tehran’s parks, Iranian elites will indulge in a quick laugh about the president’s intelligence or his populist bombast. Jokes about his résumé are especially popular. Many refer to his “Ph.D. in traffic” or his letter last May to U.S. President George W. Bush, in which he proclaimed, “I am a teacher.”

The jokes—and who is delivering them—tell the story of a man whose power is on the decline as Iran’s economy collapses around him. Prices for basic goods are skyrocketing, and the government is unable to cope with increasing poverty. Just last month, over 50 Iranian economists sent an open letter excoriating the president’s mismanagement of the economy....

[I]t’s likely that Ahmadinejad’s power will decrease dramatically even before 2009. The elections for Iran’s parliament in March 2008 could represent a turning point if the majority inside the parliament shifts against him. Ahmadinejad still has a strong supporter in Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, who heads the 12-member Guardian Council that holds the political reins in Iran. The Council must clear all candidates for the presidency and parliament. But the Council itself is not monolithic, and it will be impossible to keep all the reformists and pragmatist conservatives out of the electoral race. But even if Ahmadinejad makes it through next spring, many analysts in the country are ready to bet that he won’t be reelected in 2009; the opposition is just too strong, and the economy will likely be in worse straits by that time.

In fact, the only thing that could save him now is the United States. Nobody knows this better than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. As his support within Iran has evaporated, he has cranked up the anti-American rhetoric, and the U.S. military has publicly accused the Pasdaran of arming insurgents in Iraq and even Afghanistan. At this point, the only way Ahmadinejad can revive his flagging fortunes is by uniting his country against an external threat. U.S. officials adamantly maintain that Washington is committed to using diplomacy to resolve the conflict over Iran’s nuclear program and its aggressive role in the region. Yet pressure is mounting in some branches of the Bush administration to take military action against Iran. That pressure should be resisted. For military action would give Mahmoud Ahmadinejad exactly what he wants most: job security.

I don't really disagree with this analysis, but there's one nagging concern. As Maggioni points out, Ahmadinejad is aware of his own political conundrum. He therefore has an incentive to pursue policies that antagonize the United States as much as possible -- in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in the Persian Gulf, towards Israel, etc. The U.S. response, according of every Iran-watcher I've heard from regardless of party affiliation -- should be low-key.

Here's my problem -- doesn't this approach essentially give Ahmadinejad carte blanche to do whatever he wants in the region? Is "multilateral pressure" really going to prevent him from arming Iraqi insurgents, seizing more sailors, threatening the Saudis, and accelerating the nuclear program?

I think the short-run costs of tolerance clearly outweigh the long-term benefits of Ahmadinejad backing himself into a corner. But I also have to admit I'm not thrilled with the menu of options here.

posted by Dan on 07.12.07 at 08:45 AM


I wish to encourage Dan to pursue this line of thinking to its logical conclusion, with the reward that we will call it the Drezner Paradox, named after the Fermi Paradox, when he gets there.

The Fermi Paradox arrises from apparent contradiction between high estimates of the probability of the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations and the lack of evidence for or contact with such civilizations. Fermi famously asks "where are they?".

And so it is the Iranian Moderates, the supposed great mass of Iranian common folk who yearn for peace, freedom, and democracy, but who never seem to have any actual effect on Iranian policy, and who are one bad western policy mistake away from following their hated leaders into nuclear apocalypse.

Dan's not ready to go this far yet, but when he is ready, the Drezner Paradox will defined as question that arrises in reposnse to the apparent contradiction between high estimates of the the existence and influence of Iranian Moderates and the lack of evidence for or impact of such moderates.

"Where are they?"

posted by: Jos Bleau on 07.12.07 at 08:45 AM [permalink]

Related to Jos' comment is this question: If Ahmadinejad were to be forced out, who would replace him? The man was supposedly elected democratically, how likely is it he would be replaced with a Gorbachev-like reformer that can (a) work within the theocracy's strictures and (b) implement real, actual reforms without (c) playing the "evil U.S." card?

posted by: kwo on 07.12.07 at 08:45 AM [permalink]

Congratulations, Dan, on having Drezner's Paradox named after you! I believe Drezner's Paradox is another example of Stigler's Law...

I also believe there are some low-key ways to handle Iran without giving Ahmadinejad carte blanche. One way is to take action only after Ahmadinejad does something that clearly legitimates retaliation, e.g. Iranian armed forces actually crossing the border.

Another is to take actions that do not violate Iranian sovereignty, such as attacking Iranian agents and "volunteers" in Iraq.

A third is deniable proxies -- such proxies must be at least as popular in the Arab Street as Ahmadinejad is, so that would probably be the Saudis and definitely not Israel!

And a fourth method is covert operations. ("Softly, softly, catchee monkey.")

posted by: John Fast on 07.12.07 at 08:45 AM [permalink]

I would assert that the U.S. must take the "high road" for a while, which might require something along the lines of overcompensation.

Look at the facts: the United States has a significant military presence in Afghanistan (along Iran's Eastern border), as well a a significant presence in Iraq, (along the Iran's Western border). Although Prof. Drezner doesn't like the menu of options on the table, this scenario was not unbeknownst to U.S. planners, and is one of the many strategic realities that were ignored in the push to go to war in Iraq. Iran can easily make the case that its national security is threatened, since it is surrounded by an ideological enemy that unilaterally invaded a neighbor expressly for the purposes of regime change. The reasons behind Iran's push for nuclear capability don't require much stretching of the imagination.

Therefore, the U.S. has bound itself into a strategic scenario where there are limited options. As Ms. Maggioni states in her article, the typical American response must be tempered in order not to embolden and empower Ahmadinejad (The U.S. did it in Europe for 50 years, so it certainly can be done now). Hopefully, President Bush and cronies will continue exercise some restraint. Attacking Iran would be a dreadful mistake at this point in America's Middle East experiment, at the very least, because of an over-stretched military.

posted by: Lucas Bittick on 07.12.07 at 08:45 AM [permalink]

Your post skips over another question ... how much control does Ahmadinejad actually have over Iran's foreign and military policy? We certainly heard enough about how his predecessor (Khatami) lacked that control.

posted by: pireader on 07.12.07 at 08:45 AM [permalink]

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