Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Some Thoughts On Iran

Several people have asked me in recent months what we should do about Iran. Unfortunately, I am forced to admit that there is no clear path forward. Iran presents a real dilemma. Nevertheless, there are some options. So let’s talk about the Iranian problem.

For starters, we need to acknowledge some of the facts. First, let’s consider Iran’s perspective:
Motivation: Iran has genuine motivations that we need to consider -- they are not just causing trouble, which is the false narrative adopted by our media. Geographically, Iran is easily the most important country in the region. It is a large country that dominates the Persian Gulf. It sits between the combustible Middle East, the combustible Afghanistan, the combustible Pakistan, and the ever-more important India. And it is the most populous country in the region. Iranian influence runs throughout the region and, without the United States as a counter-balance, Iran would be the biggest player.

Historically, Iran views itself as the cradle of civilization. At one point, it was far advanced compared to the Western World, and it, i.e. the Persian Empire, spread from Iran to Greece to Libya to China and well into India. Thus, Iran has a proud and ancient history. But the Persian Empire fell and the region came to be dominated by foreign powers -- from the Ottomans to the British. That colors their present thinking, as they see themselves as a much more significant force than they have become, and they bristle at the idea of outsiders controlling them.

Legitimate Reasons To Go Nuclear: Our media likes to paint Iran’s civilian nuclear ambitions as false, and it wonders why the Iranians would want nuclear power when they sit on so much oil. The answer is simple -- they can’t use the oil they have. Iranian oil is “sour crude” meaning that it is polluted and difficult to refine. Iran has no refineries that can handle this type of crude. Thus, despite sitting on all that oil, Iran suffers from gasoline and fuel shortages. Adding civilian nuclear energy actually makes sense for them.

Nuclear Rights And Wrongs: Many countries object to the idea that the rest of the world can tell them whether or not they can have the right to develop nuclear power. And indeed, even under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, any member can develop nuclear energy for civilian purposes.
Now let’s consider the counter argument:
Civilian Use My Glowing Green Ass: Despite their assertion that they are only looking to develop nuclear power for civilian purposes, the evidence is overwhelming that the Iranians are developing nuclear weapons. They have been caught working on triggers for bombs, trying to enrich uranium far beyond civilian usefulness, and skillfully hiding everything they’ve been doing. There is no definitive proof yet that they have an active weapon’s program, but you’d have to be an idiot not to see what they are doing.

Madness In Their Method: If Sweden went nuclear, few would be concerned. But Iran is not being run by stoic Swedes. Iran is being run by insane as~holes. From their crazy Ayatollahs to the fruity Ahmadinijad, these are guys who would clearly like to use an atomic weapon. From their sponsorship of Hezbollah, to their war with Iraq, to the terrorist bombings to which they’ve been linked, to the shooting of British cops from their embassy in Britain, to their involvement in the bombing of a Jewish community center in Argentina, to their repeated hostage taking, these guys have shown no restraint. They’ve even taken recently to murdering demonstrators and opposition candidates. Combined with Ahmadinijad’s repeated threats to wipe Israel off the map, these guys are simply too insane to let them have an atomic bomb.
Now we come to the real problems in terms of making policy.
Away With The Bombs: A lot of people have suggested bombing Iran. But the problem with this approach is that we don’t know where their facilities really are. And for those of you who say, “oh, we really know,” we really don’t. Our intelligence people have admitted as much by failing to present more proof of Iran’s activities to the IAEA and by being caught by surprise by Iran’s recent announcement of a facility that no one had ever heard of before.

Our generals have publicly estimated that it would take us thirty-days of constant bombing to be sure that we got everything. . . which means that they are guessing. And if you will recall from Iraq, a country that we thought we knew every inch of, months after we took over the country, we were still finding hidden facilities and discovering that things we thought we knew were mockups.

Moreover, how well is this going to work if the Iranians hide their facilities under hospitals or mosques or inside schools? How long will public opinion last with pictures of Iranian children being blown to bits -- whether we did it or not? And what would be the price we pay throughout the world?

Not to mention that while the leadership is weak now, any attack would strengthen the leadership immeasurable and would buy them time and support from their own people. That’s the natural and inevitable reaction when outsiders attack. . . no matter how nasty the infighting was before the attack.

The short answer is that bombing is simply not an option. We don’t know what to strike, we can’t control the collateral damage, and we could never be sure that we hit what we needed. We simply can’t take the chance of missing something after taking such a provocative act.

Boots On The Wrong Ground: Invading the country may be our best military option. But we can’t do this. Why? Because we don’t have the troops we would need because they are busy propping up the Afghan government. Also, going the invasion route would cause a huge publicity problem as we invaded a third Muslim country in ten years. If we do this, we better expect that we would face an all-out Muslim war, fought in many countries, and likely many western cities.

Insurrection: We can’t openly support the Iranian opposition. They have made it very clear that any help from the West would lose them support, not help them.

The Iranian Sanction: Wait for sanctions we’re told. But it’s not clear that sanctions can work. They would work in a democracy where various interest groups would pressure the government to bend. But dictators are not subject to such pressures. Moreover, the current sanctions regime is a joke. Not only does it not even include weapons, but Iran’s biggest supporters refuse to join the sanctions, e.g. China, North Korean, Russia. Even Brazil told Hillary Clinton this week that they would make up their own mind about sanctions against Iran, and likely would not join them.
The dilemma defined.
Thus, we have a dilemma. We cannot allow this regime to go nuclear. But we can’t work toward regime change, we can’t bomb them, and we can’t invade them. Sanctions also appear ineffective, at least in their current form. So what do we do?
Here is probably the best solution.
Like all attempts to motivate, we need to figure out what we ultimately want and then we need to figure out the best combination of carrots and sticks to get us there. In this case, the best long term solution would be to replace this regime with one that isn’t insane. We should probably admit right now that (1) we’re not going to get a happy democracy, (2) we’re not going to get a pro-American government, and (3) we’re not going to stop them from developing civilian nuclear power, so I'd abandon that thinking at the door.

The Carrot: So let’s start by offering the following carrots. We would happily work with any new government to help the Iranians develop civilian nuclear power. Of course, we’ll decide later if the new government is acceptable, but there’s no need to mention that right now. As part of this, we could re-offer the current offer by France to refine Iran’s uranium for them, with the idea being that Iran would not be in the business of refining uranium, and thus could not build a bomb.

We could also promise further respectability for Iran, playing on their historical humiliations, but offering to create a counsel of five or some such thing to resolve Middle East issues. . . with Iran to be offered a seat at this table once it gets a new (read: acceptable) government.

We also need to stop talking about invading or attacking Iran, because this plays into the hands of their current government. Don’t feed the trolls.

The Sanctions Stick: If we are serious about sanctions, and I certainly think they are a good idea no matter what else we try, then we need to make them enforceable. That means throwing around American weight. Team Obama is currently getting the Saudis to bribe the Chinese to participate, but I don’t think that will be fruitful.

Rather than begging the Russians or Chinese to help us, we should (1) draw up a list of goods and services that are vital to keeping Iran’s government functioning, e.g. weapons, vehicles, fuel, base metals, technology, etc., and (2) pass a law imposing such sanctions, and (3) pass an additional law that requires the President to prohibit the importation of any goods and services from any country that is found to have dealt with Iran in these items. Such a law would cause the export dependent sectors of countries like China and Russia to do the lobbying for us, as those countries would now pay a price for going against our embargo.

The Military Stick: If none of this works, then we need to consider military options because the alternative is simply too horrific to allow. Unfortunately, neither air strikes nor invasion appear viable. Thus, we may have no choice but to eliminate their leadership through other means. I wouldn’t announce this publicly and I certainly wouldn’t take credit for it. But if the choice comes down to the elimination of Ahmadinijad and a few of his deputies or letting them turn a city to ash, then the choice is obvious.

Finally, if none of this works, then we need to think about bombings and invasions.

Are these the best approach? I think so. Will they work? I don't know. But there is no reason we couldn’t try each of these in turn. One thing is for certain though, hope is not a strategy and a handful of ineffective sanctions are not a deterrent. The longer we wait to get serious, the fewer options will be available to us. And if we wait too long, millions of people won’t live to regret it.


Tennessee Jed said...

That is a very concise summary of the problem, and you are correct, there are no easy or simple solutions. Some of the other world economic/military powers such as China and Russia actively work to undermine our policy (but that is a topic unto itself.)

I think the present leadership of Iran is so committed to wiping Israel off the map, nothing short of helping them do so will work. I like covert assasinations myself a la Vince Flynn's Mitch Rapp. What would the world do if we lobbed some bunker busters into government facilities?

Joel Farnham said...

The only thing I can think of is to wait for the current regime to die off. That is what happened to Russia. Too many of the old guard died due to old age and the younger ones desirous of western doodads started to turn to capitalism to get what they wanted.
Capitalism breeds more capitalism and before you know it.........

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Jed. I think we still have a chance to try each of the options above, though the window on many of these is closing as they get closer and closer to developing a bomb.

Ultimately, I fear that the only way to solve this might be covert assassination. But we should try the rest first.

What a mess huh?

One thing is for sure though, just continuing with ineffective sanctions isn't going to do anything. So we either need to change policies or accept the idea that they're going to get a bomb and then try to figure out what we should do them. But I think waiting for that would be a very bad idea.

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, If this were a more western country, I would agree with you. But these guys are dominated by fundamentalist religious clerics who don't seem to share western values. Even the younger leaders seem to buy into the Tabliban-like lifestyle of austerity.

I think effective sanctions could probably put that to the test, if we made it impossible for them to get the materials they need to keep their government running and for them to obtain western amenities.

The other problem with waiting is that we may wake up one morning to find some city blown off the face of the earth.

Joel Farnham said...


All I know is that WE don't have intelligence of Iran that means anything. During their last election, no one predicted that there was going to be a popular uprising. It happened. There is revolution brewing there. People there are getting tired of being supressed. To them, Life is not so dear and Peace is not so sweet as to be bought by the price of chains and slavery.

Writer X said...

If the Obama administration wasn't satisfied with the status quo in Iran, they would have been more supportive of the Iranian demonstrators when they were trying to effect regime change. Instead, they send out Hilary Clinton who is quickly becoming the least popular person at any international table.

Unfortunately, Iran will continue to build up their nuclear arsenal and the current administration will do nothing except talk about toothless sanctions.

Andrew, if only you could email these real solutions to Hilary and Team Obama. Maybe they could consider them between their cocktail parties, reset buttons, and meaningless summits.

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, I think you're absolutely right. Even the Israelis are starting to question whether their intelligence is any good (saw an article on this the other day).

This is a country that moves in very different ways than we do and which has largely managed to keep its inner happening secret. We have a very hard time understanding them and an even harder time predicting them. Which just makes a bombing option all the harder and makes it even harder to know how to handle this situation.

That's why this really is a dilema.

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, I have to admit that I've lost a lot of respect for Hillary Clinton over the past year. I thought she was smarter than this, but she made a horrible decision taking the job and she's managed it very poorly -- not that she got much help from Obama.

And you're right that she's getting very harsh treatment from foreign leaders. Even Hugo Chavez was laughing at her the other day.

I don't think Obama will do much to solve this problem because I don't think he even wants to hear about anything that happens over seas. I would certainly hold that against him if things go wrong over there -- because right now we still have time to try to fix this. But in truth, he is hardly the first President to be content to let Iran do its thing as he hides behind fake sanctions.

As for supporting the demonstrators, I agree. We could not have "aided" them, but he certainly should have spoken up for them immediately, should have kept the world watching how Iran responded, and he should have immediately retaliated through some sort of diplomatic and other sanctions when the regime got violent.

Writer X said...

Andrew, I agree with you on Hilary. I used to think she was a lot smarter, a lot more savvy then she's been lately. This Secy of State job has not been good for her career, IMO. The only thing left for her to do is to publish a coffee table book on her scarf collection a la Madeline Albright.

Regarding Obama and the sanctions, he's done nothing substantive to persuade other world leaders to do anything different either.

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, True. In fact, the French were upset at him recently because they felt he was not being tough enough with Iran -- the French have actually done a lot to try to persuade the Iranians to stop builing a bomb.

Agreed on Hillary. She can do a book about the many wonderful colors of pantsuits. ;-)

Unknown said...

Andrew: Excellent analysis. Isn't it a shame that we have allowed a situation to develop where the best minds can only come up with "who the hell knows?" scenarios. Like you, I can't find an option that is sure or likely. There are only "best of the intelligent guesses" scenarios.

I do have one thought. We may not know where all their nuclear production facilities are, but we have a good idea where their delivery systems (missiles) would be put. If the bombing scenario becomes necessary, it is possible that we (or our surrogate, Israel, acting in its own self-defense) could obliterate those without having to find all the production facilities. Meanwhile, we could reverse our policies and hand Israel the technology to produce the new-generation of deep bunker busters which can reach the production facilities we do know about. Not total war, no need yet for boots on the ground, and a chance to topple the current regime by showing the resolve that we would have for what would be next if there were no change after the bombings.

Iranians are not stupid, and unlike their current leadership are not ignorant, superstitious, religious zealots. Before the Ayatollahs toppled the Shah, Iran was the freest, best-educated, most tolerant, and most successful nation in the Islamic world. The regime may be suicidal, but its people are not.

None of that is probable, of course, with a jellyfish-spined President like Obama as commander-in-chief (as we discussed yesterday in the Obama vs. JFK Cuba missile crisis scenario). The day I hear Obama cease referring reverentially to this crazed regime as "The Islamic Republic of Iran" and start referring to it as "The Terrorist Dictatorial Government of Iran," I will begin to hope that Obama is sorta kinda considering a serious alternative to his current accommodationist and incomprehensible policies toward Iran.

Otherwise, we have about three years to wait for a regime change here in the USA, and that's a long time in nuclear terms.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, I agree that Obama is currently at fault and will bear a huge part of the blame when things go wrong. . . but I don't excuse Bush either. He didn't do anything more than Obama is doing, maybe even less. Everyone seems to want to ignore this problem until it gets too big to handle.

I don't agree on bombing their deliver sites. First, in this case, the delivery vehicle could easily be a truck driven across the desert to whatever city they are targeting. Secondly, recall that after the Gulf War, when we thought it would be no problem to get his scud launchers because they would stick out in the desert, the military concluded that they hadn't managed to hit a single mobile launch -- all they'd done were destroy decoys.

I also think that even bunker busters can't get deep enough under mountains to be a sure thing -- not to mention that if he start spreading this stuff out into houses, schools and hospitals, then finding it will be impossible and bombing it will be politically impossible.

If we're going the military route, then we really need to think about ground troops. Seize, destroy, leave.

Unknown said...

Andrew: Your points are certainly valid, and I said there are neither good answers nor sure answer. I am just looking at it slightly differently.

Let me start by clarifying on one of my points. Every President from Carter to Obama, including the Bushes and to a lesser extent, Reagan, got the Iran issue wrong, at least in their public actions (my starting position was: "Before the Ayatollahs toppled the Shah . . ."). I excuse none of them.

The technology we have today for locating launch sites and mobile sites is a Ferrari compared to a Model-T since the Gulf War. And now, in place of the much overrated Patriot Anti-Missile Missiles of the Gulf War, we have the improved Patriot System and the Aegis Anti-Missile System (and God knows what else that hasn't yet been revealed in leaks to the front pages of the New York Times). And drone technology is a wunderkind of technology that was a mere gleam in the eyes of the military during the Gulf War.

There is no guarantee that even our most current bunker busters could get every underground nuclear production facility, but as of the announcement of the new technology a couple of months ago (PDT, or Pulse Detonation Technology), we have a damn good shot at getting most of them. And even less than 100% would set development of the nukes back for a considerable period of time while Iranians outside the government would have time to reflect on what's coming next. If we cripple their delivery systems and seriously damage their production facilities, we might get exactly the result we are hoping for.

I would also suggest that if the terrorist government would be clever enough to hide that many nuclear weapons, boots on the ground would probably come too late unless we and our shaky allies were willing to launch a sudden surprise mass invasion of the entire nation that would make the Iraq invasion look like child's play. Boots on the ground would be a good solution once the initial launch and production facilities are destroyed, or nearly so, but the fastest moving troops can't outrun a missile launched in desperation.

Those are a lot of "ifs" and "whiles," but no less logical than boots on the ground as the initial action. Both scenarios are worth serious consideration, and neither is presently clearly the better one, or even the only one. Our sole disagreement is probably which one should come first, and I don't think either one of us is proposing a solution that is any better or worse than what we're seeing so far from the administration.

CrispyRice said...

Always a great analysis, Andrew. And, as usual, I've got plenty to mull over and discuss over dinner now. Thanks!

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, An invasion would of course be accompanied by bombings, I wouldn't suggest otherwise. But I think that just bombings would be a bad idea -- we'd never know what we hit or didn't, you still can't hit something you can't find (or don't know about), the political cost would be too high as bombing images are too easily manipulated, and they don't need a missile or other sophisticated delivery system, they just need a truck.

I agree with you that no one seems to have handled Iran right in a very long time.

AndrewPrice said...

Crispy, Thanks. I'm glad I made you think.

Unknown said...

Andrew: Once again, we'll have to agree to disagree on fine points only, in a mess that has no clear answers. Apparently, I [reluctantly] have more faith in our technology for detecting both hardened missile sites and mobile missile launchers (as I mentioned in my comments about our current technology vs. those of both the First Gulf War and the early stages of the Iraq War), including our very successful drone programs. And if they attack the drones, we'll already know which mobile launchers to attack.

The propaganda manipulation of bombing photos will work just fine for the Islamofascists already convinced, but as I mentioned, the non-government Iranians are not stupid, and have no desire to die in a future holocaust brought on by a dictatorial regime led by a messianic madman. Furrthermore, I have far less faith in our European allies and our present ability (given our current commitment to Iraq and Afghanistan) to garner sufficient ground troops to fight the initial attack.

I think my first choice would be massive targeted bombing, followed by invasion and bombing (if necessary). Leaving the current regime in power is not an option.

You prefer feet on the ground, or feet on the ground with bombing for the initial attack. And as we both know, every war plan is perfect until the shooting starts.

Of course, I still maintain that so long as Obama remains in power, either of our conclusions is likely to be moot. It's always easier to talk than to act, and unlike JFK, Obama has learned very little while in office.

StanH said...

Bomb, bomb, bomb, Iran, was one thing McCain said that I agree with. One way or another, somebody will have to deal with the Thugocracy that is Iran, in search of the twelfth Imam.

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