Iran: The wrong options on the table
American journalist, essayist and satirist H L Mencken's dictum that every problem has an easy solution that is neat, plausible and wrong applies doubly to the Middle East. The George W Bush administration is divided over two neat, plausible and wrong solutions.
The recent National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) marks the momentary ascent of the "realists", who believe in balance of power and deterrence, and a defeat for the "idealists", who want to export democracy to the region. Contrary to Cold War mythology, deterrence never worked, while pursuit of balance of power in history invariably led to the mutual annihilation of equally-balanced adversaries. With regard to Middle Eastern democracy, one might as well propose to export unicorns to Neverland.
The out-of-favor neo-conservatives complain of a "quasi-putsch" by the US intelligence community, as former UN ambassador John Bolton told Der Spiegel on December 9. Norman Podhoretz expressed "dark suspicions" about the intelligence community's motives on December 3 on Commentary Magazine's current affairs weblog.
Bush, if we believe Podhoretz, was about to attack Iran's alleged nuclear weapons capability except for the Central Intelligence Agency's (CIA) subterfuge. On the contrary, Bush has been playing cat-and-mouse with Tehran for more than two years. As I wrote on October 25, 2005, "I do not believe any formal understanding is in place, but the probable outcome is that Washington will refrain from military action to forestall Iranian nuclear arms developments, while Tehran will refrain from disrupting Washington's constitutional Potemkin Village in Iraq." 
The administration throughout has brandished the threat of military action against Iran, while offering a regional role for the Shi'ite power if it behaves. The White House has placed an exorbitant bet on Iran's willingness to cooperate. Last week, Iran's President Mahmud Ahmadinejad attended the first summit meeting of the Gulf Coordinating Council including Iran, entering the conference hand-in-hand with Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah. Iraq's National Security Advisor Mouaffak al-Rubaie on December 8 called for a regional security pact including Iran, and asked Iran and Saudi Arabia to forbear from supporting Shi'ite and Sunni combatants respectively. For reasons known only to themselves, the Saudis have decided that for the moment it is safer to keep the Persians inside the tent.
If Iran fails to cooperate, of course, the US will be shocked, shocked to discover that Iran has resumed its nuclear program. The Bush administration hasn't closed off its options. When nothing works, you do everything. That explains the NIE's peculiar formulation, which on the surface seems intentionally obtuse. Iran had a nuclear program until 2003, the US intelligence community now avers, but suspended it under international pressure, although Iran continues to keep the option open.
There are three components to a nuclear weapons system: the nuclear material, the bomb assembly and the delivery mechanism. Given that Tehran boasts of its progress in two of the three requirements, namely uranium enrichment (although only to fuel grade, not weapons grade) and missile development, the NIE makes no case to downgrade the Iranian threat. Instead, it is a purely rhetorical device to offer terms to the Iranians.
Former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his advisers promised the president an exit from Iraq in the form of a stable democracy. By flattering the president and encouraging him in the naive pursuit of his prejudices, the neo-conservative democratizers allowed Bush to paint himself into a corner. If there was a putsch, it took place a year ago, when Bush fired Rumsfeld and installed Robert Gates as defense secretary. Gates and the "realists" came in because they offered an alternative exit strategy from Iraq. Sadly, their position is quite as untenable as that of the democratizers.
Gates' most visible public policy intervention prior to his appointment was a report for the Council on Foreign Relations by an experts' group that he co-chaired with Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter's national security advisor. The Gates-Brzezinski report stated, "Given its history and its turbulent neighborhood, Iran's nuclear ambitions do not reflect a wholly irrational set of strategic calculations." It blamed the United States for provoking Iran to seek nuclear weapons by invading Iraq, as in the excerpt below:
The elimination of Saddam Hussein's regime has unequivocally mitigated one of Iran's most serious security concerns. Yet regime change in Iraq has left Tehran with potential chaos along its vulnerable western borders, as well as with an ever more proximate US capability for projecting power in the region. By contributing to heightened tensions between the Bush administration and Iran, the elimination of Saddam's rule has not yet generated substantial strategic dividends for Tehran. In fact, together with US statements on regime change, rogue states and preemptive action, recent changes in the regional balance of power have only enhanced the potential deterrent value of a "strategic weapon".
Whether or not Gates actually believes that the United States is to blame for Iran's nuclear ambitions is beside the point (although in the interests of mental health at the Pentagon one hopes that this was a diplomatic euphemism). Gates and Brzezinski were determined "deterrence" is the operative word in the Gates-Brzezinski report. As I wrote in the cited 2005 essay,
In this exchange, Iran gives up nothing of importance, for the rage of the Iraqi Shi'ites will only wax over time. Tehran retains the option to stir things up in Iraq whenever it chooses to do so. Its capacity to do so will increase with time as Iraq grows less stable. Time is on the side of Tehran. Only with great difficulty could the US employ military means to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons; once Iran has acquired them, the military balance will shift decisively in favor of the Iranians.
Gates certainly believes that if Iran acquires nuclear weapons through what he deemed a "not wholly irrational set of strategic
calculations", deterrence - the threat of a nuclear counterstrike - will prevent Iran from using them. Anthony Cordesman of Georgetown University's Center for Strategic and International Studies last month circulated rough estimates of what would happen to Iran if Israel were to attack with its full nuclear capability. Eighteen to 28 million Iranians would die, and the
result would be "the end of Persian civilization". Perhaps 200,000 to 800,000 Israelis also would perish, but Israel would recover. "The only way to win," Cordesman concluded, "is not to play." 
It is unlikely that the Bush administration has reconciled itself to the idea that Iran will acquire nuclear weapons. Instead, Washington is hoping to get through the 2008 elections with some reason to claim success in Iraq, which it cannot do without Iranian forbearance. In effect, Bush is gambling that postponing a reckoning with Iran will not put nuclear weapons in Iran's hands prior to the election, and that Bush's successor in office will have sufficient time to prevent an actual deployment.
Deterrence works only if the nuclear tripwire is a bright line, and the parties who possess nuclear weapons can control the approach to it. That is a dangerously wrong presumption. An old traders' adage states that the market always does what hurts the most people (because most people bet with the trend, and find themselves on the wrong side of the trade when the trend reverses). The same logic applies to the breakdown of deterrence: war always breaks out when the contending parties have the most to lose from it.
Iran has invested heavily in paramilitary (Hezbollah, Hamas) as well as terrorist capabilities. If terrorists were to provoke an eventual nuclear exchange in the Middle East, for example, it would be the second time in roughly a century that a few extremists with unofficial state sponsorship set the world aflame. The first, of course, was the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in 1914.
Both the "realists" and the neo-conservative "idealists" are right about each other: it is as foolish to attempt to stabilize the Middle East by moving the existing pieces about on the chessboard as it is to export democracy. But there is something especially distasteful about the re-emergence of Gates, who as a CIA official in the 1980s bitterly opposed the initiatives with which president Ronald Reagan won the Cold War. I told this story a year ago , but it bears recollection. The US intelligence establishment as well as the academic consensus projected their own desire for stability - the stability of career and social status - onto the world around them. Reagan correctly saw an unstable Soviet Union at the brink of economic ruin and capable of desperate military adventures. Gates and the "realists" lived on the small change of diplomatic tradeoffs.
"Why can't the 'realists' make sense of reality, even when it clamps its jaws firmly upon their posteriors?" I asked in the same essay. "Why is it that the king's magicians never seem to be able to read the fiery script on the wall? Belshazzar's magi could not read the words Mene, mene, tekel, uparsin; the king of Babylon had to call in an outside consultant, namely Daniel. By then it was too late."
The long, slow, sickening disintegration of the Muslim Middle East requires a doggedness, detachment and appreciation for tragedy that no leader in Washington presently possesses. The scriptwriters at the Pentagon debate two versions of a prospective happy ending, but the ending will not be happy; it will not even be an ending, for there is no remedy against civilizational failure. As usual, Americans will have to learn the hard way.
1. A Syriajevo in the making? Asia Times Online, October 25, 2005.
2. See Iran, Israel and nuclear war CSIS.
3. Halloween came late in Washington Asia Times Online, November 14, 2006.
(Copyright 2007 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)