Saturday, May 10, 2008

Spare a Little Nuance for Iran

Is it better to let Iran go nuclear and contain them, hoping somebody inside Iran will overthrow the mullahs?

Strategypage writes that the alternative of striking Iran won't work:

Stories about U.S. plans to bomb Iran are all smoke and no fire. For the clerical dictatorship in Iran, the best thing that could happen to them would be U.S. bombers attacking Iran. This would make the unpopular government popular, at least for a while, as most Iranians rallied to defend the motherland. But it's too good a headline to pass up, and the media keeps flogging it.

I suspect Strategypage is right on the assessment that we won't attack. I've spent to much time over the previous three years ending last spring writing about signs that seemed to indicate we were about to strike Iran. I gave up looking for "signs." Maybe this just means we successfully lulled the Iranians. More likely is that the dots I (and many others, both for and against the idea) being connected were actually completely unrelated.

But I disagree that attacking Iran would play into the mullahs' hands. Please note that Strategypage's assessment has evolved from saying an attack would bolster the mullahs to saying that strikes would bolster the mullahs "at least for a while." That's fair enough. Even some parts of our Left rallied around the flag after 9/11. That wore off in time, now didn't it?

Really, only ineffective military action helps an enemy. Bin Laden thought it would be swell for the cause if 9/11 prompted us to attack him in his remote Afghan hideout. But instead of ineffective cruise missiles, we liberated the whole country and sent him fleeing. Saddam, too, thought he could ride out an American attack in 2003 that would recoil from sending ground troops into Baghdad. Saddam hung from a noose until dead for that miscalculation.

An American attack on Iran should not focus narrowly on the nuclear programs. The attack should strike the foundations of the Iranian mullahs and be followed up with efforts to bolster opponents of the regime in Tehran with the aim of regime change. We can only buy time with an aerial campaign--we can't stop Iran from going nuclear if the mullah regime remains after the dust settles. But I'd rather have the time that an aerial campaign buys than not have it.

And so what if we even permanently anger Iranian public opinion as the price of stalling an Iranian nuclear program for even just several years? As long as these generally pro-American Iranian masses don't run Iran, if we don't strike Iran's nuclear programs and Iran uses the weapons produced, will you really draw any comfort at all that the Iranian people might be really, really sad that their mullahs nuked Charleston?

Yet the alternative to a very messy and risky aerial campaign against Tehran continues to be broached, the idea that we can contain Iran and deter them:

As an alternative to a military strike, commentators headed by syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer and Sen. Clinton advocate that the U.S. should counter Iran's nuclear threat with Cold War-style deterrence.

Clinton said last month that the United States could "totally obliterate" Iran if it attacked Israel with nuclear weapons. She also proposed extending America's nuclear "umbrella" to Arab states in the region to keep them from "going nuclear."

Deterrence in theory is fine. Heck, I think the correct response to North Korea's nuclear programs is containment, deterrence, and the gradual squeezing of that thug-regime until it collapses. I would not advocate a preemptive strike on North Korea's nuclear programs.

But North Korea is not as prone to crazy religious fervor as Iran is. Their elite is all about survival and prospering with Western luxuries no matter how much North Koreans suffer.

But how do you deter "Iran" when Iran is governed by a jostling array of factions ranging from conservative to moderate to Islamist nutballs, all lording it over a population that mostly doesn't like any of the rulers? Even our Left agrees with this description of Iran's governing elites since they insist that we should not hold Iran's government responsible for the Revolutionary Guards' support for Shia terrorism inside Iraq:

Recently, the Iraqi government sent a group of Shia politicians to Iran, to try and get this terrorism support stopped. The Iraqis brought with them evidence (documents, names, photos). The Iranians denied everything and sent the Iraqi politicians packing. Meanwhile, some members of the ruling elite in Iran are speaking openly about what a bad thing such interference is, but will not come right out and name names, much less insist that the Quds Force be reined in. The Iranian government did say that shutting down the Shia militias in Iraq was a good things. The Iraqi government took the hint (that the Quds Force activities was an internal matter for Iran), and stopped complaining openly. At least for now.

What does it even mean to deter an "Iran" that looks like this?

What it means is that deterring "Iran" from using nuclear weapons either directly or indirectly means we have to deter not the most reasonable elements of the ruling elites, but the most insane members. We must assume this because we have no idea whether the distasteful but still rational moderates or even conservatives control all the atomic weapons or whether the nutballs have even one atomic weapon.

Consider the Tanker War during the First Gulf War (as I call the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988). For many years the Iranian government acted rationally and avoided lashing out at neutral tankers too much despite the provocation of Iraq striking Iranian oil tanker traffic at will. Even when the US and Western Europe sent ships in 1987 to protect "neutral" shipping that in reality actually supported Iraq while Iraq continued to attack Iranian tankers, Iran wisely held back.

But at some point, the Iranians snapped and lashed out at the US Navy despite the clear foolishness of challenging our Navy, which simply gave us the excuse to chew them up:

On October 3, 1987, Iran crossed the line into irrationality. Unable to defeat her one enemy Iraq, Iran massed between 30 and 50 speedboats for an attack on Saudi Arabia's off-shore oil terminal at Khafji--the one used by the Kuwaitis and Saudis to sell oil in Iraq's name. Saudi Arabia responded by deploying warships and fighter aircraft. Iran pulled back but five days later in another confrontation the Saudis sank three speedboats.

Iran, apparently not satisfied with defeat at the hands of Iraq and then Saudi Arabia, even struck an American flagged tanker, Sea Isle City, with a Silkworm missile while it lay in Kuwaiti waters. The United States retaliated with Operation Nimble Archer on October 19, 1987, during which three Iranian oil platform bases were attacked. Many Iranians knew that a course of confrontation with America was foolish but the short term satisfaction of striking out at those who helped Iraq--even the United States--was beginning to win out over reason.

Can we really assume that rational Iranians--as we define rational--will be the ones to control Iranian nuclear weapons?

And even if Iran under the mullahs never uses nuclear weapons, are we really ready to accept the enhanced power of such an odious regime?

Have a lovely freaking day.