Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Cronin: Iran’s dangerous deadlock

Here a report from my new CNAS colleague Patrick Cronin, who not only is a smart guy but also very tolerant of the loud music he can hear through the wall separating his office from mine. By Patrick Cronin Best Defense Senior Iranian Affairs Correspondent A high-powered group of Iranian watchers gathered all day Tuesday ...

AFP/Getty Images)
AFP/Getty Images)

Here a report from my new CNAS colleague Patrick Cronin, who not only is a smart guy but also very tolerant of the loud music he can hear through the wall separating his office from mine.

By Patrick Cronin

Best Defense Senior Iranian Affairs Correspondent

Here a report from my new CNAS colleague Patrick Cronin, who not only is a smart guy but also very tolerant of the loud music he can hear through the wall separating his office from mine.

By Patrick Cronin

Best Defense Senior Iranian Affairs Correspondent

A high-powered group of Iranian watchers gathered all day Tuesday at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy for an invitation-only not-for-attribution colloquium titled, "The Perfect Handshake with Iran? Prudent Military Strategy and Pragmatic Engagement Policy." 

Workshop co-sponsors were represented by Lt. Gen. John R. Allen, USMC, Deputy Commander of United States Central Command, and Col. Edmund K. Daley, III, USA, Director of the Army Directed Studies Office. Amongst the speakers were former Under Secretary of Defense Eric Edelman, former IAEA Deputy Director General Bruno Pellaud, Farideh Farhi of the University of Hawaii, former University of Glasgow professor Reza Taghizadeh, former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Sallai Meridor, Houchang Hassan Yari formerly at Tehran’s Shahid Beheshti University, and others.

First, the center of the action is within Iran itself rather than in Washington or in Vienna.   Iran remains a divided society and government, dangerously deadlocked between hardliners who wish to use the security forces to oppress the democratic opposition, and the Green movement which expanded after the contested June election and has refused to wither despite facing immense coercion. In this explosive domestic environment, there is no room to consider the question of engagement with the United States — save as a political football. Indeed, some experts view any overt intervention to support the Green movement would only feed the Supreme Leader’s paranoia that the movement is externally driven. The diminishing inner circle is ready to call for additional measures of oppression.  Meanwhile, the Iranian Revolution Guard Corps, which originally developed around a perceived just cause, is increasingly caught up in perpetuating an ever more illegitimate government.

Second, the threat of military force has lost the saliency it may have had in 2003. Whereas the threat of Israeli or U.S. military strikes once induced some fear on the part of Iran’s leadership, several years of unfulfilled taunts and the new U.S. administration’s policy of engagement have pulled the teeth from that threat. The United States has not proven adept at moving on two tracks of diplomatic engagement, on the one hand, and coercive diplomacy, on the other hand.  Iran’s current leadership thinks a military strike is improbable; some hardliners may wish to provoke a strike precisely because it would further consolidate their political power at a time of internal turmoil. At the societal level, one expert suggested that military half measures would anger the population; however, a strike that led to a regime change would be likely to accepted and quickly forgotten.

Third, sanctions have simply not persuaded Iranian leaders that the consequences of pursuing their nuclear ambitions will be severe. Thus, sanctions may well impose additional cost on Iran’s nuclear program, they are highly unlikely to change the calculus of decision-makers with respect to the nuclear program. The weight of the diplomatic pressure accumulated under the banner of the international community has left Tehran unimpressed, and it is highly dubious that the likelihood of some further sanctions by early February will alter that sense. The fact that Russia and China neither place an equal priority on nuclear proliferation nor are willing to forsake prospective commercial and energy ties dictates inherent limits of international sanctions. Moreover, the United States and the European Union (the latter of which is the number one trader with Iran, followed by China and Japan) have been unwilling to target crippling sanctions on key individuals, entities (especially the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which controls up to one-third of Iran’s economy), or sectors (especially high-technology and energy).  

Fourth, engagement has its uses, although the present moment makes engagement especially difficult. Iran’s present regime wants to buy time and divide the international community, keeping the nuclear file out of becoming referred to the United Nations Security Council under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. In the medium term, Iran’s leaders may wish mostly to bust out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, with a long-term aim of being treated like India-a major power with a nuclear program. 

Fifth and finally, U.S. policy may well be focused on buying time-time for the further erosion of legitimacy of Supreme Leader Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to bring about a change in government. Even so, politics in Iran will persist, and every major policy will be played within the domestic context of a struggle between these two camps to mobilize people around their narratives and policies. At best a Green government might be able to make the case for a freeze (not a complete end to a nuclear program), but it would surely continue to assert Iran’s right to nuclear power.  

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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