Friday, December 7, 2007

Containing Iran?

The dust has yet to clear from this week's NIE bombshell, so one might think we'd avoid another abrupt change in foreign policy thinking on Iran.

Not so lucky, I guess, considering the publication of Vali Nasr and Ray Takeyh's new piece over at Foreign Affairs, "
The Costs of Containing Iran." The authors argue that the Bush administration's Iranian containment policy is destined to failure: Stuck in a Cold War-era mindset, the perspective's woefully inadequate considering the current correlation of forces in the Middle East:

Taking a page out of its early Cold War playbook, Washington hopes to check and possibly reduce Tehran's growing influence much as it foiled the Soviet Union's expansionist designs: by projecting its own power while putting direct pressure on its enemy and building a broad-based alliance against it. Washington has been building up the U.S. Navy's presence in the Persian Gulf and using harsh rhetoric, raising the specter of war. At the same time, it funds a $75 million democracy-promotion program supporting regime change in Tehran. In recent months, Washington has rallied support for a series of United Nations resolutions against Iran's nuclear program and successfully pushed through tough informal financial sanctions that have all but cut Iran out of international financial markets. It has officially designated the Iranian Revolutionary Guards as a proliferator of weapons of mass destruction and the IRG's elite al Quds Army as a supporter of terrorism, allowing the Treasury Department to target the groups' assets and the U.S. military to harass and apprehend their personnel in Iraq. Washington is also working to garner support from what it now views as moderate governments in the Middle East -- mostly authoritarian Arab regimes it once blamed for the region's myriad problems.

Washington's goal is to eliminate Iran's influence in the Arab world by rolling back Tehran's gains to date and denying it the support of allies -- in effect drawing a line from Lebanon to Oman to separate Iran from its Arab neighbors. The Bush administration has rallied support among Arab governments to oppose Iranian policies in Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories. It is trying to buttress the military capability of Persian Gulf states by providing a $20 billion arms package to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates. According to Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, one of the arms sales' primary objectives is "to enable these countries to strengthen their defenses and therefore to provide a deterrence against Iranian expansion and Iranian aggression in the future." And through a series of regional conclaves and conferences, the Bush administration hopes to rejuvenate the Israeli-Palestinian peace process partly in the hope of refocusing the energies of the region's governments on the threat posed by Iran.

Containing Iran is not a novel idea, of course, but the benefits Washington expects from it are new. Since the inception of the Islamic Republic, successive Republican and Democratic administrations have devised various policies, doctrines, and schemes to temper the rash theocracy. For the Bush administration, however, containing Iran is the solution to the Middle East's various problems. In its narrative, Sunni Arab states will rally to assist in the reconstruction of a viable government in Iraq for fear that state collapse in Baghdad would only consolidate Iran's influence there. The specter of Shiite primacy in the region will persuade Saudi Arabia and Egypt to actively help declaw Hezbollah. And, the theory goes, now that Israel and its longtime Arab nemeses suddenly have a common interest in deflating Tehran's power and stopping the ascendance of its protégé, Hamas, they will come to terms on an Israeli-Palestinian accord. This, in turn, will (rightly) shift the Middle East's focus away from the corrosive Palestinian issue to the more pressing Persian menace. Far from worrying that the Middle East is now in flames, Bush administration officials seem to feel that in the midst of disorder and chaos lies an unprecedented opportunity for reshaping the region so that it is finally at ease with U.S. dominance and Israeli prowess.

But there is a problem: Washington's containment strategy is unsound, it cannot be implemented effectively, and it will probably make matters worse. The ingredients needed for a successful containment effort simply do not exist. Under these circumstances, Washington's insistence that Arab states array against Iran could further destabilize an already volatile region.

What's so ineffective? Why will containment of Iran make things worse in the Middle East?

For one thing, Nasr and Takeyh argue that Iran in no way presents a threat on the same level as the old Soviet Union. Particularly, the authors suggest that Iran is not a revisionist power, and is not "seeking to create disorder in order to fulfill some scriptural promise, nor is it an expansionist power with unquenchable ambitions."

I find this a strange claim, particularly coming from Nasr, who has written that the administration's Iraq policy left a strategic power vacuum inside the Middle East, which Tehran - as the leader of a regional Shiite resurgence - was all too eager to fill.

Not to be outdone, Peter Galbraith, writing in the New York Review of Books, argued that America's difficulties in Iraq positioned Iran toward a situation of dominance previously unheard of:

Of all the unintended consequences of the Iraq war, Iran's strategic victory is the most far-reaching. In establishing the border between the Ottoman Empire and the Persian Empire in 1639, the Treaty of Qasr-i-Shirin demarcated the boundary between Sunni-ruled lands and Shiite-ruled lands. For eight years of brutal warfare in the 1980s, Iran tried to breach that line but could not. (At the time, the Reagan administration supported Saddam Hussein precisely because it feared the strategic consequences of an Iraq dominated by Iran's allies.) The 2003 US invasion of Iraq accomplished what Khomeini's army could not. Today, the Shiite-controlled lands extend to the borders of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Bahrain, a Persian Gulf kingdom with a Shiite majority and a Sunni monarch, is most affected by these developments; but so is Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province, which is home to most of the kingdom's Shiites. (They may even be a majority in the province but this is unknown as Saudi Arabia has not dared to conduct a census.) The US Navy has its most important Persian Gulf base in Bahrain while most of Saudi Arabia's oil is under the Eastern Province.

I imagine the administration's brinkmanship throughout the year has forced a shift among foreign policy liberals such as Nasr and Takeyh: We have, on the one hand, the claim that Iraq has destabilized the region, with Iran emerging as a new systemic power broker; while on the other hand we have a newer softening line that suggests Iran's not as dangerous as the administration asserts. Hmm?? Having our cake...?

A second major claim by the authors indicates that threat perception of Iran among Arab states varies widely: Some Arab regime worry about Iranian power, others not so much:

The Bush administration's strategy also fails to appreciate the diverse views of Arab states. Arab regimes are indeed worried about Iran, but they are not uniformly so. Saudi Arabia and Bahrain decry Iranian expansionism and fear Tehran's interference in their internal affairs. But Egypt and Jordan worry mostly that Iran's newfound importance is eroding their standing in the region. The stake for them is not territory or internal stability but influence over the Palestinian issue. Even within the Persian Gulf region, there is no anti-Iranian consensus. Unlike Bahrain, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, for example, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates do not suffer a Shiite minority problem and have enjoyed extensive economic relations with Tehran since the mid-1990s. Far from seeking confrontation with Iran, they fear the consequences of escalating tensions between it and the United States. Even U.S. allies in the Middle East will assess their capabilities and vulnerabilities, shape their alliances, and pursue their interests with the understanding that they, too, are susceptible to Iran's influence. A U.S. containment strategy that assumes broad Arab solidarity is unsound in theory.

Perhaps, although the Los Angeles Times suggests that the NIE has signaled to some regional states a reduction of U.S. influence in the Middle East, as well as an increasingly free hand for Iran to fulfill its ambitions of regional dominance:

The dwindling possibility of a U.S. attack on Iran is changing the dynamics of Middle East politics and raising Arab concern that Tehran may now feel emboldened to strengthen its military, increase its support for Islamic radicals and exert more influence in the region's troubled countries.

Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations opposed military action against Iran's nuclear program. But, analysts said, those governments were privately relieved that U.S. threats helped to further preoccupy Tehran, which had irritated much of the Arab world with its deep involvement in the politics of Iraq and Lebanon and support for the radical Palestinian group Hamas.

The U.S. intelligence report released Monday, which says Iran does not have an active nuclear weapons program, has eased international pressure for sanctions and invigorated the Islamic Republic's hard-liners. This comes as the Arab world has been trying to counter Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's rhetoric and his government's influence over the presidential turmoil in Lebanon, the politics in Syria and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

The report did not allay Arab fears over Iran's nuclear intentions and its program to enrich uranium.

The same day the intelligence assessment was made public, Ahmadinejad became the first Iranian president to attend a summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council. The meeting in Doha, Qatar, was hailed by many as a symbolic milestone to defuse decades of tensions between Shiite-dominated Iran and other oil-producing, mostly Sunni nations of the region. The Iranian leader, however, said little at the meeting to calm nerves about his country's regional ambitions.

Suspicion that Iran seeks to dominate the Persian Gulf region has prompted some Middle Eastern states -- including Saudi Arabia, which the U.S. regards as the leading Arab voice -- to increase military spending.

"There's no trust on the Arab side about Iran's intentions," said Christian Koch, research director for international studies at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. "There are concerns of Iran's nuclear program for military purposes. There are concerns about Iran's influence in Iraq, over the unsettled political situation in Lebanon and over the dispute regarding" three gulf islands in Iran's control that are claimed by the United Arab Emirates.

Most importantly, Nasr and Takeyh argue the American weakness over Iran counsels not power politics but diplomacy, and especially the creation of regional institutions of multilateral cooperation - something of a "new order" for the Middle East:

Instead of focusing on restoring a former balance of power, the United States would be wise to aim for regional integration and foster a new framework in which all the relevant powers would have a stake in a stable status quo. The Bush administration is correct to sense that a truculent Iran poses serious challenges to U.S. concerns, but containing Iran through military deployment and antagonistic alliances simply is not a tenable strategy. Iran is not, despite common depictions, a messianic power determined to overturn the regional order in the name of Islamic militancy; it is an unexceptionally opportunistic state seeking to assert predominance in its immediate neighborhood. Thus, the task at hand for Washington is to create a situation in which Iran will find benefit in limiting its ambitions and in abiding by international norms.

This call for greater attention to institutions and norms, I would argue, is Nasr and Takeyh's ultimate goal. But adopting such a shift - at least wholesale - holds disastrous implications.

The Western democracies have worked through international institutions for the last four years to rein-in Iran's nuclear ambitions. Even if Iran indeed curtailed its weapons program in 2003 (which would take some willing suspension of disbelief), the fact remains that continuance of Tehran's peaceful nuclear development program will generate the scientific expertise and programatic infrastructure needed for nuclear weapons capability.

In addition, no one can be completely certain exactly what's happening inside Iran - in terms of both its arms procurement and foreign policy intentions. We do know that Iran is one of the world's most dangerous sponsors of international terrorism, its terrorist proxies battled for Israel's destruction in the 2006 Mideast war, and the ultimate acquisition of nuclear capability would introduce an unacceptable level of instability to a region already in the grips of catastrophic danger.

The United States needs to continue with a combination of containment and sanctions, but we should never let down our guard by ceding influence and capability to some shady regional multilateral grouping of appeasement hawks.