Wednesday, August 30, 2006

A Problem Like Iran

As a recent article in The Economist points out, Iran is in the catbird seat.

Ahmadinejad can showboat now, like he did in May with his taunting letter to Bush describing a world filled with "ever-increasing global hatred of the American government." Ahmadinejad called that letter "words and opinions of the Iranian nation" aimed at finding a "way out of problems" facing humanity.

And his challenge Tuesday for Bush to debate him live on "world issues and the ways of solving the problems of the international community."

"We announce our views. They can say theirs provided that there will be no censorship, especially for the American people."

Ahmadinejad said the debate would show the world "how this (U.S.) method is oppressive and compare it with the proposals of the Iranian nation on how to run the world better, different from the U.S. method of use of force and special advantage." His recent Mike Wallace interview brought up many of the same themes.

What hubris! It's hard not to see a paranoid style at work in modern Iranian politics. The nation seems to be obsessed with being the focus of attention of world powers that are insidiously working to overthrow it, undermine it, rob it of its rightful role and keep it from its true status in the world.

In a recent New York Times interview, Ali Muhammad Besharati, Iran's former interior minister and deputy foreign minister and one of the men who helped Ahmadinejad rise to power, insisted the American objection to Iran's nascent nuclear weapons program is just a front for our supposed ongoing obsession with Iran.

"I would like you to write this down," he said, speaking through an interpreter. "If we backed down on the nuclear issue, the U.S. would have found fault with our medical doctors researching stem cells."

"In the imprecise language of Iran's political divisions," the NYT notes, "Besharati would be considered a moderate-conservative."

In some ways modern Iran reminds me of Japan in the 1920s: Wanting to be a big-time power, working scrupulously to duplicate the forms and trappings of a major power. As in Japan's case, it is nominally a democracy, but with important and powerful forces (in Japan, the military, in Iran the military and the clerics) outside civilian control and exercising an effective veto power over the elected government.

And as a rising power, but an outsider in the Western/Christian dominated power scheme of its day, it is highly sensitive to insult, quick to perceive slights as plots, obsessed with rejection. And like Japan, it is likely to have an aggressive reaction when it feels itself excluded from a rightful place at the international table.

But that was a world order wherein 9 or 11 nations had a claim to authority and parity. In this world, there's only one United States. And the only proof of world power status is an ability to stand up to America, reject it, taunt it, piss it off, thumb your nose at it, mock it, humiliate it. Needless to say, this fits nicely into Middle Eastern notions of pride and respect and authority.

As such, then, it reminds me of the old Soviet Union. It has to aspire to be not just America's equal, but its chief rival in the world. The rhetoric flowing out of Tehran is almost identical to the old Soviet propaganda, emphasizing the sham equality and false virtues of the West, while touting itself as the true exemplar of all things good. With just enough kernel of truth at the core of the critique to be annoying, and counting on a blind world, bigoted against America and Israel, to not look too closely at the claims.

Whole passages of the NYT article cited above could have been lifted from a 45-year-old interview with a Soviet official:

In many ways Besharati is the model of an Iranian official, both in his bearing and in his stated positions, blaming the White House for U.S.-Iranian problems while insisting Tehran wants nothing more than to live in peaceful harmony with the world. He does not answer when asked why for nearly two decades Iran kept its nuclear program a secret, in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Iran is obsessed with the idea that America is obsessed with Iran. And of course the refusal to believe anything else and behaving as though it's true makes it self-fulfilling. The White House now is obsessed with Iran. The joke is that North Korea's Kim does something whenever he wants attention. It's likely more than a joke. It's also likely true of Iran.

Like I've written before, I'm a big believer in Donald Kagan's thesis that pride and honor have a lot more to do with modern wars than modern historians generally realize.

If we take honor to mean fame, glory, renown, or splendor, it may appear applicable only to an earlier time. If, however, we understand its significance as deference, esteem, just due, regard, respect, or prestige we will find it an important motive of nations in the modern world as well. Honor, in these senses, is desirable in itself, but it also has practical importance in the competition for power. When it is on the wane, so, too, is the power of the state losing it, and the reverse is also true. Power and honor have a reciprocal relationship. It is obvious that when a state's power grows, the deference and respect in which it is held are likely to grow as well. But the opposite is also true: even when its material power appears to remain the same, it really declines if in some manner these attitudes toward it change. This happens most frequently when a state is seen to lack the will to use its material power.

What ought we to do? Luckily for us, Iran is not al-Qaida; it has a national government, a fixed identity on the map, rivals and enemies, and nation-state problems of self-governance. The same old rules ought to apply.

Containment worked against the Soviet Union. Certainly there are enough disgruntled minorities, assertive and progressive people, and popular discontent in Iran to bring it down on its own, given enough time. The leaders will whip the population into line with a fear of Evil America, but that can only last so long, especially if we make real efforts to reach the Iranian people, as we did the Eastern Europeans in the Cold War.

But Iran already is decontained. Occupying Afghanistan and Iraq, as we do, ought to be a good start toward containment. But the rough ride we're having in both places undercuts that proposition. Frankly, the old realpolitik approach would have been to contain Iran on the cheap by exploiting the inflammable Sunni-Shi'ite hatred from a distance. That likely would involve the destruction of Iraq. To our credit, we're trying to hold Iraq together and steer it toward prosperity, when the true course of pure national interest right now would be to split it up and send it to hell.

Iran also has lept over us and established connections in Syria and Lebanon, and perhaps also the Shi'ite coast of Saudi Arabia.

It would be nice if the U.S. was in a stronger and more authoritative position in the Middle East today, and was better supported in the world. It would be nice if the American people were more focused and united on the serious threats brewing in the wider world. It would be nice if the Western media was more alert to Iran than it is to JonBenet stories and hurricane anniversaries. Desiderata.

There's a good discussion (as usual) at The Glittering Eye both in the post and the coments. I agree with Dave that, whatever else is true, this ought to be firm:

It’s beginning to sound as though any sanctions imposed will be so minor in extent and so late in the game that the likelihood of their having any effect is minor. And, despite the saber-rattling from some of the usual suspects (I won’t bother to link—they’re easy enough to find), I don’t believe that either the United States or Israel or the United States and Israel will attack Iran to prevent its acquisition of nuclear weapons.

So, we’ll need to accustom ourselves to a nuclear-armed Iran.

... I’ve written about deterring the Iranians before. I don’t think “won’t tolerate” is sufficiently strong. For a credible deterrent the Iranians (and I mean all the Iranians) must realize that if Iran pursues nuclear weapons and if the U. S. or U. S. interests are attacked using such a weapon Tehran will cease to exist regardless of whether we’re certain of where the weapon originated or not. We won’t be in a mood to take any chances.

P.S.: Here's another Khrushchev wanna-be:

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez pledged solidarity on Wednesday with Syria in its struggle against Israel and the United States and predicted the demise of U.S. "imperialism."

Chavez, a harsh critic of U.S. foreign policy, also said he would seek a front-row seat if President George W. Bush accepted an invitation from Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to a televised debate, adding he would be cheering on the Iranian president.

"Syria and Venezuela share the same firm positions and a resistance to imperialism and imperialist aggression," Chavez told a news conference after talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, speaking in Spanish through an Arab interpreter.

"This age will witness the end of American imperialism," he said, pointing a laser pen at a map of the world showing countries where Washington has intervened militarily or whose governments it has helped to topple over the last 50 years.

Chavez denounced what he called Israel's "Nazi crimes" in Lebanon during the recent war and said the Jewish state should pull its remaining troops out of that country and also out of the Golan Heights, which it captured from Syria in 1967.

"Nothing equals the Nazi crimes Israel has committed in Lebanon and against the Palestinians," said Chavez, who arrived in Syria on Tuesday evening from Malaysia.

No, that's not fair to Khrushchev. I like him, overall. His rhetoric was mostly bluster. I think these fools really mean it. If only so many around the world didn't agree.