Friday, November 02, 2007

You're Taking the Fun Out of Everything

Via Andrew Sullivan, George Friedman at Stratfor parses the various US military options vis-a-vis Iran and concludes that there are no feasible military avenues to travel unless the public rallies hard behind the war effort - enough to make a massive commitment of economic and military resources (this would likely entail a draft or some other drastic means of expanding our active duty forces). In other words: really bad idea unless there is a stark sea change in the population's appetite for more prolonged war, followed by a dramatic, enormously expensive restructuring of our armed forces in correlation to the political will.

Short version: Don't. Do. It.

And recall, the concern for people like Irwin Stelzer and Andrew Roberts is that Bush will leave office without first addressing the Iranian nuclear issue through the use of force. But Bush is out in little over a year, which wouldn't be an adequate period of time to pull off what Friedman thinks is necessary (let alone possible). The eventual resolution of that conundrum could prove disastrous:

The danger of war is that politicians and generals, desiring a particular end, fantasize that they can achieve that end with insufficient resources. This lesson is applicable to Iran.

Applicable to Iraq as well I would say. In response to a recent post at American Footprints on the alarming departure of officers from the armed services - and the strain on our military generally, as viewed in the context of contemplating yet another war (this one with Iran) - frequent AmFoot commenter Jay C posed the following question:

Although, even if we do eliminate the option of military force as a "stick" to get the Iranians to abandon their nuclear-weapons quest...what sort of "carrots" do we have to offer them (other than, obviously, "we won't bomb you")?

Actually, the "we won't bomb you" part of the program would go a long way to facilitating the non-military strategy. Abandoning the threatening posture, and the associated goal of regime change, by offering actual security guarantees would serve at least two purposes:

First, it would give Tehran's leadership cause to consider the plausibility of making a deal, whereas in the present environment of existential threats flowing from Washington, the ruling regime would be acting in contravention of self-interest and self-preservation to abandon the pursuit of an effective deterrent in the form of a nuclear weapon.

Second, as Chuck Hagel points out (via that same Jay C guy), taking a less bellicose stance on Iran could actually help to fortify the fraying international coalition that the US should employ to apply financial pressure on Iran. From Hagel:

There are growing differences with our international partners. Concerns remain that the United States' actual objectives is regime change in Iran, not a change in Iran's behavior. Prospects for further action in the UN Security Council have grown dim, and we appear increasingly reliant on a single-track effort to expand financial pressure on Iran outside of the UN Security Council.

So, first and foremost, the US government must seek to defuse the heightened tensions in order to allow the incentives for reaching a deal to exceed the incentives for acquiring a nuclear weapon, and to assure needed allies/coalition partners that our efforts are made in good faith.

Now, on to the actual carrots that Jay C ordered. Serendipitously, just today, the indeftatigable Matt Yglesias linked to a 2004 report put out by a Council on Foreign Relations Task Force co-chaired by Robert Gates (before he was DefSec) and Zbigniew Brzezinski. This report has some intelligent, and reasonably detailed, suggestions:

In engaging with Iran, the United States must be prepared to utilize incentives as well as punitive measures. Given Iran’s pressing economic challenges, the most powerful inducements for Tehran would be economic measures: particularly steps that rescind the comprehensive U.S. embargo on trade and investment in Iran. Used judiciously, such incentives could enhance U.S. leverage vis-à-vis Tehran. One particularly valuable step, which should be made conditional on significant progress in resolving one or more of the chief concerns with respect to Iran, would be the authorization of executory contracts—legal instruments that permit U.S. businesses to negotiate with Iranian entities but defer ultimate implementation of any agreements until further political progress has been reached. Commercial relations represent a diplomatic tool that should not be underestimated or cynically disregarded.

… Small steps, such as the authorization of trade between U.S. entities and Iran’s relatively small private sector, should be contemplated as confidence-building measures that would create new constituencies within Iran for a government that is fully integrated into the international community. In addition, the United States should relinquish its efforts to prevent Iranian engagement with international financial institutions, as these efforts are inherently counterproductive to the objective of promoting better governance in Tehran. Permitting Iran to begin accession talks with the World Trade Organization will only intensify pressure on Tehran for accountability and transparency, and may help facilitate Iran’s evolution into a state that respects its citizens and its neighbors.

While it may be tempting to assume that Tehran would disregard the value of some of these carrots, open trade with the United States is nothing to sneeze at. Especially for an economy that is hurting as badly as Iran's, kept afloat by the spike in oil prices.

As alluded to in the excerpted paragraphs above, expanding economic ties with Iran would also serve to undermine the hardliners' control of the government. In other words, if we shift our posture vis-a-vis Iran, not only would we be able to allay Tehran's immediate fears and give room for compromise, strengthen the coalition that would put economic pressure on Iran to reach that compromise, but also, in the long run if the detente takes hold, improve the lot of Iran's citizens by diffusing power and influence:

Ultimately, the return of U.S. businesses to Tehran could help undermine the clerics’ monopoly on power by strengthening the nonstate sector, improving the plight of Iran’s beleaguered middle class, and offering new opportunities to transmit American values. [...]

...High global oil prices have boosted the overall growth rates of the Iranian economy, but structural distortions—including massive subsidies, endemic corruption, a disproportionately large public sector, and dependency on oil rents—severely undermine the strength of the Iranian economy. Iran’s economic woes pose direct, daily hardships for its population, whose income measured on a per capita basis has fallen by approximately one-third since the revolution. With as many as one million new job-seekers coming into the market each year, the single greatest challenge for any government in Iran will be generating conditions for job growth. Iran needs a substantial and sustained expansion of private investment sufficient for its productive capacity, including as much as $18 billion per year in foreign direct investment, in order to meet these demands.

Iran’s conservatives tout their capabilities to address these economic challenges, but in fact neither they nor their rivals can boast a successful track record on the economy. This is due, in part, to the political sensitivities that are invoked by the prospect of sound economic development. Real reform would effectively undermine the power of the state and the monopoly enjoyed by Iran’s elites. Creating a secure climate for foreign investment, meanwhile, would necessitate a more accommodating international posture. Ultimately, economic reform in Iran would promote more responsible governance at home and abroad. Unfortunately, however, high oil prices have enabled Tehran to defer these politically painful steps. [emphasis added throughout]

When compared to the military options dismantled with persistent percision by George Friedman above, I'd say this approach is worth a shot. In fact, there's no other way.

(cross-posted at American Footprints)

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