That Stubborn Iran Pot Refuses to Boil

Iran’s president welcomes Bush’s favorite Iraqi
Shiite leader Abdulaziz al-Hakim to Tehran

The bad news for the “1938” crowd — the bomb-Iran alarmists led by Benjamin “Newt”-anyahu (who seems to have learned from Gingrich that a discredited crank can still get headlines by yelling “the sky is falling and nobody is doing anything about it”) and the Washington neocons, is that Iran is refusing to play the “clear and present danger.” Indeed, if things carry on this way, it’s going to get a lot harder to make a case for war.

Then again, as we know from Iraq, a war doesn’t really need a case. The Washington Post reports that the U.S. has already launched a dirty war against Iran inside Iraq, giving its troops license to execute Iranian operatives there. And, not surprisingly, two of the Administration officials quoted in the story compare Iran to Nazi Germany. The neocons and the Likud demagogues clearly see this as their most potent rhetorical tool — a connection made in the public’s mind by connecting it with the foolish antics of Iran’s own populist demagogue President Mahmoud Ahmedinajad.

Almost a year ago, I wondered whether the New York Times knew who runs Iran, because they were writing about President Ahmedinajad as if he actually made foreign policy or decided national security matters. Now, it turns out, the Times has figured it out. Last week, they ran a front page story on efforts by more powerful elements in Tehran to shut him out of the nuclear issue altogether. The Times writes:

Iran’s outspoken president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, appears to be under pressure from the highest authorities in Iran to end his involvement in its nuclear program, a sign that his political capital is declining as his country comes under increasing international pressure…. In the hazy world of Iranian politics, such a public rebuke was seen as a sign that the supreme leader — who has final say on all matters of state — might no longer support the president as the public face of defiance to the West.

Right. So the man who supposedly threatened to wipe Israel off the map and who huddles with the Klu Klux Klan comparing notes on the Holocaust — the man at the centerpiece of the frothy “1938” mythology — is in fact not running Iran.

My friend and colleague Scott MacLeod, who has spent decades in the region, offers excellent insights into Iran and the dynamics of the wider region at his new blog on He suggests it may be more important to keep an eye on Ali Larijani than to follow the posturing of Ahmedinajad. While the president rants about sanctions, Larijani is quietly talking to the Europeans, China, even the Saudis with a view to seeking a pragmatic accomodation, albeit one in which Iran keeps more of its nuclear program than the U.S. would like.

It’s worth remembering that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in fact, far from threatening to annihilate Israel, actually offered in April 2003 to open talks with the U.S. aimed at adressing all of its concerns, from the nuclear program to Hizballah, and reportedly offered to embrace some form of coexistence with Israel along the lines of a cold peace. It is this offer, summarily rejected by the Bush Administration at the behest of the hawks celebrating the toppling of a statue in Baghdad, that the Administration is working so hard to prevent Flynt Leverett from revealing in the national media, and for obvious reasons. It really punctures the bubble of any claim of Iran as a looming menace.

But, as Gary Sick, the doyen of U.S. Iran scholars notes (thanks, Scott, for pointing out the link), the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan massively empowered Iran, both by removing the twin threats of Saddam and the Taliban from its borders and by creating a democratic power structure that put Iranian allies in command in Baghdad, at the same time as events there weakened Washington’s Sunni Arab allies. Sick writes:

Although these were unintended consequences of U.S. policy, the effects dismayed friends and foes alike. From Iran’s perspective, it was a strategic gift of unparalleled proportions, tarnished only by the fact that its two major enemies had been replaced by a pugnacious U.S. military giant looking for new worlds to conquer. That tarnish was gradually removed as the United States found itself increasingly bogged down in the Iraqi quagmire, with a public fast growing disillusioned with the ugly realities of empire building in a hostile and unforgiving environment. Erstwhile U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf, Jordan, Egypt and elsewhere privately viewed U.S. actions as a failure at best and a betrayal at worst. They were ripe for a change.

Since last summer’s Lebanon debacle, however, Sick says the organizing principle of U.S. policy in the region has become confronting Iran, and its policies all over the region are now attuned to that goal. It will govern Lebanon policy, and even prompt the U.S. to make gestures at restarting an Israeli-Palestinian peace process in order to make it easier to win Arab support against Iran.

And, Sick writes, Ahmedinajad’s media image is an important facilitator of the strategy:

The advent of Mr Ahmadinejad in Iran, with his extravagant rhetoric and populist posturing, makes that a much easier sell than it was under President Khatami. More than anyone else, Ahmadinejad is responsible for the appeal of this strategy. He has done immense — and perhaps irreparable — damage to Iran’s image in the world and its genuine foreign policy objectives. The fact that Iranian parliamentarians are banding together in opposition to him and his policies is evidence that this has not gone unobserved in Tehran, but it may be too late.

Will the strategy work? Well, it does NOT necessarily mean an immediate recourse to military conflict, as some are predicting. The underlying fundamentals have not changed: none of the tripartite protagonists stand to gain by an actual war. Especially after the Iraqi experience, it is widely understood in Washington that a war with a country as large and as nationalistic as Iran would be immensely costly and almost certainly futile. Moreover, there is no halfway house. You can’t do a quick air strike and realistically expect it to end there. The situation would inevitably escalate and ultimately require boots on the ground. That is a bridge too far for the United States at this juncture. However, the strategy is deliberately provocative and risks prompting a belligerent Iranian response (or perhaps it is deliberately looking for a belligerent response} that could quickly escalate into an armed exchange. So the threat of military action is not insignificant.

Newt-anyahu certainly continues to sing the tropes that amplify U.S. belligerence: “I want to call on the world that didn’t stop the Holocaust last time to stop any attempt this time and what needs to be done is divest genocide,” he told a recent Israeli security conference. Say whaaat? Here’s more: “When we are talking about rallying public opinion on genocide, who will lead the charge if not us?” he said. “No one will come defend the Jews if they no not defend themselves. This is the lesson of history.” Sorry, what genocide is this? The fantasy may have been cultivated for some time — most gloriously by a certain Amir Taheri, the New York Post’s tame Iranian who seems to fancy himself as a kind of Ahmed Chalabi for the next big blunder, who put out a fictitious story about Iranian Jews being forced to wear yellow cloth — a story furiously denounced by the Jewish representative in Iran’s parliament (who, by the way, is no flunky — he also condemned Ahmedinajad’s Holocaust conference).

Given Sick’s observations about Ahmedinajad’s role, it’s likely that the pressure to rein him in is growing very strong in Tehran, where the leadership remains pragmatic.

Trita Parsi suggests, via informed sources, that Iran may in fact agree to suspend uranium enrichment by the February 21 deadline in the current UN Resolution, but only after substantially ratcheting up its enrichment capability by joining together six cascades of enrichment centrifuges. Trita suggests this combination of accepting the key U.S. demand but only after crossing what the Israelis have called a red line in terms of enrichment capability, would create a major headache for the U.S.

The frontline of the Iran confrontation may not be nuclear diplomacy, however, but the dirty war on the ground in Iraq. The problem that the U.S. faces there, of course, is that the majority of Iraqis don’t share Washington’s hostility to Iran and their political leaders have made clear they are not going to let their country be turned into a battleground between Iran and the U.S. (They won’t necessarily say it outright, but the majority of those political leaders will see the U.S. rather than Iran as being responsible for such a confrontation. Even recent White House guest Abdulaziz al-Hakim has urged the U.S. to normalize its relations with Iran, a position shared by the Shiite and Kurdish leadership.)

The irony is that while the Administration’s most discredited hawks will try, however improbably, to suggest that Iranian “meddling” is the reason for Washington’s failure in Iraq, the reality may be that U.S. efforts to confront Iran on Iraqi soil, against the wishes of the majority of Iraqi leaders, may actually hasten the demise of the U.S. project in Baghdad.

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8 Responses to That Stubborn Iran Pot Refuses to Boil

  1. Bernard Chazelle says:

    Mastery of the fuel cycle means different things to different people. Same as “red line,” which Israel keeps pushing one step ahead of where Iran stands. To connect 6 cascades of 164 centrifuges each is rather unimpressive. IIRC they’d need 3000 centrifuges to work properly to produce one bomb by 2009 at the earliest. And then there’s the issue of making it small enough to fit into a warhead.

    Which shows how much everything is a game of perception. The balance of power is being redefined in the region and that’s what it’s all about. (Not whether Iran has nukes. Israel really couldn’t care less, knowing that Iran is not suicidal and therefore would never use it in a first strike.)

    Think of having a nuke as owning a yacht. It’s useless except for projecting power in the country club. A nuclear Iran would signify the permanent loss of the Middle East for the West. These are the stakes. Bibi knows that. He is just lying (as usual).

  2. BadTux says:

    For anybody who looks at Iran’s Constitution, it’s clear that Ahmadinejad basically has little more power than a U.S. big city mayor. Even if he did threaten to destroy Israel (and some native Farsi speakers say that he’s been mistranslated there), he has no more power to do so than the Mayor of Los Angeles. He has no army, and no authority under the Iranian constitution to declare war. What’s he going to do, pie them to death?

    What the Likudniks are counting on is the ignorance and apathy of the American public, which sees the word “President” and assumes an imperial leader with a lot of power like President Bush. Sadly, it is impossible to under-estimate the ignorance and apathy of the average American. 99.999% of my fellow Americans will never do the work of making a few simple Google queries and finding out that Ahmadinejad is basically the overglorified Mayor of Tehran.

    I think it’s striking that both of the only democracies in the Middle East (Lebanon and Iran) are in the crosshairs of the Likudniks. After all, democracy would be toxic to them. If they gave the vote to everybody under Israeli sovereignty, instead of shuffling off 60% of the population to the quasi-independent apartheid-style Bantu-stan “Palestinian Authority” in order to deny them the right to vote for who rules them, they would be voted out of office the next day. Democracy is something the Likudniks only want for good white Europeans like themselves, not for anybody whose skin is brown. How DARE those darkies think they’re as good as white Europeans!

    – Badtux the Snarky Penguin

  3. Bernard Chazelle says:

    Did you guys read this?


    The charge of the madmen…

  4. Cameron Rainey says:

    Most Americans hardly understand Europe, so I don’t there is a chance they are ever going to understand the Middle East!

    When Americans hear “president”; they think “guy with power”; But, the president isn’t the person with the major power in Israel, Ireland or Iran. But seem to understand that very well in when talking about Israel and Ireland, but not the last “I” starting country!

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