Thomas Friedman’s Good Column

I’ve got to admit I’ve been looking for something major to disagree with about the thrust of this Thomas Friedman column, but I’m having a lot of trouble. Friedman argues the best thing that Americans can do for the Iranian opposition is reduce consumption of foreign oil. Without the oil revenues on which the Iranian regime relies, social unrest will continue to foment until it can be contained no longer and without the considerable leverage oil profits provide, Iran will be forced into bargaining from lower ground on other issues like the nuclear program. The only part where I think Friedman deviates a bit is when he offers this as a possible policy response:

Mr. Obama has already started some excellent energy-saving initiatives. But we need more. Imposing an immediate “Freedom Tax” of $1 a gallon on gasoline — with rebates to the poor and elderly — would be a triple positive: It would stimulate more investment in renewable energy now; it would stimulate more consumer demand for the energy-efficient vehicles that the reborn General Motors and Chrysler are supposed to make; and, it would reduce our oil imports in a way that would surely affect the global price and weaken every petro-dictator.

An interesting idea, but similarly, a Waxman-Markey bill that isn’t considerably watered down would have a similar effect and also have the benefit of correctly situating the oil problem within the broader context of staving catastrophic climate change. I’m generally not a huge fan of the “energy security” argument for preventing climate change as it sort of misses the point, but I suppose the results of any such legislation matter more than how they are sold. As such, it seems now would be a good time to call out the bombastic Right on their bellicose rhetoric towards Iran and try and build support for climate legislation with teeth while the opportunity exists.

Condensed Thoughts on Iran

Unfortunately, I don’t have much to personally add to the current conversation about Iran, other than basically endorsing this view espoused by Hadi Ghaemi (via Spencer Ackerman) of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.

But some Iranian human rights activists backed Obama’s cautious approach. “I think it’s wise for the U.S. government to keep its distance,” said Hadi Ghaemi, a New York-based spokesman for the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, which wants the international community not to legitimize the Iranian regime’s claim that Ahmadinejad won the election. While the Obama administration ought to express support for the Iranian opposition’s safety and for human rights in Iran as the regime clamps down on dissent, any expression of political support for the protesters would only “instigate the cry that the reformers are somehow driven and directed by the United States, whether under [former President George W. Bush] or under Obama, and there’s no reason to give that unfounded allegation” any chance to spread.

Indeed. On a related note, I’d also like to commend the Obama Administration’s rather measured response (for a characteristally less measured response, see John McCain here). The fact is that whether or not the election was a fraud, Iran will still remain of key strategic importance and the same benefits still stand to be gained from a policy of engagement. It’s also important to remember that foreign policy is still set by Supreme Leader Ali Khameini and what’s more, despite Moussavi’s reformist credentials, Moussavi was still publicly on board with pursing the status quo of Iranian foreign policy towards both Israel and nuclear enrichment. It’s simply not the case that a Moussavi win would have heralded an marked shift in policy towards US’ interests (though there seems little sense in denying that cooled rhetoric would better facilitate diplomatic solutions).

UPDATE: Here’s Stephen Walt arguing basically the same thing. You might want to listen to him though because he teaches at Harvard, and I don’t.

In the end, what really matters is the content of any subsequent U.S.-Iranian rapprochement, not the precise nature of the Iranian regime.  If diplomatic engagement led to a good deal, then it wouldn’t matter much who was running Iran. By the same logic, we shouldn’t accept a bad deal even if we were happier with the outcome of this election. And there’s no reason to think that Mousavi would have been substantially more forthcoming on the nuclear issue than Ahmadinejad has been. So while I’m as disappointed as anyone in the outcome thus far, I want to wait and see how the two sides respond once the dust has settled.

Halting Iran’s Nuclear Program Means Reducing Iran’s Need to Defend Itself

Over at Democracy Aresenal, Pat Barry responds to former Dick Cheney aide John Hannah’s argument that the only way to halt Iran’s nuclear ambitions includes either military coercion or regime change. Pat makes several good points in demonstrating the specific strategies Hannah outlines aren’t particularly viable, but I think he gives Hannah’s argument too much credit. That is, whether or not military coercion is viable given 2009’s decidedely different geopolitical landscape, the point is that that threats of regime change or military coercion from the west play a significant role in driving Iran’s nuclear program. So long as an Iranian state — no matter who is at the helm — feels threatened from the west and its allies, it’s going to seek to to defend itself.

Israel: Blame Iran for Israel’s Settlements

I’m not quite sure why this piece outlining Israeli foreign policy is labeled “News Analysis ” — there’s a lot of original reporting in the piece — but I can tell you the policy viewpoints elucidated therein are mind-bogglingly wrongheaded, and I dare say, border on stupid.

“People try to simplify the situation with these formulas: land for peace, two-state solution,” Mr. Lieberman told the newspaper. “It’s a lot more complicated.” He added that the real reason for the deadlock “is not occupation, not settlements and not settlers.” Nor, he said, is it the Palestinians. The biggest obstacle, he said, is “the Iranians.”

He, like the entire Israeli leadership, argues that since Iran sponsors Hezbollah in southern Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, both of which reject Israel’s existence and seek its destruction, the key to the Palestinian solution is to defang Iran and stop it from acquiring the means to build a nuclear weapon.

There’s really a lot to grapple with here, but it’s utterly remarkable that “the entire Israeli leadership” would not stop to ask themselves why it is that Iran is capable of sponsoring Hezbollah and Hamas. The answer, of course, would be anger caused by Israeli occupation, settlements, the settlers. It’s not as though Iran is just disseminating munitions willy-nilly for various groups to use out of bordem. Hezbollah and Hamas use the weapons and money because they have political grievances. If you eliminate the political grievances — and the two state solution is widely considered the best way of muting said discontent — you eliminate the need for these groups to rely on Iran in the first place. It’s a win-win: create better relations with your neighbors and isolate Iran in the process.

What’s more, even if you decide to pursue this strategy of blaming the Iranians for Israel’s illegal settlement activity, it’s not at all clear how you might actually “defang Iran and stop it from acquiring the means to build a nuclear weapon.” In the first place — how do you accomplish this defanging? Take Iran to the vet? Are they proposing invading and forcibly disarming Iran? As for a the nuclear threat, Iran already doesn’t have a nuclear weapon and still manages to create a fair number of headaches for Israel. This again demonstrates the importance of addressing the political grievances of the Palestinians. Without fixing these situations, Iran will always have proxies to torment Israel, whether they have a nuclear arsenal or not. And that’s even before we consider the utter implausibility of Iran using a nuclear weapon offensively, which is itself absurd. Finally, loudly blustering about the need to “defang” Iran will only encourage Iran to continue arming itself and expediting its nuclear program so as to best defend itself against those who wish to defang them.

I’m really at a loss for how incomprehensibly nonsensical this policy is. I really hope Obama can talk some sense into Netanyahu.

Nuclear Musings

Apropos of my earlier post, Steve Walt provides some good background on the tendency to ascribe wildly irrational motivations to Iran’s foreign policy, and in particular, their nuclear program. Also, nice use of the up-front trickeration to play with your expectations. Always makes for a compelling read!

Also, I wanted to use this opportunity to add to my last post on Iranian nuclear aspirations, that the least hysterical, and in my view best rationale for stemming an Iranian attempt to develop nuclear weapons is simply situating it in the broader strategic aims of non-proliferation. A world that fosters a “keeping up withe Joneses” approach to nuclear weapons is one that is increasingly dangerous. Iran happens to be a rather high-profile case — the impact on Middle Eastern balance of power would be far more profound than say, the effects of a potential Swedish nuclear program on Scandinavian power dynamics — but the logic is basically the same.

What 24 Teaches Us About Nuclear Policy

So last night I was watching Monday’s episode of 24 on Hulu, and it provided a good opportunity to make a point about acquiring WMDs. Without getting too far into the details of the show and without revealing too many plot points that might imperil the enjoyment of future 24 watchers, the information you need to know is basically this: a maniacal executive of a private military effectively holds hostage the President’s decision making ability with the threat of launching these WMDs at American cities. Unwisely, the president complies. I know it’s easy to poke holes in the plot of 24, but I think this example is useful in illustrating a broader point about nuclear proliferation, and more specifically, the somewhat misplaced obsession on Iran’s nuclear capabilities. Here goes:

The WMDs the private military obtained were literally smuggled onto American soil a matter of hours before the demand was made, which suggests the WMD capabilities of the organization are extremely limited. What’s more, though the private military resides on a medium-sized, heavily armed base, the base is itself overwhelmingly dwarfed by the broader capabilities of the American military. Given these constraints, the WMD capabilities of the private military operation can only be interepreted credibly as a deterrent threat. If the private military were to have launched the WMDs at American cities, verily, the casualities would have been tremendous. However, the American military would still be quite capable of responding with resounding force, destroying the entire base within a matter of minutes. This is not a scenario of mutually assured destruction; it’s simply one of suicide that no rational actor — profit seeking, or otherwise — would ever undertake, under any circumstances. The President should have called this bluff.

Similarly, many western commentators take for granted that a nuclear Iran would itself herald the eschaton. This is stupid. While there are a whole host of ramifications this would have on Middle Eastern balance of power, the notion that this would pose an existential threat is patently ridiculous. If Iran were to use a nuclear weapon to attack Israel, Iran would promptly cease to exist in any recognizable form. Of course, this is not a course a country acting in its own self-interest would pursue, which is why you frequently hear right wingers making the argument that Iran is an irrational and culturally suicidal death cult, informed by the logic of an individual suicide bomber writ large. However, there is really little in Iran’s foreign policy actions to believe that Iran is in fact a crazed and irrational actor. Though Iran’s blustery rhetoric might prove good fodder for advancing this view of a suicidal nation, their actions do not demonstrate any such desire. Thus, if Iran were to develop nuclear capabilities, it would certainly result in decreased western influence in the region, and indeed, this would be bad for American and its allies, but it would hardly rush in Armageddon.

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Changing The Substance Changes The Tone

You may have seen in the New York Times yesterday that the Obama Administration is openly considering dropping the precondition that Iran suspend nuclear enrichment in order to facilitate talks aimed at coaxing Iran to suspend nuclear enrichment. You might also recall that this was a relatively high-profile national security issue during the campaign, with John McCain supporting the precondition (or more — the bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran) approach that had failed the Bush Administration, and Obama espousing the open, direct negotiations tact. Well, in what will hopefully stymie right wing hysteria, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad responded favorably:

TEHRAN — President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran said Wednesday that he was preparing a new proposal to resolve disputes with the West over Iran’s nuclear program, opening the door to talks with the United States, the official I.R.N.A. news agency reported.

Mr. Ahmadinejad said during a speech in the southeastern city of Kerman that Iran was still in the process of preparing the new package and it would be presented when it was ready, I.R.N.A. reported. He also said that Iran was willing to hold talks with the United States as long they were based on respect. “They have said they want to resolve issues through diplomatic channels and we say that this is excellent,” he was quoted as saying. “Our people favor logic, dialogue and constructive cooperation based on respect, justice and rights of nations.”

I’ll probably have more comment later, but this is definitely a positive development.

Of Chicken Salad and Chicken Shit

Ryan Crocker has poopy in his pants:

BAGHDAD, Jan. 22 — Ryan C. Crocker, the outgoing U.S. ambassador to Iraq, warned Thursday that a precipitous withdrawal of American troops runs “some very serious risks,” from the resurgence of the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq to a collapse of faith in a nascent Iraqi state that still faces what he called “enormous challenges.”

A loss of confidence, Crocker said, could create a “chilling effect,” where people “pull back, dig the trenches, build the berms and get ready for what comes next. I’m not saying that that would happen; but I am saying these are dangers that could happen.”

Look, AQI was essentially formed — and gained power — in direct response to U.S. troop presence in Iraq. If we leave, AQI will lose its animus. But this is essentially secondary to larger flaws with neoconservative thinking on Iraq.

Namely, of primary concern is that continued military presence, and especially one that supports a certain regime, will necessarily forge unstable political situations because they are predicated on the unsure assumption of continued U.S. support. Establishing a stable polity in Iraq will  mean reconciling differences currently held at bay by the U.S. military.

Beyond even this animating problem though, one thing you have to come to terms with is that accepting sub-optimal outcomes goes with the terroritory of horrible misguided military interventions. That means, as Crocker suggests, increased Iranian influence in the region and a government who isn’t a “beacon of democracy.” Democrats and liberals would be wise to be vigilant in reminding people that bad policies will yield bad outcomes; expecting a “transformation” in the Middle East was unrealistic.

Us and Them

There’s not much of a news cycle on the weekends, but regardless, you’ve probably heard about Israel bombing in Gaza in response to an uptick in the Hamas rocket strikes. Needless to say, this is not the most productive tactic for promoting peace, and indeed, will likely further solidify anti-Israeli/American resentment.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, meanwhile, called on all Muslims to “defend the defenseless women, children and people in Gaza in any way possible. Whoever is killed in this legitimate defense is considered a martyr.”

For those unaware, Hamas is a staunchly Sunni group, and though Iran tends to be more practical than anything, they are at least on the surface a Shia nation. Cooperation has been growing between Iran and Hamas over the past several years, but it’s very important to note the impetus for such relations stems directly from Iran’s ability to exploit Palestinian resentment to trump secterian conflict.

People tend to obsess about Iran’s nuclear capabilities, but it’s almost a red herring. The more immediate concern is that Iran essentially controls Lebanon, has heavy influence with Iraqi leadership, and has increasing influence with Palestinians. What’s more, Iran has the capability to shut off the Straight of Hormuz, and a bit less likely, but no less feasible, invade Saudi Arabia. Of course, this need not be viewed purely through Iran; Turkey was not particularly pleased either.

In the meantime, threatening invasion and bombing positions in Gaza accomplishes little bit give greater cause for Muslim solidarity in opposition to Western forces. The United States and other Western nations will need to lean hard if any meaningful progress is to be made. Peace in the Middle East will not be found so long as it appears that the West supports a war on Islam.

Crack-Pot City

Via Matt Duss, I learn that Pastor Rick Warren believes the bible grants governments the authority to kill “ever-doers” like Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadenijad.

Matt sez:

In any case, if this were a conversation between an Iranian TV host and an ayatollah in which they discussed scriptural justifications for “taking out” high ranking members of the U.S. government, you’d probably see Sean Hannity running the clip on his show — while slowly shaking his head in pious disapproval — as evidence of what crazy extremists those Iranians are. As it is, they’ll probably be running this on Iranian TV as evidence of what crazy extremists those Americans are.

Indeed. On a related note, is Sean Hannity really so ignorant he thinks Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a “rogue dictator?” Ahmadenijad would be flattered. In the first place, Ahmadinejad is an elected official — though elections aren’t precisely free in Iran — but more importantly, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamanei makes every single important decision of government be it through constitutional channels, coercion, corruption, or the Republican Guards. Shit, Ahmadenijad doesn’t even have pretend control of foreign policy. (Rachel Maddow cleverly referred to Ahmadenijad as the “Dana Perino of Iran.”)

Anyway, people are sometimes accused of being hyperbolic with their complains about the evil of Fox News, but it’s almost impossible to believe that someone of Hannity’s stature could actually be ignorant of something like this. Instead, it’s a lot easier to believe that Fox News and Hannity are actively misleading.