Iranian politics and Iranian nukes

Shouldn’t the design of American foreign policy toward Iran start with an analysis of Iranian politics? Increasing the chances that Iran has a new President less crazy and less hostile than its current one ought to be at the top of our priority list. But that’s not the way foreign policy gets thought about.

William Perry’s account of Iran at today’s Burkle Center symposium was more or less as follows:

* The Iranians are years, but not many years, from being nuclear-armed, or at least in a position where they can’t be stopped from becoming nuclear-armed.

* The Israelis are nervous, and for good reason. But the military options are lousy, and even if Israel were to succeed in taking out Iran’s nuclear production capacity the blowback, on them and on us, would be intense.

* If we can’t keep Iran from nuking up, the anti-proliferation game is lost. A Shi’a Bomb will create a strong incentive for a Sunni Bomb. (The same is true, says Perry, if we can’t make the North Koreans roll back.)

* Since the military options stink, we’d better pursue diplomacy. The Bushite idea that talking to bad guys is bad because it just encourages them is silly. But diplomacy doesn’t just mean making nice: it means communicating specific threats as responses to specific actions. (Perry was devastating on the Bush Administration’s failure to draw a “red line” for the North Koreans back in 2002.)

* It may or may not be true that Iran’s capacity to threaten our army in Iraq (threatening to put out a call for jihad against the occupiers to the pro-Iranian groups among Iraq’s Shi’a) reduces our leverage over Iran. Maybe the threat is empty, and maybe, given sufficient provocation, we’d ignore it. But it doesn’t really matter whether Iran really has us “pinned down” in Iraq; what matters is whether the Iranians think so, and will ignore our threats against them in consequence. (To a question about whether U.S. withdrawal from Iraq might “embolden” Iran, Perry responded dryly, “How much bolder could they get?”)

* In dealing with Iran, we need help from the Chinese and the Europeans.

All of that sounded sensible. But in the Q&A I was able to raise the questions I usually ask about foreign policy: How likely is it that the Iranian political situation will shift enough to matter over the relevant time-horizon, and what if anything can the U.S. government do, or refrain from doing, to improve the chances that Iran’s politics will shift in a direction favorable to us?

To which Perry replied, “Those are two excellent questions. I don’t know the answers.”

Now that’s a very respectable response. I like it when experts are frank about the limits of their expertise.

But what bothered me, as it usually bothers me, is that the conversation then continued under the assumption that “the United States” and “Iran” and the other national players in this game are more or less unitary actors, so that “the United States” can threaten to do something that damages “Iran” as a way of coercing “Iran” to act (or not act) in a particular way.

That mode of analysis (which I think of as “Westphalian” because of its implicit treatment of each state as a sovereign actor) is more or less standard. For some purposes, it makes accurate predictions and suggests appropriate courses of action. But it’s clearly an abstraction from the real world in which the actions of “Iran” are the results of political conflicts and agreements among Iranian politicians, interest groups, and factions.

Admittedly, it’s simpler conceptually to imagine nations as individual pieces on a chessboard than it is to try to model their domestic political processes. But as Einstein said, our theories should be as simple as possible, but no simpler.

If we don’t know how sending a carrier battle group to the Gulf will influence the probability that the Guardian Council will allow enough anti-Ahmadinejad candidates to run for the Majlis to take over control, then surely the right response is to learn how to guess better, not to make the decision about the CBG as if the expected impact on political developments in Iran were zero. I can’t think of a more important question to ask, about any action we might take toward Iran, than “Will this strengthen or weaken the opposition to Ahmadinejad?” And yet I don’t hear that question asked in the sort of thoughtful and insistent tone in which it ought to be asked.

Now replacing Ahmadinejad wouldn’t put an end to the Iranian proliferation threat; as Ashton Carter reminded me after the talk, nuking up is popular across the Iranian political spectrum. But a new President might be more amenable to negotiation (as well as more friendly to us in other respects), and might be less inclined, should Iran acquire nuclear weapons to drop one of them on Tel Aviv, or threaten to do so. A nuclear-armed Iran is scary, but possibly tolerable if Iran were to develop toward a secular law-governed republic run by reasonable people; a nuclear-armed Iran under someone who has promised to wipe Israel off the map is much scarier.

What I’ve heard about Iranian politics, from people that I believe know what they’re talking about, is that the Guardian Council is somewhat hostile to Ahmadinejad, who isn’t very controllable, and that various important power players within the country are nervous about provoking a confrontation with us and the Israelis. I’ve also heard that the Guardian Council is both faction-ridden and corrupt. How much would it cost for the anti-Ahmadinejad, non-anti-US politicians in Iran to bribe enough Guardians to get their candidates through the next selection round? I don’t know, but I doubt it’s any substantial fraction of the cost of keeping a CBG on station for a month.

I also don’t know how many Iranians now live in the U.S. But I know that there are lots of them and that they tend to be wealthy, still connected to their relatives “back home,” and fiercely patriotic towards their adopted country. Of course, none of them can get security clearances (they were born abroad, you know, and ye caint trust them furriners), and therefore can’t go to work for the State Department or the intelligence services, but that doesn’t keep them from being informally recruited and used as conduits for contributions to whatever Iranian political movements seem most likely to move the country in a positive direction.

Yes, the U.S. record in this regard is lousy, starting with the decision to install Reza Pahlavi as Shah. It’s hard to figure out what’s going on in another country, especially when almost no one working for the government speaks the relevant language or languages (and when the Bush Administration insists on firing some of those who do because of their sexual orientation). And it’s easy to get cheated or deceived by exiles (such as Chalabi), whose knowledge of politics back home is colored by distance and wishful thinking and who may be more interested in feathering their own nests and settling political scores in the old country than in forwarding U.S. foreign policy interests.

But lots of things are hard; nuclear physics, for example, is hard. We don’t respond to that difficulty by treating nuclear weapons as if they were high explosive, because the chemistry of high explosives is easier to understand. Instead we recruit very smart people to study nuclear physics and engineering, and then we listen carefully to their technical advice. It seems to me that the politics of Iran deserves equally serious study.

In trying to influence Iranian politics, we are certain to make mistakes. But simply ignoring Iranian politics has to be a mistake; why not at least give ourselves a chance to get this one right?

Millions of lives may depend on it.

Footnote My colleague Amy Zegart tells me that the technical term for my preferred analytical style is “hyper-realism.” “Realism,” in IR-speak, means treating states as actors trying to maximize single national-level objective functions, by contrast with various alternatives that treat nations’ foreign policies as being to some extent norm-governed or limited by international law. Considering foreign policies as the results of domestic politics, and asking how one state can influence the behavior of other states by influencing their domestic politics, is even less respectful of international law because it ignores the norm of respect for sovereignty and non-interference in domestic affairs, and thus “hyper-realistic.”

Amy’s own speciality is the hyper-realistic analysis of U.S. national security decision-making, asking for example how the Navy and its political allies were able to influence the National Security Act of 1947 to guarantee that neither the Secretary of Defense nor the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs could threaten the Navy’s budgetary primacy among the services. But I’ve never persuaded her to apply the same thinking to other countries and thus come up with “hyper-realistic” prescriptions for U.S. policy toward them.

Update Dan Drezner offers an objection:

The problem with this analysis is the assumption that a Rafsanjani is a better option than Ahmadinejad. At this point, I’m not so sure. Most of the conservative clerics want the nuclear program as well — they’re just craftier about it. Paradoxically, Ahmadinejad is such a loon that he makes it easier for the U.S. to organize multilateral action against Iran. If the mullahs replaced him with someone who was cagier, it will be next to impossible to get Russia and China to buy into any further action.

That may well be right; if Drezner and Kleiman disagree about Iranian politics, the smart money has to be on Drezner. I’m not urging an answer as much as I’m urging a question: what impact will our actions have on political developments in Iran?

(Dan also has lots of other interesting stuff from the conference. I’m reassured to hear that I wasn’t the only one dozing off during the recitation of the Beloved Leader’s accomplishments.)

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: